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Communism in Poland: A Brief History of Its Collapse

Author:  Michael Szporer Michael Szporer is a Professor of Communications at University of Maryland University College and author of the forthcoming Solidarność- The Strike that Ended Communism, Penn State University Press, 2009

The attempt by Bolshevik Russia to export the communist revolution abroad to economically depressed Germany, and elsewhere in the West, was a direct threat to Poland. The centrality of the Polish-Soviet War [1919-21] for the future of Poland and, more importantly, for the USSR in the region, is convincing when one considers Bolshevik intentions to carry the banner of communist internationalism to the world. Bolshevik Russia’s unexpected defeat with the rout of the Red Army at the gates of Warsaw in the battle of “the Miracle of the Vistula” [August 13-25, 1920] contained the spread of Bolshevism to Germany and the rest of Europe.

Polish Communists rejected an independent Polish state, looking forward to a Bolshevik triumph and an outbreak of a revolution in Germany. When they sided with the Soviets during the Polish-Soviet War, they were widely perceived as Soviet agents betraying the national cause, and never really attracted workers [only about 10% of members]. Prior to WWII native Communists never achieved a significant following, with about 13,000 members. Many communist leaders, mostly Jewish, inevitably become Stalinism’s early victims, with about 5,000 Polish communists liquidated during the Great Purge of 1935-38. The Party was reconstituted only after Germany attacked USSR, on January 5, 1942, consisting mainly of remaining activists “parachuted” into Nazi-occupied Poland.

The Soviet antipathy towards Poles was widely shared among the Soviet ruling elites after the humiliating defeat in the Polish-Soviet War. Poland was seen as part of the Western strategy of containment of communism and a springboard for spy networks infiltrating the Communist Party of the USSR. At the same time, the principal aim of the anti-Polish campaign was to systematically depopulate the Borderlands [parts of Lithuania, Western Belarus and Ukraine] where a sizeable Polish population had lived for centuries. This ethic cleansing campaign began well in advance of the Great Purge and was “more intense and brutal than any other of the mass operations.” Some 140,000, were arrested, shot or dispatched to the Gulag.

World War II widened the ethic cleansing. Mass repressions and executions of Poles began immediately after the Soviet army occupied eastern regions of Poland on September 17, 1939, followed by the integration of the Borderlands of Western Belarus and Ukraine into the Soviet Union. Both Soviet and Nazi occupations of Ukraine provoked massive ethic cleansing of mostly Poles and Jews but also Czechs.

The most infamous war crime committed by the Soviets during World War II was in “the killing fields” of the Katyń Forest, which the Berlin radio announced on April 13, 1943. Among the Katyń victims were the Polish officers captured as POWs in an undeclared war, as well as ordinary policemen. Actually the Katyń massacre included several POW camp locations, with 21,857 [according to the signed Soviet Politburo order] murdered in mid-March 1940 by the Soviet security forces. The victims were identified as “hardened and uncompromising enemies of Soviet authority.”

Katyń was an early example of shaping the new communist future by diminishing the anti-Soviet element. For more than fifty years the Soviet Union has denied its complicity in the massacre. While Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged Katyń as “unjustified” and Russian president Boris Yeltsin presented a copy of the execution order to president Wałęsa the massacre is not seen as a war-crime in Russia to this day.

Russian historian Tatiana Kosinova estimated that 566,000 Poles suffered as a result of Soviet repressions, most probably killed at about 800 locations in unmarked graves. This figure compares with Jan T. Gross’s at about 415,000 killed. The deportation figure for Poles into the interior of the USSR is put at over 1.5 million, following general Władysław Anders’ 1949 estimate, many of whom were murdered or died from impossible conditions. Few of these Siberian deportees survived.

During WWII 6,028,000 Polish citizens, including Polish Jews, perished, 644,000 as a result of combat. Warsaw was devastated by the fighting, mostly during the 1944 Rising, which took over 200,000 lives. The city residents led by the nationalist Home Army loyal to the London government rose to liberate the capital from the Nazi occupiers as part of a nation-wide resistance operation “Burza” [Tempest]. The two-fold purpose of operation Tempest was to liberate the country and take visible charge of the territories as the “allied” Soviet forces advanced from the East.

The Poles did not anticipate Soviet operations, which were turned against them even though they were fighting a common Nazi enemy. In Warsaw, the Soviet army “paused” reaching the eastern bank of the Vistula [Warsaw suburbs] and left the participants of the Warsaw Rising to fend for themselves. One division consisting of Poles tried to cross the river to aid the city but was decimated by the Germans. The Soviets lifted their air cover over the city, permitting bombardment, denied bases for Allied airlifting of supplies, and disarmed Home Army units. This act of tactical betrayal enabled the Germans to break the resistance operation, retake the city and raze it to the ground. The Soviet action dealt a significant blow to the nationalist forces that could have prevented the communist takeover.

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Poland
Location:  Eastern Europe
Capital:  Warsaw
Communist Rule:  1944-1989
Status:  Abolished - 19.07.89
Victims of Communism:
2 million