Military history

NAZI TERROR IN POLAND: FIRST PHASE

Not many days after the German attack on Poland my diary began to fill with items about the Nazi terror in the conquered land. Later one would learn that many another diary was filling with them too. Hassell on October 19 reported hearing of “the shocking bestialities of the S.S., especially toward the Jews.” A little later he was confiding to his diary a story told by a German landlord in the province of Posen.

The last thing he had seen there was a drunken district Party leader who had ordered the prison opened; he had shot five whores, and attempted to rape two others.35

On October 18, Halder wrote down in his diary the main points of a talk he had had with General Eduard Wagner, the Quartermaster General, who had conferred with Hitler that day about the future of Poland. That future was to be grim.

We have no intention of rebuilding Poland … Not to be a model state by German standards. Polish intelligentsia must be prevented from establishing itself as a governing class. Low standard of living must be conserved. Cheap slaves …

Total disorganization must be created! The Reich will give the Governor General the means to carry out this devilish plan.

The Reich did.

A brief account of the beginning of Nazi terror in Poland, as disclosed by the captured German documents and the evidence at the various Nuremberg trials, may now be given. It was but a forerunner to dark and terrible deeds that would eventually be inflicted by the Germans on all the conquered peoples. But from first to last it was worse in Poland than anyplace else. Here Nazi barbarism reached an incredible depth.

Just before the attack on Poland was launched, Hitler had told his generals at the conference on the Obersalzberg on August 22 that things would happen “which would not be to the taste of German generals” and he warned them that they “should not interfere in such matters but restrict themselves to their military duties.” He knew whereof he spoke. Both in Berlin and in Poland this writer soon was being overwhelmed with reports of Nazi massacres. So were the generals. On September 10, with the Polish campaign in full swing, Halder noted in his diary an example which soon became widely known in Berlin. Some toughs belonging to an S.S. artillery regiment, having worked fifty Jews all day on a job of bridge repairing, herded them into a synagogue and, as Halder put it, “massacred them.” Even General von Kuechler, the commander of the Third Army, who was later to have few qualms, refused to confirm the light sentences of the court-martial meted out to the murderers—one year in prison—on the ground that they were too lenient. But the Army Commander in Chief, Brauchitsch, quashed the sentences altogether though not until Himmler had intervened, with the excuse that they came under a “general amnesty.”

The German generals, upright Christians that they considered themselves to be, found the situation embarrassing. On September 12 there was a meeting on the Fuehrer’s railroad train between Keitel and Admiral Canaris at which the latter protested against the atrocities in Poland. The lackey Chief of OKW curtly replied that “the Fuehrer has already decided on this matter.” If the Army wanted “no part in these occurrences it would have to accept the S.S. and Gestapo as rivals”—that is, it would have to accept S.S. commissars in each military unit “to carry out the exterminations.”

I pointed out to General Keitel [Canaris wrote in his diary, which was produced at Nuremberg] that I knew that extensive executions were planned in Poland and that particularly the nobility and the clergy were to be exterminated. Eventually the world would hold the Wehrmacht responsible for these deeds.36

Himmler was too clever to let the generals wiggle out of part of the responsibility. On September 19 Heydrich, Himmler’s chief assistant, paid a visit to the Army High Command and told General Wagner of S.S. plans for the “housecleaning of [Polish] Jews, intelligentsia, clergy and the nobility.” Halder’s reaction to such plans was put down in his diary after Wagner had reported to him:

Army insists that “housecleaning” be deferred until Army has withdrawn and the country has been turned over to civil administration. Early December.

This brief diary entry by the Chief of the Army General Staff provides a key to the understanding of the morals of the German generals. They were not going to seriously oppose the “housecleaning”—that is, the wiping out of the Polish Jews, intelligentsia, clergy and nobility. They were merely going to ask that it be “deferred” until they got out of Poland and could escape the responsibility. And, of course, foreign public opinion must be considered. As Halder jotted down in his diary the next day, after a long conference with Brauchitsch about the “housecleaning” in Poland:

Nothing must occur which would afford foreign countries an opportunity to launch any sort of atrocity propaganda based on such incidents. Catholic clergy! Impractical at this time.

The next day, September 21, Heydrich forwarded to the Army High Command a copy of his initial “housecleaning” plans. As a first step the Jews were to be herded into the cities (where it would be easy to round them up for liquidation). “The final solution,” he declared, would take some time to achieve and must be kept “strictly secret,” but no general who read the confidential memorandum could have doubted that the “final solution” was extermination.37 Within two years, when it came time to carry it out, it would become one of the most sinister code names bandied about by high German officials to cover one of the most hideous Nazi crimes of the war.

What was left of Poland after Russia seized her share in the east and Germany formally annexed her former provinces and some additional territory in the west was designated by a decree of the Fuehrer of October 12 as the General Government of Poland and Hans Frank appointed as its Governor General, with Seyss-Inquart, the Viennese quisling, as his deputy. Frank was a typical example of the Nazi intellectual gangster. He had joined the party in 1927, soon after his graduation from law school, and quickly made a reputation as the legal light of the movement. Nimble-minded, energetic, well read not only in the law but in general literature, devoted to the arts and especially to music, he became a power in the legal profession after the Nazis assumed office, serving first as Bavarian Minister of Justice, then Reichsminister without Portfolio and president of the Academy of Law and of the German Bar Association. A dark, dapper, bouncy fellow, father of five children, his intelligence and cultivation partly offset his primitive fanaticism and up to this time made him one of the least repulsive of the men around Hitler. But behind the civilized veneer of the man lay the cold killer. The forty-two-volume journal he kept of his life and works, which showed up at Nuremberg,* was one of the most terrifying documents to come out of the dark Nazi world, portraying the author as an icy, efficient, ruthless, bloodthirsty man. Apparently it omitted none of his barbaric utterances.

“The Poles,” he declared the day after he took his new job, “shall be the slaves of the German Reich.” When once he heard that Neurath, the “Protector” of Bohemia, had put up posters announcing the execution of seven Czech university students, Frank exclaimed to a Nazi journalist, “If I wished to order that one should hang up posters about every seven Poles shot, there would not be enough forests in Poland with which to make the paper for these posters.”38

Himmler and Heydrich were assigned by Hitler to liquidate the Jews. Frank’s job, besides squeezing food and supplies and forced labor out of Poland, was to liquidate the intelligentsia. The Nazis had a beautiful code name for this operation: “Extraordinary Pacification Action” (Ausserordentliche Befriedigungsaktion, or “AB Action,” as it came to be known). It took some time for Frank to get it going. It was not until the following late spring, when the big German offensive in the West took the attention of the world from Poland, that he began to achieve results. By May 30, as his own journal shows, he could boast in a pep talk to his police aides of good progress—the lives of “some thousands” of Polish intellectuals taken, or about to be taken.

“I pray you, gentlemen,” he asked, “to take the most rigorous measures possible to help us in this task.” Confidentially he added that these were “the Fuehrer’s orders.” Hitler, he said, had expressed it this way:

“The men capable of leadership in Poland must be liquidated. Those following them … must be eliminated in their turn. There is no need to burden the Reich with this … no need to send these elements to Reich concentration camps.”

They would be put out of the way, he said, right there in Poland.39

At the meeting, as Frank noted in his journal, the chief of the Security Police gave a progress report. About two thousand men and several hundred women, he said, had been apprehended “at the beginning of the Extraordinary Pacification Action.” Most of them already had been “summarily sentenced”—a Nazi euphemism for liquidation. A second batch of intellectuals was now being rounded up “for summary sentence.” Altogether “about 3,500 persons,” the most dangerous of the Polish intelligentsia, would thus be taken care of.40

Frank did not neglect the Jews, even if the Gestapo had filched the direct task of extermination away from him. His journal is full of his thoughts and accomplishments on the subject. On October 7, 1940, it records a speech he made that day to a Nazi assembly in Poland summing up his first year of effort.

My dear Comrades! … I could not eliminate all lice and Jews in only one year. [“Public amused,” he notes down at this point.] But in the course of time, and if you help me, this end will be attained.41

A fortnight before Christmas of the following year, Frank closed a cabinet session at Cracow, his headquarters, by saying:

As far as the Jews are concerned, I want to tell you quite frankly that they must be done away with in one way or another … Gentlemen, I must ask you to rid yourself of all feeling of pity. We must annihilate the Jews.

   It was difficult, he admitted, to “shoot or poison the three and a half million Jews in the General Government, but we shall be able to take measures which will lead, somehow, to their annihilation.” This was an accurate prediction.42

The hounding of Jews and Poles from the homes which they and their families had dwelt in for generations began as soon as the fighting in Poland was over. On October 7, the day after his “peace speech” in the Reichstag, Hitler appointed Himmler to be the head of a new organization, the Reich Commissariat for the Strengthening of German Nationhood, or R.K.F.D.V., for short. It was to carry out the deportation of Poles and Jews first from the Polish provinces annexed outright by Germany and replace them by Germans and Volksdeutsche, the latter being Germans of foreign nationality who were streaming in from the threatened Baltic lands and various outlying parts of Poland. Halder had heard of the plan a fortnight before, noting in his diary that “for every German moving into these territories, two people will be expelled to Poland.”

On October 9, two days after assuming the latest of his posts, Himmler decreed that 550,000 of the 650,000 Jews living in the annexed Polish provinces, together with all Poles not fit for “assimilation,” should be moved into the territory of the General Government, east of the Vistula River. Within a year 1,200,000 Poles and 300,000 Jews had been uprooted and driven to the east. But only 497.000 Volksdeutsche had been settled in their place. This was a little better than Halder’s ratio: three Poles and Jews expelled to one German settled in their stead.

It was an unusually severe winter, that of 1939–40, as this writer remembers, with heavy snows, and the “resettlement,” carried out in zero weather and often during blizzards, actually cost more Jewish and Polish lives than had been lost to Nazi firing squads and gallows. Himmler himself may be cited as authority. Addressing the S.S. Leibstandarte the following summer after the fall of France, he drew a comparison between the deportations which his men were beginning to carry out in the West with what had been accomplished in the East.

[It] happened in Poland in weather forty degrees below zero, where we had to haul away thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands; where we had to have the toughness—you should hear this, but also forget it immediately—to shoot thousands of leading Poles … Gentlemen, it is much easier in many cases to go into combat with a company than to suppress an obstructive population of low cultural level, or to carry out executions or to haul away people or to evict crying and hysterical women.43

Already on February 21, 1940, S.S. Oberfuehrer Richard Gluecks, the head of the Concentration Camp Inspectorate, scouting around near Cracow, had informed Himmler that he had found a “suitable site” for a new “quarantine camp” at Auschwitz, a somewhat forlorn and marshy town of twelve thousand inhabitants in which was situated, besides some factories, a former Austrian cavalry barracks. Work was commenced immediately and on June 14 Auschwitz was officially opened as a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners whom the Germans wished to treat with special harshness. It was soon to become a much more sinister place. In the meantime the directors of I. G. Farben, the great German chemical trust, had discovered Auschwitz as a “suitable” site for a new synthetic coal-oil and rubber plant. There not only the construction of new buildings but the operation of the new plant would have the benefit of cheap slave labor.

To superintend the new camp and the supply of slave labor for I. G. Farben there arrived at Auschwitz in the spring of 1940 a gang of the most choice ruffians in the S.S., among them Josef Kramer, who would later become known to the British public as the “Beast of Belsen,” and Rudolf Franz Hoess, a convicted murderer who had served five years in prison—he spent most of his adult life as first a convict and then a jailer—and who in 1946, at the age of forty-six, would boast at Nuremberg that at Auschwitz he had superintended the extermination of two and a half million persons, not counting another half million who had been allowed to “succumb to starvation.”

For Auschwitz was soon destined to become the most famous of the extermination camps—Vernichtungslager—which must be distinguished from the concentration camps, where a few did survive. It is not without significance for an understanding of the Germans, even the most respectable Germans, under Hitler, that such a distinguished, internationally known firm as I. G. Farben, whose directors were honored as being among the leading businessmen of Germany, God-fearing men all, should deliberately choose this death camp as a suitable place for profitable operations.

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