By midnight August 31, 1939, more than one and a half million German troops had secretly taken up their final positions on the Polish border in preparation for their ordered invasion that was to commence at dawn.
The last barrier separating war and peace was the German pretext upon which Adolf Hitler would use to justify the attack on Poland and the start of the Second World War.
William Shirer’s definitive account of Nazi Germany, so brilliantly retold in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, reports of Hitler’s promised to his generals given just a few weeks earlier, that he would personally create “a propagandist reason for starting the war.”
They need not worry, Hitler reassured them, whether or not such a pretext was plausible. “The victor,” Hitler promised, “will not be asked afterwards whether or not he told the truth. In starting and waging a war it is not right that matters, but victory.”
Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels successfully taught Hitler that good propaganda needed convincing deeds at least as much as it needed convincing words. At the direct instruction of Hitler, Goebbels deputy, SS man Alfred Naujocks concocted a scheme to fake a Polish attack on a German radio station at the border town of Gleiwitz.
SS men outfitted in Polish army uniforms were ordered to stage an attack on the radio station leaving as their dead victims drugged concentration camp inmates. German newsreel cameramen were conveniently pre-positioned at the spot to record images of these ‘German civilians’ murdered in the barbarous and unprovoked Polish attack.
“We seized the radio station, as ordered,” Naujocks minuted to Goebbels, “we broadcast a speech of 3 to 4 minutes over an emergency transmitter, fired a few pistols shots and then left.”
At 5:40 AM on September 1, 1939, Hitler’s proclamation announcing his army’s invasion opening salvo against Poland was broadcast over German radio.
“The Polish state,” Hitler’s communiqué read, “has refused the peaceful settlement of relations which I desired, and has instead appealed to arms. A series of violations on the frontier, intolerable to a Great Power, prove that Poland is no longer willing to respect the frontiers of the German Reich. In order to put an end to this lunacy I have no other choice than to meet force with force.”
Shirer’s vivid account of that morning’s drama is worth quoting directly.
“At daybreak on September 1, 1939, the very date which Hitler had sent in his first directive for Operation Case White back on April 3, 1939, German armies poured across the Polish frontier and converged upon Warsaw from the north and the south and the west.
Overhead German warplanes roared toward their targets: Polish troop columns and ammunition dumps, bridges, railroads in open cities. Within minutes they were giving the Poles, soldiers and civilians alike, the first taste of sudden death and destruction from the skies ever experienced on any great scale on the earth and thereby inaugurating a terror which would become dreadfully familiar to hundreds of millions of men women and children in Europe and Asia over the course of the next six years and whose shadow, after the nuclear bombs came, would haunt all mankind with the threat of utter extinction.”
Within the first few hours of the German invasion, nearly all of the 500 first line fighters and bombers that comprised the Polish Air Force were wiped out, most without ever getting in the air; their ground crews were either killed or wounded; nearly all their support installations destroyed.
By nightfall on September 1, 1939, the battle to secure the Polish Corridor– the land bridge created by the Treaty of Versailles to give the new Polish state access to the Baltic thus separating Prussia from the rest of Germany, had been won. Von Kluge’s Fourth Army, invading from the west had met up with the German Third Army that poured into Poland from Prussia in the east. The Polish Corridor was no more.
Before that day was over Germany had a new military hero. He was commander of Germany’s XIXth Panzer Division. His name was Heinz Guderian. His state of the art tanks formed in innovative new formations raced across the Corridor, brushing aside numerous heroic but hopeless counterattacks by Polish cavalry brigades on horseback, who themselves were being attacked by Stuka dive bombers fitted with speakers to blare their terrifying screams to spread fire and carnage at everything moving below them.
As Shirer wrote in his dispatch that evening, “Whole divisions of tanks breaking through and thrusting forward and seizing and securing 60 miles that day, self-propelled rapid firing heavy guns racing down ruddy Polish roads, the incredible speed of even the infantry, of the whole vast German host of 1.5 million men on motorized wheels, directed and coordinated through a maze of electronic Communications consisting of intricate radio, telephone and telegraph at networks. This was a monstrous mechanized juggernaut such as the earth had never seen.”
Almost immediately, Poland’s government faced the prospect of abandoning Warsaw for Lublin, farther east.
The Poles never had a chance. The attack was so ferocious and came so unexpectedly that Poland was only able to mobilize 35 of its divisions and within days most of them would either be obliterated, conquered or trapped inside vast German pincer movements closing in around Warsaw. By September 17, 1939 the last vestiges of organized Polish resistance had been crushed. All that remained were scattered units strung along the Russian border and a few that with incredible fortitude held out hopelessly in and around ever shrinking sectors of Warsaw.
As Shirer wrote, “For the proud nation of Poland, all was over; all except the dying.” Case White, Hitler proclaimed, would “wipe Poland off the map.” No country’s suffering or destruction in World War II even compared to that of Poland. As cited in Norman Davies book God’s Playground: A History of Poland, Volume 2, by war’s end, one out of four Poles was dead. More than 90% of those who survived the war were homeless. Unlike any city devastated by the war, including Hiroshima, Dresden or Tokyo, Warsaw was completely destroyed; literally. When Russian forces entered Warsaw in January 1945, to begin their own brutal 45 year occupation Poland, not a single pre-war permanent structure remained standing inside the ancient Polish capital.
Today, 75 years to the day that Germany launched history’s most destructive war to erase Poland from the maps and minds of mankind, Poland’s Prime Minister Donald Tusk, was elected President of the European Council to lead the 28 nations of the European Union.