Terror. The extermination of Polish elites by both occupiers

In Poland, 40% of those who had completed higher education did not survive the war, a rate of almost double that of the general population. This was the result of a calculated policy employed by both occupiers, especially Germany.

For Hitler it was clear that the key to controlling Poles and Germanizing their lands was to remove the ruling elites. Preparations began already in the Spring of 1939, creating lists of individuals destined for execution: intellectuals, civil servants, priests and religious leaders, entrepreneurs, political and social workers. The physical liquidation of Poland’s elites began within the framework of the Intelligenzaktion, which began during the September campaign and was continued practically until the end of the occupation. At the onset of the war, this was the task of the Einsatzgruppen, special German units which moved behind the army’s front and were responsible for local governing offices, heavy industry, arts collections and most of all, locating, detaining and murdering people. By the end of 1939 in the lands incorporated into the Reich over 40,000 people were killed, of which 30,000 were in the Pomeranian Region. Tens of thousands of people were sent to camps in Oranienburg, Mauthausen and Dachau, which more often than not served as a death sentence.

Bydgoszcz, October 1939. Polish priests and civilians are hostages in Bydgoszcz. Father Kazimierz Stepczynski is standing. He would be murdered by the Gestapo a few days later. Fot. FoKA / Forum
Bydgoszcz, October 1939. Polish priests and civilians are hostages in Bydgoszcz. Father Kazimierz Stepczynski is standing. He would be murdered by the Gestapo a few days later. Fot. FoKA / Forum

As a result of the terror and deportations by 1940 Polish intelligentsia all but vanished from the Polish territories incorporated into the Reich. Although Germans in the General Government were less adequately prepared to properly deal with Poland’s elites, by the end of 1939 they too managed to murder 5,000 members of the Intelligentsia, and the most renowned act of repression was conducted on November 6, 1939 – the Sonderaktion Krakau – which saw 183 professors of the Jagiellonian University and AGH University of Science and Technology arrested and sent to their death in Sachsenhausen. The brutal repression of Polish elites began in the General Government with Aktion AB (May-July 1940) when 3,500 Polish elites, including the Olympian Janusz Kusocinski and Poland’s Speaker of the Parliament Maciej Rataj, were murdered in Palmiry outside of Warsaw. Those arrested during Aktion AB became the first prisoners of KL Auschwitz. Subsequent waves of repression came after the invasion of the Soviet Union and the occupation of Poland’s eastern region by Nazi Germany, where local elites had already suffered at the hands of the Soviet occupiers.

Members of the elite who avoided execution or imprisonment in the camps were left on the margins of society without the means to make a living after Polish cultural and educational institutions were closed. A large group of artists, writers and scientists were supported by the underground government.

In Palmiry outside of Warsaw the first executions of Polish political, intellectuals and cultural elites started in December 1939. By July 1941 Germans murdered 1,700 people in these woods. Pictured: Polish women led by German soldiers to their execution. Polish Underground Movement Study Trust in London / KARTA Center
In Palmiry outside of Warsaw the first executions of Polish political, intellectuals and cultural elites started in December 1939. By July 1941 Germans murdered 1,700 people in these woods. Pictured: Polish women led by German soldiers to their execution. Polish Underground Movement Study Trust in London / KARTA Center

Although in the regions occupied by the Soviet Union terror was instituted on the basis of class and not race as was the case in German occupied territory, nevertheless due to the nature of the social structure of the II Polish Republic, the Soviet repression hit first and foremost at Poles who were the predominant political, economic and cultural class in this region. They were also acutely affected by deportations in the years 1940-1941 (See Forced migrations) as well as arrests (150,000 – of which 40,000 lost their lives). Subsequent waves of repression affecting both civilians as well as underground soldiers arose during the successive conquest of this region by the Red Army starting in January 1944.