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In no other country than ancient Israel have Jews lived consistently and for as many centuries in as large number, and with as much autonomy as in Poland . The late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought huge waves of Jewish settlers into Poland, and by the beginning of the Second World War in 1939 there were approximately 3.5 million Jews living throughout the Polish countryside. The Jewish people within Poland lived in a self-contained world, with a unique network of religious, social and political institutions. Throughout their existence in Poland the Jews were faced with numerous obstacles stemming from various external and internal threats. External threats played a decisive role in Jewish history when Poland was unified into one nation alongside Russia to the East and Germany in the West. Each country became guilty of engaging in repeat incursions into the others territory, which created sharp cultural divides. Internal threats occurred with the German Catholic Church preaching anti-Semitism to the Polish population, and industrialization in the nineteenth century established a Polish middle class threatened by Jewish success in medicine and banking industries. The Polish Jews had been the subjects of discrimination, humiliation and manipulation at the hands of their fellow countrymen, but not until World War Two did they think that their neighbours or friends would be capable of committing violent hate crimes. During the occupation of Poland between 1939 and 1945 Nazi officials were amazed by the majority’s willingness to collaborate, especially in terms of the Jewish final solution. In towns all over Poland violent pogroms erupted and Jewish citizens were murdered, not by enemy soldiers but by those they interacted with and saw on a daily basis. To construct a reality into the causes of collaboration in 1939, it is necessary to examine Polish history, particularly the political, economic and cultural factions which for so long perpetuated discrimination against the Jewish population. Only when we are able to view these patterns of anti-Semitism throughout Polish history can we begin to understand a collaboration that ended in the destruction of over a million innocent Jewish civilians.
Anti-Semitic traditions in Poland interested the German Nazi party so much that Hedrick Himmler found it of value to make his top SS officials study nineteenth century Polish history . The earliest era of discrimination against the Jews in Poland was centered around a religious conflict. The German Catholic Church which was the dominant religious body in Poland imposed its will onto the Polish majority and subsequently persecuted the Jewish population for their religious affiliations. Thus anti-Semitism during Poland’s earlier years attacked the Jews and their beliefs, but unlike similar situations in England and France hardly any acts of violence occurred on the basis of religion. The first real threat to the Jewish communities came with the division of the Polish territory in the nineteenth century. Poland prior to unification was made up of three distinct regions that during the previous centuries had developed different political and economic traditions, and were made up of distinct ethnic groups. Jewish entrepreneurs prospered during the years leading up to World War One, and in almost every Polish town the majority of businesses were run by Jewish families. The once minimal prejudice that existed against Jewish citizens was tremendously increased by the success of Jewish business, and a harsh environment slowly began to emerge. The further division of Polish territory came about and was drawn up in the Treaty of Versailles after World War One. As the country struggled to solve its problem of increased hatred toward national minorities, the Versailles Treaty was signed and again re-distributed the ethnic composition within areas of Poland. Ethnic minorities especially of Jewish decent compromised almost thirty percent of Poland’s population, which meant that new boundaries allowed ethnicity and religious affiliation to overlap promoting cumulative cleavages in areas . World War One not only demonstrated increased hostility against minorities, but also early Polish compliance with enemy forces. Early on the Poles established a variety of strategies for coping with occupiers, which proved their ability to endure and the capacity to comply with the wishes of invading troops. The Poles have always employed a strong “positivistic” tradition with occupation which includes an attempt to maintain peaceful effort and find co-existence with the occupier, but also to promote national identity at the same time . The authorities and political figures of Poland during World War One kept the country unified by endorsing a sense of patriotism and distinguished the “enemy” not as invading forces, but as those minorities who threatened true Polish identity. The weak cultural structure of Poland after World War One enabled the clear division of a Polish majority versus unwanted Jewish minorities. Racism embedded in the Polish culture cannot alone explain the collaboration that occurred during World War Two, the political crisis that plagued Poland after the First World War also played a decisive role.
The politics in Poland after World War One left the Executive struggling to establish a democratic constitution. In an attempt to mirror Western democratic policy and avoid power in the hands of an authoritarian ruler, the Polish constitution gave considerable power to the legislative branch of government. This institutional decision in an attempt to promote checks and balances, and avoid excessive executive power realistically created a system of unsure legislative rulers. Ironically this effort to remove power from the top gave Jozef Pilsudski and the National Democratic Party the ability to manipulate an inexperienced legislature. This rapid introduction into Europe of a new formula of legitimacy went against traditional Polish civic culture, and tainted its institutions. The first political crisis that occurred in Poland post-Versailles highlighted the issue of minorities and their place in the community. The countries first President Gabriel Narutowicz a staunch supporter of minority rights was assassinated a year after entering office which the National Democratic Party made clear they approved of, although they did not commit the actual murder . This subsequently created a sharp conflict with minorities when the National Democrats later came into power. Before long it was clear that a stronger executive power was necessary to cope with the countries most pressing issue; nationalist pride. In 1937 one party grabbed a hold of the countries attention the young members of the National Democratic Party began to campaign their admiration for fascism. Although they disliked Germans as a whole they admired Hitler’s ideals for “race and space” and a strong nation united by patriotism. Any sort of government reform during the interwar era was meant to discriminate and expropriate the right of Polish Jews. The National Democrats supported that new education lines be drawn which explicitly disallowed Ukrainian and Jewish families to have their children taught in their native language. Aside from discriminatory racial policy the Polish government did not agree on much else, and eventually a process of intimidation began to emerge between the separate parties. A gradual alienation between the countries political parties resulted in a “no party system”, a kind of benevolent authoritarianism. Extreme political action took place in this new government, and in 1938 the Poles actually established a form of political concentration camp . Within the camp walls a wide array of radical political opponents were detained, for example polish communists or leaders of the Jewish faith. This polish ideology of “hate the Germans, not the Nazi’s” stayed with the government right up until the occupation of September 1939. A London official upon his return from Poland in 1938 reported that the government exaggerated its love for pro-Jewish policies, “in reality it is hard to distinguish their laws from those of Hitler himself. ”
It is now evident that a history of Polish politics, economics and culture worked against the Jewish population. Understanding how the Poles could support Nazi racial policy comes from understanding the past, but turning personal beliefs into random acts of violence requires explanation. Upon first glance it is hard to distinguish whether the actions of the Polish people were of co-operation or collaboration. The two concepts are very distinct argue many historians and for the country of Poland during their occupation, the term collaboration is best suited. In studying Polish collaboration it is important to examine the things that do not make someone a collaborator, as people have a tendency to associate any co-operative behaviour with the Nazi’s as “collaborative.” Citizens throughout Europe benefited from the German genocide of the Jewish population, many Polish business owners for example saw increased profit as Jews were deported to the ghettos. This indirect advantage for Polish businessmen does not indicate their support for genocide or even efforts to aid the destruction of Jewish property, it merely shows the lack of resistance many poles exhibited during occupation. Blackmail was another feature many people confused with collaboration, as German officials used personal information of Polish citizens for their compliance in identifying Jewish authority. Although the information brought forward Polish citizens resulted in the murder of innocent Jewish people, the intention to destroy was not initially present. According to Janet T. Gross a prominent historian specializing in the Holocaust, a true collaborator is someone who is prepared to grant the occupier authority rather there simply providing support or information. Once identifying who qualifies as a collaborator the next step is to examine the form of government that existed in the occupied country prior to defeat. It is easiest and most rewarding for the occupier to find collaborators within the political establishment of a country, preferably one considered legitimate by the people. As previously stated the National Democratic Party of Poland prior to occupation received overwhelming public support, and even shared the same racial ideology as the Nazi’s against the Jewish population. In March 1939, the Germans entered Poland with the intention of creating a “token Polish state” which meant one with strong nationalist tendencies. The first step was to work with Polish officials in government to help identify those citizens who played a prominent role prior to occupation. The peasant leader Wincenty Wilos was one target of the Nazi occupiers, as he exuded a great deal of influence over minorities throughout Poland. Wilos was tried and executed by members of the SS, and was labeled a traitor to Poland, which in one act rid the occupiers and the National Democrats of a potential threat to nationalism. This incident proved that in the earliest days of occupation Germans sought out political collaborators, and once key disturbances were eliminated by the Nazi’s they cut off ties to their Polish informants. It is apparent as to why Germans sought after collaborators within the Polish government, but the real question is why Polish officials turned on members of their own community. It is profitable for any occupier to obtain some form of political legitimacy, but conversely the defeated government might want to minimize the consequences of defeat as the ultimate authority and from collaboration could function under conditions of limited sovereignty without losing the allegiance of its people. The Polish government was faced with a no win situation, a lack of collaboration would result in their removal or even destruction, yet collaborating with an occupying force would mean turning their back on the people they were elected to protect.