Poland’s fate was greatly impacted by her geographic location, situated between two great powers, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, which together in 1939 divided Poland’s territory. The former remained a foe until the very end, the latter an ally, who paradoxically – took from Poland half of her pre-war territory. A further paradox was the fact that this was approved by the Western allies: Great Britain and the United States. Allies, with whom Polish soldiers fought shoulder to shoulder with throughout the entire war, in the East and in the West, in France, over England, in the Atlantic and the North Sea, and at Monte Cassino in Italy. At war’s end, Polish Armed Forces in both the East and the West numbered a total of 600,000 soldiers, which comprised the fifth largest Allied military contingent, after the USSR, USA, Great Britain and China (but before France!). Whereas Polish soldiers fighting at the side of the Red Army participated in the Victory Parade in Moscow, those who fought together with the Western Allies were refused participation in the London Victory Parade. At the same time, from the end of the September Campaign in 1939 until the end of 1944, the largest number of Polish citizens wore the uniform of the Wermacht. Most often they were forced to do so, and tens of thousands of these Poles joined the Polish Armed Forces in the West when they could.
Although the number of victims of Nazi-German occupation and Soviet occupation cannot be compared, both aggressors committed terrible offenses. The symbol of Soviet crimes was the murder of Polish officers at Katyn. For Germany it was Auschwitz, established in Oswiecim first primarily for Poles, before becoming the largest death factory for Jews, both from Polish lands as well as all of Europe.
Even with all the brutality of occupation, it proved possible to build an unprecedented secret state, with civil authorities, and a huge underground army. Warsaw, having officially been stripped of its capital status by the occupiers, unquestionably remained the political, cultural and economic center of Poland. The defense of the city in 1939, the spectacular resistance movement, the ghetto uprising (April-May 1943), the Warsaw Uprising (August-September 1944) the forceful exodus of the city’s citizens and the systematic destruction of the city created a truly incomparable experience in the scale of wartime Europe.