About the Reichsgau and General Government
Elsewhere in these Abouts we are conscious of referring to the General Government and, less frequently, the Reichsgau when talking about German-occupied Poland during World War II.
The Nazis had plans for Poland – no doubt you’ve heard of “lebensraum”. They already controlled the areas which were originally East and West Prussia and had de facto control of the “Free City” of Danzig even before the war. Under Nazi plans, Poland was divided into two segments – one, which was to be (or was already) Germanized and occupied by hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans moving eastward, and the other which was where the ethnic Poles would be forcibly resettled, the final solution would be played out and millions would be at best enslaved by the German masters. The first of those segments was the Reichsgau – areas absorbed into and administered as a part of the Greater Germany; the other was called the General Government.
The invasion of Poland was quick and decisive; the Reichsgau comprised nearly a quarter of pre-war Poland, while the remainder was allotted to the General Government under plans between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (in the pre-invasion Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact).
For more than 100 years before World War I, Poland had been divided between three neighbours – Russia, Prussia and Austria – and effectively wiped off the map. She regained independence (and a fresh set of borders) at the end of World War I (despite the Soviet Union’s attempt to take her over, Poland won the 1919-1921 Polish-Soviet War). The grey version of the border shows Poland 1918-1939 and you can see how pre-War Poland was carved up – into the German Reichsgau, the German-controlled General Government and the huge chunk of land taken into the Soviet Union.
The map also shows the narrow strip of land known as the Danzig Corridor – Poland’s only access to the Baltic and where the nation built Gdynia, the Polish port, when it became clear that the country could not rely on Danzig for the supplies the new republic needed.
One final point – you see Konigsberg, in East Prussia? That German city became Kaliningrad after World War II and is now the capital of the Kaliningrad Oblast – a detached unit of Russia, completely cut off from the rest of Russia.
From the beginning the Jewish population of the Reichsgau was herded into ghettos and deportations to the slave labour and extermination camps began. The Polish elite – leaders and prospective leaders – were eliminated and some 780,000 Poles were deported to the General Government or into Germany as slave labour. Those remaining were kept apart from the German population and became a repressed society – banned from politics and most cultural events, restricted schooling, buildings, business and possessions were confiscated, Poles lost their senior positions in companies and were forbidden to own farms, manufacturing, building, transport and repair businesses; they were forced to pay higher taxes, work without overtime pay and accept lower incomes; working women were forced to work until they were only two weeks before their due date to encourage miscarriages … the overall policy was to produce a slave-race out of the Polish nation. Some cities recorded a negative growth rate, and between 1939 and 1944 the German policies reduced birth rate survivals from 850 live births per 1,000 to 680.
The remainder of Poland, termed the General Government, was divided into four districts – Warschau, centred in Warsaw, Lublin, Radom (Kielce, Radom and what the Germans called Tschenstochau (Częstochowa)) and Krakaun (Kraków). When, I June 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union a fifth district was added – Galizien, formed from what had been part of the Ukrainian SSR and centred on the formerly Polish city of Lwów (Lviv – or, as the Germans named it, Lemberg).
Roughly 12 million people lived in the area of the General Government in September 1939 – quickly increased as close to a million Poles were deported from the Reichsgau, but that was in turn offset by a similar number shipped to Germany where they would work and die as slaves, killed off as potential resistance leaders or by disease and starvation.
Food was one way the Germans could control the population – in December 1941 the calorie intake was recorded as 2,310 per day for Germans, 1,790 for foreigners, 930 for Ukrainians, 654 for Poles and 184 for Jews.
While several groups were selected for the Auschwitz One slave labour and Auschwitz Two-Birkenau extermination camps, a third – Auschwitz Three-Monowitz was built to house slave workers for the huge IG Farben works (Buna), shortly joined by Krupp and individual sub-camps ofr factories of other German companies like the Siemens-Schuckertwerke camp, Bobrek.
IG Farben paid the SS three Reichsmarks per hour for unskilled labourers, four for skilled workers and 1½ for children. The life expectancy for Jews working in the factory was 3-4 months – one month for those working in the mines. Once deemed unfit for work, labourers were sent to Birkenau.
In anticipation of their retreat, the Germans ordered the slaves of Monowitz on a death march to Gliwice, with the survivors being sent by train to Buchenwald and Mauthausen – where IG Farben sought out Monowitz workers to man its Berlin factories.
The Buna-Werke complex still operates today – there are no visible signs of the Monowitz camp.
One of the reasons Kraków suffered little damage during WW2, especially compared with cities like Warsaw, was that Kraków had already been chosen to be the “capital” of the General Government. Once occupied, the city became seat of Generalgouverneur Dr. Hans Frank and his administration (Office of the General-Governor) headed by Regierung (State Secretary or Deputy Governor) Josef Bühler.
While part of today’s Poland was already a part of Greater Germany – Silesia, for example, had been under Austrian control since the 1790s – only the Reichsgau was intended to be recognised as part of German Europe. Poland had officially ceased to exist.
Go back to the first map and look at the darker line, showing Poland’s post WW2 borders – see how much territory she lost to the east and gained to the west? Towns and cities with a long Polish history became Soviet territory, including the key Polish city of Lwów, while to the west swathes of German and Austrian territory became part of Poland – including our old friend, Danzig … now Gdansk … famous for the movement which ultimately led to the fall of communism and the establishment of the third Polish Republic.
Krakow No8 tram, for Germans only
Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939. Russia followed, invading on 17 September.
Warsaw surrendered on 28 September, Polish forces on Hel held out until 2 October, making Hel the last piece of Poland to surrender – Independent Operational Group Polesie (Samodzielna Grupa Operacyjna Polesie, SGO Polesie) was the last element of the Polish Army to surrender in the Invasion, on 6 October 1939.
Polish forces stationed abroad made the fourth-largest troop contribution to the Allied War effort, after the Soviets, Britain and America.
Polish troops fought in the west under the command of the Polish government in exile in London and under Soviet command in the east. They were especially important in the Italian (see the Battle of Monte Cassino) and North African campaigns and the Polish 1st Army distinguished itself in the Battles of Warsaw and Berlin.
Polish air squadrons, like No 303 (“Kościuszko”) Polish Fighter Squadron, served with honours in the Battle of Britain and later (there were a total 16 Polish squadrons in the RAF and Kościuszko was the highest scoring squadron in the Battle).
The Polish Navy served on convoy protection duties in the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean.
The resistance movement in Poland was one of the largest in WW2, comprising the Armia Krajowa (Home Army) and a virtual underground state complete with courts and universities (the future Pope John Paul II studied in an underground university in Kraków during WW2).
The Soviet Union arranged to eliminate current and future leaders in a set of massacres – see Katyn – which they then tried to pass off as murders by the Germans.
Over 6 million Poles died during WW2 – over 90% of them civilians.