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 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 Pact signed in Mos­cow the month before, sending his forces 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 month’s end, all Poland was under one tyranny or the other. Despite their easy vic­tory, the Ger­mans lost 13,000 killed and over 27,000 wounded. The Soviets lost less than a thou­sand because most com­bat was over by the time they invaded Poland on Septem­ber 17. Polish casu­al­ties were high: 70,000 killed, 133,000 wounded. Over 900,000 Poles became pri­soners of war: nearly 700,000 in German hands, 217,000 in Soviet hands. After Ger­many’s inva­sion of Soviet Union in June 1941 (Opera­tion Barba­rossa), between 3.3 and 3.5 mil­lion Soviet POWs were tar­geted for destruc­tion by Nazi policies of neglect, abuse, mal­nu­trition, and mur­der, mostly by shooting and gassing. No less than 200,000 Soviet pri­soners died during forced labor, down from a peak of 631,000 in the summer of 1944. 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 Ger­man labor and death camp 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. Ovens, mounds of corpses, and ema­ci­ated survi­vors testi­fied in words, photo­graphs, and motion pictures the depths of Nazi crimes against so-called Untermenschen (subhumans).

German-Soviet Military Parade in Brest-Litovsk, Poland, on September 22, 1939, Marked City’s Handover to Red Army

German-Soviet military victory parade, Brest-Litovsk, September 22, 1939 Soviet tanks on parade, Brest-Litovsk, September 22, 1939

Left: German-Soviet military victory parade in Brest-Litovsk, Poland (today in Belarus) on Septem­ber 22, 1939. Both inva­ders saw the pro­pa­ganda value in holding the parade, which was meant to dis­play the power of the newly formed “Soviet-Nazi alliance” to the whole world.

Right: Rolling Soviet tanks and German motor­cyclists. The Soviet contri­bution to the joint victory parade was modest—a mili­tary band and a few bat­ta­lions—because Red Army sol­diers were tired after their protracted march to Brest.

German and Soviet officers on reviewing stand, Brest, September 22, 1939 German and Soviet soldiers share experiences, Brest, September 22, 1939

Left: Sharing the reviewing stand in Brest were (l–r) Ger­man Gene­ral of the Infan­try Mauritz von Wik­torin; Maj. Gene­ral Heinz Gude­rian, com­mander of Ger­man pan­zer (armored) forces in Poland; and Brig. Semyon Moisee­vich Krivoshein, com­mander of the Soviet tank bat­talion that took Brest.

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)