The General Government — sometimes also referred to as General Governorate (Generalgouvernement in German, Generalne Gubernatorstwo in Polish, and Генеральна губернія in Ukrainian) — was a German zone of occupation established after the joint invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939 at the onset of World War II. The full title of the regime in Germany until July 1940 was the Generalgouvernement für die besetzten polnischen Gebiete, a name that is usually translated as “General Government for the Occupied Polish Territories”. On July 31, 1940, governor Hans Frank, on Hitler’s authority, shortened the name to just Generalgouvernement. A more literal translation of Generalgouvernement, which is a borrowing from French, would be General Governorate. The correct translation of the term “Gouvernement” is not government but actually governorate, which is a type of administrative division or territory. The area was also known colloquially as the Restpolen (“Remainder of Poland”).
The basis for the formation of General Government was a German claim of the total collapse of the Polish state, proclaimed by Hitler on October 8, 1939, through the so-called Annexation Decree on the Administration of the Occupied Polish Territories. This rationale was utilized by the German Supreme Court to reassign the identity of all Polish nationals as stateless subjects, with exception of the ethnic Germans of interwar Poland, named the only rightful citizens of the Third Reich, in disregard of international law.
The newly occupied Second Polish Republic was split into three zones: the General Government in its center, Polish areas annexed by Nazi Germany in the west and Polish areas annexed by the Soviet Union in the east. The size of the General Government zone in 1939 amounted to 36,680 square miles (95,000 km²). The General Government was run by Nazi Germany as a separate administrative unit for logistical purposes. When the Wehrmacht forces attacked the Soviet positions in Kresy in June 1941 during its initially successful Operation Barbarossa, the area of the General Government was enlarged by the inclusion of the regions of Poland occupied by the Red Army since 1939, bringing the total area to 54,827 square miles (142,000 km²). Within days, Eastern Galicia was overrun and renamed Distrikt Galizien. Until 1945, the General Government comprised much of central and southern Poland (and of modern-day Western Ukraine), including the major Polish cities of Warsaw, Kraków, Lwów, Lublin, Tarnopol and Stanisławów, among others.
The Nazi German rulers of the Generalgouvernement territory had no intention of sharing power with the Poles or Ukrainians throughout the war, regardless of their political orientation. The authorities rarely even mentioned the name “Poland” in government correspondence. The only exception to this was the General Government’s Bank of Issue in Poland (Bank Emisyjny w Polsce in Polish or Emissionbank in Polen in German). The government and administration of the General Government was composed entirely of Germans, with the intent that the area was to be colonized by German settlers who would reduce the remaining population to the level of serfs before their final genocide.
The designation General Government was chosen in reference to the Government General of Warsaw, a civil entity created in the area by the German Empire during World War I. This district existed from 1914 to 1918 together with an Austro-Hungarian-controlled Military Government of Lublin alongside the short-lived Kingdom of Poland of 1916-1918, a similar rump state formed out of the then-Russian-controlled parts of Poland.
After Germany’s attack on Poland on September 1, 1939, all areas occupied by the German army including the Free City of Danzig initially came under the military rule. This area extended from the 1939 eastern border of Germany proper and of East Prussia up to the Bug River where the German armies had halted their advance and linked up with the Soviet Red Army in accordance with their secret pact against Poland.
The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact signed on August 23, 1939, had promised the vast territory between the Vistula and Bug rivers to the Soviet “sphere of influence” in divided Poland, while the two powers would have jointly ruled Warsaw. To settle the deviation from the original agreement, the German and Soviet representatives met again on September 28 to delineate a permanent border between the two countries. Under this revised version of the pact the territory concerned was exchanged for the inclusion in the Soviet sphere of Lithuania, which had originally fallen within the ambit of Germany. With the new agreement the entire central part of Poland, including the core ethnic area of the Poles, came under exclusively German control.
Hitler decreed the direct annexation to the German Reich of large parts of the occupied Polish territory in the western half of the German zone, in order to increase the Reich’s Lebensraum. Germany organized most of these areas as two new Reichsgaue: Danzig-West Prussia and Wartheland. The remaining three regions, the so-called areas of Zichenau, Eastern Upper Silesia and the Suwałki triangle, became attached to adjacent Gaue of Germany. Draconian measures were introduced by both RKF and HTO, to facilitate the immediate Germanization of the annexed territory, typically resulting in mass expulsions, especially in the Warthegau. The remaining parts of the former Poland were to become a German Nebenland (March, borderland) as a frontier post of German rule in the east. A Führer’s decree of October 12, 1939 established the General Government; the decree came into force on October 26, 1939.
Hans Frank was appointed as the Governor-General of the General Government. German authorities made a sharp contrast between the new Reich territory and a supposedly occupied rump state that could serve as a bargaining chip with the Western powers. The Germans established a closed border between the two German zones to heighten the difficulty of cross-frontier communication between the different segments of the Polish population.
The official name chosen for the new entity was the Generalgouvernement für die besetzten polnischen Gebiete (General Government for the Occupied Polish Territories), then changed to the Generalgouvernement (General Government) by Frank’s decree of July 31, 1940. However, this name did not imply anything about the actual nature of the administration. The German authorities never regarded these Polish lands (apart from the short period of military administration during the actual invasion of Poland) as an occupied territory. The Nazis considered the Polish state to have effectively ceased to exist with its defeat in the September campaign.
The government seat of the General Government was located in Kraków (Krakau in German) rather than Warsaw for security reasons. The official state language was German, although Polish continued to be used by local government. Useful institutions of the old Polish state were retained for ease of administration. The Polish police, with no high-ranking Polish officers (who were arrested or demoted), was reorganized as the Blue Police and became subordinated to the Ordnungspolizei. The Polish educational system was similarly kept, but most higher institutions were closed. The Polish local administration was kept, subordinated to new German bosses. The Polish fiscal system, including the złoty currency, was kept, but with revenues now going to the German state. A new bank was created and issued new banknotes.
The Germans sought to play Ukrainians and Poles off against each other. Within ethnic Ukrainian areas annexed by Germany, beginning in October 1939, Ukrainian Committees were established with the purpose of representing the Ukrainian community to the German authorities and assisting the approximately 30,000 Ukrainian refugees who fled from Soviet-controlled territories. These committees also undertook cultural and economic activities that had been banned by the previous Polish government. Schools, choirs, reading societies and theaters were opened, and twenty Ukrainian churches that had been closed by the Polish government were reopened. A Ukrainian publishing house was created in Kraków, which despite having to struggle with German censors and paper shortages was able to publish school textbooks, classics of Ukrainian literature, and the works of dissident Ukrainian writers from the Soviet Union. By March 1941, there were 808 Ukrainian educational societies with 46,000 members. Ukrainian organizations within the General Government were able to negotiate the release of 85,000 Ukrainian prisoners of war from the German-Polish conflict (although they were unable to help Soviet POWs of Ukrainian ethnicity).
For administrative purposes the General Government was subdivided into four districts (Distrikte). These were the Distrikt Warschau, the Distrikt Lublin, the Distrikt Radom, and the Distrikt Krakau. After the Operation Barbarossa against the Soviets in June 1941, East Galicia (part of Poland, annected by Ukrainian SSR on the basis of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact), was incorporated into the General Government and became its fifth district: Distrikt Galizien. The new German administrative units were much larger than those organized by the Polish government, reflecting the German lack of sufficient administrative personnel to staff smaller units.
The five districts were further sub-divided into urban counties (Stadtkreise) and rural counties (Kreishauptmannschaften). Following a decree on September 15, 1941, the names of most of the major cities (and their respective counties) were renamed based on historical German data or given germanified versions of their Polish and Soviet names if none existed. At times the previous names remained the same as well (i.e. Radom).
In March 1941, Hans Frank informed his subordinates that Hitler had made the decision to “turn this region into a purely German area within 15–20 years”. He explained: “Where 12 million Poles now live, is to be populated by 4 to 5 million Germans. The Generalgouvernement must become as German as the Rhineland.” By 1942, Hitler and Frank had agreed that the Kraków (“with its purely German capital”) and Lublin districts would be the first areas for German colonists to re-populate. Hitler stated: “When these two weak points have been strengthened, it should be possible to slowly drive back the Poles.” Subsequently, German policy envisaged reducing lower-class Poles to the status of serfs, while deporting or otherwise eliminating the middle and upper classes and eventually replacing them with German colonists of the “master race”.
German bureaucrats drew up various plans regarding the future of the original population. One called for the deportation of about 20 million Poles to Western Siberia, and the Germanization of 4 to 5 million; although deportation in reality meant many Poles were to be put to death, a small number would be “Germanized”, and young Poles of desirable qualities would be kidnapped and raised in Germany. In the General Government, all secondary education was abolished and all Polish cultural institutions closed.
In 1943, the government selected the Zamojskie area for further Germanization on account of its fertile black soil, and German colonial settlements were planned. Zamość was initially renamed by the government to Himmlerstadt (Himmler City), which was later changed to Pflugstadt (Plough City). Most of the Polish population was expelled by the Nazi occupation authorities with documented brutality. Himmler intended the city of Lublin to have a German population of 20% to 25% by the beginning of 1944, and of 30% to 40% by the following year, at which time Lublin was to be declared a German city and given a German mayor.
The General Government was inhabited by 11.4 million people in December 1939. A year later the population increased to 12.1 million. In December 1940, 83.3% of the population were Poles, 11.2% – Jews, 4.4% – Ukrainians and Belarusians, 0.9% – Germans, 0.2% – others. About 860,000 Poles and Jews were resettled into the General Government after they have been expelled from the territories ‘annexed’ by Nazi Germany. Offsetting this was the German genocidal campaign of liquidation of the Polish intelligentsia and other elements considered likely to resist. From 1941, disease and hunger also began to reduce the population.
Poles were also deported in large numbers to work as forced labor in Germany: eventually about a million were deported, of whom many died in Germany. In 1940, the population was segregated into different groups. Each group had different rights, food rations, allowed strips in the cities, public transportation and restricted restaurants. They were divided from the most privileged, to the least:
- Germans from Germany (Reichdeutsche)
- Germans from outside, active ethnic Germans, Volksliste category 1 and 2
- Germans from outside, passive Germans and members of families (this group also included some ethnic Poles), Volksliste category 3 and 4
- Highlanders (Goralenvolk) – an attempt to split the Polish nation by using local collaborators
- Poles (partially exterminated)
- Gypsies (eventually largely exterminated as a category)
- Jews (eventually largely exterminated as a category)
After the invasion of Poland in 1939, Jews over the age of 12 and Poles over the age of 14 living in the General Government were subject to forced labor. Poles from other regions of Poland conquered by Germany were expelled to the General Government and the area was used as a slave labour pool from which men and women taken by force to work as laborers in factories and farms in Germany. In 1942, all non-Germans living in the General Government were subject to forced labor.
Parts of Warsaw and several towns (Sulejów, Frampol) were destroyed during the Polish-German war in September 1939. Poles weren’t able to buy any construction materials to reconstruct their houses or businesses. They lost their savings and GG Currency was managed by the newly created Bank Emisyjny w Polsce. Former Polish state property was confiscated by the General Government (or the Third Reich on the annexed territories). Notable property of Polish individuals (such as factories and large land estates) was often confiscated as well and managed by German Treuhänder, small Jewish houses and businesses were left to Poles. Farmers were required to provide large food contingents for the Germans, and there were plans for nationalization of all but the smallest estates.
During the Wannsee conference on January 20, 1942, the State Secretary of the General Government, SS-Brigadeführer Josef Bühler encouraged Heydrich to implement the “Final Solution”. From his own point of view, as an administrative official, the problems in his district included an overdeveloped black market. He endorsed a remedy in solving the “Jewish question” as fast as possible. An additional point in favor of setting up the extermination facilities in his governorate was that there were no transportation problems there, with all assets of the disbanded Polish National Railways (PKP) managed by Deutsche Reichsbahn branch of GEDOB in Kraków, making a network of death trains readily available to the SS-Totenkopfverbände.
The newly drafted Operation Reinhard would be a major step in the systematic liquidation of the Jews in occupied Europe, beginning with those in the General Government. Within months, three top-secret camps were built and equipped with stationary gas chambers disguised as shower rooms, based on Action T4, solely to efficiently kill thousands of people each day.
The Germans began the elimination of the Jewish population under the guise of “resettlement” in the Spring of 1942. The three Reinhard camps including Treblinka (the deadliest of them all) had transferable SS staff and an almost identical design. The General Government was the location of four of the seven extermination camps of World War II in which the most extreme measures of the Holocaust were carried out, including closely located Majdanek concentration camp, Sobibor extermination camp and Belzec extermination camp. The genocide of undesired “races”, chiefly millions of Jews from Poland and other countries, was carried out by gassing between 1942 and 1944.
Resistance to the German occupation began almost at once, although there is little terrain in Poland suitable for guerrilla operations. Several small army troops supported by volunteers fought till Spring 1940, e.g. under major Henryk Dobrzański, after which they ceased due to German executions of civilians as reprisals.
The main resistance force was the Home Army (Armia Krajowa or AK), loyal to the Polish government in exile in London. It was formed mainly of the surviving remnants of the pre-War Polish Army, together with many volunteers. Other forces existed side-by-side, such as the communist People’s Army (Armia Ludowa or AL) parallel to the PPR, organized and controlled by the Soviet Union. The AK was estimated between 200,000 and 600,000 men, while the AL was estimated between 14,000 and 60,000. During the occupation, the various Polish resistance organizations killed about 150,000 Axis soldiers.
In April 1943, the Germans began deporting the remaining Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto, provoking the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, April 19 to May 16 That was the first armed uprising against the Germans in Poland, and prefigured the larger and longer Warsaw Uprising of 1944.
In July 1944, as the Soviet armed forces approached Warsaw, the government in exile called for an uprising in the city, so that they could return to a liberated Warsaw and try to prevent a Communist take-over. The AK, led by Tadeusz Bór-Komorowski, launched the Warsaw Rising on August 1 in response both to their government and to Soviet and Allied promises of help. However Soviet help was never forthcoming, despite the Soviet army being only 18 miles (30 km) away, and Soviet denial of their airbases to British and American planes prevented any effective resupply or air support of the insurgents by the Western allies. After 63 days of fighting the leaders of the rising agreed a conditional surrender with the Wehrmacht. The 15,000 remaining Home Army soldiers were granted POW status (prior to the agreement, captured rebels were shot), and the remaining civilian population of 180,000 expelled.
Overall, 4 million of the 1939 population of the General Government area had lost their lives by the time the Soviet armed forces entered the area in late 1944. If the Polish underground killed a German, 50–100 Poles were executed by German police as a punishment and as a warning to other Poles. As the Soviets advanced through Poland in late 1944 the General Government collapsed. American troops captured Hans Frank, who had governed the region, in May 1945; he became one of the defendants at the Nuremberg Trials. During his trial he resumed his childhood practice of Catholicism and expressed repentance. Frank surrendered forty volumes of his diaries to the Tribunal and much evidence against him and others was gathered from them. He was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. On October 1, 1946 he was sentenced to death by hanging. The sentence was carried out on October 16.
The first stamps, for what would be the Generalgouvernment of Poland, were issued beginning December 1, 1939. The watermarked swastikas Hindenburg definitive postage stamp issues of the Third Reich were utilized for these German occupation stamps. These stamps were overprinted Deutsche Post / OSTEN, which literally means “Eastern German Mail” (Scott #N17-N29). The stamps were surcharged in Polish currency, ranging from 6 groschen through 2 zloty denominations. These remained valid for postage until the Fall of 1940, though the first official issues of the new territory, inscribed General / Gouvernment, would appear in August of 1940. Up until the Spring of 1940, the use of the regular postage stamps of the Third Reich was also tolerated in the new territory.
When the new occupation government was established in 1940, existing stocks of Polish definitive and postage due stamps were overprinted with the Nazi emblem, the revalued denomination, and the name of the new occupation government (Scott #N30-N55). The overprinting on each of the Polish stamps was positioned to obliterate the country name and denomination on each of the stamps, thus the overprinting varies in location and arrangement on each of the stamps in this set. The overprints and surcharges were applied to these issues by the State Printing Offices in Vienna. These overprinted and revalued Polish stamps were used up until regular postage stamp issues became available in late 1940. They did, however, remain legally valid for postal use until November 1941. Counterfeits do exist, though in most cases it is not a serious problem in collecting this set.
A set of official stamps was issued in early April of 1940 (Scott #NO1-NO15), including today’s stamp — the 50 groschen royal blue (Scott #NO10). The stamps were all printed using the photogravure process. The groschen denominations are perforated 12½ and the zloty denominations are perforated 13½ x 14½.
The Generalgouvernment of Poland issued their first twelve pictorial non-overerinted definitive stamps between August and September of 1940, portratying sights in Krakow, Lublin, and Warsaw, plus color changes for five values in August and September of 1941 (Scott #N56-N72). Four charity stamps were issued on August 17, 1940, utilizing the same designs as the definitive postage stamps issued previously (Scott #NB1-NB4). However, they are all printed in the same color, that being olive gray. The surtax amount went to the Red Cross, for the aid of wounded German soldiers.
In early 1943, the British government created propaganda stamps. Instead of the effigy of Adolf Hitler, these forgeries show a portrait of Hans Frank, the Governor-General of the Generalgouvernment of Poland. The stamps air-dropped to the Polish Resistance for use in mailing anti-Nazi propaganda leaflets. Authentic examples of these propaganda forgeries are very rare and are beyond the financial means of most collectors. Facsimiles, in various colors, abound on the philatelic market, and they are worth about $1.00 each.
The final stamp issued by the General Government was a beautifully-engraved surtaxed 10 zloty + 10 zloty design featuring a medieval drawing of Krakow Castle (Scott #NB41). It was released on October 26, 1944, to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the formation of the General Government and was printed in sheets of eight.