Gestapo-NKVD contacts in occupied Poland, 1939-1941

Anybody with a passing familiarity with WW II knows of the Molotov-Ribbentrop “Non-Aggression Pact” between Nazi Germany and the USSR, as well as of its secret annex in which the two competing totalitarian collectivisms divided up Poland between them, roughly on the Curzon Line that was later to be the basis for the postwar Polish-Soviet border.[*]

Received wisdom among many people has it that neither side was sincere in this pact; that Nazi Germany intended to invade the USSR already then (there is no doubt that Hitler y”sh dreamed of “Lebensraum” in the East since the 1920s — the debate is only about when this turned from pipedream to concrete objective); and that Stalin y”sh was trying to buy time, as he’d killed off roughly 90% of general officers and 50% of regimental officers in the Great Purge.

However, during the nearly two years between the 1939 pact and Operation Barbarossa (the invasion of the USSR), a level of Nazi-Soviet cooperation existed that is hard to square with the notion of a “cold peace”. Diplomatic correspondence has been released online as part of the Avalon Project, and makes for some “interesting” reading: https://avalon.law.yale.edu/subject_menus/nazsov.asp

But something that astonished even this writer was the level of coordination and cooperation that appeared to exist between the Gestapo and the NKVD as regards the Polish population in their respective areas of recognizance. Wikipedia has a surprisingly detailed article on the subject, both in English and in German: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gestapo–NKVD_conferences

A first meeting took place at Brzesc (Brest-Litovsk) on Sep. 27, 1939 (while fighting was still going on). According to understandings reached, almost 42,500 Polish POWs were handed over to the Nazis by the USSR. Both sides expected Polish resistance to emerge and discussed ways to suppress it.

A second meeting on these reportedly took place in late November 1939 at Przemysl (later the site of Albert Battel’s heroic rescue attempt), a city that straddled the Bug river along which the Curzon Line ran in that area, and hence was split between the occupiers.

The best-known meeting is the third, starting Feb. 20, 1940, in the south Polish mountain resort of Zakopane. The name of the Nazi German representative was none other than Adolf Eichmann (y”sh). According to some sources, notably Armia Krajowa (Home Army) commander Tadeusz “Bor” Komorowski, a followup meeting with NKVD representatives took place at Krakow in March 1940.

What we do know is that, with apparent mutual coordination, twin massacres of the Polish intelligentsia took place: the Intelligenzaktion (intelligentia action) and subsequent AB-Aktion (Ausserordentliche Befriedigungsaktion, Extraordinary Pacification Action) in the Nazi sector, and the Katyn massacres of Polish officer POWs held by the Soviets. (Katyn lies near Smolensk, Russia.)

The USSR also deported between 300K and 1M Polish nationals to Siberia, the Urals, and Kazakhstan. Following Operation Barbarossa and a July 1941 treaty with the Polish Government in exile, this group at least benefited from an amnesty. Polish General Wladyslaw Anders recruited an army from among them and evacuated its soldiers and civilian relatives via Iran. Mortality during this evacuation was high as well, not even counting the Poles who had died in the Gulag.

In one of those ironies of history that would look absurd in fiction, the Katyn execution site was essentially next door to where Army Group Center had its headquarters. Its chief intelligence officer, Col. Rudolf Freiherr [=Baron] von Gersdorff, had been tipped off as early as August 1942 about rumors among Polish forced laborers on the site and at a railway line. On March 21, 1943, Gersdorff, a core member of the anti-Hitler conspirators around operations officer Col. Henning von Tresckow, had attempted a suicide bombing on Hitler and most of the Nazi top at a memorial ceremony in Berlin. Irony of ironies, shortly after Gersdorff’s return to his post, laborers discovered the Katyn burial site, and it was Gersdorff who would oversee autopsies (first by a German coroner, later by Swiss and other neutral pathologists), and host war correspondents, Red Cross representatives, and even Polish clergy at the killing site. I can only imagine the emotional anguish of being whipsawed between two mass-murderous dictatorships in this manner. That the massacre was grist on the mill of Goebbels (y”sh) did not make it any less real. Soviet propaganda tried to blame the massacres on the Nazis — but while there were plenty of real massacres to blame them for, the time frame did not work for this one. Ammunition offered no “smoking gun” – the men had been killed with single neck shots from German-made Walther pistols. Autopsy revealed the corpses had been killed about a year before Barbarossa. While the Walthers did impart a measure of plausible deniability, the main reason appears to have been that they were the “tool of choice” of the NKVD’s chief executioner Vassily Blokhin, who considered Soviet-made pistols too unreliable.[**] About 90% of the Katyn victims were ethnic Poles; most of the remainder were Jews, including the Chief Military Rabbi Baruch Steinberg.

Picture the same basic product, like a smartphone operating system, but with two different design philosophies and diverging in details of implementation. The more I learn about Bolshevism and National Socialism, the more I think of them not as “opposites” but as the iOS and the Android operating systems of totalitarian collectivism.

“That old saw about, ‘to understand all is to forgive all’, is a load of tripe. Some things, the more you understand the more you loathe them.”

Robert A. Heinlein, “Starship Troopers”

[*] Post-1945, Stalin would “compensate” his own satellite state with German lands to the East of the Oder-Neisse line—Pomerania, Silesia, etc.

[**] Blokhin has the “distinction” of being listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the most prolific executioner in history: during Katyn alone, he personally shot a total of 7,000 men over a 4-week period, at a rate of about one per three minutes.

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