Woe to the grass where elephants fight,
but a hundred times woe to the grass where elephants make love.

It was seventy years ago today that a monumental military parade took place in the Polish city of Brześć. In view of the militarist spirit of the age there is nothing unusual in this. What is unusual is that the parade was held not by the Polish army, but by the Soviet Red Army and the Nazi German Wehrmacht – together.

In the following fifty years nobody spoke about this parade. “In Soviet times everybody kept silent, as if nothing like this had taken place”, says Vladimir Gubenko from Brest on the site compiled by Vasily Sarychev from the remembrances of the witnesses.

“Time erases a lot of things from memory, especially if it is helped from outside. The post-war generation of Brest already does not know about the joint military parade of the Soviet and the Nazi armies that took place in the city in 1939, and whoever heard something from old people, was not willing to believe it.”

“At the marching in of the Soviet troops there was not a single German officer or soldier on the streets of Brest” – declares Oleg Vishlyov even in 2001, in his popular Накануне 22 июня 1941 года. Документальные очерки (On the eve of 22 July 1941. Study of sources).

Not exactly.

Unterwegs durchfuhren wir noch einmal Brest-Litowsk und wurden durch Zufall Zeugen der deutschen und russischen Parade vor dem Kommandierenden General. Die Stadt wurde nach Verhandlungen den Russen übergeben und als Abschluß führen unser J. R. 90 und Batterien der AR20 und AR56 die Parade, von russischer Seite nahm ein Panzer-Regiment daran teil. Die Bevölkerung, größtenteils Russen, empfingen ihre russischen „Befreier” mit Blumen, Transparenten, Sprechchoren.

“On our way we drove through Brest-Litovsk once more, where by chance we were witness to the German and Russian military parade organized before the chief commander. In terms of the agreement, the city was handed over to the Russians, and as a conclusion, our IR20’s and AR20 and AR56 batteries led the parade. From the Russian side an armored regiment took part in it. The largely Russian population received their Russian «liberators» with flowers, transparents and speech choirs.” (German postcard from 1939)
After September 1, 1939, the German invasion of Poland the Polish defenders of the fortress of Brest under the command of General Konstanty Plisowski drove back six German sieges in two weeks. They gave up the defense only on September 17, when they had notice of the Soviet invasion of Poland. They managed to break out of the fortress in the night, under heavy cannonade, also taking their dead and wounded with themselves. Plisowski would fell in Soviet captivity ten days later and killed together with his officers in April 1940 in Katyń.

On the same night when the defenders of Brest broke out of the fortress, Soviet commissar of foreign affairs Vladimir Potemkin asked Polish ambassador Wacław Grzybowski in the Kreml, where he read him the following note signed by Stalin:

The German-Polish war has brought to the surface the failure of the Polish state. During the ten days war Poland has lost all its industrial regions and cultural centers. Warsaw as the capital of Poland does not exist any more. The government of Poland has disintegrated and shows no sign of life. Therefore any agreements between the Soviet Union and Poland are repealed. Poland, left to its fate and deprived of its leaders, became an easy ground for unexpected and dangerous actions that may also menace the Soviet Union. Under the pressure of these facts, the Soviet government which hitherto has been neutral, cannot maintain its neutrality any more.
.....The Soviet government cannot be indifferent to the fact either that the consanguineous Ukrainian and Belorussian population living in Poland are defenceless and lef to their fate.
.....Under the above circumstances the Soviet government ordered the general headquarters of the Red Army to command the army to cross the frontier and take care of the life and property of the population of Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia.
.....The Soviet government will use every mean to free the Polish nation from the unfortunate war into which it was plunged by its inconsiderate leaders, and to assure peaceful life to it.

The ambassador naturally refused to take over the note, but it did not count the least. At that time the Red Army had already crossed the Polish border. The armored brigade commanded by Semyon Moiseevich Krivoshein arrived on September 21 to Brest where they agreed with the German chief commander General Heinz Guderian on the handover of the fortress of Brest to the Russians and on the withdrawal of the Wehrmacht over the Bug river, defined as the new German-Soviet border. Krivoshein congratulated the Germans to their war successes and offered to welcome them in Moscow after their forthcoming victory over the United Kingdom.

Да здравствует рабоче-крестьянская Красная Армия освободительница трудящихся масс З.Б. и З.У.! (Зап.Белоруссии и Зап.Украины) – Long live the Red Army, liberator of the working masses of W(estern) B(elorussia) and W(estern) U(kraine)!

The Izvestiya published on September 18, 1939, one day after the Soviet invasion of Poland the “demarcation line” determined by the Molotov-Ribbentropp Pact, that is, the new border between Germany and the Soviet Union.

The definitive version of the map, modified on September 28. The Soviets offered the Polish territories between the rivers Bug and Wistula in change for Lithuania. Detail of the map with the signatures of Stalin and Ribbentropp.

Liberation of the friendly peoples of Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia, 17. IX. 1939

It is our holy duty to lend a helping hand to the friendly peoples of Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia!

“Our army is the army of liberation of the working masses” (Stalin)

It was so – It is so (in Ukrainian)

The handover of the fortress and the document on the joint military parade was first quoted in 2007 by Valentin Antonov in his series of articles published in the journal Солнечный ветер. He wrote this series on the entry of the Soviet Union in WWII, the starting point of which he considers to be not the beginning of the Blitzkrieg on June 22, 1941, but the Soviet invasion of Poland on September 17, 1939. The mere existence of this document was also debated among Russian historians until in the spring of 2008 “pustota1” from a Russian web forum ordered a copy of it for twelve euros from the Bundesarchiv and published it on the Russian net. After this the first detailed overview of the handover of Brest and on the Nazi-Soviet joint military parade was published in the autumn of 2008 in the Novaya Gazeta.

Since the publication of this document the heated debate on the Russian historical forums has focused not on the historical reality of the joint parade, but on whether it can be considered as a parade. An article of the Russian BBC published just a month ago resumes well the different standpoints. According to the editor in chief of the journal Посев Yuri Tsurganov – and this is what I also experience with my own Russian friends, and I would like to write about it later – a new cult of the victory of Soviet people and of the Soviet state in WWII is taking shape in Russia, and a joint military parade with the “mortal enemy” would absolutely not fit this image. “The September 22, 1939 parade in Brest is like a nail in the shoe. You have to pull it out, costs what it costs.” The opponents of the term “parade” say that such thing could have been authorized only by the supreme Soviet leadership, and that the Brest ceremony was only a торжественный марш, a festive procession. As if this changed so much in the demonstrative character of the event, the celebration of the “common victory”, the manifestation of the Soviet-Nazi brotherhood in arms, the violation of the Soviet-Polish non-aggression pact of 1932 and the cynical invasion of Poland after which two hundred fifty thousand Polish soldiers perished in the Soviet lagers.

Pig, educated in Paris (Poland / The borders of 1772)

It is worth to check what the “procession” was considered by its main protagonists.

Am Tage der Übergabe an die Russen kam der Brigadegeneral Kriwoschein, ein Panzermann, der die französische Sprache beherrschte, und mit dem ich mich daher gut verständigen konnte. (…) Eine Abschiedsparade und ein Flaggenwechsel in Gegenwart des Generals Kriwoschein beendete unsern Aufenthalt in Brest-Litowsk.

On the day of the handover [of the fortress] to the Russians, Brigadier Krivoshein, commander of a tank army arrived. He spoke French, so I could make myself understand well with him. (…) A farewell parade and the change of the national flags [the lowering of the Nazi flag and the hoisting of the Soviet flag] closed our sojourn in Brest-Litovsk. (
Memorials of General Heinz Guderian)

Я не могу вывести на парад людей и танки без того чтобы не привести их в должный вид.
– Если я правильно вас понял, вы, генерал, хотите нарушить соглашение вашего командования с командованием немецких войск? – ехидно спросил меня Гудериан. (…) – Пункт о параде записан в соглашении, и его нужно выполнять, – настаивал Гудериан (…)
Итак, договорившись о параде, я собирался уже распрощаться, но Гудериан попросил меня позавтракать с ним.

– I cannot take my people and tanks to a parade without their looking out as they properly should.
– If I understand you well, General, you want to violate the agreement signed by your commanders and by the headquarters of the German army? – Guderian asked sarcastically. – The parade is determined in a separate paragraph of the agreement, and it has to be fulfilled.
Thus we have agreed on the parade, and I wanted to leave, but Guderian invited me to have breakfast. (
Memorials of General Krivoshein)

14.00 Beginn des Vorbeimarschs der russischen und deutschen Truppen vor den beiderseitigen Befehlshabern mit anschliessenden Flaggenwechsel. Während des Flaggenwechsels spielt die Musik die Nationalhymnen.

14.00 Marching of the Russian and German troops in front of the commanders of the two armies, together with the change of national flags. During the change of flags the music of the two national hymns is played. (From §.1 of the document of the handover of the fortress)

The Red Army marched into Brest at eight in the morning. After the negotiations between the two commanders, the two armies started fraternizing. The soldiers offered to each other cigarette and the officers the local Brest beer.

Мне запомнилось, как по одной полосе улицы стояли немецкие танки, а по другой - советские. Танкисты вермахта и Красной армии приветствовали друг друга. Немцы говорили: «Коммунистэн! Гут!

I remember how the German tanks stood on the one side of the street and the Soviets on the other. The soldiers of the Wehrmacht and the Red Army greeted each other. The Germans told: “Kommunisten! Gut!” (Remembrance of Romuald Bulyas from Brest, quoted by Vasiliy Sarychev)

The parade has taken place on the main street of Brest, which at that time was called of the Union of Lublin – it was this union between the Polish Kingdom and the Lithuanian Grand Duchy that established in 1569 the Polish Rzeczpospolita. Soon it will be rebaptized September 17 Street after the day of the Soviet invasion. In 1941, after the German occupation it will be called the 45th Division Street after the army occupying the fortress. Finally since 1945 it has been called Lenin Street. This is the only name of it that does not refer to the momentary state power, but in the Soviet Union the street where the party headquarters stood could have no other name. Here, in front of the future party headquarters, on a wooden platform put up in all haste Generals Guderian and Krivoshein received the salute of the Soviet and German armies. The Jewish blood of the Soviet commander apparently did not disturb the commander of the Wehrmacht. On the same day similar, although smaller parades took place in the nearby towns of Pinsk and Grodno as well.

The parade was also included in the weekly official newsreel (from seconds 40” to 2’25” approximately) played in all the movies of Germany before the main film. Nevertheless, the parade was addressed not to the German people first of all, but it rather demonstrated the Soviet-German brotherhood in arms to Great Britain and France which had declared war on Germany after the invasion of Poland. This must have had its part in the fact that the Western powers watched passively the division of Poland and the killing of hundreds of thousand of Poles and Jews on both sides of it. The terror of these months in the region of Brest is recalled in one of the most beautiful essays of Ryszard Kapuściński, the Pińsk, 1939 introducing his volume The Empire.

Four days after the parade of Brest, German foreign minister Ribbentropp arrived to Moscow. On September 28 the Soviet-German friendship and border agreement was signed. As a part of the agreement, the Soviet secret police NKVD delegated a high rank deputation to Krakow where they demonstrated to the chiefs of the Gestapo their methods used against the Polish underground movement. The leaders of the Gestapo “expressed their admiration” and declared that they also “wished to adopt and apply” the Soviet methods.

Pravda, September 28, 1939. German-Soviet negotiations on the friendship and the borders between the Soviet Union and Germany (from here)

“The scum of mankind, if I’m not mistaken?” – “The bloody killer of the working class, I presume?” David Low, 1939

10 comentarios:

Studiolum dijo...

It is a great honor to us that this post has been posted on the Metafilter, by none less than languagehat himself of whom we are addicted readers.

And just while I’m writing this, the news arrive that it has been also included on the Polish site (where some months ago our post on the medieval bycicle was also included), with that short introduction in Polish: “An amazing blog post which describes in detail in English and illustrates with several photos what our neighbors did to us in 1939.”

Anónimo dijo...

Hi there,
Just thought I'd point out that the bottom cartoon was originally by David Low - the english text was:

Hitler to Stalin: 'The scum of the earth I believe?'
Stalin to Hitler: 'The bloody assassin of the workers, I presume?'

Studiolum dijo...

Thanks a lot for the corrections!

Anónimo dijo...

Hi, I was wondering what your sources are for the photos of the parade? In particular, what is your source for the "brest-1939-gate-of-glory-red-army-550.jpg" image of the gate?

Thank you very much.

Studiolum dijo...

The photos have been published on various Russian sites like the ones quoted here above, or also , , , . This last one is also a good collection of links to further sources.

The photo in question also pops up on a number of sites like the above cited , or .

francesca dijo...

post fan-ta-sti-co, davvero.
l'unico mio rammarico è avere scoperto questo blog così tardi.

(mi permetto di segnalare nella citazione che segue "It is worth to check what the “procession” was considered by its main protagonists" due errori di battitura: beherrschte, Flaggenwechsel. È normale che qualche lettera rimanga sulla tastiera, quando si scrive tanto.)

Studiolum dijo...

tante grazie!

macché rammarico, non hai perso niente. I post stanno qui, aspettando con pazienza ai lettori e diventando sempre più stagionati. Puoi assaggiarli al tuo ritmo, come io lo faccio con quelli della tua bellissima e delicatissima antologia.

Grazie per le correzioni, nunc et semper. Mi consolo dicendomi che solo chi lavora commette errori. E a che cosa servono i benevolenti e knowledgeable lettori se non per indicarmeli ed aiutarmi a correggerli? ;)

francesca dijo...


Perfetto, visto che mi piace il formaggio stagionato (accetto solo il "benevolente", come sei del resto benevolente tu nei miei confronti, e declino, seppur garbatamente, l'altro aggettivo: io, le lingue, non le so, mi limito ad abitarle. Ad esempio su "magyarul", purtroppo, non posso cliccare - insomma, avrai capito, cliccare potrei pure, ma sarebbe una visita in una casa mai esplorata).

Studiolum dijo...

clicca, clicca, clicca, ed esplora questa casa – even if you’re a stranger in this house –, ci troverai tanti amici

potrai anche commentare in italiano, in sloveno o in qualsiasi altra lingua e vedrai quante risposte avrai

e chissà, confrontando l’esotico testo ungherese con quello più familiare che vedi nella traduzione inglese/spagnuola, ti verrà la voglia di tradurre alcune altre poesie magiare oltre a quelle sottilissime di Tolnai Ottó

Magpie dijo...

Felicitaciones. Un trabajo magnífico de recopilación fotográfica.

La cita inicial también es muy apropiada:

"Woe to the grass where elephants fight, but a hundred times woe to the grass where elephants make love."

Humorosa pero, come dicen en inglés, trae su aguijón en la cola.