The Soviet Invasion of Poland, 1939

September 1939 is mostly remembered for the German invasion of Poland, the event that triggered the Second World War in Europe. But Germany wasn’t the only power that invaded Poland that month. The Soviets were also on their way.

Propaganda Preparations

Germany and the Soviet Union were unlikely allies. Hitler’s Nazi ideology included repeated condemnation of Communism. The Nazi party itself gave capitalist businesses the sort of free hand that Communists detested.

But as the Second World War repeatedly showed, realpolitik could be more powerful than ideology. The two countries secretly agreed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, a deal in which they would divide Poland between them along a pre-agreed border.

Molotov (left) and Ribbentrop (right) at the signing of the Pact.
Molotov (left) and Ribbentrop (right) at the signing of the Pact.

When the Germans invaded Poland at the start of September 1939, the Soviets didn’t immediately react. They were dealing with a conflict with Japan on their eastern border and needed time to mobilize.

On the 15th of September, Soviet troops began massing along the Polish frontier. Officers were gathered for briefings on the coming campaign. These briefings weren’t just about practical plans for the invasion but also contained a large propaganda element. According to commanders, this would be not an invasion but a liberation, freeing the Polish workers from the unjust rule of the landowners.

Soviet cavalry on parade in Lviv, after the city’s surrender to the Red Army during 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland. The city, then known as Lwów, was annexed by the Soviet Union and today is part of Ukraine.
Soviet cavalry on parade in Lviv, after the city’s surrender to the Red Army during 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland. The city, then known as Lwów, was annexed by the Soviet Union and today is part of Ukraine.

On the 16th, commissars went out among the men, providing more of the same briefing. The plight of the Polish workers, including their starvation and torture by landowners, was depicted in lurid detail to fire the men up to fight.

First Clashes

On the 17th, the invasion began. At five in the morning, mechanized cavalry crossed the frontier, soon followed by the rest of the army.

The Poles were poorly prepared for a Soviet invasion. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was a secret, while the threat from Germany had been clear for months. Most Polish forces had been focused in the west even before the Germans attacked, and the fighting there had drawn more troops away. The eastern border was poorly defended.

Soviet invasion of Poland, 1939. Advance of the Red Army troops
Soviet invasion of Poland, 1939. Advance of the Red Army troops

The Polish army was large and courageous, but it was already dealing with the chaos of the war in the west. As the massed forces of the Red Army advanced, they swept all before them. Defensive positions were quickly overcome. Polish troops were captured or brushed aside, inflicting only minor losses on the invaders.

During the first day, the Soviets advanced up to 60 miles. It wasn’t long before Eastern Poland was theirs.

Polish infantry, 1939
Polish infantry, 1939

A Ragged Army

At the sound of rumbling tanks and tramping boots, Poles emerged from their homes, frightened and bewildered, to see what was happening.

What they saw was less than impressive. Many of the Soviet soldiers were carelessly dressed or missing parts of their uniforms. Rear units trailed out along the roads. Supply services were poorly organized. Tanks, tractors, and other vehicles had to be left by roadsides due to lack of fuel.

Red Army soldiers distributing the Soviet propaganda newspapers to peasants near Wilno (Vilnius) in Soviet occupied part of Poland.
Red Army soldiers distributing the Soviet propaganda newspapers to peasants near Wilno (Vilnius) in Soviet occupied part of Poland.

Far from finding impoverished peasants, the Soviet troops found a country apparently wealthier than their own. Twenty-five years later, Colonel G. I. Antonov still remembered troops disobeying the orders of their superiors to rush into shops and buy everything they could, making the most of a favorable Soviet-set exchange rate.

Dispirited Polish civilians, unable to resist, could only accept this sudden upheaval.

Confrontation

Within days, the Soviets were approaching the new border they had agreed with the Germans for the division of Poland.

Hitler watching German soldiers marching into Poland in September 1939.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S55480 / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Hitler watching German soldiers marching into Poland in September 1939.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S55480 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Before the invasion, the Soviet troops had been ordered to avoid fighting with the Germans when they met them, settling any disputes peacefully. But as they drew close to the German lines, there were inevitably clashes. Both armies were in a war zone, facing unfamiliar forces. If shots were sometimes fired before questions could be asked, confrontations could easily escalate.

This led to a number of casualties in the new border region. But officers understood their role in this strange new situation, stepping in to resolve disputes even when their men had been injured or killed.

A German and a Soviet officer shaking hands at the end of the Invasion of Poland.
A German and a Soviet officer shaking hands at the end of the Invasion of Poland.

In places, the Germans had passed the new border and were occupying territory meant to go to the Soviets. This sometimes led to tense discussions before the Germans withdrew, taking portable property with them.

On the whole, the two armies cooperated well. The Germans handed Brest fortress over to the Red Army, then the two forces held a joint military parade in the town.

Joint parade of the Wehrmacht and Red Army in Brest at the end of the Invasion of Poland. At the center Major General Heinz Guderian and Brigadier Semyon Krivoshein.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-121-0011A-22 / Gutjahr / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Joint parade of the Wehrmacht and Red Army in Brest at the end of the Invasion of Poland. At the center Major General Heinz Guderian and Brigadier Semyon Krivoshein.Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-121-0011A-22 / Gutjahr / CC-BY-SA 3.0

While small enclaves of Polish troops kept fighting a doomed fight and thousands more followed their government abroad to keep up the fight, the Soviets settled in.

Sovietization

Now began the process of “Sovietization”, transforming occupied Poland so that it could follow the same political and economic model of the USSR. Led by the Soviet Union’s interior ministry, the NKVD, this transformation would bring ruin for many Poles.

Economic change came fast. Monetary reforms saw the Soviet ruble replace the Polish zloty, depriving Poles of their existing wealth. Goods disappeared from the shelves of stores, forcing many to pay extortionate prices on the black market.

Bydgoszcz on 8th September 1939 – first days of German occupation. Polish civilian arrested during the “łapanka” and guarded by Wehrmacht soldiers at rallying point at Parkowa Street.
Bydgoszcz on 8th September 1939 – first days of German occupation. Polish civilian arrested during the “łapanka” and guarded by Wehrmacht soldiers at rallying point at Parkowa Street.

Private businesses were closed down, to be replaced by ones run by the government. There was no smooth transition. Instead, people were left without basic necessities like bread while the new systems were put in place.

An investigation by the Central Committee of the Communist Party eventually recognized the existence of a food crisis and moved to tackle it. But the Polish workers the Red Army had come to liberate were still worse off than they had been under the much-demonized landowners.

War and Hunger / Barefoot in Winter
War and Hunger / Barefoot in Winter

One Man, One Vote

The greatest symbolic act came with elections to the Supreme Council of the Polish Soviet Socialist Republic, as the region was renamed by the Soviets. After six weeks of intense propaganda, voters found only one option for the first member of the council – Joseph Stalin.

Read another story from us: Blitzkrieg Tactics: Lightning Conquest of Poland

Poland’s fate was heavily discussed at the Yalta Conference in 1945. Joseph Stalin presented several alternatives which granted Poland industrialized territories in the west whilst the Red Army simultaneously permanently annexed Polish territories in the east, resulting in Poland losing over 20% of its pre-war borders.
Poland’s fate was heavily discussed at the Yalta Conference in 1945. Joseph Stalin presented several alternatives which granted Poland industrialized territories in the west whilst the Red Army simultaneously permanently annexed Polish territories in the east, resulting in Poland losing over 20% of its pre-war borders.

The Soviets had quickly conquered half of Poland, bringing in a ruinous regime. Only when the Germans came again two years later would the Poles learn that things could be even worse.