Military history



People belonging to national minorities “should be forced to their knees and shot like mad dogs.” It was not an SS officer speaking but a communist party leader, in the spirit of the national operations of Stalin’s Great Terror. In 1937 and 1938, a quarter of a million Soviet citizens were shot on essentially ethnic grounds. The Five-Year Plans were supposed to move the Soviet Union toward a flowering of national cultures under socialism. In fact, the Soviet Union in the late 1930s was a land of unequalled national persecutions. Even as the Popular Front presented the Soviet Union as the homeland of toleration, Stalin ordered the mass killing of several Soviet nationalities. The most persecuted European national minority in the second half of the 1930s was not the four hundred thousand or so German Jews (the number declining because of emigration) but the six hundred thousand or so Soviet Poles (the number declining because of executions).1

Stalin was a pioneer of national mass murder, and the Poles were the preeminent victim among the Soviet nationalities. The Polish national minority, like the kulaks, had to take the blame for the failures of collectivization. The rationale was invented during the famine itself in 1933, and then applied during the Great Terror in 1937 and 1938. In 1933, the NKVD chief for Ukraine, Vsevolod Balytskyi, had explained the mass starvation as a provocation of an espionage cabal that he called the “Polish Military Organization.” According to Balytskyi, this “Polish Military Organization” had infiltrated the Ukrainian branch of the communist party, and backed Ukrainian and Polish nationalists who sabotaged the harvest and then used the starving bodies of Ukrainian peasants as anti-Soviet propaganda. It had supposedly inspired a nationalist “Ukrainian Military Organization,” a doppelganger performing the same fell work and sharing responsibility for the famine.2

This was a historically inspired invention. There was no Polish Military Organization during the 1930s, in Soviet Ukraine or anywhere else. It had once existed, back during the Polish-Bolshevik War of 1919-1920, as a reconnaissance group for the Polish Army. The Polish Military Organization had been overmastered by the Cheka, and was dissolved in 1921. Balytskyi knew the history, since he had taken part in the deconspiracy and the destruction of the Polish Military Organization back then. In the 1930s Polish spies played no political role in Soviet Ukraine. They lacked the capacity to do so even in 1930 and 1931 when the USSR was most vulnerable, and they could still run agents across the border. They lacked the intention to intervene after the Soviet-Polish nonaggression pact was initialed in January 1932. After the famine, they generally lost any remaining confidence about their ability to understand the Soviet system, much less change it. Polish spies were shocked by the mass starvation when it came, and unable to formulate a response. Precisely because there was no real Polish threat in 1933, Balytskyi had been able to manipulate the symbols of Polish espionage as he wished. This was typical Stalinism: it was always easier to exploit the supposed actions of an “organization” that did not exist.3

The “Polish Military Organization,” Balytskyi had argued back in summer 1933, had smuggled into the Soviet Union countless agents who pretended to be communists fleeing persecution in their Polish homeland. In fact, communism was marginal and illegal in Poland, and Polish communists saw the Soviet Union as their natural place of refuge. Although Polish military intelligence doubtless tried to recruit Polish communists, most of the Polish leftists who came to the Soviet Union were simply political refugees. The arrests of Polish political émigrés in the Soviet Union began in July 1933. The Polish communist playwright Witold Wandurski was jailed in August 1933, and forced to confess to participation in the Polish Military Organization. With this link between Polish communism and Polish espionage documented in interrogation protocols, more Polish communists were arrested in the USSR. The Polish communist Jerzy Sochacki left a message in his own blood before jumping to his death from a Moscow prison in 1933: “I am faithful to the party to the end.”4

The “Polish Military Organization” provided a rationale for the scapegoating of Poles for Soviet policy failures. After the signing of the German-Polish nonaggression declaration in January 1934, Poles were blamed not only for the famine but also for the worsening of the Soviet international position. That month Balytskyi blamed the “Polish Military Organization” for the continuation of Ukrainian nationalism. In March 1934 in Soviet Ukraine, some 10,800 Soviet citizens of Polish or German nationality were arrested. In 1935, as the level of NKVD activity decreased in the Soviet Union as a whole, it continued to increase in Soviet Ukraine, with special attention to Soviet Poles. In February and March 1935, some 41,650 Poles, Germans, and kulaks were resettled from western to eastern Ukraine. Between June and September 1936, some 69,283 people, for the most part Soviet Poles, were deported from Ukraine to Kazakhstan. Polish diplomats were confused by these developments. Poland was pursuing a policy of equal distance between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany: nonaggression agreements with both, alliances with neither.5

The “Polish Military Organization,” conjured up during the famine in 1933, was sustained as pure bureaucratic fantasy in Soviet Ukraine, then adapted to justify a national terror of Poles throughout the Soviet Union. Stalin gave a first cue in December 1934, asking that the Pole Jerzy Sosnowski be removed from the NKVD. Sosnowski, long before a member of the Polish Military Organization, had been turned by the Cheka and had worked productively for the Soviets for more than a decade. In part because the Soviet state police had been founded by a Polish communist, Feliks Dzierżyński, many of its most prominent officers were Poles, often people recruited in those early days. Yezhov, the NKVD chief, seems to have been threatened by these veteran Polish officers; he was certainly obsessed with Poles generally. Inclined to believe in intricate plots orchestrated by foreign intelligence agencies, he gave pride of place to Poland because Poles, in his view, “know everything.” The investigation of Sosnowski, who was arrested in December 1936, might have brought the historical Polish Military Organization to Yezhov’s attention.6

Yezhov followed Balytskyi’s anti-Polish campaign in Soviet Ukraine, and then reconceptualized it. As the show trials began in Moscow in 1936, Yezhov drew his subordinate Balytskyi into a trap. While prominent communists confessed in Moscow, Balytskyi was reporting from Kiev that the “Polish Military Organization” had been re-created in Soviet Ukraine. No doubt he simply wished to claim attention and resources for himself and his local apparatus at a time of security panic. Yet now, in a turn of events that must have surprised Balytskyi, Yezhov declared that the “Polish Military Organization” was an even greater danger than Balytskyi claimed. It was a matter not for the regional NKVD in Kiev but for the central NKVD in Moscow. Balytskyi, who had invented the plot of the “Polish Military Organization,” now lost control of the story. Soon a confession was extracted from the Polish communist Tomasz Dąbal, who claimed to have directed the “Polish Military Organization” in the entire Soviet Union.7

Thanks to Yezhov’s initiative, the “Polish Military Organization” lost any residue of its historical and regional origins, and became simply a threat to the Soviet Union as such. On 16 January 1937 Yezhov presented his theory of a grand Polish conspiracy to Stalin, and then with Stalin’s approval to a plenum of the central committee. In March Yezhov purged the NKVD of Polish officers. Although Balytskyi was not Polish but Ukrainian by nationality, he now found himself in a very awkward position. If the “Polish Military Organization” had been so important, asked Yezhov, why had Balytskyi not been more vigilant? Thus Balytskyi, who had summoned up the specter of the “Polish Military Organization” in the first place, became a victim of his own creation. He yielded his Ukrainian position in May to his former deputy, Izrail Leplevskii—the NKVD officer who carried out the kulak operation in Soviet Ukraine with such vigor. On 7 July Balytskyi was arrested on charges of espionage for Poland; a week later his name was removed from the stadium where Dynamo Kiev played its soccer matches—to be replaced by Yezhov’s. Balytskyi was executed that November.8

In June 1937, when Yezhov introduced the imaginary “Center of Centers” to explain the kulak action and the continuing show trials, he also announced the threat of the equally unreal “Polish Military Organization.” The two, supposedly, were connected. Like the justification for the kulak action, the justification for the Polish action permitted the rewriting of the entirety of Soviet history, so that responsibility for all policy problems could be placed upon enemies, and those enemies clearly defined. In Yezhov’s account, the “Polish Military Organization” had been active in the Soviet Union from the beginning, and had penetrated not only the communist party but the Red Army and the NKVD. It had been invisible (went Yezhov’s argument) precisely because it was so important; it had agents in high places who were able to mask themselves and their works.9

On 11 August 1937, Yezhov issued Order 00485, mandating that the NKVD carry out the “total liquidation of the networks of spies of the Polish Military Organization.” Though issued shortly after the beginning of the kulak operation, Order 00485 notably radicalized the Terror. Unlike Order 00447, which targeted familiar categories of enemies definable at least theoretically by class, Order 00485 seemed to treat a national group as an enemy of the state. To be sure, the kulak order also specified criminals, and was applied to nationalists and political enemies of various kinds. But there was at least a faltering aureole of class analysis. Kulaks as a group could at least be described in Marxist terms. The enmity of the nations of the Soviet Union toward the Soviet project was something else. It looked like an abandonment of the basic socialist premise of the fraternity of peoples.10

Soviet influence in the world, in these years of the Popular Front, depended upon an image of toleration. Moscow’s major claim to moral superiority, in a Europe where fascism and National Socialism were on the rise, and for American southerners journeying from a land of racial discrimination and lynchings of blacks, was as a multicultural state with affirmative action. In the popular Soviet film Circus of 1936, for example, the heroine was an American performer who, having given birth to a black child, finds refuge from racism in the Soviet Union.11

Internationalism was not hypocrisy, and ethnic killing was a shock to the Soviet system. The NKVD was composed of many nationalities, and represented a kind of internationalism. When the show trials began in 1936, the heights of the NKVD were dominated by men whose own origins were within the Soviet national minorities, Jews above all. About forty percent of high-ranking NKVD officers had Jewish nationality recorded in their identity documents, as did more than half of the NKVD generals. In the climate of the day, Jews had perhaps more reason than others to resist policies of ethnic destruction. Perhaps to counter the internationalist (or self-preservation) instinct of his officers, Yezhov sent out a special circular assuring them that their task was to punish espionage rather than ethnicity: “On the Fascist-Insurgent, Sabotage, Defeatist, and Terrorist Activity of the Polish Intelligence Service in the USSR.” Its thirty pages expanded upon the theory that Yezhov had already shared with the central committee and with Stalin: that the Polish Military Organization was connected to other espionage “centers” and had penetrated every key Soviet institution.12

Even if the idea of a deep Polish penetration of Soviet institutions persuaded Yezhov and Stalin, it could not serve as the evidentiary basis for individual arrests. There simply was nothing resembling a vast Polish plot in the Soviet Union. NKVD officers had too few leads to follow. Even with a great deal of ingenuity, connections between the Polish state and events in the Soviet Union would be hard to document. The two most obvious groups of Polish citizens, diplomats and communists, were clearly inadequate for a mass killing action. The heyday of Polish espionage in the Soviet Union was long past, and the NKVD knew what there was to be known about what the Poles had tried to do in the late 1920s and early 1930s. To be sure, Polish diplomats still tried to gather intelligence. But they were protected by diplomatic immunity, not very numerous, and under constant surveillance already. For the most part, they knew better by 1937 than to contact Soviet citizens and thereby endanger their lives—this was a time when they themselves were furnished with instructions on how to behave when arrested. Yezhov told Stalin that Polish political émigrés were major “suppliers of spies and provocateur elements in the USSR.” Leading Polish communists were often already in the Soviet Union, and sometimes already dead. Some sixty-nine of the hundred members of the central committee of the Polish party were executed in the USSR. Most of the rest were behind bars in Poland, and so were unavailable for execution. And in any case, these numbers were far too small.13

Precisely because there was no Polish plot, NKVD officers had little choice but to persecute Soviet Poles and other Soviet citizens associated with Poland, Polish culture, or Roman Catholicism. The Polish ethnic character of the operation quickly prevailed in practice, as perhaps it was bound to from the beginning. Yezhov’s letter authorized the arrest of nationalist elements, and of “Polish Military Organization” members who had yet to be discovered. These categories were so vague that NKVD officers could apply them to almost anyone of Polish ethnicity or with some connection to Poland. NKVD officers who wished to show the appropriate zeal in carrying out the operation would have to be rather vague about the charges against individual people. Balytskyi’s previous actions against Poles had created a pool of suspects sufficient for a few purges, but this was far from enough. Local NKVD officers would have to take the initiative—not in looking up the card files, as in the kulak operation, but in creating a new paper trail to follow. One Moscow NKVD chief understood the gist of the order: his organization should “destroy the Poles entirely.” His officers looked for Polish names in the telephone book.14

Soviet citizens would have to “unmask” themselves as Polish agents. Because the groups and scenarios of the ostensible Polish plot had to be generated from nothing, torture played an important role in the interrogations. In addition to the traditional conveyer method and the standing method, many Soviet Poles were subjected to a form of collective torture called the “conference method.” Once a large number of Polish suspects had been gathered in a single place, such as the basement of a public building in a town or village of Soviet Ukraine or Soviet Belarus, a policeman would torture one of them in full view of the others. Once the victim had confessed, the others would be urged to spare themselves the same sufferings by confessing as well. If they wanted to avoid pain and injury, they would have to implicate not only themselves but others. In this situation, each person had an incentive to confess as quickly as possible: it was obvious that everyone would be implicated eventually anyway, and a quick confession might at least spare the body. In this way, testimony that implicated an entire group could be assembled very quickly.15

The legal procedures were somewhat different than in the kulak operation, but no less scanty. In the Polish operation, the investigating officer would compose a brief report for each of the prisoners, describing the supposed crime—usually sabotage, terrorism, or espionage—and recommending one of two sentences, death or the Gulag. Every ten days he would submit all of his reports to the regional NKVD chief and a prosecutor. Unlike the troikas of the kulak operation, this two-person commission (a “dvoika”) could not sentence the prisoners by itself, but had to ask for approval from higher authorities. It assembled the reports into an album, noted its recommended sentence for each case, and sent them on to Moscow. In principle, the albums were then reviewed by a central dvoika: Yezhov as the commissar for state security and Andrei Vyshynskii as state prosecutor. In fact, Yezhov and Vyshynskii merely initialed the albums after a hasty review by their subordinates. On a single day, they might finalize two thousand death sentences. The “album method” gave the appearance of a formal review by the highest Soviet authorities. In reality, the fate of each victim was decided by the investigating officer and then more or less automatically confirmed.16

Biographies became death sentences, as attachment to Polish culture or Roman Catholicism became evidence of participation in international espionage. People were sentenced for the most apparently minor of offenses: ten years in the Gulag for owning a rosary, death for not producing enough sugar. Details of everyday life were enough to generate a report, an album entry, a signature, a verdict, a gunshot, a corpse. After twenty days, or two cycles of albums, Yezhov reported to Stalin that 23,216 arrests had already been made in the Polish operation. Stalin expressed his delight: “Very good! Keep on digging up and cleaning out this Polish filth. Eliminate it in the interests of the Soviet Union.”17

In the early stages of the Polish operation, many of the arrests were made in Leningrad, where the NKVD had large offices and where thousands of Poles lived within easy reach. The city had been a traditional place of settlement of Poles since the days of the Russian Empire.

Janina Juriewicz, then a young Polish girl in Leningrad, saw her life altered by these early arrests. The youngest of three sisters, she was very attached to Maria, the eldest. Maria fell in love with a young man called Stanisław Wyganowski, and the three of them would go for walks together, little Janina serving as chaperone. Maria and Stanisław, married in 1936, were a happy couple. When Maria was arrested in August 1937, her husband seemed to know what this meant: “I will meet her,” he said, “under the ground.” He went to the authorities to make inquiries, and was arrested himself. In September the NKVD visited the Juriewicz family home, confiscated all of the Polish books, and arrested Janina’s other sister, Elżbieta. She, Maria, and Stanisław were all executed by a shot to the back of the neck, and buried anonymously in mass graves. When Janina’s mother asked the police about them, she was told the typical lie: her daughters and son-in-law had been sentenced to “ten years without the right to correspondence.” Because this was another possible sentence, people believed it and hoped. Many of them kept hoping for decades.18

People such as the Juriewiczes, who had nothing to do with Polish espionage of any kind, were the “filth” to which Stalin was referring. The family of Jerzy Makowski, a young Leningrad student, suffered a similar fate. He and his brothers were all ambitious, wishing to build careers for themselves in the Soviet Union, and fulfill their deceased father’s wish that they master a trade. Jerzy, the youngest of the brothers, wanted to be a shipbuilder. He studied each day with his older brother Stanisław. One morning the two of them were awakened by three NKVD men, who had come to arrest Stanisław. Though he tried to reassure his little brother, he was so nervous that he could not tie his shoes. This was the last Jerzy saw of his brother. Two days later, the next brother, Władysław, was also arrested. Stanisław and Władysław Makowski were executed, two of the 6,597 Soviet citizens shot in the Leningrad region in the Polish operation. Their mother was told the typical lie: that her sons had been sent to the Gulag without the right of correspondence. The third brother, Eugeniusz, who had wished to be a singer, now took a factory job to support the family. He contracted tuberculosis and died.19

The Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, then living in Leningrad, lost her son to the Gulag during the Terror. She recalled an “innocent Russia” that writhed “beneath the bloody boots of the executioners, beneath the wheels of the black marias.” Innocent Russia was a multinational country, Leningrad was a cosmopolitan city, and its national minorities were the people most at risk. In the city of Leningrad in 1937 and 1938, Poles were thirty-four times more likely to be arrested than their fellow Soviet citizens. Once arrested, a Pole in Leningrad was very likely to be shot: eighty-nine percent of those sentenced in the Polish operation in this city were executed, usually within ten days of the arrest. This was only somewhat worse than the situation of Poles elsewhere: on average, throughout the Soviet Union, seventy-eight percent of those arrested in the Polish operation were executed. The rest, of course, were not released: most of them served sentences of eight to ten years in the Gulag.20

Leningraders and Poles had little idea of these proportions at the time. There was only the fear of the knock on the door in the early morning, and the sight of the prison truck: called the black maria, or the soul destroyer, or by Poles the black raven (nevermore). As one Pole remembered, people went to bed each night not knowing whether they would be awakened by the sun or by the black raven. Industrialization and collectivization had scattered Poles throughout the vast country. Now they simply disappeared from their factories, barracks, or homes. To take one example of thousands: in a modest wooden house in the town of Kuntsevo, just west of Moscow, lived a number of skilled workers, among them a Polish mechanic and a Polish metallurgist. These two men were arrested on 18 January 1938 and 2 February 1938, and shot. Evgenia Babushkina, a third victim of the Polish operation in Kuntsevo, was not even Polish. She was a promising and apparently loyal organic chemist. But her mother had once been a washer-woman for Polish diplomats, and so Evgenia was shot as well.21

Most Soviet Poles lived not in Soviet Russian cities, such as Leningrad or Kuntsevo, but in westerly Soviet Belarus and Soviet Ukraine, lands Poles had inhabited for hundreds of years. These districts had been part of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Over the course of the nineteenth century, when these territories were western regions of the Russian Empire, Poles had lost a great deal of their status, and in many cases had begun to assimilate with the surrounding Ukrainian and Belarusian populations. Sometimes, though, the assimilation was in the other direction, as speakers of Belarusian or Ukrainian who regarded Polish as the language of civilization presented themselves as Poles. The original Soviet nationality policy of the 1920s had sought to make proper Poles of such people, teaching them literary Polish in Polish-language schools. Now, during the Great Terror, Soviet policy distinguished these people once again, but negatively, by sentencing them to death or to the Gulag. As with the contemporary persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany, the targeting of an individual on ethnic grounds did not mean that this person actually identified himself strongly with the nation in question.22

In Soviet Belarus the Terror coincided with a massive purge of the party leadership in Minsk, carried out by NKVD commander Boris Berman. He accused local Belarusian communists of abusing Soviet affirmative action policies and fomenting Belarusian nationalism. Later than in Ukraine, but with much the same reasoning, the NKVD presented the Polish Military Organization as the mastermind behind supposed Belarusian disloyalty. Soviet citizens in Belarus were accused of being “Belarusian national fascists,” “Polish spies,” or both. Because Belarusian lands, like Ukrainian lands, were divided between the Soviet Union and Poland, such arguments could easily be made. To be concerned with Belarusian or Ukrainian culture as such involved attention to developments on the other side of a state border. The mass killing in Soviet Belarus included the deliberate destruction of the educated representatives of Belarusian national culture. As one of Berman’s colleagues later put it, he “destroyed the flower of the Belarusian intelligentsia.” No fewer than 218 of the country’s leading writers were killed. Berman told his subordinates that their careers depended upon their rapid fulfillment of Order 00485: “the speed and quality of the work in discovering and arresting Polish spies will be the main consideration taken into account in the evaluation of each leader.”23

Berman and his men took advantage of economies of scale, killing at one of the largest murder sites in the Soviet Union. They carried out executions in the Kurapaty Forest, twelve kilometers north of Minsk. The woods were known for their white flowers—Kurasliepy in literary Belarusian,Kurapaty in the local dialect. The black ravens drove through the white flowers day and night, in such numbers that they flattened the narrow gravel alley into what the locals called “the road of death.” Within the forest, fifteen hectares of pine had been cleared, and hundreds of pits dug. After condemned Soviet citizens were driven through the gates, they were escorted by two men to the edge of a pit. There they were shot from behind, and pushed into the ditch. When bullets were in short supply, NKVD men would force their victims to sit side by side, their heads in a line, so that a single bullet could be fired through several skulls at once. The corpses were arranged in layers and covered with sand.24

Of the 19,931 people arrested in the Polish operation in the Belarusian republic, 17,772 were sentenced to death. Some of these people were Belarusians, and some were Jews. But most were Poles, who were also subject to arrest in Belarus in the kulak action and in the other purges. All in all, as a result of executions and death sentences the number of Poles in Soviet Belarus fell by more than sixty thousand during the Great Terror.25

The Polish operation was most extensive in Soviet Ukraine, which was home to about seventy percent of the Soviet Union’s six hundred thousand Poles. Some 55,928 people were arrested in Soviet Ukraine in the Polish operation, of whom 47,327 were shot. In 1937 and 1938, Poles were twelve times more likely than the rest of the Soviet Ukrainian population to be arrested. It was in Soviet Ukraine that the famine had generated the theory of the Polish Military Organization, here that Balytskyi had persecuted Poles for years, and here that his former deputy, Izrail Leplevskii, had to prove his vigilance after his former superior was removed from the scene. It did Leplevskii little good: he too was arrested, in April 1938, and executed before the Polish operation in Ukraine was even completed. (His successor A. I. Uspenskii was wise enough to disappear in September 1938, but was eventually found and executed.)26

One of Leplevskii’s deputies, Lev Raikhman, provided categories of arrest that could be applied to the large Polish population of Soviet Ukraine. One of the suspect groups, interestingly enough, was that of Soviet police agents working among the Soviet Poles. This recreated the dilemma of vigilance facing Balytskyi, Leplevskii, and NKVD officers generally. Once it had been “established” that the “Polish Military Organization” was and had been ubiquitous in Soviet Ukraine and powerful throughout the Soviet Union, the NKVD could always argue that policemen and informers had failed to show sufficient vigilance at an earlier moment. Although many of these police agents were themselves Soviet Poles, some were Ukrainians, Jews, or Russians.27

Jadwiga Moszyńska fell into this trap. A Polish journalist working for a Polish-language newspaper, she informed on her colleagues to the police. As her colleagues were arrested and charged as Polish spies, she was left in an impossible position. Why had she not told the authorities that the entire Polish community was a nest of foreign agents? Czesława Angielczyk, an NKVD officer of Polish-Jewish origin who reported on teachers of the Polish language, suffered a similar fate. Once the Polish operation was in full swing and teachers were routinely arrested, she too was vulnerable to the accusation that she had not previously been sufficiently diligent in her work. Both women were executed and buried at Bykivnia, a huge collection of mass graves northeast of Kiev. At least ten thousand Soviet citizens were executed at that site during the Great Terror. 28

In the Ukrainian countryside the Polish operation was, if anything, even more arbitrary and ferocious than in Kiev and the cities. “The black raven flew,” as Polish survivors remembered, from town to town, village to village, visiting grief upon the Poles. The NKVD would bring crews to cities in the hopes of completing the business of arresting and executing Poles in a few weeks, or even days. In Zhmerynka, an important railway junction, the NKVD appeared in March 1938, rounded up hundreds of Poles, and tortured them to produce confessions. In Polonne, the dvoika of the NKVD chief and prosecutor commandeered the desecrated Roman Catholic church building. Poles from Polonne and surrounding villages were arrested and locked in the church basement. Some 168 people were killed in the Polonne church.29

In the smallest settlements, it was difficult to discern even the emptiest of judicial formalities. NKVD task forces appeared suddenly, with instructions to arrest and execute a certain number of people. They would begin from the assumption that an entire village, factory, or collective farm was guilty, surround the place by night, and then torture the men until they got the results they needed. Then they would carry out the executions and move on. In many such cases the victims were long dead by the time that the albums with their case files were assembled and reviewed in Moscow. In the countryside, the NKVD task forces were death squads. In Cherniivka the NKVD waited until 25 December 1937 (Christmas for Roman Catholic Poles, not for Orthodox Ukrainians) and then arrested whoever attended church. Those arrested simply disappeared, as a local woman remembered: “a stone in the water.”30


Those arrested were almost always men, and their arrests left families in despair. Zeferyna Koszewicz saw her father for the last time as he was arrested at his factory and taken to Polonne for interrogation. His last words to her were: “listen to your mother!” Yet most mothers were all but helpless. In the Ukrainian countryside, as throughout the Soviet Union, wives would ritually visit the prison each day, bringing food and clean undergarments. Prison guards would give them soiled undergarments in exchange. Since these were the only sign that husbands still lived, they were received with joy. Sometimes a man would manage to smuggle out a message, as did one husband in the underwear he had passed to his wife: “I suffer and I am innocent.” One day the undergarments would be soiled by blood. And the next day there would be no undergarments, and then there would be no husband.31

In October and November 1937, before the camps and special settlements were full, wives were exiled to Kazakhstan after their husbands were shot. During these weeks the NKVD often abducted Polish children over the age of ten and took them to orphanages. That way they would certainly not be raised as Poles. From December 1937, when there was no longer much room in the Gulag, women were generally not exiled, but were left alone with their children. Ludwik Piwiński, for example, was arrested while his wife was giving birth to their son. He could not tell her his sentence, as he was never allowed to see her, and only learned it himself on the train: ten years felling trees in Siberia. He was one of the lucky ones, one of those relatively few Poles who was arrested but who survived. Eleanora Paszkiewicz watched her father being arrested on 19 December 1937, and then watched her mother giving birth on Christmas Day.32

The Polish operation was fiercest in Soviet Ukraine, in the very lands where deliberate starvation policies had killed millions only a few years before. Some Polish families who lost men to the Terror in Soviet Ukraine had already been horribly struck by the famine. Hanna Sobolewska, for example, had watched five siblings and her father die of starvation in 1933. Her youngest brother, Józef, was the toddler who, before his own death by starvation, had liked to say: “Now we will live!” In 1938 the black raven took her one surviving brother, as well as her husband. As she remembered the Terror in Polish villages in Ukraine: “children cry, women remain.”33

In September 1938, the procedures of the Polish operation came to resemble those of the kulak operation, as the NKVD was empowered to sentence, kill, and deport without formal oversight. The album method, simple as it was, had become too cumbersome. Even though the albums had been subject to only the most cursory review in Moscow, they nevertheless arrived more quickly than they could be processed. By September 1938 more than one hundred thousand cases awaited attention. As a result, “special troikas” were created to read the files at a local level. These were composed of a local party head, a local NKVD chief, and a local prosecutor: often the same people who were carrying out the kulak operation. Their task was now to review the accumulated albums of their districts, and to pass judgment on all of the cases. Since the new troikas were usually just the original dvoika plus a communist party member, they were just approving their own previous recommendations.34

Considering hundreds of cases a day, going through the backlog in about six weeks, the special troikas sentenced about 72,000 people to death. In the Ukrainian countryside, the troikas also operated now as they had in the kulak operation, sentencing and killing people in large numbers and in great haste. In the Zhytomyr region, in the far west of Soviet Ukraine near Poland, a troika sentenced an even 100 people to death on 22 September 1938, then another 138 on the following day, and then another 408 on 28 September.35

The Polish operation was in some respects the bloodiest chapter of the Great Terror in the Soviet Union. It was not the largest operation, but it was the second largest, after the kulak action. It was not the action with the highest percentage of executions among the arrested, but it was very close, and the comparably lethal actions were much smaller in scale.

Of the 143,810 people arrested under the accusation of espionage for Poland, 111,091 were executed. Not all of these were Poles, but most of them were. Poles were also targeted disproportionately in the kulak action, especially in Soviet Ukraine. Taking into account the number of deaths, the percentage of death sentences to arrests, and the risk of arrest, ethnic Poles suffered more than any other group within the Soviet Union during the Great Terror. By a conservative estimate, some eighty-five thousand Poles were executed in 1937 and 1938, which means that one-eighth of the 681,692 mortal victims of the Great Terror were Polish. This is a staggeringly high percentage, given that Poles were a tiny minority in the Soviet Union, constituting fewer than 0.4 percent of the general population. Soviet Poles were about forty times more likely to die during the Great Terror than Soviet citizens generally.36

The Polish operation served as a model for a series of other national actions. They all targeted diaspora nationalities, “enemy nations” in the new Stalinist terminology, groups with real or imagined connections to a foreign state. In the Latvian operation some 16,573 people were shot as supposed spies for Latvia. A further 7,998 Soviet citizens were executed as spies for Estonia, and 9,078 as spies for Finland. In sum, the national operations, including the Polish, killed 247,157 people. These operations were directed against national groups that, taken together, represented only 1.6 percent of the Soviet population; they yielded no fewer than thirty-six percent of the fatalities of the Great Terror. The targeted national minorities were thus more than twenty times as likely to be killed in the Great Terror than the average Soviet citizen. Those arrested in the national actions were also very likely to die: in the Polish operation the chances of execution were seventy-eight percent, and in all of the national operations taken together the figure was seventy-four percent. Whereas a Soviet citizen arrested in the kulak action had an even chance of being sentenced to the Gulag, a Soviet citizen arrested in a national action had a three-in-four chance of being shot. This was perhaps more an accident of timing than a sign of especially lethal intent: the bulk of the arrests for the kulak action was earlier than the bulk of the arrests for the national actions. In general, the later in the Great Terror that a citizen was arrested, the more likely he was to be shot, for the simple reason that the Gulag lacked space.37

Although Stalin, Yezhov, Balytskyi, Leplevskii, Berman, and others linked Polish ethnicity to Soviet security, murdering Poles did nothing to improve the international position of the Soviet state. During the Great Terror, more people were arrested as Polish spies than were arrested as German and Japanese spies together, but few (and very possibly none) of the people arrested were in fact engaged in espionage for Poland. In 1937 and 1938, Warsaw carefully pursued a policy of equal distance between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Poland harbored no plans for an offensive war with the Soviet Union.38

But perhaps, Stalin reasoned, killing Poles could do no harm. He was right to think that Poland would not be an ally with the Soviet Union in a war against Germany. Because Poland lay between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, it could not be neutral in any war for eastern Europe. It would either oppose Germany and be defeated or ally with Germany and invade the Soviet Union. Either way, a mass murder of Soviet Poles would not harm the interests of the Soviet Union—so long as the interests of the Soviet Union had nothing to do with the life and well-being of its citizens. Even such cynical reasoning was very likely mistaken: as puzzled diplomats and spies noted at the time, the Great Terror diverted much energy that might usefully have been directed elsewhere. Stalin misunderstood the security position of the Soviet Union, and a more traditional approach to intelligence matters might have served him better in the late 1930s.

In 1937 Japan seemed to be the immediate threat. Japanese activity in east Asia had been the justification for the kulak operation. The Japanese threat was the pretext for actions against the Chinese minority in the Soviet Union, and against Soviet railway workers who had returned from Manchuria. Japanese espionage was also the justification for the deportation of the entire Soviet Korean population, about 170,000 people, from the Far East to Kazakhstan. Korea itself was then under Japanese occupation, so the Soviet Koreans became a kind of diaspora nationality by association with Japan. Stalin’s client in the western Chinese district of Xinjiang, Sheng Shicai, carried out a terror of his own, in which thousands of people were killed. The People’s Republic of Mongolia, to the north of China, had been a Soviet satellite since its creation in 1924. Soviet troops entered allied Mongolia in 1937, and Mongolian authorities carried out their own terror in 1937-1938, in which 20,474 people were killed. All of this was directed at Japan.39

None of these killings served much of a strategic purpose. The Japanese leadership had decided upon a southern strategy, toward China and then the Pacific. Japan intervened in China in July 1937, right when the Great Terror began, and would move further southward only thereafter. The rationale of both the kulak action and these eastern national actions was thus false. It is possible that Stalin feared Japan, and he had good reason for concern. Japanese intentions were certainly aggressive in the 1930s, and the only question was about the direction of expansion: north or south. Japanese governments were unstable and prone to rapid changes in policy. In the end, however, mass killings could not preserve the Soviet Union from an attack that was not coming.


Perhaps, as with the Poles, Stalin reasoned that mass killing had no costs. If Japan meant to attack, it would find less support inside the Soviet Union. If it did not, then no harm to Soviet interests had been done by preemptive mass murder and deportation. Again, such reasoning coheres only when the interests of the Soviet state are seen as distinct from the lives and well-being of its population. And again, the use of the NKVD against internal enemies (and against itself) prevented a more systematic approach to the actual threat that the Soviet Union faced: a German attack without Japanese or Polish assistance and without the help of internal opponents of Soviet rule.

Germany, unlike Japan and Poland, was indeed contemplating an aggressive war against the Soviet state. In September 1936, Hitler had let it be known to his cabinet that the main goal of his foreign policy was the destruction of the Soviet Union. “The essence and the goal of Bolshevism,” he claimed, “is the elimination of those strata of mankind which have hitherto provided the leadership and their replacement by world Jewry.” Germany, according to Hitler, would have to be ready for war within four years. Thus Hermann Göring took command in 1936 of a Four-Year Plan Authority, which would prepare the public and private sectors for an aggressive war. Hitler was a real threat to the Soviet Union, but Stalin seems not to have abandoned hope that Soviet-German relations could be improved. For this reason, perhaps, actions against Soviet Germans were milder than those against Soviet Poles. Some 41,989 people were shot in a German national operation, most of whom were not Germans.40

In these years of the Popular Front, the Soviet killings and deportations went unnoticed in Europe. Insofar as the Great Terror was noticed at all, it was seen only as a matter of show trials and party and army purges. But these events, noticed by specialists and journalists at the time, were not the essence of the Great Terror. The kulak operations and the national operations were the essence of the Great Terror. Of the 681,692 executions carried out for political crimes in 1937 and 1938, the kulak and national orders accounted for 625,483. The kulak action and the national operations brought about more than nine tenths of the death sentences and three quarters of the Gulag sentences.41

The Great Terror was thus chiefly a kulak action, which struck most heavily in Soviet Ukraine, and a series of national actions, the most important of them the Polish, where again Soviet Ukraine was the region most affected. Of the 681,692 recorded death sentences in the Great Terror, 123,421 were carried out in Soviet Ukraine—and this figure does not include natives of Soviet Ukraine shot in the Gulag. Ukraine as a Soviet republic was overrepresented within the Soviet Union, and Poles were overrepresented within Soviet Ukraine.42

The Great Terror was a third Soviet revolution. Whereas the Bolshevik Revolution had brought a change in political regime after 1917, and collectivization a new economic system after 1930, the Great Terror of 1937-1938 involved a revolution of the mind. Stalin had brought to life his theory that the enemy could be unmasked only by interrogation. His tale of foreign agents and domestic conspiracies was told in torture chambers and written in interrogation protocols. Insofar as Soviet citizens can be said to have participated in the high politics of the late 1930s, it was precisely as instruments of narration. For Stalin’s larger story to live on, their own stories sometimes had to end.

Yet the conversion of columns of peasants and workers into columns of figures seemed to lift Stalin’s mood, and the course of the Great Terror certainly confirmed Stalin’s position of power. Having called a halt to the mass operations in November 1938, Stalin once again replaced his NKVD chief. Lavrenty Beria succeeded Yezhov, who was later executed. The same fate awaited many of the highest officers of the NKVD, blamed for the supposed excesses, which were in fact the substance of Stalin’s policy. Because Stalin had been able to replace Yagoda with Yezhov, and then Yezhov with Beria, he showed himself to be at the top of the security apparatus. Because he was able to use the NKVD against the party, but also the party against the NKVD, he showed himself to be the unchallengeable leader of the Soviet Union. Soviet socialism had become a tyranny where the tyrant’s power was demonstrated by the mastery of the politics of his own court.43

The Soviet Union was a multinational state, using a multinational apparatus of repression to carry out national killing campaigns. At the time when the NKVD was killing members of national minorities, most of its leading officers were themselves members of national minorities. In 1937 and 1938, NKVD officers, many of whom were of Jewish, Latvian, Polish, or German nationality, were implementing policies of national killing that exceeded anything that Hitler and his SS had (yet) attempted. In carrying out these ethnic massacres, which of course they had to if they wished to preserve their positions and their lives, they comprised an ethic of internationalism, which must have been important to some of them. Then they were killed anyway, as the Terror continued, and usually replaced by Russians.

The Jewish officers who brought the Polish operation to Ukraine and Belarus, such as Izrail Leplevskii, Lev Raikhman, and Boris Berman, were arrested and executed. This was part of a larger trend. When the mass killing of the Great Terror began, about a third of the high-ranking NKVD officers were Jewish by nationality. By the time Stalin brought it to an end on 17 November 1938, about twenty percent of the high-ranking officers were. A year later that figure was less than four percent. The Great Terror could be, and by many would be, blamed on the Jews. To reason this way was to fall into a Stalinist trap: Stalin certainly understood that Jewish NKVD officers would be a convenient scapegoat for national killing actions, especially after both the Jewish secret policemen and the national elites were dead. In any event, the institutional beneficiaries of the Terror were not Jews or members of other national minorities but Russians who moved up in the ranks. By 1939 Russians (two thirds of the ranking officers) had replaced Jews at the heights of the NKVD, a state of affairs that would become permanent. Russians became an overrepresented national majority; their population share at the heights of the NKVD was greater than their share in the Soviet population generally. The only national minority that was highly overrepresented in the NKVD at the end of the Great Terror were the Georgians—Stalin’s own.44

This third revolution was really a counterrevolution, implicitly acknowledging that Marxism and Leninism had failed. In its fifteen or so years of existence, the Soviet Union had achieved much for those of its citizens who were still alive: as the Great Terror reached its height, for example, state pensions were introduced. Yet some essential assumptions of revolutionary doctrine had been abandoned. Existence, as the Marxists had said, no longer preceded essence. People were guilty not because of their place in a socioeconomic order but because of their ostensible personal identities or cultural connections. Politics was no longer comprehensible in terms of class struggle. If the diaspora ethnicities of the Soviet Union were disloyal, as the case against them went, it was not because they were bound to a previous economic order but because they were supposedly linked to a foreign state by their ethnicity.45


The link between loyalty and ethnicity was taken for granted in the Europe of 1938. Hitler was using this very argument, at this very time, to claim that the three million Germans of Czechoslovakia, and the regions they inhabited, must be allowed to join Germany. In September 1938 at a conference in Munich, Britain, France, and Italy had agreed to let Germany annex the western rim of Czechoslovakia, where most of those Germans lived. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared that the arrangement had brought “peace for our time.” French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier believed nothing of the sort, but he allowed the French people to indulge the fancy. The Czechoslovaks were not even invited to the conference, and were simply expected to accept the result. The Munich agreement deprived Czechoslovakia of the natural protection of mountain ranges and the fortifications therein, leaving the country vulnerable to a future German attack. Stalin interpreted the settlement to mean that the Western powers wished to make concessions to Hitler in order to turn the Germans toward the East.46

In 1938, Soviet leaders were concerned to present their own nationality policy as something very different from that of the racism of Nazi Germany. A campaign of that year devoted to this goal included the publication of children’s stories, including one called “A Tale of Numbers.” Soviet children learned that Nazis were “rummaging through all kinds of old documents” to establish the nationality of the German population. This was, of course, true. Germany’s Nuremberg laws of 1935 excluded Jews from political participation in the German state and defined Jewishness according to descent. German officials were indeed using the records of synagogues to establish whose grandparents were Jews. Yet in the Soviet Union the situation was not so very different. The Soviet internal passports had a national category, so that every Soviet Jew, every Soviet Pole, and indeed every Soviet citizen had an officially recorded nationality. In principle Soviet citizens were allowed to choose their own nationality, but in practice this was not always so. In April 1938 the NKVD required that in certain cases information about the nationality of parents be entered. By the same order, Poles and other members of diaspora nationalities were expressly forbidden from changing their nationality. The NKVD would not have to “rummage around in old documents,” since it already had its own.47

In 1938, German oppression of Jews was much more visible than the national operations in the USSR, though its scale was much smaller. The Nazi regime began a program of “Aryanization,” designed to deprive Jews of their property. This was overshadowed by the more public and spontaneous theft and violence that followed the German annexation of Austria that same month. In February Hitler issued an ultimatum to the Austrian chancellor, Kurt von Schuschnigg, demanding that he make of his country a German satellite. Schuschnigg at first accepted the terms, then returned to Austria and defied Hitler by calling a referendum on independence. On 12 March, the German army entered Austria; the next day, Austria ceased to exist. About ten thousand Austrian Jews were deported to Vienna that summer and fall. Thanks to the energetic efforts of Adolf Eichmann, they were among the many Austrian Jews who left the country in the coming months.48

In October 1938, Germany expelled seventeen thousand Jews of Polish citizenship from the Reich into Poland. These Jews were arrested at night, placed in train cars, and dumped unceremoniously on the Polish side of the border. A Polish Jew in France whose parents had been expelled decided to take revenge. He assassinated a German diplomat—a deed unfortunate in itself, and unfortunate in its timing: the shooting took place on 7 November, the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution; its victim died the next day, the anniversary of Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. The murder gave German authorities the pretext for Kristallnacht, the first large open pogrom in Nazi Germany. Pressure had been building in the Reich, especially in Vienna, where in the previous weeks there had been at least one attack every day on Jewish property. Between the ninth and eleventh of November 1938, a few hundred Jews were killed (the official count was ninety-one), and thousands of shops and hundreds of synagogues destroyed. This was generally regarded in Europe, except by those who supported the Nazis, as a sign of barbarism.49

The Soviet Union benefited from the public violence in Nazi Germany. In this atmosphere, supporters of the Popular Front counted on the Soviet Union to protect Europe from the descent into ethnic violence. Yet the Soviet Union had just engaged in a campaign of ethnic murder on a far larger scale. It is probably fair to say that no one beyond the Soviet Union had any notion of this. A week after Kristallnacht, the Great Terror was brought to an end, after some 247,157 Soviet citizens had been shot in the national operations. As of the end of 1938, the USSR had killed about a thousand times more people on ethnic grounds than had Nazi Germany. The Soviets had, for that matter, killed far more Jews to that point than had the Nazis. The Jews were targeted in no national action, but they still died in the thousands in the Great Terror—and for that matter during the famine in Soviet Ukraine. They died not because they were Jews, but simply because they were citizens of the most murderous regime of the day.

In the Great Terror, the Soviet leadership killed twice as many Soviet citizens as there were Jews living in Germany; but no one beyond the Soviet Union, not even Hitler, seemed yet to have grasped that mass shootings of this kind were possible. Certainly nothing of the kind was carried out in Germany before the war. After Kristallnacht, Jews entered the German concentration camp system in large numbers, for the first time. Hitler wished at this point to intimidate German Jews so that they would leave the country; the vast majority of the twenty-six thousand Jews who entered the concentration camps at this time left them again soon thereafter. More than one hundred thousand Jews left Germany in late 1938 or 1939.50

The violence and motion did stimulate the Nazi imagination about the fate of European Jews generally. A few days after Kristallnacht, on 12 November 1938, Hitler had his close collaborator Hermann Göring present a plan for the removal of European Jews: they were to be sent by boat to the island of Madagascar, in the southern Indian ocean, off the southeastern coast of Africa. Although Hitler and Göring would no doubt have liked to see German Jews worked to death on some sort of SS reservation on the island, such grand imaginative plans really pertained to some future scenario wherein Germany controlled a large population of Jews. The Madagascar scheme was most applicable to a future in which Germany had mastered a large Jewish population. Jews at the time comprised no more than one half of one percent of the German population, and even this total was shrinking with emigration. There had never been very many Jews in Germany; but insofar as they were regarded as a “problem,” the “solution” had already been found: expropriation, intimidation, and emigration. (German Jews would have departed even faster than they did had the British allowed them to go to Palestine, or the Americans seen fit to increase—or even fill—immigration quotas. At the Evian Conference of July 1938, only the Dominican Republic agreed to take more Jewish refugees from Germany.)51

Madagascar, in other words, was a “solution” for a Jewish “problem” that had not yet really arisen. Grand deportation schemes made a kind of sense in 1938, when leading Nazis could still delude themselves that Poland might become a German satellite and join in an invasion of the Soviet Union. More than three million Jews lived in Poland, and Polish authorities had also investigated Madagascar as a site for their resettlement. Although Polish leaders envisioned no policies toward their large national minorities (five million Ukrainians, three million Jews, one million Belarusians) that were remotely comparable to Soviet realities or Nazi plans, they did wish to reduce the size of the Jewish population by voluntary emigration. After the death of the Polish dictator Józef Piłsudski in 1935, his successors had taken on the position of the Polish nationalist right on this particular question, and had established a ruling party that was open only to ethnic Poles. In the late 1930s, the Polish state supported the aims of the right-wing or Revisionist Zionists in Poland, who wished to create a very large State of Israel in the British Mandate of Palestine—if necessary, by means of violence.52

So long as Warsaw and Berlin thought in terms of a Jewish “problem” and some distant territorial solution, and so long as the Germans were still courting the Poles for an eastern alliance, the Germans could imagine some arrangement to deport east European Jews involving Polish support and infrastructure. But there would be no alliance with Poland, and no common German-Polish plan for the Jews. Piłsudski’s heirs in this respect followed Piłsudski’s line: a policy of equal distance between Berlin and Moscow, with nonaggression pacts with both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, but no alliance with either. On 26 January 1939 in Warsaw, the Poles turned down the German foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, one last time. In five years of trying, the Germans had failed to convince the Poles that it was in Poland’s interests to fight a war of aggression for Soviet territory—while granting Germany Polish territory and becoming a German satellite. This meant a German war not with Poland but against Poland—and against Poland’s Jews.53


Though the Madagascar plan was not abandoned, it seemed to yield now in Hitler’s mind to a vision of a Jewish reservation in a conquered Poland. If Poland would not cooperate in war and deportation, then Poland itself could become a colony where other European Jews could be gathered, perhaps pending some other final removal. It was just after Ribbentrop’s return from Warsaw, when Hitler realized that his first war would be against Poland, that he made an important speech on the Jewish issue. On 30 January 1939, Hitler promised the German parliament that he would destroy the Jews if they brought Germany into another world war: “I want to be a prophet once more today: if international finance Jewry in Europe and beyond should succeed once more in plunging the peoples of the world into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevization of the earth and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.” At the moment of Hitler’s oration, about ninety-eight percent of the Jews of Europe lived beyond the borders of Germany, most of them in Poland and the western Soviet Union. Just how they could be annihilated was unknown, but war would have to be the first step.54

By early 1939, Hitler had reached a turning point: his foreign policy of gathering in Germans had succeeded in Czechoslovakia and Austria, and his attempts to recruit Poland for an eastern war had failed. He had rearmed Germany and extended its borders as far as possible without war. The annexation of Austria had brought in six million more citizens and extensive reserves of hard currency. Munich brought Hitler not only three million more citizens but also the bulk of the Czechoslovak armaments industry, perhaps the best in the world at the time. In March 1939 Hitler destroyed Czechoslovakia as a state, thus removing any illusions that his goals were limited to ethnic Germans. The Czech lands were added to the Reich as a “protectorate”; Slovakia became a nominally independent state under Nazi tutelage. On 21 March, the Germans tried to intimidate the Poles into an arrangement, and were again rebuffed. On 25 March Hitler gave the instructions for the Wehrmacht to prepare for an invasion of Poland.55

As Hitler’s power grew, the nature of Stalin’s diplomacy changed. The weaknesses of the Popular Front against fascism were evident. Munich had meant the end of a Czechoslovak democracy friendly to the Soviet Union, and Czechoslovakia itself had been dismantled in March 1939. The reactionaries of Francisco Franco won the Spanish Civil War in April 1939. The Popular Front government in France had already fallen. The relationships between Moscow and the European powers would have to be mainly military and diplomatic, since Stalin lacked the political levers to influence their behavior from within.

In spring 1939, Stalin made a striking gesture toward Hitler, the great ideological foe. Hitler had pledged not to make peace with Jewish communists; Nazi propaganda referred to the Soviet commissar for foreign affairs, Maxim Litvinov, as Finkelstein. Litvinov was indeed Jewish—his brother was a rabbi. Stalin obliged Hitler by firing Litvinov on 3 May 1939. Litvinov was replaced by Stalin’s closest ally, Molotov, who was Russian. The indulgence of Hitler was not as strange as it might appear. Stalinist ideology answered all of its own questions. From one day to the next in June 1934, the Popular Front had transformed social democrats from “social fascists” into allies. If “social fascists” could be the friends of the Soviet Union, why not fascists themselves? Fascism, after all, was nothing more (in the Soviet analysis) than a deformation of capitalism; and the Soviet Union had enjoyed good relations with capitalist Germany between 1922 and 1933.56

In purely political terms, the arrangement with Germany had a certain logic. The alternative to a German orientation, an alliance with Great Britain and France, seemed to offer little. London and Paris had granted security guarantees to Poland in March 1939 to try to deter a German attack, and tried thereafter to bring the Soviet Union into some kind of defensive coalition. But Stalin was quite aware that London and Paris were unlikely to intervene in eastern Europe if Germany attacked Poland or the Soviet Union. It seemed wisest to come to terms with the Germans and then watch the capitalist powers fight in western Europe. “Destroy the enemies by their own hands,” was Stalin’s plan, “and remain strong to the end of the war.”57

Stalin could see, as he later put it, that he and Hitler had a “common desire to get rid of the old equilibrium.” In August 1939 Hitler responded to Stalin’s opening. Hitler wanted his war that year; he was far more flexible about the possible allies than about the issue of timing. If the Poles would not join in a war against the Soviet Union, then perhaps the Soviets would join in a war against Poland. From Hitler’s perspective, an accord with Moscow would prevent a complete encirclement of Germany if the British and French did declare war after the coming German attack on Poland. On 20 August 1939, Hitler sent a personal message to Stalin, asking him to receive Ribbentrop no later than the twenty-third. Ribbentrop made for Moscow, where, as both Orwell and Koestler noted, swastikas adorned the airport of the capital of the homeland of socialism. This, the final ideological shock that separated Koestler from communism, was really a sign that the Soviet Union was no longer an ideological state.58

The two regimes immediately found common ground in their mutual aspiration to destroy Poland. Once Hitler had abandoned his hope of recruiting Poland to fight the Soviet Union, Nazi and Soviet rhetoric about the country were difficult to distinguish. Hitler saw Poland as the “unreal creation” of the Treaty of Versailles, Molotov as its “ugly offspring.” Officially, the agreement signed in Moscow on 23 August 1939 was nothing more than a nonaggression pact. In fact, Ribbentrop and Molotov also agreed to a secret protocol, designating areas of influence for Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union within eastern Europe: in what were still the independent states of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania. The irony was that Stalin had very recently justified the murder of more than one hundred thousand of his own citizens by the false claim that Poland had signed just such a secret codicil with Germany under the cover of a nonaggression pact. The Polish operation had been presented as preparation for a German-Polish attack; now the Soviet Union had agreed to attack Poland along with Germany.59

On 1 September 1939, the Wehrmacht attacked Poland from the north, west, and south, using men and arms from annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia. Hitler had begun his war.

In August and September 1939, Stalin was reading maps not just of east Europe but of east Asia. He had found an opportunity to improve the Soviet position in the Far East. Stalin could now be confident that no German-Polish attack was coming from the west. If the Soviet Union moved against Japan in east Asia, there would be no fear of a second front. The Soviets (and their Mongolian allies) attacked Japanese (and puppet Manchukuo) forces at a contested border area (between Mongolia and Manchukuo) on 20 August 1939. Stalin’s policy of rapprochement with Berlin of 23 August 1939 was also directed against Tokyo. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and the Soviet Union, signed three days after the Soviet offensive, nullified the Anti-Comintern Pact between Germany and Japan. Even more than the battlefield defeat, the Nazi-Soviet alliance brought a political earthquake in Tokyo. The Japanese government fell, as would several more in the coming months.60

Once Germany seemed to have chosen the Soviet Union rather than Japan as its ally, the Japanese government found itself in an unexpected and confusing situation. The consensus among Japanese leaders was already to expand southward rather than northward, into China and the Pacific rather than into Soviet Siberia. Yet if the union between Moscow and Berlin held, the Red Army would be able to concentrate its forces in Asia rather than in Europe. Japan would then be forced to keep its best troops in the north, in Manchukuo, in simple self-defense, which would make the advance into the south much more difficult. Hitler had given Stalin a free hand in east Asia, and the Japanese could only hope that Hitler would soon betray his new friend. Japan established a consulate in Lithuania as an observation point for German and Soviet military preparations. The consul there was the russophone spy Chiune Sugihara.61

When the Red Army defeated the Japanese, on 15 September 1939, Stalin had achieved exactly the result that he wanted. The national actions of the Great Terror had been aimed against Japan, Poland, and Germany, in that order, and against the possibility of encirclement by these three states working together. The 681,692 killings of the Great Terror did nothing to make encirclement less likely, but diplomacy and military force did. By 15 September Germany had practically destroyed the Polish Army as a fighting force. A German-Polish attack on the Soviet Union was obviously out of the question, and a German-Japanese attack on the Soviet Union also looked very unlikely. Stalin had replaced the phantom of a German-Polish-Japanese encirclement of the Soviet Union with a very real German-Soviet encirclement of Poland, an alliance that isolated Japan. Two days after the Soviet military victory over Japan, on 17 September 1939, the Red Army invaded Poland from the east. The Red Army and the Wehrmacht met in the middle of the country and organized a joint victory parade. On 28 September, Berlin and Moscow came to a second agreement over Poland, a treaty on borders and friendship.

So began a new stage in the history of the bloodlands. By opening half of Poland to the Soviet Union, Hitler would allow Stalin’s Terror, so murderous in the Polish operation, to recommence within Poland itself. Thanks to Stalin, Hitler was able, in occupied Poland, to undertake his first policies of mass killing. In the twenty-one months that followed the joint German-Soviet invasion of Poland, the Germans and the Soviets would kill Polish civilians in comparable numbers for similar reasons, as each ally mastered its half of occupied Poland.

The organs of destruction of each country would be concentrated on the territory of a third. Hitler, like Stalin, would choose Poles as the target of his first major national shooting campaign.

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