It's difficult to know where to start when taking about Europe during WWII. You could start at the close of the first World War and the Treaty of Versailles. You could start in the early 1930's when Stalin, with some help from Mother Nature, implemented starvation in order to hold control over the outlying Ukraine. Regardless of where you start, you are going to end up between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, somewhere in the midst of the destructive Operation Barbarossa or trapped in the hundreds of prisoner of war camps in Eastern Europe.
One of the biggest misconceptions of WWII here in the United States is that we won the war. Most of us know by now that outside of the Pacific War with Japan, the U.S. had little influence as far as physical bodies fighting. The war in Europe was won by the British standing alone on the western front and the Soviet Union storming across the eastern front. Millions of people died on that eastern front, both in battle and under the two most notorious regimes Europe has ever seen: Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union. While the world acknowledges the 6 million Jews who died and even the 14 million soldiers who died on either side, the land and peoples on which these two ideologies clashed is often overlooked. A book by Timothy Snyder entitled, Bloodlands, offers a look into Ukraine and Poland before, during, and after World War II, where the worst atrocities occurred.
Maybe the place to start is the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact that was signed in 1939. In a startling contradiction of world views, Hitler and Stalin agreed to stay out of each others' hair for a while. Yet Hitler made it clear that he needed the lands of Russia for living room. He needed the breadbasket that was Ukraine in order to feed his growing empire of Germans. Regardless, for the time being, the two were allies. And they decided to both invade Poland and divide it in half. This was the decisive move that really brought the war to the world. The annexation of Austria and the little ol' countries around Germany were oversights, blurred lines that left the rest of Europe with some wishful thinking and maybe a little denial on the side. But Poland was different. Especially considering their immediate past, losing thousands to Stalin's paranoia. The country survived the first world war and Stalin's Great Terror only to see itself in the most unique and unfortunate positions in the war: playing host to both aggressors.
Poland had seen the Soviet brutality up close for about decade before the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was instated. Stalin had it out for the Poles and blamed them for the troubles that the Soviet Union and especially Ukraine had seen in the 1930's. And to Stalin's credit, the Soviet Union did a fantastic job of keeping unwanted news out the area, including the Nazi treatment of Jews. So when both bloody oceans came crashing into Poland, the inhabitants were unsure of which was better. It turns out, or course, that the Jews preferred Stalin while the Polish majority at first preferred Hitler then realized they would be better off in the USSR.
Poland, unlike its neighbor Ukraine, had tasted the fresh breath of freedom and self autonomy, brief though it was. But unlike Ukraine, which stayed for the most part under Soviet rule, Poland traded masters. And those masters did not know mercy. The reason both countries are called the Bloodlands is because they suffered under every scenario. At least Hitler had a specific enemy: Jews. Well, to him Bolsheviks were Jews and vice versa. But with Stalin, no one was safe. He could come up with some coo coo idea and kill anyone he saw fit. The difference is that Stalin was much more disciplined. Hitler was sloppy. Stalin kept everything under lock and key, which explains why, when the Soviet dictator had killed thousands more people by 1941, the rest of the world saw Hitler as the worse enemy. You could make a case for both.
When the Germans took over, the initial plan was deport the Jews. Actually the first Final Solution draft was to ship them all to Madagascar. Then they wanted to ship them east to the Soviet Union. Well, after Germany broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, that was out of the question. And actually, the more gruesome of deaths fell to the Soviet soldiers captured and sent to POW camps. And the Final Solution wasn't completely agreed upon until well after Operation Barbarossa was finally accepted as failure. So what did the people of the Bloodlands have to face?
I've talked a little bit about what they saw before the war. Stalin blamed the Ukrainians and the Polish for the famine and for the failure of the collective farming. He targeted both nationalities within and without the Soviet Union. Thousands of Ukrainians died of hunger during the early 1930's when Stalin was trying to convert the country to collectivism. Thousands more died when he attempted to rid himself of the peasant class. And thousands more died when he decided that Ukrainian nationalists were out to get him. Many who didn't die were deported to Siberia and Kazakhstan. When Germany stormed in, they step up concentration camps and killed those working with the Soviet Union, as well as the educated classes. They also began shooting hundreds of thousands of Jews.
In Poland, things were much worse. Having lived through the similar horrors of the Soviet Union as Ukraine, the Polish people saw their entire country taken over by the Nazi Germans. To make matters worse, Poland had a very high Jewish population and Warsaw itself was an extremely Jewish city. The ghetto in Warsaw was one of the worst sites of WWII. Many Jews from all over Europe were sent to live there, in horrid conditions and with no hope of survival.
After Hitler realized that the Soviet Union would not collapse like he had thought, he changed his rhetoric. The allies (USSR, USA, and Britain) were run by the Jewish conspiracy. The best way to beat these allies who were in turn beating the German army, was to kill the Jews. Thus, the final solution became more of a final cop out. The Nazis never intended for the Jews to prosper, but when Hitler viewed his shortcomings, he needed a scapegoat. The Jews would do. The final solution was to wipe them off the face the earth in the hopes that it would weaken the forces that surrounded them.
It is widely accepted that one of Hitler's biggest blunders was invading the Soviet Union. He could have just looked about 50 years earlier to see our dear friend Napoleon making the same mistake with a very similar outcome. However, I think Hitler could have succeeded in Operation Barbarossa if he had put his allies to good use. The Japanese were a huge threat to Stalin. And while their interests lay in the Pacific, Hitler could have very easily persuaded his friends in the East to make a two-front war on the Soviet Union. Better yet, if Hitler had just been more patient, he could very well have succeeded. His only foe in Europe was Churchill. Roosevelt had not entered the European war until well after 1941. If Hitler had focused his attentions to the western front first, secured his hold on western Europe, and convinced his Japanese allies to assist him later on in the Russian invasion, the outcome may have been very different. Stalin was very content with the pact with Hitler and refused to believe the intelligence that claimed Hitler would move on him.
But the fact remains that Hitler took a gamble. And either way, Poland was still a massive death site. Himmler did not want his death factories set up within German proper, so occupied Poland made a great home for such. Poland saw not only the death of millions of Jews but also millions of civilian and war-time deaths. Probably the worst came near the end of the war when the Nazis burned the Warsaw ghetto to the ground and Hitler decided he wanted to the city leveled. He came pretty close.
I knew going into this about the partisan armies that fought both sides, the ghetto uprising of 1944, and the bold Ukrainians who stood their ground against both foes. But what I didn't know was the horribly ironic outcome that the end of the war brought. As Russian forces came raping their way through every village to "liberate" Poland, they brought with them their plans for that country as a satellite communist state. And in doing so, it brought with them the ideology that Stalin, and Hitler to some extent, believed in: ethnic cleansing. And while the Soviet Union practiced (barely) more humane ways of getting this done, it was still wild to see how in the wake of 6 million Jewish deaths the people of Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and the Baltic States could still believe in ethnic separation. Stalin had thousands of Germans deported on trains, much like the Germans had deported their Jewish victims, back to Germany. Many displaced Jews also had to travel back to Germany to discover what had happened to their family. Stalin cleared the border lands of diversity. Germans were back in Germany, Belorussians were back in Belarus, and Poles were back in Poland. And the communists were back in Poland. Poor Poland, who had seen the Soviet rule, been handled by both Soviet and Nazi fascism, then totally by Nazis, now again were being held in the palm of Stalin's hand.
It's odd to think how people like Stalin and Hitler get into power. Hitler made more sense in the ashes of World War I. What's more confusing is the muffled and silenced pleas for help that came from behind the iron curtain before the war started followed by the mass ignoring of the very loud and horrible cries from the European Jews. Their deaths did nothing to sway Roosevelt or Churchill. The holocaust was a PART of the reason the allies declared war on Nazi Germany. I was told by someone that horrors such as this exist today. Genocide. And while genocide is real, it is not as thought out or as carefully dictated as the Nazi death camps or the Soviet plans of starvation. It is difficult to wrap my mind around the entirety of World War II but nearly impossible to understand the hardships faced by Ukraine and Poland, a land of people sandwiched between two evils.