After defeating the Polish army in September 1939, the Germans ruthlessly suppressed the Poles by murdering thousands of civilians, establishing massive forced-labor programs, and relocating hundreds of thousands.
German policy aimed to destroy the Polish nation and culture and to ruthlessly exploit the labor of Polish peasants and workers.
The Germans murdered thousands of Polish civilian leaders of all kinds. Many more were sent to concentration camps.
Large numbers of ethnic Germans were moved into Polish territory that had been emptied by forced mass deportations of native Poles.
The German occupation of Poland was exceptionally brutal.
The Nazis considered Poles to be racially inferior. Following the military defeat of Poland by Germany in September 1939, the Germans launched a campaign of terror intended to destroy the Polish nation and culture and to reduce the Poles to a leaderless population of peasants and workers laboring for German masters.
In the weeks following the German attack on Poland, German SS, police and military units shot thousands of Polish civilians, including many members of the Polish nobility, clergy, and intelligentsia. In the spring of 1940, the German occupation authorities launched AB-Aktion, a plan to systematically eliminate Poles considered to be members of the “leadership class.” The aim was to remove those Poles seen as most capable of organizing resistance to German rule and to terrorize the Polish population into submission. The Germans shot thousands of teachers, priests, and other intellectuals in mass killings. Nazi officials sent thousands more to the newly built Auschwitz concentration camp, to Stutthof, and to other concentration camps in Germany where non-Jewish Poles constituted the majority of inmates until March 1942.
"Germanizing" Poland Hitler intended to “Germanize” Poland by replacing the Polish population with German colonists. Only enough Poles would be retained as were needed for basic labor, the rest would be driven out or killed. As a first step, Nazi governors in the annexed territories (such as Arthur Greiser in the Warthegau and Albert Forster in Danzig-West Prussia) forcibly deported hundreds of thousands of Poles into the Generalgouvernement. More than 500,000 ethnic Germans were then settled in these areas. In 1942–43, SS and Police units carried out Germanization actions in the Zamosc region of the Generalgouvernement, forcibly removing some 100,000 Polish civilians, including 30,000 children. Families were broken up, many victims were sent to concentration camps or to forced labor, and over 4,000 children were shipped to the Reich as suitable for Germanization. In all, at least 20,000 Polish children were taken from their families, transferred to the Reich, and subjected to "Germanization" policies.
While the war lasted, however, Germany needed Polish labor. Nazi officials imposed a labor obligation upon able-bodied Poles that came to include children as young as 12. The German authorities dictated where and how Poles were employed and could conscript Poles to perform labor in the Reich. Police grabbed Poles off streets and trains, from marketplaces and churches, and in raids on villages and neighborhoods to fill labor quotas. German officials sent Poles who tried to avoid labor conscription to concentration camps and punished their families. Between 1939 and 1945, at least 1.5 million Polish citizens were deported to German territory for forced labor. Hundreds of thousands were also imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps.
We were, of course, survivors of a period in which every able bodied person, age 14 and up, had to work 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. Otherwise, we would be shipped to Germany to forced-labor camps or to work in factories of the German war machine.
—Wallace Witkowski describing harsh living conditions for non-Jews in Poland
Nazi officials conducted indiscriminate retaliatory measures in response to resistance activities. They answered attacks on Germans with mass arrests and executions of civilians and regularly held civilians as hostages to be shot in reprisal for resistance operations. German “pacification” operations in areas of partisan activity included mass expulsions of civilians, with many sent to concentration camps.
A Polish government-in-exile, led by Wladyslaw Sikorski, was established in France and moved to London after France fell. It was represented on Polish soil by the underground "Delegatura," which had as one of its functions the coordination of the activities of the Polish Home Army (Armia Krajowa). The Polish resistance staged a violent mass uprising against the Germans in Warsaw in August 1944. The rebellion lasted two months but was eventually crushed by the Germans. More than 200,000 Poles were killed in the uprising.
Calculating the numbers of individuals who were killed as the result of Nazi policies is a difficult task. It is estimated that the Germans killed between 1.8 and 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish civilians during World War II. In addition, the Germans murdered at least 3 million Jewish citizens of Poland.
Critical Thinking Questions
- Why do occupying regimes forces often eliminate leaders not only of political groups but also of cultural activities and religious organizations?
- How do massive forced-labor programs cripple a population?
- What pressures and motivations may affect choices by other nations to respond or not to respond to internal measures as described here