Between 1939 and 1945 Poland existed under the rule of the Generalgouvernment. German occupation of Poland created a vacuum of norms leading to the destruction of social order and a ubiquitous onslaught of misfortune. Already unstable from the effects of the First World War, Poland had inconsistent borders and clashing demographics during the interwar period. The battles on the Eastern Front also contributed to the overall violence. The organization of the Generalgouvernment, along with the random system of punishment and terror, only supported citizens’ rationale behind engaging in activities deemed to be criminal to the regime. This including anything from black market trading, educating oneself on democratic ideals, aiding a Jewish or otherwise “undesirable” neighbor, to defying the orders of a German official. The primary goal was survival, and the hardships that ensued in this pursuit made German-occupied Poland a society unlike the others under German rule during World War II.
Collaboration, cooperation, corruption, violence, and a total reorganization of all traditional institutions defined the country and the era. Under the hate-fueled guise of ideology, the Nazis systematically destroyed Polish society to make room for genocide. Resistance against German rule took place throughout the war, but it was consistently crushed and answered with further oppression and violence. However, there are quite a few stories of heroism and bravery that exemplify the determination of many to fight back against Nazi Germany.
These stories includes that of Oskar Schindler. Schindler was a German entrepreneur sent to Poland by the Third Reich shortly after the invasion in order to take advantage of the economic resources and infrastructure there (especially that which had been confiscated from the Jewish population). He used his charm and bureaucratic finesse to take advantage of this situation, and he managed to run his own line of factories and gain a position of power in Krakow. He used Jewish slave laborers from the city’s ghetto and eventually concentration camps in his factories. Schindler is seen today as a savior because he used his position to protect the Jews who worked for him. The administrative building of his original factory still stands in Krakow, and it is used as a museum to commemorate both his efforts and Krakow’s experience before, during, and after the Second World War. (Note: This report was designed to be presented at this museum, and the location was changed to avoid issues with the content and the personnel at this location.)
After gaining independence from the Treaty of Versailles following World War I, the Second Republic was the government in place in Poland. The Second Republic was barely democratic by international standards of the time, and it was ruled and organized with the educated and wealthy elites in power. Poland was a majority Catholic nation, though new borders and displacement from the First World War left the population consisting of a 30% minority. One third of this minority was Jewish. Anti-Semitic sentiments were not at all introduced into Polish society by the Third Reich. The Second Republic political system was quick to fall, the leaders were quick to flee, and the social expectations and national purposes were quick to disappear almost entirely.
Nazi Germany invaded Poland September 1, 1939, and the Allies then declared war on Germany two days later with no actual action to follow on behalf of Poland. Punishment, withholding of resources, and general terror against Polish civilians under the Generalgouvernment escalated from targeting minorities such as Jews and elites to a random system of oppression, and without regard for statutes or personal status. This disorder and fear led to ubiquitous desperation where it was understood that it did not matter what activities, “legal” or not, one partook in. All were subjected to aggression and the permanent threat of violence and deprivation. This largely was a result of the lack of centralization.
The governor general and thus the head of the Generalgouvernment was Hans Frank, the former president of the German Academy of Law. However, his credentials are misleading, and he gained his position through personal relationships rather than competence or an ability to lead. He exerted minimal control over those serving under him. His orders would occasionally be ignored completely, and overzealous German officers and soldiers launched unauthorized pogroms and mass slaughters. The Generalgouvernment eradicated the norms and order provided by the Second Republic, and it failed to replace them. Instead of rule, the Germans brought terror.
Success became relative to survival. All forms of social regulation and control, such as the sanctity of jobs, social programs, and schooling, were eradicated, leaving an emptiness in the organization and functioning of Polish society that was filled with fear and uncertainty. The scarcity of material goods and influence in communities led to a new reliance on personal connections as a form of social capital that could make the difference between life and death on a daily basis. This influenced some cooperation with German authorities, but for the most part it led to a reliance on the underground society for food, information, and comradery. Corruption and the black market flourished.
As they invaded and occupied the regions of Poland, the Germans left most mayors and village heads in their place, or they would replace them with more willing collaborators. Other government officials, especially those of German descent and those dealing with transportation and resource related logistics, were allowed to keep their positions if they cooperated as well, and many used this to take advantage over resource collection and allocation. This ranged from individuals hoarding money and resources for themselves to individuals providing for their communities. It is an injustice to history to ignore the fact that this cooperation, perpetrated by officials of the former Second Republic and Poles, was collaboration with Nazi terror.
What evidence is available from this period shows us that such a removal of norms is deleterious to decency. The Generalgouvernment allowed, encouraged, and fostered violence. Neighbors slaughtered neighbors, and almost the entirety of the Polish Jewish population was wiped out. For many, the most compelling figures during the Second World War were those who perished in work and death camps such as Auschwitz. There were 457 extermination camps in Poland, some with sub camps nearby, and there were additional forced labor and prisoner of war camps as well.
The Final Solution led to the slaughter of 90% of the Polish Jewish population. In addition, about a fifth of the pre-war population was wiped out, the largest portion of a pre-war population to perish out of all of the countries involved in World War II. No articulation of the extent of human loss can properly put this into a perspective that we can truly understand. No matter the difficulty of the subject matter, we have a moral responsibility as humans and historians to prevent such an
atrocity to happen again. The removal of norms, thus the eradication of purpose and shared values in society, led to Poland’s collapse into the abyss of annihilation, opening the door for Nazi Germany to massacre of millions of human beings.