September 17, 2012


On 17th September 1939, over 800,000 Soviet troops swarmed across Poland's eastern border, comprising 33 divisions, 11 brigades, armed with 4,959 guns, 4,736 tanks, and supported by 3,300 aircraft. Sixteen days earlier the Germans had invaded Poland from the north, west and south. Polish troops fought courageously and were considered a formidable force to contend with, however they were vastly overwhelmed by German fire power. Polish Command ordered all units to head for the south-eastern part of Poland (the Kresy) where they could regroup and reinforce their defensive positions in anticipation of Anglo-French assistance. No help came. The Polish armies were alone and caught in a pincer. Their only option was immediate evacuation to France through Romania and Hungary.

The Kresy was annexed by the Red Army. Over 230,000 Polish soldiers were captured and interned in Soviet POW camps. About 13.5 million Polish were made citizens of the Soviet Union, a harbinger of the brutal "sovietization" policies yet to be unleashed. In the period from 1939 to 1941 hundreds of thousands of Polish citizens - soldiers and civilians, were deported to the far reaches of the Gulag. Many were executed, including the 16,000 Polish officers who were systematically murdered in the forests of Smolensk by the Soviet NKVD - it was the Katyn Massacres.

Just days before the outbreak of World War Two, a Non-aggression Pact, also referred to as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, was signed between Germany and the Soviet Union. It contained a secret protocol that established a line along which Poland would be partitioned for the fourth time in her history.   It was called the Curzon Line.

Lord Curzon of Kedleston 1914 - oil on canvas by the American artist John Singer Sargent Courtesy of the Royal Geographical Society London.
Lord Curzon
The Curzon Line was established after the close of the first Great War. In 1918, after 123 years of oblivion, the Polish State was recreated according to the Fourteen Points laid down by US President Woodrow Wilson, which specified that "an independent Polish state should be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations, which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea..."  
The Commission of Polish Affairs was appointed by the Allied Supreme Council to make recommendations on the matter of drawing a demarcation, or armistice line separating Poland from her Bolshevik neighbour to the east.  

Third Partition of Poland 1795
Third Partition of Poland 1795

The British decided that the line should be based loosely on the last version of Poland's border, that is the border between the Prussian Kingdom and the Russian Empire following the third partition of Poland in 1795. Hence the Second Polish Republic was reborn from territories formerly occupied by the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the German Empire.  However,  the 1919 Treaty of Versailles did not deal with the subject of Poland's eastern borders. Article 87 stipulated that "the boundaries of Poland not laid down in the present Treaty will be subsequently determined by the Principal Allied and Associated Powers."

Neither Poland nor Russia was willing to accept the Curzon Line as long as military fortunes weighed in their favor. Just months before the Treaty of Versailles was signed, the Polish-Russian War erupted over territorial claims to the Ukraine and Belarus. Poland's Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, the Father of Poland, envisaged a Polish-led Intermarum, in which a federation consisting of Eastern and Central European states would be a formidable barrier to a possible resurgence of German and Russian imperialist ambitions. Pilsudski's objective was to expand the Polish border as far east as possible. Lenin's vision was to spread his communist revolution throughout Europe, using Poland as the springboard.

L-R Jozef Pilsudski and Edward Smigly-Rydz -  Polish Russian War 1920

By 1919, Polish armed forces had taken much of Western Ukraine and by May 1920 the Poles had captured Kiev. A counteroffensive by the Soviets in July prompted the Polish Prime Minister Wladyslaw Grabski to call upon the Allies for military assistance. But instead, the Allies put considerable pressure on Grabski to withdraw his troops back to the 1919 version of the line, and to an armistice in Galicia. On July 11, 1920 Lord Curzon dispatched a telegram to the Bolshevik government in which he proposed that a ceasefire be agreed to along the 1919 line. Henceforth the line was referred to as the Curzon Line.  Irregardless, the Polish government refused to accept these terms on the grounds that the Allies had reneged on their promise to provide military support to Polish armed forces.

In March 1921 the Polish-Russian War ended with a Polish victory. Under the terms agreed upon in the Treaty of Riga, Russia ceded a vast amount of territory to Poland; approximately 135,000 square km (or 52,000 square miles) of land to the east, which surpassed the Curzon line by a distance of 250 km. Lithuania was partitioned between Poland and Lithuania, resulting in two versions of the southern part of the Curzon Line (see Part A and Part B of the following map). The Treaty included a significant part of the Vilna Governorate and the city of Wilno, as well as East Galicia, including the city of Lviv, and most of the region of Volhynia.

Curzon Line Map of Poland Before and After WW2
Map created by Radek, S

Explanation of Map:The Curzon Line is indicated by the light blue line"B" which was established in 1919. Line "A" is the darker blue line as established by Stalin in 1940.

The Treaty of Riga was ratified by the Polish government on April 15th, and by the Soviet Russian government on April 22nd, and took legal force when documents were exchanged in Minsk on April 30th.  Furthermore, it was registered in the League of Nations Treaty Series of August 1921. However the Allies were unwilling to recognize the legitimacy of the Treaty, perhaps due to the fact that the Brits were not included in the deliberations. It was only through the support of the French government that Great Britain, the US, Italy and Japan finally followed suit and conceded recognition of the Treaty in March 1923.

Polish Russian Signing of the Treaty of Riga 1921 after Polish Russian War
Polish Russian Signing of the Treaty of Riga 1921

Following the German invasion of Poland,  Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov issued a declaration of war against Poland on September 17, 1939,as per the following:

The Polish-German War has revealed the internal bankruptcy of the Polish State. During the course of ten days' hostilities Poland has lost all her industrial areas and cultural centres. Warsaw, as the capital of Poland, no longer exists. The Polish Government has disintegrated, and no longer shows any sign of life. This means that the Polish State and its Government have, in point of fact, ceased to exist. In the same way, the Agreements concluded between the U.S.S.R. and Poland have ceased to operate. Left to her own devices and bereft of leadership, Poland has become a suitable field for all manner of hazards and surprises, which may constitute a threat to the U.S.S.R. For these reasons the Soviet Government, who has hitherto been neutral, cannot any longer preserve a neutral attitude towards these facts.

The Soviet Government also cannot view with indifference the fact that the kindred Ukrainian and White Russian people, who live on Polish territory and who are at the mercy of fate, should be left defenceless.

In these circumstances, the Soviet Government have directed the High Command of the Red Army to order troops to cross the frontier and to take under their protection the life and property of the population of Western Ukraine and Western White Russia.

At the same time the Soviet Government propose to take all measures to extricate the Polish people from the unfortunate war into which they were dragged by their unwise leaders, and enable them to live a peaceful life.

People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs of the U.S.S.R. V. Molotov

Needless to say, Molotov's declaration was merely a ruse - an invention to portray the Soviet army as so-called "liberators".  Of course, it was nothing of the kind.  The Red Army invaded Poland along two fronts: the Belarussian Front was invaded by troops under the command of Comandarm 2nd rank Mikhail Kovalyov, and the Ukrainian Front was invaded by troops led by Comandarm 1st rank Semyon Timoshenko.  German-Soviet collaboration was visibly evident. 

German Soviet collaboration invasion of Poland September 1939
German and Soviet Officers congratulate each other
As the Red Army advanced westward, they invariably encountered German troops headed eastward.  In fact the German command, having captured Brest Fortress on September 17th, transferred its control over to the Soviet 29th Tank Brigade. Days later there was a German-Soviet parade in the town.  Lwow was surrounded by German troops on September 14th, and by the 22nd of September the city surrendered to the Soviets.  Other Polish cities fell to Soviet control - Wilno was taken on September 19th after battling the enemies for two days - then Grodno succumbed to defeat on September 24th after a courageous four-day battle.  By the end of September the Red Army had reached its intended destination - the line formed by the Narew, Western Bug, Vistula and San Rivers.  It was the border specified in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.  

Map of German Soviet partition of Poland Sept 28 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop_Pact

On September 28, 1939, the Germans and Russians modified the Curzon Line so that the  northern part of the border was dramatically shifted towards the west, encompassing the city of Bialystock and its environs under the sphere of Soviet Control.  The map illustrated above was signed by Stalin and Ribbentrop.

The Curzon Line was a recurring topic of discussion during the deliberations at Teheran and Yalta Conference.  Despite British protests, Stalin belabored the issue at every opportunity and demanded that the Curzon Line be established as Poland's eastern border.  However, it was fait accompli. The Russians had already established control in Poland, and installed a puppet government.  Churchill attempted to retain a section of East Galicia and the city of Lwow, but to no avail.  Stalin argued that it was Lord Curzon who came up with the idea of the demarcation line, and he believed that the Soviets could not be expected to settle for anything less.  Furthermore, Stalin frequently brought up the subject of ethnography of the region in an effort to validate the Curzon Line,  and claimed that Poles did not represent the majority in the territories of the Ukraine and Lithuania. But in some areas, including the cities of Bialystock, Grodno, Lwow and Wilno there was a clear Polish majority. After the deportations, however, the Polish population (Poles and Jews) declined significantly. 

Map Polish Census 1931 Mother Tongue - Curzon Line

The Polish government-in-exile was strongly opposed to the Curzon Line, but was not informed that eastern Poland had already been handed over to Stalin.  Polish Prime Minister Stanislaw Mikolajczyk continued to pressure the Allies to persuade Stalin to reconsider. But it was already fait accompli.  The British refused to deal with the matter, preferring instead to appease Stalin, not wanting to upset him.

Though the Allies claim to have won the war,  the real victor was Stalinist Russia.  Despite attempts by Western diplomacy to achieve a real peace, Churchill and Roosevelt gave in to each of Stalin's demands, which condemned eastern Europe including Poland to languish behind the Iron Curtain for decades.

The Curzon line has been the eastern border of Poland since July 1945. But its legacy continues. Even after the dissolution of Soviet Union, the Curzon line still remains unchanged, but with some variation. Poland now shares its eastern border with Lithuania, Belarus, and the Ukraine.

Map of present-day Poland


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