The 1939 Invasion of Poland


Political Index

    In thinking about a possible plot for a science fiction story regarding the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, I did a little historical investigation. 
    Hitler had annexed land on all sides, nolo contendre, without a shot being fired, beginning with the annexation of the Rhineland and the Ruhr Valley in 1936.. At first, European leaders were tolerant of these reclamations of land that had been stripped away from Germany in the harsh Treaty of Versailles. But once the Germans took over Czechoslovakia in March of 1939, the cat was among the pigeons. There was no longer any question among the leaders of Europe that Hitler was going to be appeased. Time Magazine had this to say about him at the end of 1938: 1938 Man of the Year- Adolf Hitler.
    Hitler wasn't seeking anything from Poland other than a chance to invade it, and to test his new Wehrmacht. (He had decided as early as 1926 that he would try to conquer the world.) On August 22, Hitler authorized killing "without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of Polish language or descent". On August 31, 1939, a German radio station at Gliewitz was "attacked" by SS troops wearing Polish uniforms. Heinrich "the Hangman" Heydrich sent German Jews from a concentration camp who were dressed in German uniforms, poisoned, and then shot to make it look as though they had been killed by Polish soldiers.
    At 12:30 a. m. on September 1st, German bombers crossed the German/Polish border to bomb Polish airfields. (Many Polish military aircraft had been dispersed to small camouflaged airfields around Warsaw on August 27th.) At 3:30 a. m., the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein, on a "good-will visit to Gdansk", opened fire on the Polish fort at Westerplatte. At 4:30 that morning, German Panzer units rolled across the border into the flat, open Polish countryside, armed with 3,200 tanks, motorized infantry, and 10,000 artillery pieces against 190 Polish light tanks and 575 tankettes. The Polish responded with anti-tank guns, but the Panzer divisions swept across Poland like a hot knife through butter, and coordinated resistance was futile. Much of the Polish army was trapped, and fought valiantly but hopelessly against enormous odds. The German Panzer units reached the outskirts of Warsaw by September 8th. 

Panzer IV Ausf D

"Knights of our times ... Tank units, mobile, fast and hard hitting, and directed by wireless from headquarters, attack the enemy. This armoured machine paves the way to victory, flattening and crushing all obstacles and spitting out destruction."
Signal, 1940. (Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung 47/1939)

Lieutenant Karl Hanke.
He was born in 1903 in Lauban and became the under-secretary of state in the Propaganda Ministry. In July of 1939, Hanke enlisted in the Panzerlehrregiment with the lowest rank of "Panzerschütze". He fought in Poland in 1939 and France in 1940. In 1941, he left the army and became the Gauleiter of Silesia. Gauleiter Hanke escaped from Breslau on May 5th of 1945, but was never found and pressumed dead.

    The Polish government understood that it couldn't hope to fend off the Germans without help, but hoped to hold on long enough for the French and the British to enter the war and hit Germany from the west. On September 3, Britain and France declared war on Germany, but the French, with what was then considered to be the largest, best-equipped army in Europe, sat idle behind the Maginot line, rather than attacking Germany and forcing it to fight on two fronts. On September 6, the Germans executed 19 Polish officers who had surrendered, in violation of the Geneva Convention. On September 8th, the Germans burned 200 Jews alive in a synagogue, and then charged Poles with the crime and executed 30 Poles in a public square. On September 17, the USSR invaded Poland from the east, in keeping with a secret August agreement signed by Molotov and von Ribbentrop. 
    Hitler explained early in September that his plan was to destroy any potential Polish leadership by executing Polish intellectuals, and on September 24, 800 Polish intellectuals (e. g., university professors) and leaders were murdered in cold blood. On November 3rd, the Gestapo executed 96 Polish schoolteachers, and on November 6th, rounded up 183 professors and sent them to a concentration camp. The German Army refused to participate in these bloodbaths, and Hitler told them that if they wouldn't do it, the SS and the Gestapo would. The Germans murdered about 6,028,000 Polish citizens, of whom nearly 3,000,000 were Jews. Another 1,000,000 were killed by the Soviets. The Germans and the Soviets systematically rounded up, and turned Polish leaders over to their thugs for torture and eventual execution.
    The atrocities committed by the Nazis were so barbaric and upsetting that I'll list only two of them. One consisted of using a Polish priest for target practice. The priest survived until evening, when he died of 21 bullet wounds. On October 8th, the SS executed 20 Poles, including children aged 2 and 8.
    About 4,000 Polish officers and intellectual leaders were killed by the USSR, and were buried in a mass grave in the Katyn Woods.


    A description of the states of mind leading up to World War II may be found in The Campaign in Poland, September 1 - October 1, 1939. In the United States, German-American Bunds were politically influential, and active in espionage. The plans for the Norden bombsight were leaked to the German High Command, who, fortunately, disregarded them as faked. Around the world, there was a lot of sympathy for Hitler among right-wingers, and particularly so in Europe. It's shocking how many U. S. citizens were duped by this monster. Of course, full disclosures of Nazi barbarity didn't emerge until after World War II. The Nazis were diligent about dispersing favorable propaganda about themselves. However, there were accounts published at the time by journalists. (I remember reading, when I was 10, about the horrors described in Jan Valtin's, "Out of the Night", presented in condensed form in Reader's Digest.) You wonder how much the U. S. policy of isolationism was influenced by German sympathizers in the U. S. 
    Hitler was wildly popular in Germany. He made promises, and kept them. Like Saddam Hussein, Hitler courted his nation's public. He is considered the most effective orator in German history. The pictures below convey the crowd's attitudes toward this consummate butcher.

    The posters shown above convey the body language of might, and of "obey me or I'll hit you" The little girl is smiling, but the boy is deadly determined. I can only guess at the messages, but I would speculate that the caption under the little girls says something like "All of our 10 years". The caption at the top of the lower left poster may be saying something like, "We workers have awakened." "Liste" translates as "list" or "roll". The words, "Deutschland Europaische Sendung" comes across in my pidgin translation as "Germany's European Mission" or "Germany's European Message".
    When I was in college during the 50's, I had discussions with European friends who conveyed their impressions of World War II.
    One of my friends was Peter Schrader/Fatianow. Pete's father was a prominent Berlin architect who designed some of Hitler's new buildings that lined the Unter den Linden, and who died before World War II. Pete's Dad wanted him to join the Hitler Jugend, but his mother nixed that idea because she felt that the Hitler youth organization was a bit military. Pete was drafted into the German Navy during the war, and was put in charge of a patrol-torpedo boat in the Mediterranean, along with two crewmen. One morning, a British torpedo plane dropped a single torpedo that headed for the boat. Pete and his  two crewmen dove off the boat before it exploded, and were rescued, to become British POWs. In the meantime, Pete's sister had allegedly become the prima ballerina in the Viennese ballet (as I remember it).
    After the war, Pete and a few friends organized a little band that played in beer halls. Eventually, they were given a slot on Radio Munich. Then Pete came to the United States to check on some property that the family owned, while his mother and sister emigrated to Argentina. Pete enrolled in engineering at the University of Indiana, graduating with his degree in 1954.
    Pete said that some of the most beautiful music he ever heard was composed by the Nazis. He said that Hitler revitalized Germany at a time (during the Great Depression) when people were literally starving in the streets.
    In December, 1958, Ruth and I attended a Christmas party on Redstone Arsenal commemorating the launching of the Explorer I satellite earlier in the year. A U. S. Army colonel and his wife sat across from us. He said that in 1936, he had been a young attaché with the U. S. Embassy in Berlin, and had attended one of Hitler's addresses. He said that as Hitler spoke,  it was like magnetic waves passing over the audience. He said that he was embarrassed to admit it, but as loyal as he was to the U. S., and as concerned as he was even then about what Hitler represented, he found himself lifting his arm and saying, "Heil, Hitler!" along with the Germans there in the square. It was that mesmeric.

(To be continued)