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The Occupation of Eastern Europe

Last Update 11 August 2006


Hitler and Himmler
On 1 September 1939 a Wehrmacht force of 1.25 million men swept into Poland in the wake of heavy aerial bombardments. After two weeks the Polish capital Warsaw was captured.
On 17 September the Soviet Union invaded the eastern part of the country. Following the surrender of Polish forces on 28 September, Germany and the USSR agreed to divide Poland between them in accordance with the secret protocol of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact (see the map). Poland ceased to exist as a sovereign State.

The western and northern regions of Poland were annexed to the Reich; the southern and eastern regions were given the status of a colony, named the Generalgouvernement (ruled by Hans Frank with the capital established in Krakow. More than 2 million Jews lived in the German occupied territory, with about 1.2 million Jews in the eastern areas occupied by the USSR.

The annexed parts were controlled by a German administration ruled by a Gauleiter, a system similar in practice to that of the Reich itself. Nearly 1 million Poles were expelled from this German ruled area, while 600,000 Germans from eastern Europe and 400,000 from the German Reich were settled there. After the Germans attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, the rest of Poland also succumbed to German rule. The southeastern region, occupied by the Soviets in 1939 (Distrikt Galizien), became part of the Generalgouvernement.

Occupation Forces in 1939
The aim of the German occupation policy was to utilise Poland as a German living space, to exploit the material resources of the country and to maximise the use of Polish manpower as a reservoir of virtual or actual slave labour. The Polish nation was to be effectively reduced to the status of helotry, its political, religious and intellectual leadership destroyed. The agents targeted with accomplishing this policy were the SS, Polizei, and Wehrmacht. In an action codenamed "Operation Tannenberg" ("Unternehmen Tannenberg") in September and October 1939, an estimated 760 mass executions were carried out by Einsatzkommandos, resulting in the deaths
of at least 20,000 of the most prominent Polish citizens. Expulsion and murder became commonplace. People were rounded up in the streets during so-called lapankas and sent to either forced labour in Germany or to Auschwitz.Some wereheld hostage in the Pawiak Prison in Warsaw and later executed. Sometimes people rounded up were executed on the spot by firing squads. Millions of Poles were press-ganged for compulsory labour, both within Poland and in the Reich. Polish identity cards were replaced by the "Kennkarte" (identifying card). Those who applied for it had to fill out an affidavit that they were no Jews. Ultimately, the Nazi's "New Order" in Poland would result in the death of 20% of the population, some 6 million people, half of them Jewish.
During the occupation many Poles fought in a variety of different resistance movements organised within Poland along political lines. Expatriate Poles also served as soldiers in a number of countries as members of the Allied Forces.

The Polish Jews had no chance of escaping. As early as September 1939, Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Sipo (Sicherheitspolizei / security police), SD (Sicherheitsdienst der SS / security agency of the SS) and later RSHA (Reichssicherheitshauptamt), had given orders to concentrate the Jews in larger towns located near railway lines. In November 1939 Hans Frank issued an order for the establishment of a Judenrat in each municipality, and commanded the Jews to wear an armband. The Judenrat became the link between the Jewish population and the Nazis. It was forced to deliver lists of inhabitants, to install a Jewish police force and to manage the work, accommodation and public health services of its municipality. Before the attack on the Soviet Union took place, the Jews had already become forced labour convicts and lost their jobs. They were ordered to declare their valuables and their houses factories, shops, and personal property of all kinds were confiscated. From the smallest shtetl to the largest city, normal public Jewish life ceased to exist. By early 1941 about 200 forced labour camps for Jews had been established. The death toll in these camps was extremely high because of the prevailing inhuman conditions and the harsh regime.

Police Postcard
Police Postcard
The Nazis tried to concentrate all Jews in Ghettos in order to facilitate the Endlösung der Judenfrage (Final Solution of the Jewish Question), although what that "solution" was going to be was initially unclear. The process of establishing ghettos for the Jews started in October 1939. The death toll in the ghettos was high, caused by factors such as the desperate (and deliberate) shortage of food and the lack of adequate sanitation and hygiene, resulting in famine and epidemics.

With the onset of the attack on the Soviet Union the full-scale extermination of Jews began. In co-operation with the Wehrmacht, SS, SD and Sipo, four Einsatzgruppen (task forces) were established. These killing units followed the German troops on their way eastward. They were ordered to eliminate communist officials, partisans and Jews. Between June 1941 and the spring of 1943, the Einsatzgruppen killed approximately 1.2 million Jews and some hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens. Generally victims were shot at secluded sites, and their corpses hurriedly buried. Many of the killers suffered physical and psychological stress as a consequence of shooting innocent, naked, men, women, and children. As a result Heinrich Himmler ordered the RSHA to find another killing method. This ultimately led to the design of specially converted enclosed lorries, the exhaust fumes of which were diverted to gas the victims in an airtight passenger area. 15 of these gas vans were delivered to the Einsatzgruppen. They were also used in Chelmno as early as December 1941. Here, 250,000 to 300,000 Jews from the Warthegau and the Lodz Ghetto perished, among them approximately 10,000 Jews who had been deported from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia.

In order to accelerate the elimination of the Polish Jews, five extermination camps with stationary gas chambers were built: Auschwitz-Birkenau in the annexed region of Eastern Upper Silesia, and Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka and Majdanek in the Generalgouvernement. Hundreds of trains, operated by the German Reichsbahn or Gedob (Generaldirektion der Ostbahn), carried the Jews to these killing facilities. Transports were often diverted to transit ghettos, where Jews were temporarily incarcerated until the death camps were ready to receive them.

Jewish Girl in Zwolen 1939
All of those transported to Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka and Chelmno were destined for death within a few hours. At Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek the deportees were either selected for immediate death in the gas chambers or chosen for forced labour. In time the same result ensued. Many barracks were built at Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek to house the forced labourers.

The permanent gassing installations (gas chambers) were logical successors to the mobile gas vans.

German factory owners, and even the Wehrmacht, profited from the forced Jewish labour resource. Because of manpower shortages, Hitler agreed that Jewish workers would remain within the Generalgouvernement domain for a certain time, subject to the condition that they work only in factories and camps controlled by the SS. In line with this ruling, special labour camps were established: for example at Poniatowa and Trawniki near Lublin, Plaszow near Krakow and Janowska near Lwow. At the extermination camps Majdanek near Lublin and Auschwitz near Krakow, the newly arrived victims were divided into groups either fit or unfit for work. Those unfit for work, were taken immediately to the gas chambers. Those considered fit, were crowded together under unimaginably bad conditions and systematically killed by hard work and the permanent lack of food, or were simply murdered by SS-men. As their strength ebbed and their capacity for work diminished, the prisoners were subject to constant further selections and consequent execution.

Two resistance uprisings took place in Warsaw: the Jewish Warsaw Ghetto Uprising from 19 April until 16 May 1943, and the Polish uprising organized by the underground army Armia Krajowa, which took place from 1 August until 2 October 1944: The Poles revolted in Warsaw as the Soviet forces were nearby. Receiving only minimal help from the Allied Forces, the Polish resistance had no real chance of defying the heavily armed German troops. After the defeat of the Armia Krajowa, Hitler gave orders for the destruction of Warsaw. The population had to leave the city. German troops entered Warsaw where they remained until December 1944, destroying the city and looting many art treasures. More than 200,000 Poles died in the course of the 1944 uprising and an estimated 700,000 were expelled from the city.

The last of the German occupying forces left Poland in early 1945. No other nation suffered as much at the hands of the Nazis as did Poland. The defeat of the Nazis did not bring the longed for freedom, as the Soviets remained in control of the country until the 1980ies.

See our pages about Zwolen, an ordinary town in the Generalgouvernement, located between Radom and Pulawy. The history of this town is symbolic of all other Polish towns, showing that the Nazi terror happened everywhere.

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