(CRISIS and WAR in EUROPE, 1937 to 1940 – continued)

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CRISIS and WAR in EUROPE, 1937 to 1940 (10 of 11)

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The Soviet Union and Germany in East Europe

Demarcation line

For a map showing the distribution of Polish language usage in 1931, click here.

On 17 September 1939, while Germany was taking power in Poland, the Soviet Union moved its military into Poland to the line agreed to by Germany – the Curzon Line. The Soviet Union's Red Armies vastly outnumbered Poland's forces resisting them. The Soviet government announced it was acting because Poland had collapsed and it was protecting the Ukrainians and Belarusians who lived in the eastern part of Poland. The area was now considered by the Soviet Union to be West Belarus and West Ukraine, freed from what had been Polish imperialism.

Immediately, Soviet agents began organizing local governments. In October a mock referendum was held, and the results were used to legitimize the Soviet takeover and the incorporation of West Belarus and West Ukraine into the Soviet Union. These were areas that were to remain as a part of Belarus and Ukraine following World War II.

The Red Army meanwhile had captured something like 230,000 Polish prisoners of war and put numerous Poles under Soviet authority. Poles and some others were expressing their hostility to the Soviet takeover, including slogans painted on walls. The Soviet Union had begun to quell opposition by summary executions and thousands of arrests. It would send hundreds of thousands of people from the region to Siberia and other remote parts of the Soviet Union in four major waves of deportation between 1939 and 1941. In March a proposal by the new NKVD chief Lavrentiy Beria to execute members of the Polish Officer Corps was approved by the Soviet Politburo, including Stalin – among the executed about 8,000 that the Red Army had captured in September. Also executed were arrested Poles the NKVD deemed to be "intelligence agents, gendarmes, landowners, saboteurs, factory owners, lawyers, officials and priests." note56

It was in February 1940 that the former NKVD chief, Nicholai Yezhov, was shot, after having been replaced by Beria in November 1938.

The Soviet-Finnish War

In last September 1939, while it was doing business in what had been Poland, the Soviet Union gave an ultimatum to the Estonian Foreign Minister, demanding land to build a Soviet military base in Estonia. On September 28, Estonia and the Soviet Union signed a 10-year mutual assistance pact which allowed Soviet troops to be stationed in Estonia. The following day, Hitler issued an order for the 86,000 ethnic Germans living in Estonia and Latvia to be repatriated to Germany. On October 5, Latvia agreed to allow Soviet Union naval units to base in Latvian Baltic Sea harbors. And on October 10 Lithuania agreed to allow Red Army bases on its soil. On October 29, Soviet troops began occupying bases in Latvia.

It was in on November 30, 1939 that war erupted between the Soviet Union and Finland. Finland had refused a request from the Soviet Union to lease the port of Hanko, and Finland had refused other requests from the Soviet Union, mainly for a strip of land near Leningrad to improve that city's defenses. The Soviet Union decided to take by force what it could not get through agreement, and the Finns fought valiantly, winning support from the French, British and United States. The US Congress voted a million dollars in aid to the Finns. German, Italian, French and British volunteers hurried to join the fight against the Bolsheviks, but Norway and Sweden refused the volunteers permission to cross their territory.

At first the Soviets suffered reverses in Finland, but by March it had turned the war around and was overpowering the Finns. In March, 1940, after the Soviet Union had lost 200,000 men killed in Finland, the Soviet Union and Finland agreed to end the fighting, the Finns ceding twelve percent of their territory to the Soviet Union. In April, German troops were in Norway and the Netherlands, and on June 5 Hitler invaded France.

Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia become Soviet republics

On June 6 the Soviet Union demanded that Latvia a Soviet occupation. On June 14 it issued an ultimatum to Lithuania. Soviet troops entered Latvia and Lithuania on the 17th and there was little resistance. Soviet troops were pushing into Estonia and resistance there was futile. In July the Soviet Union announced that recently held plebiscites in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia revealed near unanimous support for becoming Soviet republics. In early August the Soviet Union annexed these three nations.

Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria, meanwhile, were allied with Germany, partly because they were economically dependent upon Germany, which was buying their agricultural surpluses, and Germany was buying Romania's oil. Also, And these were nations run by ultra-conservatives who still feared revolution. They saw Germany as a bulwark against Bolshevism, and Germany was the power with whom it was best to be on good terms should more of their conflicts over borders arise.

Greece was another matter. In late October 1940, Mussolini invaded Greece without warning Hitler, Mussolini retaliating for Hitler not having warned him of his invasions that year, including into France. Britain was allied with Greece and sent a naval force from the Middle East to Greece. The British navy attacked the Italian fleet as it lay at anchor at Taranto in southern Italy. Italy's offensive against Greece broke down, and by late November the Greeks had pushed Mussolini's army back to Albania. Then, on December 9, the British launched an offensive against Italy in North Africa, British forces entering Libya on December 13, 1940.

Five days later, Hitler issued orders for preparations to begin for the invasion of the Soviet Union. He had hoped that his war with Britain would be over, giving him a free hand for what he saw as his most significant endeavor: his fight against Bolshevism. But, with Britain still in the war, he saw conquest of the Soviet Union as removing the possibility of Britain and the Soviet Union ever joining against Germany. Attacking and defeating the Soviet Union, Hitler believed, would destroy whatever hope there was in Britain to win its war against Germany.


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