Soviet Reaction to German Encroachment

  February 20, 2024   Read time 7 min
Soviet Reaction to German Encroachment
The Soviet and French policies behind the developments following the invasion of Germany to Poland deserve and will receive separate description; here they must first be seen in the role they played in the crushing of Polish resistance.

From the German point of view, the most rapid possible defeat of Poland was seen as enormously important. Certainly concern over the deteriorating weather in the late fall was a major element in this, but this was by no means the only factor. From the military perspective, the quicker the victory, the less likely effective support of or supplies to Poland could be provided by anyone. The quicker the German victory the more likely a return to the original concept of separating the attack on Poland from the attacks in the West for which it was to provide a quiet Eastern Front.

But even if speedy victory did not serve that purpose, it would in any case enable the German government to redeploy its forces to the Western Front in case of any dangerous developments there. This desire for speed not only influenced the German conduct of military operations, but must be seen as a major factor in German diplomatic maneuvers during the first days of the war. Berlin made a concerted effort to enlist as many allies as possible in the attack on Poland, hoping thereby to hasten the victory and perhaps isolate the campaign in the East by a new temporary settlement from the war in the West for which additional preparation would be useful.

The Germans not only used the territory of the puppet state of Slovakia7 as a base for attacking Poland from the south but urged the regime installed there to take a formal part in the war. The government of Joseph Tiso agreed to go beyond the use of its territories to an active role for its German-drilled soldiers in the attack on Poland, a policy rewarded by Germany with some 300 square miles of Poland, much of which had once been included in Czechoslovakia and were in the part of Poland allocated to Germany by the Nazi-Soviet Pact—a shrewd German move designed both to speed up the campaign and to give Slovakia a vested interest in whatever new arrangements Germany might wish to establish in the defeated country.

The destruction of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 had not only brought German domination of Slovakia but had also assured Hungary a common border with Poland, when Budapest had been instructed by the government in Berlin to occupy the eastern extremity of Czechoslovakia, Ruthenia or the Carpatho-Ukraine. Here too the Germans tried hard in September 1939 to bring another ally into the war on Poland. They asked the Hungarian government to allow German troops and supplies to move across Hungarian territory, dangling pieces of Poland in front of their eyes as bait. The government in Budapest had territorial claims on Romania, not Poland, and had long looked on Poland as a potential ally in the future, as Magyars and Poles had considered each other friends in the past. They were at this time also very much concerned that joining Germany would mean war with Britain and France as well as Poland. To the annoyance of Germany, Hungary remained neutral, and by permitting numerous Poles to escape across its territory hardly endeared itself to Berlin; but there was at the moment little the German government could do but growl.


Another potential but equally unwilling ally in the war on Poland was less fortunate. In the hope of making the Polish cause look utterly futile, the Germans tried hard to secure the participation of Lithuania in the conflict. Here they thought themselves in an especially good bargaining position. Although once joined by a personal union into one dynastically united state, Lithuania and Poland in the years of their new independence since 1918 had been anything but friends. The two countries both claimed the city of Vilna and the territory surrounding it; and since Vilna had long been the capital of Lithuania in prior centuries, its inclusion in Poland as well as the deliberate bullying of the smaller by the larger country, especially in 1938, seemed to open up the possibility of recruiting Lithuania as a German ally.

Furthermore, in their secret prewar negotiation with the Soviet Union, the Germans had not only secured Soviet agreement to the incorporation of Lithuania into the German sphere of influence but also to its expansion by Vilna (Vilnius) and adjacent territory out of the part of Poland otherwise scheduled for inclusion in the Soviet sphere. The government of Lithuania, however, refused to attack its neighbor, hoping to remain neutral and reluctant to join a Nazi Germany at war with Britain and France. The German government was extremely annoyed; and in this case, unlike that of Hungary, would soon find a way of punishing the Lithuanians for dragging their feet when Berlin sounded the trumpet. By the end of September, Lithuania had been traded to the Soviet Union for an added portion of Poland.

From the very beginning, the ally most sought by Berlin in the attack on Poland was of course the Soviet Union. First Prussia and then the new Germany of 1871 had looked to Russia as a partner in the reduction, then the elimination and thereafter the suppression of any new independent Poland. Its revival at the end of World War I had altered the current details but not the fundamental perceptions of policy toward Poland in Berlin and Moscow. No substantial elements in either government ever recognized the possibility that a sovereign Poland, however unpleasant that country's revival might be, provided each with a measure of protection against the other while itself unable to threaten either, once both had recovered from the upheavals of the revolutionary period 1918-23. Hatred of Poland was a major factor in bringing Weimar Germany and the Soviet Union together. It influenced both the policies of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia toward each other as well as their conduct in Poland once they had again divided it between themselves.

In the early years of National Socialist rule in Germany the government had, at the personal insistence of Hitler and against the preference of his diplomatic and military advisors, put the anti-Polish line in abeyance while pursuing other aims. Precisely because Hitler's long-term aims were so vastly greater than could be satisfied at the expense of Poland, he was more willing to make tactical concessions in German-Polish relations for a short time. During that time, a Germany which had no common border with the Soviet Union and had temporarily shelved the anti-Polish line could easily wave off the approaches for a rapprochement with Moscow which Stalin made periodically.13 Once the Poles had refused to subordinate themselves to Germany so that the latter could feel safe in attacking in the West, however, this situation changed. Now the Soviet Union was again a plausible ally against Poland, and the hints of a possible alignment emanating from Moscow had accordingly met with a very different reception in 1939.

The implications for the conduct of war of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 23, 1939, with its secret provisions for dividing Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe between the two powers, require additional examination at this point. The German desire for speed in the operations against Poland meant that the earlier Soviet intervention into the fighting came, the better it would be. The original dividing line agreed upon on August 23 would bring the Red Army to the east bank of the Vistula in the suburbs of Warsaw, and since the distance Soviet forces would have to move to the demarcation line was greater than that which faced the Germans, an early Soviet start could only be welcomed in Berlin. While most Polish forces faced the Germans, the road and railway networks in the area to be occupied by the Soviet were worse, a transportation problem accentuated by the change of railway gage at the Polish-Soviet frontier.

Under these circumstances, the German government began urging the Soviet Union to move into Poland in the first days of hostilities and repeated this request ever more insistently thereafter. Berlin stressed the speed of the German advance and the rapid collapse of Polish resistance as well as the problems created by the retreat of Polish formations eastward. The Germans pointed out that they would either have to pursue Polish forces further and further into the area allocated to the Soviet Union or see new regimes established there. Surely the Russian government would wish to move quickly into the territory it was scheduled to obtain.

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