Adolf Hitler’s rearmament program began when he brought the National Socialist German Workers’ Party into power in 1933. This policy was immediately noticed by the Allied powers, but they did little to enforce the Treaty of Versailles and allowed Hitler to expand the German Army beyond the 100,000 combatants that were permitted in 1919. Notably, the Wehrmacht was founded in 1935 – the dawn of the Nazi forces. Production of war resources and military weapons/gear continued.
This furiously passionate man felt oppressed and offended that Germany had lost the First World War. Large swathes of German and Austro-Hungarian territory had been split up into numerous independent nations, administered by the victorious Allies.
In 1919, Poland had been built from former-German land. The Germans believed that Poland did not deserve to be independent, since it was a creation of the Allied powers. East Prussia had been split from the German heartland in order to allow the now-independent Poland access to the sea, via the “Danzig Corridor”. As a result, West Prussia was virtually non-existent.
The Poles and Czechs are a rabble not worth a penny more than the inhabitants of Sudan or India. How can they demand the rights of independent states?
The European Allies implemented a policy called “appeasement” in order to maintain the peace that had been restored following WWI. This forced them to cede some territories and privileges to Hitler in years prior to WWII. For example, he remilitarized the Rhineland and there as little response to this offence.
In 1938, Germans in Austria and supporters of the Nazi movement attempted to rise up against the Austrian government to include the nation in the Third Reich. On March 12th, German troops marched into Austria and annexed the German population.
An area in Czechoslovakia called the Sudetenland was home to a majority of ethnic-Germans – they had never been a part of Germany, but Hitler believed that everyone of Aryan blood, no matter where they lived, belonged to the Third Reich. Hitler had his eyes set on this territory and wanted to annex it for Germany.
One of the Allied negotiations regarded appeasement was the Munich Agreement in 1938, which debated whether Germany should be given the Sudetenland. What is most upsetting about the negotiations was that Czechoslovakia itself was excluded from the talks. Hitler got his way, and took the Sudetenland.
In return, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler gave the British and French a signed paper testifying that he would not take any land beyond Czechoslovakia. The Munich Agreement was met by riots in the city but Britain was relieved. Neville Chamberlain believed that he had achieved the maintenance of European peace.
The Czechs were told that Hitler was their “liberator”, but they rose up regardless. Hitler proclaimed that these rebelling Czechs were persecuting the ethnic-Germans and Nazis in their country.
Hitler believed that the annexation of Poland was the first step in his conquest of Europe. His excuse for the attack was that Germans living in Poland were being oppressed and “driven from their homes”. He strongly hated the Poles, and called them “Untermenschen”, or “sub-humans”. This is why the Germans referred to their invasion of Poland as the “1939 Defensive War”, as they believed that the Poles provoked it.
Additionally, he mentioned that Poland was planning an assault on Germany with their allies, France and Great Britain. This is almost certainly not true, but Hitler used this excuse nevertheless.
The Germans staged several acts of “Polish aggression” in order to solidify this excuse for an invasion. At the Sender Gleiwitz radio station on the 31st of August 1939, the Germans disguised a group of SS members as Poles and ordered them to assault the radio tower and surrounding area.
Furthermore, they broadcasted messages encouraging the Poles to revolt against the Nazis, to make it seem as if Polish media was acting threateningly towards Germany. Another staged act was the burning of a house in the Polish Danzig Corridor. Danzig was a city of ethnic-German majority but was in Polish territory, given to Poland as a result of the Treaty of Versailles – this gave them access to the sea. Still, the Corridor had a Polish majority in population.
On the 1st of September 1939, Hitler declared a series of Polish offences and staged assaults like the Gleiwitz incident and ordered his army to invade Poland. There was no official warning or declaration of war, but German armored columns immediately began to cross the border, starting “Fall Weiss” or “Case White”.
Even though the Poles and Soviets had a non-aggression pact, Joseph Stalin decided the that USSR could reap the rewards of Hitler’s conquest and had formed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with Germany a week before the invasion. Stalin also feared that since Hitler had annexed the Sudetenland, he may attempt to also annex parts of the Soviet Union and Western Russia.
The German army had been preparing for the last two weeks of August; forces were moved to the German-Polish border and at least seventy divisions were assembled. Many of these were armored or blitzkrieg-mobilized. The Poles were outclassed – they were only able to mobilize thirty divisions and a large portion of the Polish army defending the country against the German invasion was made up of old-fashioned cavalry units.
With five thousand modern tanks to attack Poland, the Nazis were well prepared for a powerful, fast invasion. However, the Poles only had six hundred tanks – most of these were outdated models.
Britain and France had guaranteed Poland’s borders. The country was flat and low-lying in the West. The only area that the Poles could fight in a strong defensive position was behind the River Vistula. However, this meant that they would have to sacrifice the capital, Warsaw. Instead of taking up the safer position and surrendering the capital, they decided to take up the less defensive tactic and wait near the German-Polish border.
The Germans wanted to take primary pincer movements to trap the bulk of the Polish army near the border, by sending in troops from North and South and attacking from the West. This pincer would then be extended East to catch any escaping troops or divisions.
They would pinpoint a very small target area in the enemy line, and break it. This would create a narrow gap, but one large enough for troops to travel through. Waves and motorized units would then be sent in to flood the enemy positions and destroy them quickly. Finally, the divisions would circle around and attack any remaining formations.
German motor-drawn artillery and motorized infantry launched an extremely rapid advance through the Polish countryside, attempting to break the country in the pincer movement as fast as possible. When these troops were too tired to go any further, tanks continued to rumble on – gaining more and more distance and closing in on Polish resistance troops. For the first time, the Nazis put the “Blitzkrieg” or “Lightning War” tactic into effect. Blitzkrieg shocked both the Poles and the German generals with how immediately effective it was.
Large infantry units moved in behind tanks and aircraft to wipe out any remaining resistance to the invasion – smashing all opposition in sight. Entire villages were burnt to the ground. Hitler deployed SS Death Head squads and five Einsatzgruppen – SS execution squads – to round up all rebels to be killed. Civilians were killed behind the lines and massive atrocities were committed by the Nazis. Fifty-five Polish peasants were lined up on the 3rd of September and shot, including a child of two years old. Nazi administrators ensured that everyone complied with the rules.
The Poles fought a defensive war. Their army, numbering about 1.3 million combatants, refused to take defensive positions and charged the advancing Germans with cavalry. Resistance tactics were old fashioned, and the Poles were ill-equipped. Still, the Poles were inly slightly outnumbered, as the Germans had one-and-a-half million troops.
Hitler used over two thousand tanks and a thousand airplanes in order to destroy Polish defenses.
Whilst the German army advanced on the ground, skies lit up with bombs, flares and bullets. The Luftwaffe used sudden air attacks on Poland’s air force infrastructure, preventing them from taking to the air and defending the skies. At least five hundred airplanes – sitting on the ground (undefended) – and numerous Polish airfields were destroyed. They deliberately caused panic and confusion by targeting civilian centers and emergency assembly points. Terror bombings wrecked Polish morale.
Germany had two times as many aircraft – which were generally more advanced than their enemy – as the Polish air force defending the nation.
Hitler’s bombing of railways, munitions dumps and factories severely damaged Polish war infrastructure and made retreats and coordination of resistance difficult. On the 2nd of September, a railway station was bombed by a German aircraft, killing over a hundred people.
Britain and France, allied with Poland, declared war on Germany on the 3rd of September. The British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, was shocked and enraged that Germany had dishonored their promise not to take any land beyond Czechoslovakia verified on paper at Munich.
Meanwhile, German forces approached the capital of Poland, Warsaw. Poland’s second-most important city, Cracow, had already fallen on the 6th. On the 8th of September, German soldiers reached the city and began to enclose it, preparing for a siege. Warsaw was bombed heavily and ultimately surrendered on the 27th of September 1939. It survived the brutal siege for sixteen days before the capital fell to the German onslaught. The radio in Warsaw played the country’s anthem on repeat round the clock to inspire the troops and civilians that were holding out and offering resistance.
However, with the capture of Warsaw, the government quickly fell apart and officials fled to safer places, including Romania. Polish resistance died down as the winter approached and the poles died from hunger, cold and exhaustion. Hitler’s war machine took eighteen days to capture the majority of Poland.
On September 17th, Stalin ordered his Russian troops to flood into Eastern Poland and they had excellent success, since Poland was already significantly weakened and almost defenseless. The final defeat of Polish forces came at the Battle of Kock on the 6th of October. Germany and Russia had established almost unshakeable control over Poland.
Hitler respected the German-Soviet non-aggression pact and split Poland between the Soviets and Nazis. Under the Frontier Treaty, Poland was annexed and divided into thirds. The Soviets took the two Eastern thirds – including West Ukraine and Byelorussia – whilst Germany took the large Western third, which essentially became a German puppet state. In this region, he built forced labour and concentration camps for all those who oppressed Nazi rule and ideology. Over a million civilians were evicted from their homes so that ethnic-Germans could have somewhere to live in Poland. This meant that there was a huge homeless population in Poland following Hitler’s invasion.
The town is crowded with Germans. They are quartered in all the larger houses. Most of them are from Austria an some from Vienna. In general, the Germans are trying to clean up the city. For this work they are using only Jews. Jews must sweep the streets, clean all the public latrines, and fill all the street trenched. Plastered everywhere are German novices giving an idea of what we can expect in the future.Diary of Dr. Zygmunt Klukowski, chief physician of the village of Szczebrzeszyn.
More than 5.5 million Poles died in the Nazi occupation of Poland, and 150,000 died under Soviet rule.
Britain and France had begun mobilization of their forces several months before Germany’s invasion of Poland, for they feared German aggression. However, Chamberlain believed that the Poles would offer a very strong resistance and had not expected them to fall apart so quickly, nor did he expect that Poland would be invaded by the Soviet Union under Stalin also. Therefore, he was slow to transport forces into Europe and this was one of the reasons France fell so quickly when the Nazis marched into the West.
When Hitler betrayed and invaded the Soviet Union in 1942, he captured all of Poland and occupied it until January of 1945.
The invasion of Poland in 1939 was a huge atrocity and triggered the beginning of the Second World War.