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 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 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. 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 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 breadth and depth of Nazi depravity, which the Nazis inflicted on people they branded Untermenschen (subhumans).

Acclaimed British historian Roger Moorhouse recounts the events that not only led up the nefarious 1939 Molotov-Ribben­trop Non­aggres­sion Pact, which divided Poland and other East Euro­pean states between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, but took on a curious after­life in The Devils’ Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin. Though it lasted less than two years, the “pact from hell” is rich in ironies, as Moor­house’s authori­ta­tive account explains. The duplic­i­tous Hitler, after part­nering with Soviet despot Joseph Stalin in creating, then occupying their respec­tive “spheres of interest” in 1939 and 1940, changed his pre­da­tor’s spots to ambush the Soviet Union in 1941. Oper­a­tion Bar­ba­rossa had the nasty mis­for­tune of dooming Hitler’s adven­turism in Central and Eastern Europe and has­tening the sorry end of his diabol­ical regime. And 50 years after their enslave­ment by Stalin’s Red Army, Poles, Esto­nians, Lat­vians, and Lithu­anians suc­ceeded in finally liber­ating them­selves by bringing down the Com­munist Iron Curtain and accel­erating the demise of their tor­mentor’s repres­sive regime.—Norm Haskett

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

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