Did the Soviet Union Invade Poland on September 17, 1939? Why ask? "We all know" this invasion occurred. "You can look it up!" Almost all contemporary authoritative accounts agree that this historical event happened.

Here is how Snyder puts the matter in an article in The New York Review of Books (April 30, 2009, p. 17).

Because the film (although not the book)* begins with the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 rather than the joint German-Soviet invasion and division of Poland in 1939... the Soviet state had just months earlier been an ally of Nazi Germany... (* "Defiance")

The Public Broadcasting System's documentary "Behind Closed Doors" (2009) describes the invasion as an unproblematic fact:

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...(2)

The Wikipedia article: "Soviet invasion of Poland", undoubtedly composed by Polish nationalists like virtually all Wikipedia material on Poland and the USSR:

… on 17 September, the Red Army invaded Poland from the east...(3)

The Soviet Union Did Not Invade Poland in September, 1939

The truth is that the USSR did not invade Poland in September, 1939. However, so completely has this non-event passed into historiography as "true" that I have yet to find a recent history book from the West that actually gets this correct.

And, of course, the USSR had never been an "ally" of Nazi Germany. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (henceforth "M-R Pact") was a non-aggression pact, not an alliance of any kind. The claim that the USSR and Hitler's Germany were "allies" is simply stated over and over again but is never backed up with any evidence.

The present chapter and the one preceding it present a great deal of evidence in support of this statement. There is a great deal more evidence to support what I say - much more than I can present here, and no doubt much more that I have not yet identified of located. Furthermore, at the time it was widely acknowledged that no such invasion occurred.

The Soviet Union and Hitler's Germany Were Never "Allies"

Strictly speaking, it is impossible to prove a negative - in this case, that no "alliance" existed. The burden of proof is on those who use the terms "alliance", "allies", and "ally" with respect to the USSR, Germany, and the M-R Pact. The complete text of the Pact is online at the Modern History Sourcebook. (4) It is short. Anyone who reads it can see that there is no "alliance" of any kind.

The truth about these matters is another victim of the post-WWII Cold War, when a great many falsehoods about Soviet history were invented and popularized. The truth about this and many other questions concerning the history of the first socialist state has simply become "politically incorrect." In "respectable academia" it is "taboo." (5)

Demonizing - I use the word advisedly; it is not too strong - the history of the communist movement and anything to do with Stalin has become de rigeur, a shibboleth of respectability. And not only among avowed champions of capitalism but also among those on the left and opponents of capitalism generally, including many Marxists, the natural constituency of a movement for communism.

The Nonaggression Treaty between Germany and the USSR of August 1939 (6)

Before examining the question of the invasion that did not take place, the reader needs to become familiar with some misconceptions about the Nonaggression Treaty and why they are false. These too are based on anticommunist propaganda that is widely, if naively, "believed."

The most common, and most false, of these is stated above in the PBS series "Behind Closed Doors:"

...the Nazis and the Soviets divided the country as they had agreed to do in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact...

This is completely false, as any reading of the text of the M-R Pact itself will reveal.

The Secret Protocols to the M-R Pact Did NOT Plan Any Partition of Poland

Up to at least September 7 Hitler was considering making peace with Poland if Poland sued for peace. General Franz Halder, Chief of the General Staff of the Army (Chef des Generalstabs des Heeres), wrote in his "War Diary" - Halder F. Kriegstagebuch. Tägliche Aufzeichnugen des Chefs des Generalstabes des Heeres 1939-1942. Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer Verlag, 1962-1964. I have used Band I. Vom Polenfeldzug bis zum Ende der Westoffensive (14.8.1939 - 30.6.1940).

OB beim Führer (7.9. nachmittag): 3 Möglichkeiten:

1. Polen kommen zu Verhandlungen: er bereit zur Verhandlung: Trennung von Frankreich und England, Restpolen wird anerkannt. Narew - Warschau = Polen. Industriegebiet wir. Krakau, Polen. Nordrand Beskiden wir. Ukraine selbständig. (I, S. 65)

7 September 1939

The High Command with the Fuehrer (second half of the day 7 September): Three different ways the situation may develop.

1. The Poles offer to begin negotiations. He {Hitler - GF} is ready for negotiations {on the following conditions}: {Poland must} break with England and France. A part of Poland will be {preserved and} recognized. {The regions from the} Narev to Warsaw - to Poland. The industrial region - to us. Krakow - to Poland. The northern region of the Beskidow mountains - to us. {The provinces of the Western} Ukraine - independent.

So on September 7 Hitler was considering independence for Western Ukraine even though, according to the "Secret Protocol" of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact the Western Ukraine lay within the Soviet sphere of influence. This shows that:

* The Secret Protocol about spheres of influence was not about the "partition of Poland."

* Hitler was prepared to negotiate over the Western Ukraine with the Poles, not with the Soviets. The Western Ukraine lay entirely within the Soviet "sphere of influence" as defined by the Secret Protocol of the M-R Pact.

* As late as September 7 Hitler was planning to preserve a shrunken Polish state.

In his entries for September 9 and September 10 Halder repeats that the Germans are discussing the formation of an independent state in the Western Ukraine. This is further evidence that the Secret Protocols of the M-R Pact did not concern any "partition of Poland."

September 9:

OB vormerken: ... b) Selbständigkeit der West-Ukraine. (I, S. 67)

Bring to the attention of the Supreme Command: b) The independence of the Western Ukraine.

September 10:

Warlimont: a) Aufruf Westukraine kommt. (I, S. 68)

Warlimont: a) A call to the Western Ukraine is imminent.

Col. Water Warlimont was deputy head of operations at the German High Command. A note in the annotated text of Halder's diary reads:

Nämlich für die Errichtung eines selbständiges Staates aus der polnischen Ukraine. (I, S. 68 Anm. 6)


That is, for the setting up of an independent state out of Polish Ukraine.

Under September 11 Halder noted that:

Grenzübertritt polnischer aktiver Soldaten nach Rumänien hat begonnen. (I, S. 71)


The flight of active Polish soldiers {= combat troops} into Rumania has begun.

On September 12 Halder noted: "Talks between the High Command and the Fuehrer" and said:

ObdH-Führer: Russe will wahrscheinlich nicht antreten.... {Russe} halt Friedenswunsch Polens für möglich. (I, S. 72)


The Russian apparently does not want to come in.... {The Russian} believes it is possible that Poland wants {to conclude a} peace {with Germany}.

This is further proof that the Germans had no agreement with the USSR to partition Poland. It is also evidence that the USSR expected that a negotiated settlement would leave a rump Polish state in existence between Germany and the Soviet border.

Halder also noted:

Rumänien will polnische Regierung nich aufnehmen; {Grenzen} zumachen. (I, S. 72)


Rumania does not wish to accept {the entry of} the Polish government; will close {its borders}.


{Hitler} denkt an sich bescheiden mit Ost-Oberschlesien und Korridor, wenn Westen wegbleibt. (I, S. 72)


He {Hitler} is prepared to be content with the Eastern part of Upper Siberia and the Polish Corridor, if the West doesn't interfere.

This would have meant that most of Western Poland would have remained part of a shrunken Poland. This is additional evidence that Hitler did not plan on liquidating the Polish state.

By September 12 the issue of whether the Polish government might try to flee to Rumania had obviously been raised, but it had not yet happened. This means that on September 12 Hitler still believed the Polish government would stay in Poland - because he assumed he would have someone to negotiate peace with.

The same date General Wilhelm Keitel, Head of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (Chef des Oberkommandos der Wehrmacht) ordered Admiral Canaris to activate units of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) on Polish territory with the aim of forming an independent Polish and Galician Ukraine. This was to be accompanied by a general massacre of Poles and Jews. During post-war interrogation by Soviet authorities General-major Erwin von Lahousen of the Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) confirmed this:

Oberst Amen: Was, wenn überhaupt etwas, wurde über eine mögliche Zusammenarbeit mit einer Ukrainischen Gruppe gesagt?

Lahousen: Ja, es werde - und zwar vom damaligen Chef OKW als Weitergabe einer Rechtlinie, die er offenbar von Ribbentrop empfangen hatte, weil er sich in Zusammenhang mit dem politischen Vorhaben des Reichsaußenministers Ribbentrop bekanntgegeben hat - es wurde Canaris aufgetragen, in der Galizischen Ukraine eine Aufstandsbewegung hervorzurufen, die Ausrottung der Juden und Polen zum Zi ele haben sollte...

Nach den Eintragungen im Tagebuch von Canaris fand sie am 12. September 1939 statt. Der Sinn dieses Befehls oder der Anweisung, die von Ribbentrop ausging, von Keitel und Canaris weitergegeben war und dann in kurzer Unterredung nochmals von Ribbentrop Canaris gegenüber aufgezeigt wurde, war folgende: Die Organizationen nationaler Ukrainer, mit denen das Amt Ausland / Abwehr im militärischen Sinne, also im Sinne militärischer Operationen zusammenarbeitete, sollten in Polen eine Aufstandsbewegung hervorrufen - in Polen mit den Ukrianern. Die Aufstandsbewegung sollte den Zweck haben, Polen und Juden, also vor allem Elemente oder Kreise, umdie es sich ja bei diesen Besprechungen immer wieder drehte, auszurotten. (7)


Colonel Amen {Interrogator}: What, if anything, was said about possible collaboration with a Ukrainian group?

Lahousen: Yes, and it was given by the then Chief of Staff of the Supreme Command of the Wehrmacht {General-Fieldmarshal Keitel} as the transmission of a straight line, which he had evidently received from Ribbentrop, because he had announced it in connection with the political project of Reichs Foreign Minister Ribbentrop - Canaris was assigned to bring about an insurgency in the Galician Ukraine, which should have as its goal the extermination of Jews and Poles....

According to the entries in Canaris' diary this meeting took place on September 12, 1939. The purpose of this command or the statement that came from Ribbentrop, was passed by Keitel and Canaris and was in a short conversation again assigned by Ribbentrop to Canaris, was as follows: The organizations of national Ukrainians {i.e. the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists} with which the Office Ausland / Abwehr was collaborating in a military sense, that is in the sense of military operations, should produce an insurgency in Poland - in Poland, with the Ukrainians. The insurgency should have the purpose of exterminating Poles and Jews, that is, in particular the elements or circles that were repeatedly the subjects of these meetings.

The Soviets Wanted to Protect the USSR - and Therefore to Preserve Independent Poland

Is is conventionally stated as fact that the M-R Pact was an agreement to "partition Poland", divide it up. This is completely false. I've prepared a page with much fuller evidence.(8)

No doubt a big reason for this falsehood is the inconvenient fact that Britain and France did sign a Nonaggression Pact with Hitler that "partitioned" another state - Czechoslovakia. That was the Munich Agreement of September 30, 1938. (9)

Poland also took part in the "partition" of Czechoslovakia. Poland seized a part of the Teschen (Polish: Cieszyn) area of Czechoslovakia, even though only a minority of the population was Polish. This invasion and occupation was not part of the Munich Agreement. But neither France nor Britain did anything about it. Therefore, they consented to it. Later, in March 1939 Hitler seized the remaining part of Czechoslovakia. This had not been foreseen in the Munich Agreement either. Once again Britain, France, and Poland did nothing about it.

So the anticommunist "Allies" Britain, France and Poland really did participate in the partitioning of a powerless state! Perhaps this may explain, at least in part, why the anticommunist position today is that the USSR did likewise. But whatever the reason, it is a lie.

The Soviet Union signed the Nonaggression Pact with Germany not to "partition Poland" like the Allies had partitioned Czechoslovakia, but in order to defend the USSR. The Treaty included a line of Soviet interest within Poland beyond which German troops could not remain in the event that Germany routed the Polish army in a war.

The point here was that, if the Polish army were beaten, it and the Polish government could retreat beyond the line of Soviet interest and so find shelter, since Hitler had agreed not to remain further into Poland than that line. From there they could make peace with Germany. The Polish state would still exist.

The Soviets - "Stalin", to use a crude synecdoche (= "a part that stands for the whole") - did not do this out of any love for a ferociously anticommunist and anti-Soviet Poland that was rapidly becoming fascist. The Soviets wanted a Polish government - any Polish government - as a buffer between the USSR and the Nazi armies. The betrayal by the Polish Government of its own people frustrated this plan.

In the event that, as all military experts expected, its army was smashed by the German army the Polish government had two alternatives:

* It could stay inside the country, moving its capital to the East, away from the advancing German army into the Soviet sphere of influence. From there it could have sued for peace.

* Or the Polish Government could have fled to either France or England, Allied countries that were at war with Germany.

But the Polish government did neither. Instead, the Polish government and General Staff fled into neighboring Rumania. Rumania was neutral in the war. By crossing into neutral Rumania the Polish government became "interned." Under internment it could not function as a government from Rumania, or pass through Rumania to a country at war with Germany like France. To permit the Polish government to do either would be a violation of Rumania's own neutrality and a hostile act against Germany. (10)

The USSR Did Not Invade Poland - and Everybody Knew it at the Time

When Poland had no government, Poland was no longer a state. That meant that Hitler had nobody with whom to negotiate a cease-fire, or treaty. Furthermore, the M-R Treaty's Secret Protocols were void, since they were an agreement about the state of Poland. But no state of Poland existed any longer.

Unless the Red Army came in to prevent it, there was nothing to prevent the Nazis from coming right up to the Soviet border. Or - as we now know they were in fact preparing to do - Hitler could have formed one or more pro-Nazi states in what had until recently been Eastern Poland. That way Hitler could have had it both ways. He could claim to the Soviets that he was still adhering to the "spheres of influence" agreement of the M-R Pact while in fact setting up a pro-Nazi, highly militarized fascist Ukrainian nationalist state on the Soviet border.

Once the Germans had told the Soviets that they, the German leadership, had decided that the Polish state no longer existed, then it did not make any difference whether the Soviets, or some hypothetical body of international jurists, agreed with them or not. In effect the Nazis were telling the Soviets that they felt free to come right up to the Soviet border. Neither the USSR nor any state would have permitted such a thing. Nor did international law demand it.

At the end of September a new secret agreement was concluded. In it the Soviet line of interest was to the East of the "sphere of influence" line decided upon a month earlier in the Secret Protocol and published in Isvestiia and in the New York Times during September 1939. (11) In this territory Poles were a minority, even after the "polonization" campaign of settling Poles in the area during the '20s and '30s. (12)

How Do We Know This Interpretation of Events is True?

How do we know the USSR did not commit aggression against, or "invade", Poland when it occupied Eastern Poland beginning on September 17, 1939 after the Polish Government had interned itself in Rumania? Here are nine pieces of evidence:

1. The Polish government did not declare war on USSR.

The Polish government declared war on Germany when Germany invaded on September 1, 1939. It did not declare war on the USSR.

2. The Polish Supreme Commander Rydz-Smigly ordered Polish soldiers not to fight the Soviets, though he ordered Polish forces to continue to fight the Germans. (13)

3. The Polish President Ignaz Moscicki, interned in Rumania since Sept. 17, tacitly admitted that Poland no longer had a government.

4. The Rumanian government tacitly admitted that Poland no longer had a government. (14)

The Rumanian position recognized the fact that Moscicki was lying when he claimed he had legally resigned on September 30. So the Rumanian government fabricated a story according to which Moscicki had already resigned back on September 15, just before entering Rumania and being interned (NYT 10.04.39, p. 12). But even Moscicki himself did not make this claim!

Rumania needed this legal fiction to try to sidestep the following issue: once Moscicki had been interned in Rumania - that is, from September 17, 1939 on - he could not function as President of Poland. Since resignation is an official act, Moscicki could not resign once he was in Rumania.

For our present purposes here's the significant point: Both the Polish leaders and the Rumanian government recognized that Poland was bereft of a government once the Polish government crossed the border into Rumania and were interned there. Both Moscicki and Rumania wanted a legal basis - a fig-leaf - for such a government. But they disagreed completely about this fig-leaf, which exposes it as what it was - a fiction.

5. Rumania had a military treaty with Poland aimed against the USSR. Yet Rumania did not declare war on the USSR.

The Polish government later claimed that it had "released" Rumania from its obligations under this military treaty in return for safe haven in Rumania. But there is no evidence for this statement. It is highly unlikely that Rumania would have ever promised "safe haven" for Poland, since that would have been an act of hostility against Nazi Germany. Rumania was neutral in the war and, as discussed below, insisted upon interning the Polish government and disarming the Polish forces once they had crossed the border into Rumania.

The real reason for Rumania's failure to declare war on the USSR is probably the one given in a New York Times article of September 19, 1939:

The Rumanian viewpoint concerning the Rumanian-Polish anti-Soviet agreement is that it would be operative only if a Russian attack came as an isolated event and not as a consequence of other wars.         - "Rumania Anxious; Watches Frontier." NYT 09.19.1939, p. 8.

That means Rumania recognized that the Red Army was not allied with Germany in its war with Poland.

6. France did not declare war on the USSR, though it had a mutual defense treaty with Poland. See this page(15) for the reconstructed text of the "secret military protocol" of this treaty, which has been "lost" - which probably means that the French government still keeps its text secret.

7. England never demanded that the USSR withdraw its troops from Western Belorussia and Western Ukraine, the parts of the former Polish state occupied by the Red Army after September 17, 1939. On the contrary, the British government concluded that these territories should not be a part of a future Polish state. Even the Polish government-in-exile agreed! (16)

8. The League of Nations Covenant required members to take trade and economic sanctions against any member who "resorted to war." (17) But no country took any sanctions against the USSR. No country broke diplomatic relations with the USSR over this action.

However, when the USSR attacked Finland in 1939 the League did vote to expel the USSR, and several countries broke diplomatic relations with it. This very different response tells us that the League viewed the Soviet action in the case of Poland as qualitatively different, not as a "resort to war." (18)

9. All countries accepted the USSR's declaration of neutrality.

All, including the belligerent Polish allies France and England, agreed that the USSR was not a belligerent power, was not participating in the war. In effect they accepted the USSR's claim that it was neutral in the conflict. Here is President Franklin Roosevelt's "Proclamation 2374 on Neutrality", November 4, 1939:

...a state of war unhappily exists between Germany and France; Poland; and the United Kingdom, India, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the Union of South Africa,...(19)

FDR's Statement on Combat Areas" of November 4, 1939, defines

belligerent ports, British, French, and German, in Europe or Africa...(20)

The Soviet Union is not listed among the belligerent states. That means the United States government did not consider the USSR to be at war with Poland.

For more detail on the Soviet Union's claim of neutrality see the texts reproduced here. (21)

Naturally, a country cannot "invade" another country and yet credibly claim that it is "neutral" with respect to the war involving that country. But no country - not the United States, or Britain, or France, or any country in the world - declared the USSR a belligerent. Even the Polish government-in-exile, at first in Paris, did not declare war on the Soviet Union.

In 1958 UCLA Professor George Ginsburgs published an article examining the Soviet Union's claim of neutrality in the German-Polish war. With reference to international law and the statements of the parties at the time Ginsburgs concluded that the USSR was indeed neutral and that this neutrality was internationally recognized.

In spite of the doubtful legality of its action, the Soviet Government succeeded in not losing its status as a neutral. Even after the invasion of Eastern Poland by the Red Army the USSR continued to be treated as a neutral both by the belligerents and by third parties. No municipal neutrality laws were applied to Soviet-Polish hostilities. The major reason for the Narkomindel's success lies, of course, in the political decision of France and Great Britain who found it politically inexpedient to challenge the Soviet action. Questions of law apart, Soviet neutrality was confirmed simply because the belligerents thought it impractical to question it.

It emerges quite clearly that the main preoccupation of the Soviets was to act so as not to jeopardize Soviet neutrality, or, in Molotov's words, to act so as not to 'injure our cause and promote unity among our opponents.' Thus the march of the Red Army was held up until Warsaw had fallen, until the military disintegration of Poland was far advanced and its total collapse was clearly imminent. In these circumstances the action of the USSR, buttressed by not unreasonable legal arguments, took upon itself less and less of the appearance of a full-fledged military intervention on the side of Germany. To many Poland's doom already appeared to be sealed by 17 September 1939, and, by and large, it was thought that in the East the war had already come to an end with Poland's defeat. For all these various reasons, the Soviet move did not assume the proportions of a flagrant violation of its duties as a neutral and the USSR succeeded in maintaining the legal status quo.

From 1939 to 1941 it seems to have been in the interests of the USSR to pursue a more or less scrupulous policy of neutrality and to have this policy recognized by the world at large de jure and de facto. (22)

The Collapse of the Polish State

By September 17, 1939, when Soviet troops crossed the border, the Polish government had ceased to function. The fact that Poland no longer had a government meant that Poland was no longer a state. On September 17 when Molotov met with Polish Ambassador to the USSR Grzybowski the latter told Molotov that he did not know where his government was, but had been informed that he should contact it through Bucharest. (23) The last elements of the Polish government crossed the border into Rumania and so into internment during the day of September 17, according to a United Press dispatch published on page four of the New York Times on September 18 with a dateline of Cernauti, Rumania. (24)

Without a government Poland as a state had ceased to exist under international law. This fact is denied - more often, simply ignored - by Polish nationalists, for whom it is highly inconvenient, and by anticommunists generally.

We take a closer look at this issue in the next section below. But a moment's reflection will reveal the logic of this position. With no government - the Polish government was interned in Rumania and had not appointed a successor before interning itself - there was no Polish body to claim sovereignty over those parts of Poland not yet occupied by Germany; no one to negotiate with; no body to which the local police, local governments, and the military were responsible. Polish ambassadors to foreign countries no longer represented their government, because there was no government. See the page "Polish State Collapsed" cited in a previous footnote, and especially the NYT article of October 2, 1939 quoted there. (25)

Germany No Longer Recognized the Existence of the State of Poland

By September 15 German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop was writing to Friedrich Werner von der Shulenburg, German ambassador to Moscow, that if the USSR did not enter Eastern Poland militarily there would be a political vacuum in which "new states" might form:

Also the question is disposed of in case a Russian intervention did not take place, of whether in the area lying to the east of the German zone of influence a political vacuum might not occur. Since we on our part have no intention of undertaking any political or administrative activities in these areas, apart from what is made necessary by military operations, without such an intervention on the part of the Soviet Government there might be the possibility of the construction of new states there. (26)

(Emphasis added)

Ribbentrop no longer referred to "Poland", only "...the area lying to the east of the German zone of influence..." This shows that he considered that the Polish government was no longer functioning and so no longer had sovereignty even in the East where there were no German forces and where the Soviets had not yet entered.

Schulenburg reported this to Molotov and summarized Molotov's reply (to Ribbentrop) the next day, September 16:

Molotov added that he would present my communication to his Government but he believed that a joint communiqué was no longer needed; the Soviet Government intended to motivate its procedure as follows: the Polish State had collapsed and no longer existed; therefore all agreements concluded with Poland were void; third powers {i.e. Germany} might try to profit by the chaos which had arisen...(27)

So even if the USSR had disagreed with the Germans and had held to the position that a Polish state still existed, the Soviets would have to deal with the fact that Germany no longer did. Germany considered that a Polish state no longer existed. Therefore the Secret Protocol about spheres of influence, agreed upon in the Secret Protocol to the M-R Pact a few weeks earlier, was no longer in effect.

Germany felt it was now free either to occupy what had been Eastern Poland right up to the Soviet border or - as we now know Hitler was planning - to form one or more pro-Nazi, anti-Soviet puppet states there. The USSR simply could not permit either of these outcomes.

German General Kurt von Tippelskirch, in his Geschichte des Zweiten Weltkrieges (Bonn, 1954) wrote:

When the Polish government realized that the end was near on September it fled from Warsaw to Lublin. From there it left on September 9 for Kremenetz, and on September 13 for Zaleshchniki, a town right on the Rumanian border. The people and the army, which at that time was still involved in furious fighting, were cast to the whim of fate. (28)

(Emphasis added)

The Question of the State in International Law (29)

Every definition of the state recognizes the necessity of a government or "organized political authority." Once the Polish government crossed the border into Rumania, it was no longer a "government." Even the Polish officials of the day recognized this by trying to create the impression that the government had never been interned since it had been handed over to somebody else before crossing into Rumania. See the discussion concerning Moscicki and his "desire to resign" on September 29, 1939, also cited above. (30)

Everybody, Poles included, recognized that by interning itself in Rumania the Polish government had created a situation whereby Poland was no longer a "state." This is not just "a reasonable interpretation" - not just one logical deduction among several possible deductions. It was virtually everybody's interpretation at the time. Every major power, plus the former Polish Prime Minister himself, shared it.

Once this problem is squarely faced, everything else flows from it:

* The Secret Protocol to the M-R Pact was no longer valid, in that it was about spheres of influence in the state of Poland. By September 15 at the latest Germany had taken the position that Poland no longer existed as a state. We have discussed this further at this page. (31)

Once Poland ceased to exist as a state this Secret Protocol did not apply any longer. If they wanted to the Germans could march right up to the Soviet frontier. Or - and this is what Hitler was in fact going to do if the Soviet Union did not send in troops - they could facilitate the creation of puppet states, like a Pro-Nazi Ukrainian Nationalist state.

In any case, once Hitler had taken the position that Poland no longer existed as a state and therefore that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact's agreement on spheres of influence in the state of Poland was no longer valid, the Soviet Union had only two choices. It could send the Red Army into Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia to establish sovereignty there. Or it could stand paasively by and watch Hitler send the Nazi army right up to the Soviet border.

* Since the Polish state had ceased to exist, the Soviet-Polish non-aggression pact was no longer in effect. The Red Army could cross the border without "invading" or "committing aggression against" Poland.

By sending its troops across the border the USSR was claiming sovereignty, so no one else could do so - e.g. a pro-Nazi Ukrainian Nationalist state, or Nazi Germany itself.

* Legitimacy flows from the state, and there was no longer any Polish state. Therefore the Polish Army was no longer a legitimate army, but a gang of armed men acting without any legitimacy. Having no legitimacy, the Polish Army should have immediately laid down its arms and surrendered. Of course it could keep fighting - but then it would no longer be fighting as a legitimate army but as partisans. Partisans have no rights at all except under the laws of the government that does claim sovereignty.

Some Polish nationalists claim that the Soviets showed their "perfidy" by refusing, once they had sent troops across the Soviet frontier, to allow the Polish army cross the border into Rumania. But this is all wrong. The USSR had diplomatic relations with Rumania. The USSR could not permit thousands of armed men to cross the border from areas where it held sovereignty into Rumania, a neighboring state. Imagine if, say, Mexico or Canada tried to permit thousands of armed men to cross the border into the USA!

The Soviet Position Was Valid Under International Law

In a 1958 article in The American Journal of International Law UCLA professor Ginsburgs determined that the Soviet claim that the State of Poland no longer existed was basically a sound one:

For all these various reasons, it may safely be concluded that on this particular point the Soviet argument was successful, and that the "above considerations do not allow for any doubt that there did not exist a state of war between Poland and the U.S.S.R. in September, 1939."

In spite of scattered protests to the contrary, the consensus heavily sides with the Soviet view that by September 17, 1939, the Polish Government was in panic and full flight, that it did not exercise any appreciable control over its armed forces or its remaining territory, and that the days of Poland were indeed numbered.

De facto, then, one may well accept the view that the Polish Government no longer functioned as an effective state power. In such a case the Soviet claim that Eastern Galicia was in fact a terra nullius may not be unjustified and could be sustained.

(32) (Emphasis added)

Re-negotiation of "Spheres of Influence" September 28 1939 (33)

All this is referred to directly in Telegram No. 360 of September 15-16 1939 from German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop to Graf Werner von Schulenburg, German ambassador to Moscow, with its reference to "the possibility of the formation in this area of new states." (34)

Note that Ribbentrop was very displeased with the idea that the Soviets would "tak{e} the threat to Ukrainian and White Russian populations by Germany as a ground for Soviet action" and wants Schulenberg to get Molotov to give some other motive. He was unsuccessful; this was exactly the motive the Soviets gave:

Nor can it be demanded of the Soviet Government that it remain indifferent to the fate of its blood brothers, the Ukrainians and Byelo-Russians inhabiting Poland, who even formerly were without rights and who now have been abandoned entirely to their fate.

The Soviet Government deems it its sacred duty to extend the hand of assistance to its brother Ukrainians and brother Byelo-Russians inhabiting Poland. (35)

Polish Imperialism

We should try to understand the Soviet explanation regarding the reference to "the fate of its blood brothers, the Ukrainians and Byelo-Russians inhabiting Poland."

At the Treaty of Riga signed in March 1921 the Russian Republic (the Soviet Union was not officially formed until 1924), exhausted by the Civil War and foreign intervention, agreed to give half of Belorussia and Ukraine to the Polish imperialists in return for a desperately-needed peace.

We use the words "Polish imperialists" advisedly, because Poles - native speakers of the Polish language - were in the minority in Western Belorussia and Western Ukraine, the areas that passed to Poland in the treaty. The Polish regime then encouraged ethnic Poles to populate these areas to "polonize" them (make them more "Polish"). The Polish government put all kinds of restrictions on the use of the Belorussian and Ukrainian languages.

Up till the beginning of 1939, when Hitler decided to turn against Poland before making war on the USSR, the Polish government was maneuvering to join Nazi Germany in a war on the USSR in order to seize more territory. As late as January 26, 1939, Polish Foreign Minister Beck was discussing this with Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop in Warsaw. Ribbentrop wrote:

... 2. I then spoke to M. Beck once more about the policy to be pursued by Poland and Germany towards the Soviet Union and in this connection also spoke about the question of the Greater Ukraine and again proposed Polish-German collaboration in this field.

M. Beck made no secret of the fact that Poland had aspirations directed toward the Soviet Ukraine and a connection with the Black Sea... (36)

Polish Foreign Minister Beck was telling Ribbentrop that Poland would like to seize ALL of the Ukraine from the USSR, for that was the only way Poland could have had a "connection with the Black Sea."

In occupying Western Belorussia and Western Ukraine the USSR was reuniting Belorussians and Ukrainians, East and West. This is what the Soviets meant by the claim that they were "liberating" these areas. The word "liberation" is conventionally used when an occupying imperialist power withdraws. That is what happened here.

Ginsburgs wrote:

...theoretically the U.S.S.R. still retains a better claim than Poland to the incorporated territories on the basis of the principle of national self-determination, if the ethnic composition of the area's population is taken into account. For, though the Soviet title rests on a plebiscite of doubtful validity, the Polish one derives from a direct act of force and military conquest, not even remotely claiming parentage with the concept of national self-determination. (37)

The Polish Government-in-Exile

At the beginning of October 1939 the British and French governments recognized a Polish government-in-exile in France (later it moved to England). This was an act of hostility against Germany, of course. But the UK and France were already at war with Germany. The US government wasn't sure what to do. After a time it took the position of refusing to recognize the conquest of Poland, but treated the Polish government-in-exile in Paris in an equivocal manner.

The USSR could not recognize it for a number of reasons:

* Recognizing it would be incompatible with the neutrality of the USSR in the war. It would be an act of hostility against Germany, with which the USSR had a non-aggression pact and a desire to avoid war. (The USSR did recognize it in July 1941, after the Nazi invasion).

* The Polish government-in-exile could not exercise sovereignty anywhere.

* Most important: if the USSR were to recognize the Polish government-in-exile, the USSR would have had to retreat back to its pre-September 1939 borders - because the Polish government-in-exile would never recognize the Soviet occupation of Western Belorussia and Western Ukraine. Then Germany would have simply marched up to the Soviet frontier. To permit that would have been a crime against the Soviet people as well as against all residents of these areas, including Poles, because they would have been abandoned to Hitler. And, as the British and French soon agreed, a blow against them, and a big boost to Hitler as well. (38)

The Polish Government Was Uniquely Irresponsible

No other government during WW2 acted as the Polish government did. Many governments of countries conquered by the Axis formed governments in exile to continue the war. But only the Polish government interned itself in a neutral country, thereby stripping itself of the ability to function as a government and stripping their own people of their existence as a state.

What should the Polish government leader have done, once they realized they were completely beaten militarily?

* The Polish government should have remained somewhere in Poland - if not in the capital, Warsaw, then in Eastern Poland. If its leaders had set up an alternative capital in the East - something the Soviets had prepared to do East of Moscow, in case the Nazis captured Moscow - then they could have preserved a "rump" Poland. There it should have capitulated - as, for example, the French Government did in July 1940. Or, it could have sued for peace, as the Finnish government did in March 1940. Then Poland, like Finland, would have remained as a state. It would certainly have lost a great deal of territory, but not all of it.

* Or, the Polish government could have fled to Great Britain or France, countries already at war with Germany. Polish government leaders could have fled by air any time. Or they could have gotten to the Polish port of Gdynia, which held out until September 14, and fled by boat.

Why didn't they do either of these things?

* Did Polish government leaders think they might be killed? Well, so what? Tens of thousands of their fellow citizens and soldiers were being killed!

* Did they perhaps really believe that Rumania would violate its neutrality with Germany and let them pass through to France? If they did believe this, they were remarkably stupid. There is no evidence that the Rumanian government encouraged them to believe this.

* Did they believe Britain and France were going to "save" them? If so, that too was remarkably stupid. Even if the British and French really intended to field a large army to attack German forces in the West, the Polish army would have had to hold against the Wehrmacht for at least a month, perhaps longer. But the Polish Army was in rapid retreat after the first day or two of the war.

Perhaps they fled simply out of sheer cowardice. That is what their flight out of Warsaw, the Polish capital, suggests. Warsaw held out until early October, 1939. The Polish government could have simply remained there until the city capitulated.

Everything that happened afterwards was a result of the Polish government being interned in Rumania. Here's how the world might have been different if a "rump" Poland had remained after surrender to Hitler:

* A "rump" Poland might finally have agreed to make a mutual defense pact that included the USSR. That would have restarted "collective security," the anti-Nazi alliance between the Western Allies and the USSR that the Soviets sought but UK and French leaders rejected.

That would have:

* greatly weakened Hitler;

* probably prevented much of the Jewish Holocaust;

* certainly prevented the conquest of France, Belgium, and the rest of Europe;

* certainly prevented the deaths of many millions of Soviet citizens.

Poland could have emerged from WW2 as an independent state, perhaps a neutral one, like Finland, Sweden, or Austria. All this, and more - if only the Polish government had remained in their country at least long enough to surrender, as every other government did.


(1) The formal name for this agreement is the Nonaggression Pact between the USSR and Germany. It is often called the "Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact" or "Treaty" after the two foreign ministers who signed it. Ideological anticommunists call it the "Hitler-Stalin Pact", in furtherance of the goal of associating the USSR to Nazi Germany and Stalin to Hitler. An earlier version of this essay is at:

(2) At:

(3) At:

(4) At:

(5) Some time ago a colleague on an academic mailing list tweaked me for supposedly "defending Stalin." He wrote:

    I could make a crack about what defenses of Stalin have to do with a 'sensible materialism,' but that would be beneath me.

  My colleague thinks he knows something about Stalin and the USSR during Stalin's time. He doesn't! But you can't blame him too much, since almost none of us do. More precisely: We "know" a lot of things about the Soviet Union and Stalin, and almost all of those things are just not true. We've been swallowing lies for the truth our whole lives.

(6) For a discussion of the events that led up to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 an excellent account is still Bill Bland, "The German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939" (1990) at: soviet pact.htm I have checked every citation in this article; most are available online now. It's very accurate, but far more detailed than the present account requires.

(7) Julius Mader, Hitlers Spionagegenerale sagen aus. Berlin: Vlg. der Nation. 1971, 122; 124.

(8) See:

(9) For a brief overview see "Munich Agreement" at:

(10) I discuss "internment" and the international law on this question extensively below.

(11) See the map here:

(12) A map that shows' ethnic and linguistic population is here:

(13) See the documents at this page:

(14) See the evidence at:


(16) See the texts reproduced here:

(17) See:

(18) The League of Nations Resolution is reproduced here:

(19) At:

(20) At:

(21) For the Soviet Union's claim of neutrality see:

(22) "The Soviet Union as a Netural, 1939-1941." Soviet Studies 10 (1) (July 1958), pp. 12-35. At pp. 25, 25-6; 33.

(23) See the documents reproduced at this page:

(24) See the articles at:

(25) At: Government Blamed

(26) At:

(27) At:

(28) I have used the Russian edition of Tippelskirch's book. The passage in question is online at:

(29) See this page for more detail:

(30) At:

(31) At:

(32) "A Case Study in the Soviet Use of International Law: Eastern Poland in 1939." The American Journal of International Law 52 (1) 69-84, at pp. 72 and 73. The term "terra nullius" is a Latin expression deriving from Roman law meaning "land belonging to no one," which is used in international law to describe territory which has never been subject to the sovereignty of any state, or over which any prior sovereign has expressly or implicitly relinquished sovereignty.

(33) For more documentation and a map see:

(34) Text of the telegram at:

(35) TASS, September 17, 1939; quoted in New York Times September 18, 1939, p. 5; also Jane Degras (Ed.), Soviet Documents on Foreign Policy 1933-1941, vol. III (London/New York: Oxford University Press, 1953), pp. 374-375.

(36) Original in Akten zur deutschen auswärtigen Politik... Serie D. Bd. V. S. 139-140. English translation in Documents on German Foreign Policy. 1918-1945. Series D. Vol. V. The document in question is No. 126, pp. 167-168; this quotation on p. 168. Also in Russian in God Krizisa T. 1, Dok. No. 120.

(37)Ginsburgs, Case Study, 80.

(38) See the further discussion at: