Brest-Litovsk, Occupied Eastern Poland • September 19, 1939
Adolf Hitler’s armies stormed over Poland’s border on September 1, 1939, in what became known as the world’s first blitzkrieg—“lightning war.” Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin hastened to claim his share of the spoils under the terms of a secret protocol in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Nonaggression Treaty signed in Moscow less than a month before, sending two army groups totaling nearly 500,000 men into Eastern Poland, where on this date in 1939 they met the advancing Germans at Brest-Litovsk on the River Bug (effectively the demarcation between the two occupation armies). On September 22, as German troops withdrew westward out of the Soviet “sphere of influence” in Poland, the two invaders celebrated a victory parade in Brest (in today’s Belarus). By the end of the month all Poland was under one tyranny or the other.
Despite their easy victory, the Germans lost 13,000 killed and over 27,000 wounded out of over one million men who took part in the Polish Campaign. The Soviets lost less than a thousand because most combat was over by the time they surged over Poland’s border on September 17. Polish casualties were high: 70,000 killed and 133,000 wounded. Over 900,000 Poles became prisoners of war: nearly 700,000 in German hands and 217,000 in Soviet hands. After Hitler double-crossed his treaty partner by invading the Soviet Union in June 1941 (Operation Barbarossa), between 3.3 and 3.5 million Soviet POWs were targeted for forced labor and destruction by Nazi policies. Destruction took the form of neglect, abuse, malnutrition, deliberate starvation (with typical German thoroughness, the Nazis crafted a “Hungerplan” for its implementation), all the way down to murder, mostly by shooting and gassing. In the summer of 1944 the number of Soviet POWs used as forced laborers peaked at 631,000, many employed in coal mines in Germany’s Ruhr Valley or with firms like Krupp and Daimler-Benz. No less than 200,000 Soviet prisoners died as forced laborers.
By 1944 Poland was the site of 9 out of 40 Nazi death camps, whose inmates included Polish civilians, POWs, European Jews (overwhelmingly), Roma (Gypsies), and political prisoners. Not until the summer of 1944, when the advancing Red Army overran the abandoned camp at Majdanek on the outskirts of Lublin, Poland, where 79,000 people died (59,000 of them Polish Jews) did the true extent of the Nazis’ genocidal policies become clear. Six months later, on January 27, 1945, the Soviets liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the German labor and death camps where at least 1.3 million died—around 90 percent of them Jews but also 15,000 Soviet prisoners at Auschwitz and thousands more at Birkenau. (In 2005 the United National General Assembly designated January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.) Ovens, mounds of corpses, and emaciated survivors testified in words, photographs, and motion pictures the breadth and depth of Nazi depravity, which the Nazis inflicted on people they branded Untermenschen (subhumans).
German-Soviet Military Parade in Brest-Litovsk, Poland, on September 22, 1939, Marked the City’s Handover to the Red Army
Left: German-Soviet military victory parade in Brest-Litovsk, Poland (today in Belarus) on September 22, 1939, four days after the two armies made contact with each other. Both invaders, but particularly the Germans, saw the propaganda value in holding the parade, which was meant to showcase to the whole world the reality of the newly formed “Soviet-Nazi alliance” and attendant seismic shift in geopolitics. Onlookers were mostly from Brest’s non-Polish communities: Belorussians and Jews.
Right: Soviet T-26 tanks and German motorcyclists rolling over Brest’s cobblestone streets. The Soviet contribution to the joint victory parade was modest—a military band and a few battalions—because Red Army soldiers in their dirty boots, dusty greatcoats, and stubble beards were bone-tired after their protracted march to Brest.
Left: Sharing the tiny, hastily constructed reviewing stand in Brest were (left to right) German General of the Infantry Mauritz von Wiktorin; Maj. Gen. Heinz Guderian, commander of German panzer (armored) forces in Poland; and Guderian’s Soviet counterpart Brig. Gen. Semyon Moiseevich Krivoshein, commander of the Soviet 29th Light Tank Brigade that took Brest. Guderian, resplendent in his red-lined greatcoat and black leather jackboots, and Krivoshein, belted leather coat and leather boots, conversed amiably in French.
Right: German and Soviet personnel share experiences amid Brest victory parade display material. After the parade the Germans withdrew to the western bank of the River Bug, and the Soviets took control of Brest, which lay on the eastern bank, as well as the rest of Eastern Poland (now Western Belarus and Western Ukraine).
German-Soviet Victory Parade, Brest-Litovsk, September 22, 1939 (No audio)