Germany's WWII Occupation of Poland 'When We Finish, Nobody Is Left Alive'

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Part 3: Resistance Groups in the Forests


From the very beginning, the Nazis' policy toward occupied Poland was beset by an intractable contradiction: You can't destroy what you want to exploit. This dilemma became all too clear after Himmler ordered the city of Lublin and Zamosc district in southeastern Poland to be made a German "settlement area" within the General Government.

In November 1942, police officers began brutally evacuating more than 100,000 Polish farmers to make way for 20,000 ethnic Germans. Those fit for work were sent to Germany as slave laborers, old people and children were resettled in so-called "retirement villages," while anyone deemed "inferior" or "unreliable" was deported to Auschwitz.

The Poles fled the police, hiding in the forests, and forming resistance groups that made the General Government unsafe for Germans. The more unbearable the suppression and slaughter by the Nazis became, the more determined the Poles became to die in battle rather than hoping to escape their fate.

The defeat of the Wehrmacht forces besieging the Russian city of Stalingrad in January 1943 lifted the hopes of resistance fighters across Poland. On April 20, 1943, Governor-General Frank complained to the German head of chancellery: "The murder of Germans is increasing to an alarming degree. Trains are being attacked, and transport routes are being made unsafe."

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

The day before, posters had appeared on the walls of the Warsaw ghetto: "Brothers, the time has come to fight and take revenge on our occupiers. If you can bear arms, come and join our fighters! The elderly and women can provide support. Arm yourselves!" Unfortunately, weapons were in short supply. Only about a tenth of the approximately 1,200 insurgents had a gun, yet they soon found themselves up against almost 2,000 heavily-armed police officers and SS men.

The Germans even used flame-throwers on the Jewish resistance fighters. For a month, insurgents waged a desperate guerrilla war on their occupiers. Several thousand Jews were executed immediately. About 50,000 more died in the Treblinka gas chambers. On May 16, 1943, Jürgen Stroop, the SS officer in charge of Warsaw district, reported: "The former Jewish residential district of Warsaw no longer exists."

The Nazis answered stiffer resistance with yet more brutality. Between October 1943 and July 1944, a total of 2,705 Poles were publicly executed in Warsaw. Another 4,000 were killed in secret.

Nevertheless, Governor-General Frank realized that the Germans were at a numeric disadvantage and could not keep the Poles under their thumb indefinitely. He conceded that "this negative, disapproving, destructive approach is now almost impossible to maintain." Frank therefore believed the Poles should be given the prospect of an improved standard of living through a more pragmatic cultural policy and better nutrition.

In a letter to Hitler, Frank raise doubts about the closing of schools as well as the mass arrests and executions by the German police. Referring to the Soviet massacre of more than 20,000 Polish officers and other professionals and academics in Katyn in 1940, Frank proposed the Poles be "actively involved in the defense against Bolshevism." However Hitler refused to entertain any such notion, preferring ruthless brute force instead. In January 1944 loyal, obedient Frank therefore issued an order that a hundred Poles were to be executed for every German killed.

Another occupation-era tragedy occurred on August 1 that summer, when the Armia Krajowa -- the home guard of the Polish government-in-exile -- staged an armed uprising in an attempt to recapture Warsaw ahead of the arrival of the Red Army. Emboldened by the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler on July 20 and the successful "D-Day" landing of Allied forces in Normandy on June 6, Polish patriots believed they could force the Germans to withdraw from Warsaw.

The insurgents managed to liberate the half of Warsaw west of the River Vistula, but the occupiers struck back with brutal might. Although the Soviets had already reached the eastern banks of the Vistula, they wanted to secure their positions before pressing on.

'A Nation of Such Courage is Immortal'

Himmler, whom Hitler had tasked with quelling the rebellion, had the SS shoot civilians at random until ammunition began running low. The Germans then launched an offensive in which nearly 40,000 men were sent after the rebels holed up in the old town. Bitter house-to-house fighting ensued, but the insurgents lacked experience, weapons and ammunition.

More than 150,000 people died in the battle for the city. Before they eventually capitulated after 63 days, the Polish home guard sent out one last radio message from Warsaw: "A nation of such courage is immortal."

When the Red Army finally began putting an end to the Nazis' horrific occupation of Poland, the country had turned into a gigantic cemetery. Of the 35 million people who had lived in Poland at the start of the War, six million had perished -- almost 18 percent of the population.

Red Army soldiers entered Krakow, the capital of the General Government, on January 17, 1945.

Frank's official diary contains the following entry for that day: "The Governor-General left Krakow castle in a motorcade in splendid winter weather and brilliant sunshine." On the journey back to his native Bavaria, Frank and three of his staff burnt most of the official files they had taken with them.

After the War, Frank was brought before the Nuremberg Trials, accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. In a moment of enlightenment he admitted, "In a thousand years, people will still be blaming Germany."

But in his closing remarks, Frank complained about the "most horrific mass crimes" allegedly committed against Germans in the East, acts which he said "easily match any guilt on our part."

Frank was found guilty, and sent to the gallows.

Editor's note: This story originates from the "Germans in the East" issue of SPIEGEL's quarterly history magazine, DER SPIEGEL GESCHICHTE, which was published earlier this year. A second feature, " A Time of Retribution: Paying with Life and Limb for the Crimes of Nazi Germany," has also been posted in English.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt

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