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Poland in the Modern World: Beyond Martyrdom by Brian Porter-Sz̋cs

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7

WORLD WAR II, 1939–45

When Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, he triggered a chain of events that sparked a global conflagration worse than anything humanity had ever experienced. It’s hard to come up with a figure for the casualties caused by World War II, but estimates range between 62 million and 78 million deaths worldwide. Civilians account for about two thirds of this figure, and about 20 percent came from starvation or disease directly caused by the war. The Soviet Union suffered the highest absolute number of casualties (at least 23 million), with China not far behind. It was Poland, though, that had the highest percentage of human losses: according to the best data available, somewhere between 5.6 and 5.8 million Polish citizens perished during World War II, which was more than 16 percent of the prewar population (see Figure 7.1).1 To put all this in perspective, for Great Britain today to lose a share of its inhabitants comparable to Poland’s losses between 1939 and 1945, everyone in both the greater London and greater Manchester metropolitan areas would perish. A comparable percentage loss in the United States would entail the death of everyone on the west coast – the states of California, Oregon, and Washington combined.

The war did not fall evenly on the various communities within pre-war Poland (see Figure 7.2). This makes it hard to calculate Polish deaths, because it all depends on how one defines “Polish.” We could count losses among ...

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