During World War II inhabitants of German-occupied
countries were often forced to work for the German war effort in
factories or on land. Such forced labour cannot be regarded as
collaboration; voluntary collaboration in a political or military sense
is another matter.
From a number of occupied countries, small,
semi-independent states were created and these collaborated fully with
the Germans. Typical examples are: Petain’s Vichy France, Tiso’s
Slovakia and Pavelic’s Croatia.
In several occupied countries well known fascist
politicians formed Nazi-style political parties. Leaders of such parties
took an active part in the administration of their countries together
with their occupier, e.g. Quisling in Norway, Degrelle in Belgium and
Mussert in Holland.
There was quite extensive military collaboration in many
occupied countries. There were numerous volunteers for the Waffen SS
from Scandinavia, Baltic and Balkan Countries as well as from France,
Belgium, Holland and the Ukraine. Out of 50 SS divisions 18 were formed
from such volunteers (1). A number of different military formations were
organised using Soviet Prisoners of War originating from several
constituent Soviet Union Republics. Units composed of Vlasov’s "White"
Russians as well as of Ukrainians, Byelorussians, Cossacks, Caucasians,
Azers and Turkomen were intended for fighting the Soviets with the view
of liberating those republics. However, on many occasions such
formations were employed in operations against resistance movements or
partisans. Half a dozen such units were used by the Germans to fight the
insurgents during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 (2).
Collaboration of the worst possible kind - active
participation in the Holocaust – was relatively rare. There is evidence
that Ukrainian Militias were involved in running extermination camps in
the East and that Auxiliary Police Battalions originating from the
Baltic countries took part in the liquidation of the Ghettos.
Account must be taken of collaboration by individuals as
spies or informers for the German Police or Gestapo. Also there is the
special case of collaboration taking into account – the local law and
order institutions such as the police.
Faced with this vast array of information, a casual
reader of general accounts of World War II, would be inclined that
collaboration in occupied countries with the Germans was a virtually
universal phenomenon, and would, as a matter of course, include Poland
in this category.
A careful scrutiny of historical sources would reveal
that there were no Polish Militias participating in the Holocaust, no
Polish SS Divisions and no Polish "Quisling".
The situation in Nazi conquered Poland was somewhat more
complex because of the division of the country into three parts. The
Western territories were incorporated directly into the Third Reich and
many Polish people were expelled from them into the central occupied
part of Poland, while most of the remaining population was offered one
of several possible grades of the German citizenship. Those who accepted
were soon forcibly inducted into the German Army or even in some cases
into the SS. This cannot strictly speaking be seen as collaboration,
although some may argue that it was.
The eastern territories of Poland were annexed by the
Soviet Union, but soon after the outbreak of the German – Soviet war,
they were divided into a western section which was added to the General
Gouvernment (central Poland) and the eastern areas which became part of
German occupied Soviet land, with some degree of autonomy for the
Ukraine, Byelorussia and Lithuania, whose populations extensively
collaborated with the Nazis.
The central part of Poland, occupied by the Germans was
named the General Gouvernment. Its inhabitants had virtually no rights
and were exploited and persecuted by the German occupier in various
As far as collaboration with the Nazis in the lands of
the General Gouvernment was concerned there were cases of informers,
spies and traitors working for the Gestapo, but these were rather the
exception than the rule. Such collaborators were usually dealt with by
the Polish Resistance. Then there was the Polish (and later Jewish)
The existence in all occupied countries of locally
recruited order police forces presented a special problem. Such forces
were nominally intended for combating the usual type of crime among
their fellow-countrymen, but were in the event obliged to obey all
orders of their German masters. The Nazis were very adept in such
matters and were able to manipulate the policemen by redefining crime,
illegal activities and anti-social behaviour to suit their own ends.
The so–called "Navy-blue" Polish Police in the General
Gouvernment was composed mainly from pre-war cadres but infiltrated by
some unpleasant, unscrupulous individuals who were prepared to take part
in activities such as blackmail, intimidation, corruption and worse.
Most of the force’s high-ranking officers were ethnic Germans
(Volksdeutche) or members of ethnic minorities such as the Ukrainians.
There is some evidence that the Polish Police were
involved in keeping order while the Jewish inhabitants were forcibly
transferred to Ghettos in larger towns by the German police or SS. In
the largest of the Holocaust Nazi enterprises, the Warsaw Ghetto, Polish
and Jewish Ghetto Policemen were stationed at the Ghetto gates to assist
the German guards in controlling movement in and out of the Ghetto, by
Polish council workers and Jewish working parties.
The Warsaw Ghetto was guarded by the militarised German
police, the Gendarmerie. However some three weeks before the liquidation
of the Ghetto, the guards were strengthened by policemen wearing strange
uniforms. They turned out to be members of the "Szaulis" Lithuanian
Militia. At the same time Polish and Jewish policemen were withdrawn
from the Ghetto gates.
The Jewish Warsaw Ghetto Police Force, recruited and
administered by the Nazis, had among its ranks some brutish thugs but
also some weak individuals who were hoping to obtain better living
conditions and to save themselves from "deportation". Although their
function was to maintain Nazi law and order within the Ghetto, in the
event they were ordered by the Germans to round up hundreds of thousands
of their fellow Jews, force-march them to the "Umschlagplatz" and load
them onto the waiting trains, which were to take them to work camps in
the East (in fact to the death camps). Eventually all the Jewish
policemen were arrested by the SS, loaded onto the last transport and
sent to their death.
Is it fair to condemn outright the Polish Policemen and
the Jewish Ghetto Policemen for obeying the orders of their German
masters? This constitutes a dilemma for many historians. Perhaps one
should follow the example of a Jewish historian whose judgment on the
actions and fate of those Jewish Policemen was: "They were all guilty…
and they were innocent; and they were all saints" (3).
Taking all the historical facts into consideration it
perhaps can be concluded that in the case of Poland there was little
collaboration with the Nazis of the serious, objectionable kind. It is
therefore surprising that accusations of such collaboration have
occurred on many occasions in the past. In an article in "Gazeta Polska"
(7/11/1999) Jacek Kwiecinski refers to the statement of the well known
American broadcaster Howard Stern: "It was the Poles who were
responsible for the Nazi plan for the extermination of the Jews and for
the execution of the plan" and to the statement of the American
television journalist Lesley Stahl, in her book "Reporting Live": "It
was the Poles who with the help of their friendly neighbours, the
Germans, murdered the Jews in the 1940’s".
The journalist and author Stewart Steven in his book
"The Poles’ (3) refers to a statement made on Dutch television in 1979:
"What concerns the Jews, the Poles have been collaborating with the
Germans. Of the thirty five million of the Poles, only at most one
hundred people have been helping Jews". This statement was made by the
Prime Minister of Israel, Menachem Begin.
It is very sad and regrettable that such statements are
made not only because they do not represent the true facts, but also as
the authors are persons of high standing. Their statements are taken as
the truth by many.
Perhaps one should not bother to consider something as
ridiculous and incomprehensible as the description of German
concentration camps as "Polish". Such descriptions were used on various
occasions in the past, but surprisingly have cropped up again in 2006 in
the British media and in the German press. Unfortunately such
descriptions may suggest to the relatively uninformed that there was
Polish collaboration with the Nazis of the worst kind.
It is very difficult to think of a reason why such
statements are made. Were they made because of ignorance? A mistake? A
slip of the tongue? Was it because of the location of the camps?
The German concentration camps were of three types: for
"protective custody", for both custody and extermination and those used
exclusively for systematic extermination. Most of the camps were located
in the territory of the "Greater" Third Reich, which included the Polish
lands incorporated to the Reich in 1939. Some extermination camps were
located in parts of Poland annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939, but
after 1941 were occupied by the German Army. The remaining camps were in
the General Gouvernment, which was, for most practical purposes, a slave
labour colony of Poles, administered, ruled and policed by the Germans.
All the camps were administered, manned and guarded by
special SS units (Totenkopfverbande) except that some death camps in the
east were run jointly by the SS and the Ukrainian Militias. The only
thing "Polish" about those German concentration camps was that in so
many of them, many of the unfortunate inmates were Polish nationals or
One can only hope that in the future those who refer
publicly to such aspects of World War II, particularly if they happen to
be persons in the public eye or occupying high office in their
countries, would take greater care when describing such matters, and
would base their opinions and judgments on historical facts.
1. Karol Grunberg, "SS – Hitler’s Guard", Ksiazka i
Wiedza, Warsaw 1994
2. Special Publication of the Warsaw Uprising Museu,
"Rzeczpospolita", 2005, p. 67
3. Stewart Steven, "The Poles", Collins/Harvill,