What were the cultural effects of World War II

German-Polish relations

Andreas Mix

To person

Historian and literary scholar, employee of the German Police University in the project "The Police in the Nazi State". Publications on the history of National Socialism and German-Polish relations.

The Second World War began with the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. It marks a turning point in the relationship between the two countries, which is still having an impact.

The beginning of the Second World War was marked by the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. (& copy AP)

The past has repeatedly overshadowed German-Polish relations in recent years. The ongoing dispute over the museum representation of flight and expulsion and the unresolved question of the return of cultural goods shows that the history of the 20th century has by no means been conclusively dealt with or even mastered. The disputes make it clear that the tremendous turning point that the Second World War marked for both countries is still having an impact and shaping the self-image of the respective societies - in very different ways.

The Second World War began with the attack by the Wehrmacht on Poland on September 1, 1939. On September 17th, the Red Army occupied the eastern parts of the country. The basis of the double aggression was the Hitler-Stalin pact, with which the two dictators had come to an understanding about their "spheres of interest" in East Central Europe. So Poland was once again divided by its powerful neighbors. The consequences of the German occupation, which after the attack by the Wehrmacht on the Soviet Union in June 1941 also extended to the Polish eastern territories, were devastating: the Germans murdered almost the entire Jewish population, almost 3 million people, and large parts of the Polish elite. In total, more than 5 million Polish citizens, about 15% of the total population by 1939, became victims of war, terror and genocide.

In addition to the enormous demographic, there were material losses. The occupiers unrestrainedly exploited the economy, recruited large numbers of forced laborers, and plundered and destroyed museums, archives and libraries. Although Poland was one of the most important members of the anti-Hitler coalition - Polish soldiers fought in all allied armies against the Nazi regime - the end of the war did not bring victory. At the instigation of the Soviet Union, the three victorious allied powers agreed at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 on a shift to the west of the Polish state without consulting the government-in-exile in London. Their position was considerably weakened after the failed Warsaw Uprising. The attempt by the Home Army to liberate the Polish capital from the German occupiers before the Red Army marched in ended after a nine-week struggle at the beginning of October 1944 with the surrender of the insurgents.

With the support of the Red Army and the Soviet security forces, the communists were able to gradually conquer power in Poland. The shift to the west, which at the same time reduced the national territory considerably, was accompanied by extensive forced resettlements. More than 1.5 million people were resettled from the Polish eastern provinces, which now fell to the Soviet Union, to central Poland or to the formerly German areas in the west and north. The Germans, in turn, had to leave Silesia, Pomerania, West Prussia and East Brandenburg, unless they had already fled the advancing Red Army. Ukrainians, Belarusians and Lithuanians were also affected by the forced relocations. In post-war Poland, the communists realized the nationalists' political ideas from the interwar period: an ethnically homogeneous Poland, whose state territory had been shifted far to the west. The rulers legitimized the new borders with historical arguments from the 19th century. Accordingly, Silesia and Pomerania were areas that were the starting point for Polish statehood in the early Middle Ages.

After centuries of German foreign rule, these "original Polish areas" could be won again, proclaimed communist propaganda. The recourse to traditional nationalism was by no means unusual. The communists, who at first had only weak popular support, deliberately used the anti-German resentment that had spread after the experiences of war and occupation to legitimize their claim to power. The new Soviet ally alone guaranteed protection against the German "eastward urge". The crimes of the Soviet occupiers, such as the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Polish citizens or the murder of thousands of officers of the Polish army by the NKVD, were subject to a taboo under communist rule. Numerous other aspects of the experience of war and occupation were hidden or marginalized in official memory, which was manifested in monuments, celebrations, films, television series and publications. This includes the role of the Home Army, which was subordinate to the government-in-exile in London, the underground state, but also the Polish-Ukrainian conflicts in eastern Galicia and Volhynia and the forced relocations from the eastern parts of the country after the end of the war.

Until the change of system in 1989/90, memories of these events could only be cultivated in the families and in the opposing public. The selective official reminder also concerned the murder of the Jews. Since the 1960s, the sufferings and sacrifices of the Jews were increasingly subsumed under the martyrdom of the Polish nation. The expression of the "6 million Polish victims" was an expression of this appropriation. In the Auschwitz Birkenau and Majdanek state memorials, the Jews were listed as just one group of victims among many others. In spite of the obvious deformations and gaps, the people's Polish historical image of war and occupation certainly had the power to integrate into society: Poland was therefore exclusively an innocent victim of German aggression; Inconvenient aspects such as the behavior of the population towards the persecuted Jews or the German civilian population after the end of the war were largely ignored.