On the evening of 31 August 1939, Himmler orchestrated a fake attack on the radio station in the German town of Gleiwitz on the German-Polish border. The ‘attacked Germans’ had, in self-defence, shot dead some of the Polish assailants, and they produced the photographic evidence to prove it. But the dead Polish soldiers were in fact inmates from a German concentration camp. It may all have been an obvious lie but Hitler used it as his pretext for invasion.
At 4.45 on the morning of Friday, 1 September 1939, the whole weight of Germany’s military might fell on Poland in a lightning attack (Blitzkrieg), using technological military advances, co-ordinated offensive and abrasive speed. Following up the rapid advances, German forces engaged in brutality, executions and merciless aggression against the civilian population.
Nazis invade Poland, September 1939
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S55480 / CC-BY-SA
Chamberlain, making good his guarantee of five months earlier, declared war on Germany on 3 September. In a broadcast speech, he announced: ‘This morning the British ambassador in Berlin handed the German government a final note stating that, unless we hear from them by eleven o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.’
Six hours later, the French dutifully followed suit and also declared war on Germany.
The British contribution to the Polish cause, however, was not with arms, nor soldiers nor aid, but with leaflets – by the million, dropped by plane over Germany, urging the population to stand up against the war.
On 17 September, as the German war machine advanced its way towards Warsaw, the Soviet Union, as secretly agreed in the Non-Aggression Pact, attacked from the east. Crushed between two totalitarian heavyweights, Poland crumbled, and on the twenty-seventh Warsaw surrendered. Agreeing on the partition of Poland, the Germans and Russians then set about the total subjugation of the defeated population: villages razed, inhabitants massacred, the Polish identity eradicated, and in towns such as Lodz, Jews herded into ghettos before eventual transportation to the death camps. Hitler visited Warsaw on 5 October and, casting a satisfied eye over the devastated capital, declared, ‘this is how I deal with any European city’. With another of his objectives achieved, Hitler could have made overtures towards peace talks. No such suggestions were made.