For almost 800 years, Poland sat at the center of Europe, nestled between some of the most potent powers in European history. Then, in 1795, after having been partitioned three times in 23 years, the country completely disappeared from European maps, its territory given to Prussia , Czarist Russia , and the Hapsburg Empire . In 1918, 123 years later, Poland re-emerged as an independent state after World War I had destroyed the German, Russian, and Austrian empires. But ethnic tensions and long-standing claims to its territories simmered. Poland would be reshaped several more times by mid-century.
In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I acknowledged Poland as an independent state but left some of its borders unsettled. Within months, the Poles began to clash with their neighbors over these tenuous boundaries. Poland’s chief of state, Józef Pilsudski, saw an opportunity to recapture territories his country had lost in the late 18th century and to create a federation of states that could act as a buffer against future German or Soviet expansion. Pilsudski captured some of this territory from the Ukraine in 1919, but after Poland occupied Kiev in May 1920, occasional skirmishes with Soviet Bolsheviks erupted into open warfare. In the Polish-Soviet War (1920–1921), the Soviets battled the Poles all the way back to Warsaw, but Polish forces eventually drove the Soviets out of the country. The Soviets sued for peace and the war ended with a ceasefire in October. The Peace of Riga, signed on March 18, 1921, divided the disputed territories between Poland and Soviet Russia and established borders for Poland that would hold until September 1939. Joseph Stalin , who had served during the 1920–1921 war, would later avenge the Polish victory by having Polish veterans and their families shot or deported to Soviet labor camps during World War II, when he headed the USSR.
After invading Poland in September 1939, the Nazis and the Soviets divided the country as they had agreed to do in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact , with some slight modifications that gave Hitler more of central Poland and Stalin most of Lithuania. The Germans then further divided their section of Poland into two parts. The western portion was annexed to greater Germany as a resettlement area for Germans, while the eastern territory, renamed the General Government region, was to be a labor colony. Between 1941 and 1945, this former Polish territory became home to some of the most notorious Nazi extermination camps : Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Majdanek. An estimated 3.5 million Jews, along with gypsies and Soviet prisoners of war, were killed in these six camps.
In the Soviet territory, the USSR targeted many middle and upper class citizens–the so-called bourgeoisie –redistributing their homes and possessions to those people the Soviets considered to be working class. Polish intellectuals, civic leaders, and anyone suspected of supporting the old regime or resisting the idea of eastern Poland becoming a permanent part of the Soviet Union risked arrest, torture, and deportation. Several hundred thousand people were eventually deported to remote parts of the Soviet Union, where many died in the harsh conditions.
In March 1940, Stalin personally approved a plan to murder nearly 22,000 Polish officers and members of the elite. These murders, carried out later that spring, would become known as the Katyn Massacre , named after a forest in eastern Poland where some of the murders took place.
The fate of Poland was a continual source of frustration between the Allies throughout the war. Although Great Britain had gone to war to protect Poland’s independence, British prime minister Winston Churchill came to understand that Joseph Stalin had no intention of giving back the land he had captured in eastern Poland in 1939. Churchill felt that the best he could do would be to compensate Poland for the loss with part of eastern Germany. At the Potsdam conference in the summer of 1945, Great Britain, the United States, and the USSR agreed to new postwar borders for Poland as outlined by Churchill. The Polish people had no say in the matter.
After the war, the borders of Poland were reshaped to the specifications set out at Potsdam, leading to a population shift on an enormous scale. While Stalin took Poland’s eastern territories, Poland itself was given “Regained Lands” in the west along the Baltic Coast and in Upper Silesia. In the end, Poland became twenty percent smaller. The Soviets then expelled a large number of Poles from their homes in the eastern regions and resettled them in the west after evicting millions of Germans living there. By 1949, six million Poles had been resettled in the “Regained Lands.” Today, Poland still retains the borders agreed to by the Allied leaders during the war.