It began at a quarter to five in the morning, September the 1st, 1939. A German battleship in the then-Danzig harbour opened fire on a Polish garrison in the Westerplatte. The shelling marked the start of Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland, and within days France and Britain declared war on Germany.
But Poland’s future had already been sealed. On the 23rd of August, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression treaty. In effect, they secretly agreed to carve up Poland and other parts of Europe. Poland’s western territory was to be swallowed up by the Third Reich and the Eastern part occupied by the Soviet Union.
Sixteen days after Germany’s invasion, Soviet troops invaded Poland from the east. Under the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty – named after the foreign ministers who signed it – both countries were obliged to repress any Polish resistance.
Reports quickly emerged of mass deportations and executions. It would take decades for the full truth about some of the killings to come out, with at least one massacre blamed on the Nazis actually later revealed to have been carried out by Soviet forces. When Warsaw surrendered after four weeks of bombing, more than 85,000 Polish troops and civilians were dead.
The Soviet minister who signed the non-aggression pact with the Nazis later voiced some regret, but still insisted there was no alternative after a failure to reach a military agreement with Britain and France.
Vyacheslav Nikonov, a grandson of Vyacheslav Molotov, said: “He was not at all complimentary about the purges. He said there were many, many mistakes done by the Soviet leadership. He regrets many lives. Molotov never considered Motolov-Ribbentrop as something he would regret.”
But the victims say Moscow shares equal responsibility with Berlin for the outbreak of the war. Under the pact the Soviet Union also annexed part of Finland, the Baltic states and the Romanian region that is now Moldova.