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, September 19, 1939, they met the advancing Germans at Brest-Litovsk (Polish, Brezść), a rail and river hub on the right bank of the Bug River (effec­tively the demar­ca­tion between the two occu­pa­tion armies). On Septem­ber 22, as German troops with­drew west­ward out of the Soviet “zone 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 men because most com­bat was over by the time the Red Army surged over Poland’s border on Septem­ber 17. (The Soviets timed their 1939 inva­sion to allow the Germans to destroy the bulk of Polish resis­tance they might encounter just as they did in 1944 out­side Warsaw, Poland’s pre­war capi­tal. Indeed, the only enemy forces the Soviets faced were 12,000 men of the Border Pro­tec­tion Corps [KOP] and dis­or­ganized Polish troops fleeing north to the safety of Lith­ua­nia and south to Romania and Hun­gary.) 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. Many who fell into the latter’s hands were packed into freight cars without food, water, or heat. Thou­sands died en route to labor camps, while many more were worked, starved, or frozen to death. The fate of at least 4,134 became known with the dis­covery of their buried bodies in the Katyn Forest in 1943. Each had been exe­cuted with a bullet in the back of the head.

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 fewer 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 among the dead. (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).

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 crime boss Premier Joseph Stalin in creating, then occupying their respec­tive zones of influ­ence in 1939 and 1940, changed his pre­da­tor’s spots to ambush, in cold blood, 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 repres­sion and 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 regime.—Norm Haskett

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

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

Left: German-Soviet military victory parade in Brest-Litovsk, Poland (today simply Brest in south­western 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.

Polish Campaign: German and Soviet officers on reviewing stand, Brest, September 22, 1939Polish Campaign: Two German and one Soviet soldier share experiences, Brest, September 22, 1939

Left: Sharing the tiny, hastily constructed reviewing stand in Brest-Litovsk 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-Litovsk. Gude­rian, resplen­dent in his red-lined great­coat and black leather jack­boots, and Krivos­hein, belted leather coat and leather boots, con­versed in French. Behind his smile on the reviewing stand, Gude­rian did his level best to hide his per­sonal and pro­fes­sional dis­appoint­ment: his men had fought two days to take Brest-Litovsk from the Poles only to learn that the secret Ribben­trop-Molotov Non­aggres­sion pro­to­col required the Germans to hand Brest-Litovsk over to the Soviets.

Right: German soldiers converse with a Soviet sol­dier in Brest-Litovsk. The city held his­tori­cal signi­fi­cance for both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in that it was the site of a peace treaty signed by emis­sa­ries of Kaiser Wil­helm II’s govern­ment that extri­cated Bol­she­vik Russia from World War I. After the 1939 vic­tory parade-cum-hand­over cere­mony the Germans with­drew to the western bank of the River Bug, and the Soviets took control of Brest-Litovsk, which lay on the east­ern bank, as well as the rest of East­ern Poland (now West­ern Bela­rus and West­ern Ukraine). The formal rati­fi­ca­tion of the German-Soviet Boun­dary and Friend­ship Treaty, which occurred on Septem­ber 28, 1939, erased Poland from the Euro­pean map for the next five and three-quarter years. Germany added 77,600 square miles (200,983 km2) to its territ­orial holdings, the Soviet Union 72,780 square miles (188,292 km2).

German-Soviet Victory Parade, Brest-Litovsk, September 22, 1939 (No audio)