The Soviets were not any kinder, even if they did not wage an all-out war on Poland. When the Soviets rolled in on 17 September with 24 infantry divisions, 15 cavalry divisions and 2 tank corps they took over the eastern half of Poland, stopping at the Bug river and effectively absorbed 200,000 square kilometers. Although they did not implement a genocidal program like the Nazis, the Soviets immediately subjugated the Poles to Communist misery as they stole Polish land and businesses, froze bank accounts and currency, and treated the Poles with contempt, making life difficult at best. They sent 1.5 million Polish workers to the Soviet Union, less than half of which ever returned. Out of fear of reprisal, they imprisoned thousands of Polish military officers, who were later executed and the Soviets blamed the whole affair on the Germans. Fearing Soviet capture, President Ignacy Moscicki and Prime Minister Feliks Slawoj-Skladkowski had evacuated to Romania, where they were detained, but a new government was formed in France under General Wladyslaw Sikorski. From there, 17,000 Poles were organized and escaped to Britain, where they would later be known as the "London Poles."
For those who remained, it was a chaotic whirlwind of looting, destruction and murder as the Wehrmacht seeped into Poland like an indelible stain. Unlike Reinhard Heydrich’s Einsatzgruppen , who systematically executed Russians during the 1941 invasion of Russia, the executions of Poles were far more random. Anyone who looked undesirable, resisted or stood out in any way was subject to beatings, torture, rape and murder--there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the senseless carnage. Wilhelm Moses, a Wehrmacht truck driver, witnessed the SS Germania hang Poles with stones tied to their feet so they would die a slow death, as a brass band played nearby to drown out the screams from the townspeople. Another woman in Bydgoszcz saw "a number of Boy Scouts, from 12 to 16 years of age, who were set up against a wall and shot. No reason was given. A priest who rushed to administer the Last Sacrament was shot too. He received five wounds." These were not isolated incidents, but rather the norm for the Gestapo, Wehrmacht, and SS units that pillaged Poland like barbaric conquerors.
One possible explanation for this senseless brutality is that many of these soldiers were in combat for the first time, and this was a chance to unleash their hatred on a nation that was considered to be primitive anyway. Their actions were rarely suppressed by their officers, who were instructed by the Nazi leaders to "look the other way." Wanton destruction was often encouraged, but most of the regular Wehrmacht soldiers wanted to fight and win battles, not execute innocent peasants. Soon that would be the job of the SS and Gestapo. However, it did not matter how the German soldiers felt, because any complaint about the mistreatment of the native population was ignored. In fact, SS General Johannes Blaskowitz, head of the Ober-Ost region personally wrote Hitler about his repugnance for the actions committed by his soldiers. He and several other Generals felt that the unrestricted barbarism was unbecoming of a German soldier and a threat to the noble discipline that they tried to instill in their "superior" men. Hitler’s response was, "one cannot fight a war with Salvation Army methods."
The random cruelty was often just that, random, yet the Nazis did not stop with the shooting of innocent bystanders, but singled out the intelligentsia as well. Like Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge of the 1970’s, the Nazis specifically targeted Polish intellectuals to further their plans for complete domination. Doctors, lawyers, politicians or anyone with a high level of education was identified and put into concentration camps, or executed on the spot. Mieczyslaw Brozek, a philosophy professor in Krakow, expected the incoming Germans to give teachers restrictions on curriculum, or possibly dismiss them from their jobs as teachers, but instead he witnessed German soldiers round up his colleagues and savagely beat them with rifle butts. This was to ensure that no element of Polish higher learning would survive so the Germans could exploit the Poles without their formation of any kind of resistance. This mass murder caused Poland to lose 15% of her teachers, 18% of her clergy, 30% of her technicians, 40% of her professors, 45% of her doctors and 57% of her lawyers.
The attack continued to the Polish lifestyle, as all forms of Polish culture were forbidden. The Polish language, going to the movies, riding public transportation, even sexual relations were strictly prohibited, while libraries, art galleries, and monuments were destroyed and replaced with German substitutes; even Polish street and city names were changed to German. Effective 25 November 1939, Polish children were only permitted an education up to the fourth grade to keep them as uneducated as possible. SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler originated the idea, saying, "the sole goal of this school should be: simple arithmetic up to 500; writing of one’s name; a doctrine that it is a divine law to obey the Germans...I don't think that reading should be required." Just as the Jews were required to wear a yellow Star of David or white armband, many Poles were forced to wear a diamond shaped "P" to identify themselves. The Nazis encouraged inhumane treatment of the Poles and enforced punishments to Germans who showed any compassion for them. One German was put in prison for a month for offering a box of cigarettes to a Pole, while another was given four months for enabling a Pole to communicate with his estranged family.
The plan for exploitation went far beyond removing both populations and culture, but rather became one of the worst cases of genocide in history. Nazi ideology dictated that the Poles were at the bottom level of racial superiority, making them untermenschen, or sub-human. While Hitler sought to modify the decaying Christian relic of western Europe, his plan for eastern Europe was to create a new, racially pure Germanic society by eradicating the Slavic people and colonizing it with German blood. This was to begin immediately in Poland, and on 7 October 1939 Hitler made Himmler the "Reichskommissiariat for the Strengthening of Germandom," which proposed German expansion of eastern Europe, thus achieving Lebensraum. Himmler gladly accepted this challenge and was given full use of his potent SS forces, who were to be the main vehicle of implementation.
The plan had three main objectives: one, to repatriate all ethnic Germans in Europe, two, to destroy the harmful influence of untermenschen on the Reich, and three, establish a new German civilization on conquered lands through resettlement. This repatriation and resettlement involved seizure of property, deportation of Poles and transferring assets to German colonists. Before any resettlement could be done, the Poles had to be classified into groups: Poles who had lived in Poland since the end of WWI, the intelligentsia, dissidents to Nazi control, neutral Poles, and Poles who would labor for the Reich. The first 3 mentioned were designated for deportation to be dealt with later, while the last two would be allowed to stay, pending their "Germanization." Now that the Nazis had finalized their plans, they needed a system in which to carry it out.
This system was designed to separate the ethnic Germans from the inferior beings in order to create an idealistic, racially pure Reich. Since West Prussia and the Warthegau were designated as newly Germanic land and subject to colonization, the Polish deportees had to be put somewhere before any Germans could move in. This became the task of the General Government, which became a "trash bin" for all Poles, Jews, Gypsies and other undesirable people in the Reich. Hitler gave his usual vague orders by giving his 3 eastern despots 10 years to complete Germanization, with "no questions asked" about their methods. This gave them a free hand to do as they pleased, and they could not only choose who was racially pure enough to stay, but also who would settle the land. This was not always an easy task because many of the colonists were ethnic Germans living in Soviet territory, so they too had to be ethnically approved. Eventually 750,000 Germans moved into the former Polish territory at the full expense of the Poles.
These deportations were not a civilized undertaking, but rather very violent affairs. It was common for German troops to drive into a neighborhood at night, burst into a home with weapons drawn and yell orders at the family to get in a truck to be taken away. One 10 year old girl named Anna Jeziorkowska saw a team of German soldiers rush into her family’s home, rob their valuables, beat her parents and ship everyone off to a camp as a German family moved into their home. This was typical as Franz Jagemann (an interpreter on these excursions) attested: "The worst thing for me was to see an elderly couple; they were over 70 and clearly did not understand what was going on. They were beaten up and thrown on a truck." By the end of 1939 the Germans had deported 1.5 million Poles to the General Government with an additional 200,000 sent to Germany for slave labor.
Initially after the Polish campaign Hitler did not make his genocidal schemes public because he wanted to keep his options open with his enemies. He even told Britain and France he had good intentions in eastern Europe and touted his slaughter as a "police action." His 6 October radio speech proposed that Poland be turned into an autonomous region if Britain and France withdrew their declarations of war, and even suggested that Polish collaborators could run the regional governments. When Chamberlain wholly rejected this on 12 October, Hitler decreed that the military administration would be dissolved while the new Nazi administration would take over. This became real on 25 October and less than a month later the final boundaries were established and power changed into the hands of the new lords of Poland.
THE FRENCH GO TO WAR
Combat between the British and French began immediately after their declaration of war, although it was in limited engagements. For example, on 4 September, two German Bf-109 E-1s shot down a pair of British Wellingtons near Brunsbüttel. The ground war also began quickly, but very little became of it. On 7 September French General Maurice Gamelin advanced the 3rd, 4th and 5th Armies into the Cadenbronn and Wendt forests near the German industrial region of Saarbrücken. By marching across the French/German border in "Operation Saar," the French attempted to pierce the Germans’ Siegfried Line, although eerily there was no German response. Simultaneously the British Expeditionary Force made their first WWII appearance in France and debated on what steps to take. Both sides had trouble coordinating their plans and since the war was just days old, they seemed to shy away from the aggressive actions that would later define the Second World War. The following day, 8 September, the first western front fighter plane battles took place as the French took down 27 German planes at a cost of 8 of their own. Back in Germany, the OKW was alarmed at the French advance into German territory, but Hitler made no attempt to counter the French yet because he wanted to see how his Western Wall (or "Siegfried Line," as the Allies nicknamed it) could hold up to an attack, and saw the potential to use the French advance as an excuse for future German attacks on France.
Hitler's casual attitude disturbed Gamelin, who mistakenly thought Hitler was plotting a secret counterattack, so he ordered his men away from the German defenses and told them to prepare for a quick retreat should they be attacked. As a result the French did not advance more than 5 miles into Germany and were held up at the slightest form of resistance, such as minefields or German snipers. When the Soviets invaded Poland on 17 September, the French realized that their forces in that part of Europe were accomplishing nothing and called off the advance on 21 September as they retreated to their Maginot Line. Many French commanders saw this as a mistake because this withdrawal gave the Germans ample time to strengthen their western forces, as the French slowly withdrew their forces during the first 2 weeks of October 1939. Soon after on 16 October the Germans launched their first western offensive, using General Erwin von Witzleben's 1st Army, which merely harassed the French but allowed the Wehrmacht to occupy a portion of French territory. This heralded the onset of the "Phony War," or the months in between the invasion of Poland and the invasion of the Low Countries in May 1940, when the Allies and Germany were at war yet relatively few military actions were taken.
THE PHONY WAR
After the French settled back into their original defensive posture, western reporters dubbed the time between the declaration of war against Germany and the invasion of France "The Phony War," also known as "Twilight War" or "Sitzkrieg." After suffering several million casualties in World War I, the people of France and its military leaders were not anxious to commit their troops into battle against such a formidable opponent. Instead, France put its faith and military resources into a defensive strategy, in the expectation that Germany would throw itself headfirst into French defenses. The French hoped this would take the wind out of Germany's sails and weaken the Wehrmacht until it could be attacked. The irony was that at this point in the war, the French could tap into over 100 divisions while the Germans had just 23 available on the French borders. The Germans were overly concerned about destroying Poland and assumed that France would be passive in their declaration of war. They were right. The Germans even tried to deceive the French into thinking that they had no intentions of attacking France by dumping propaganda over the French border. They put up banners saying "Why do you fight?", sent over friendly messages and had German bands play French songs within earshot of the French military positions. They even went so far as to broadcast speeches in French on the radio and over loudspeakers, claiming that "the British will fight to the last drop of French blood...you have been deceived...this is an imperialistic war for Britain...we Germans want nothing of France...what has happened to your wives back home...the British are stationed in your villages."
While it was only propaganda, the French were very reluctant to engage the Germans head-on in combat. It was not because they were cowards or that they were inept at war, but rather they saw their best chance of stopping Nazi conquest by allowing Germany to make the first move. The French set up 78 divisions along the Belgian border, coupled with 10 British divisions, and stationed 17 divisions with the infamous Maginot Line as the bulk of their defensive plan. As a back up, they put 10 divisions on the Italian border, should Mussolini attack, and 3½ divisions along the Spanish border in case Franco gave up his neutrality. This was a sound plan in theory, but it had a fatal flaw: it assumed the Germans would attack in force through the Low Countries while avoiding the Maginot Line and the Ardennes Forest. The French were right about the Germans avoiding the Maginot Line, but the blunder over the Ardennes would come back to haunt western Europe for 4 years.
THE WINTER WAR IN FINLAND
After partitioning Poland, Stalin forced Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to allow the Soviets to occupy their countries. He then wanted to expand his buffer zone to the north and annex Finland to protect Leningrad as well as gain strategic locations on the Barents Sea. Stalin pressed Finland for their Karelian Isthmus, Hangö Peninsula, and Rybachi Peninsula in tense negotiations during October in Moscow. He even tried to sway the Finns by offering twice the territory in neighboring Soviet Karelia, an unappealing trade for Finland. Unlike the Baltic nations, the Finns refused to capitulate and all attempts to settle the matter diplomaticly failed. Stalin thought Finland would be an easy conquest since although the Finns had a decent army that was well trained, their weapons were terribly outdated. The Finns did, however, have a border defense line called "The Mannerheim Line," which was a series of armed forts connected by trenches. The line was designed to repel a Soviet attack, but it had too many weak spots. The Finns practiced for an invasion, and the Soviets alleged that some of the practice artillery rounds killed Soviet troops across the border. The Soviets then used that as an excuse to attack the outnumbered and outgunned Finns.
On 30 November, the Red Army attacked with great force, pushing the Finns back for miles. The US and Sweden offered to mediate the dispute, but Stalin insisted that it was not a war. The Finns were retreating and all seemed to be lost, but Marshal Mannerheim (who created the Mannerheim Line) vowed to defend Finland at all costs. He encouraged Colonel Talvela use the Finnish secret weapon: surprise hit and run attacks. The Finns were expert hunters and skiiers, allowing them to ski down upon Soviet camps, camouflaged in white, killing them with amazing efficiency. They raided the Soviets day and night, used deception to impersonate Soviet soldiers, and took advantage of the maze-like forests of Finland; all of which confused and harassed the Red Army. The Soviets kept attacking in large forces, but the Finns crushed them by using the harsh terrain to trap the advancing armor, then destroy them with concentrated fire. The Finnish army, who were outnumbered 3 to 1, now caused the Red Army to suffer several times as many casualties. The Finns feared nothing and repulsed any Soviet attempt to break out. In just over a month the Red Army lost 27,500 men plus 1,300 prisoners. The Finns captured an enormous amount of weapons and supplies, furthering their war effort. Many of the Soviet Generals who escaped the battles with their lives returned to Stalin only to be executed for such an embarassing failure.