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Poland 101

Why Hitler's invasion of Poland ignited World War II

For most of Europe, Hitler's invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, marked the beginning of World War II. So our first question should be why did he do that? It's all in the history.

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Poland's history begins well over a thousand years ago. The size of her land mass has seen many changes as she was constantly at war with her neighbors, particularly with Russia, Prussia and Austria. Between 1569 and 1795 she was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which meant the two countries shared the same monarch. At her height, her land mass was huge, stretching almost all the way to the Black Sea. The map here shows the boundaries of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth overlaid on present-day borders.

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Come 1795, for all practical purposes Poland ceased to exist. Through a series of invasions, her neighbors conquered all their lands. The Poles continued to be Poles and continued to live there, but for the next 123 years, there wasn't a Poland. But not for the lack of trying. There were many attempts to reclaim their lands and there were short periods when they held a piece for a while. In 1871, twenty-seven German states unified to what became the German Empire under one kaiser (king). The Prussia states, which included most of former Poland, made up most this new empire.

Then came World War One. Roughly two million Poles fought on the side of the Allies and about 450,000 of them were killed in action. US President Woodrow Wilson made Poland point number 13 in his Fourteen Points, insisting Poland become a nation again (known as the Second Polish Republic). However, the Treaty of Versailles didn't clearly define Poland's borders with the new Soviet Union.

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Just three months after the "war to end all wars" was over, the Soviet Union invaded Poland with the idea of taking Warsaw. Meanwhile, Polish troops invaded Ukraine because there was still a large population of Poles living there. Each country claimed they were just reclaiming what was rightfully theirs. The Poles were victorious as they defeated Soviet-Russian forces at Warsaw and Soviet-Ukrainian troops down south. The two year war came to an end with the signing of the Peace of Riga, which defined the new border known as the Curzon Line. Neither side was happy with the terms of this treaty but reluctantly they did sign it. So when WWII came along, the Soviets were more than eager to try taking as much of Poland as they could.

What the Germans didn't like the most about the Treaty of Versailles was the establishment of the Polish Corridor. President Wilson insisted Poland not be a land-locked nation and gave Poland a strip of land connecting them to the Baltic Sea. Poles out-numbered the Germans living inside the corridor by almost two to one. Of course, once upon a time this land did belong to Poland but during the 1800s it had become part of West Prussia, which bordered East Prussia. This new corridor split East Prussia from the rest of Germany. One could not travel back and forth without going through Poland. This angered the German citizens more than anything else imposed upon them at the conclusion of World War One.

Another detail nagging Germany was the creation of the Free City of Danzig, which is in between the Polish Corridor and East Prussia. The League of Nations felt this Baltic port would give new Poland good access to the sea. But seeing how most of the people living there were Germans, the League decided to make it Danzig a free port under their (the League of Nations') protection granting special access rights to Poland.

Knowing the resentment all Germans carried concerning the Polish Corridor, Hitler knew his people would rally behind his invasion of Poland. And they did. But he wasn't taking Poland solely for the purpose of reclaiming lost German territory. For him, Poland was an essential springboard into Russia. He knew that if he was to conquer all of Europe, and possibly the world, Germany had to become completely self-sufficient, without having to rely on any imported goods. Just like the United States was. To do this, he needed to conquer everything east of Germany all the way to the Ural Mountains.

When Hitler invaded Poland, he hoped that Britain and France would just publicly condemn his actions and nothing more. But Britain and France did more than that and declared war on Germany. This changed Hitler's immediate plans. In order to avoid a two front war, he would have to stop his eastern invasion and concentrate on the west.

The Soviet Union took advantage of Germany's invasion of Poland by invading it themselves just 17 days later. For Stalin, this was a golden opportunity to reclaim some of the land they lost under the Treaty of Versailles. However, that's not what Stalin told the world. He claimed all he was doing was liberating portions of Poland so they wouldn't fall under Hitler's thumb.

In the days following Hitler's advance into Poland, both Germany and the USSR grabbed as much land as they could. When the two sides met up with each other, they signed a non-aggression pact, thus agreeing on how Poland was to be divided up between the two.

With Germany's half, all the Poles were rounded up and taken to Germany. Their land and businesses were seized and given to German citizens migrating in. Stalin, on the other hand, mandated that all Poles become as Russian as any Russian. They were forced to speak Russian, think Russian, and act like Russians. He even banned all religions. Anyone not being Russian was to be arrested.

To the Poles' credit, they tried their best to defend their country, but they were vastly out-numbered in both men and equipment such as tanks, planes, guns, etc. There were thousands of young Poles who managed to get out to fight another day. We see Polish troops everywhere throughout the European Theater. It was the Polish Army that stormed Monte Cassino in Italy. On D-Day they landed side by side with the British at Normandy. They were heavily involved in Operation Market Garden. And it was the Polish Air Force who figured out how to shoot down the new German jet fighters. Poland certainly deserved to be free.

The war in Europe began with Germany invading Poland and the Allies' motive for declaring war was to free Poland. But that didn't happen. Instead of being liberated, they became part of the Soviet Union's Eastern Bloc instead. After decades of struggle, the Poles were able to free themselves through a series of political reforms. On 30 January 1990, they were able to declare themselves free and established their Third Polish Republic. After sixty years, WWII finally came to an end for Poland.

The history of Poland is unique but at the same time, it's not. Parts of it has happened to other nations. If we, the free people of the world, don't learn about Poland or we forget their history, what happened to them can and will happen again to somebody, somewhere.

Paul Arnett


This WWII Article was last modified on Tuesday, September 20, 2011
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