On this day in 1939, Nazi Germany launched their invasion of the Republic of Poland, thus initiating the Second World War in Europe. The attack on Poland came as the culmination of a great political crisis, but it wasn’t the direct result of faulty diplomacy or Hitler’s miscalculation, but a deliberate decision to start a world war. In this article we will review the process that led to this terrible decision, and its immediate aftermath.
This invasion was merely the latest scheme in Hitler’s plan for making Germany self-sufficient in resources, and eventually rise up to challenge the United States, and he had gotten away with much. Appeasers then and now have contended that Hitler’s aims were modest and reasonable. Uniting German-speakers with Germany, sounds logical enough. But this was incidentally also the means by which Germany would dominate Europe, both by incremental increases in resources and by superior geostrategic positioning.
Perhaps more importantly, however, Hitler had no real interest in a simple union of German-speaking peoples. He had a far larger project in mind, something whose contours become apparent, when one looks at his moves throughout the 1930s.
The Danger Zone
The 20th Century was marked by a fundamental shift in world power: the emergence of the United States. This dramatic development confronted Germany, and other European powers, with a choice. Germany’s answer under Stresemann’s direction had been the right one, the same answer utilized to great success in the postwar. By counting on German indispensability, market based affluence and a partnership with the United States, Weimar conducted a surprisingly successful foreign policy strategy for years.
The Depression proceeded to shatter it, and open the way for Hitler’s unhinged solution to a problem he himself recognized. As he said in his sequel to Mein Kampf, the so called Second Book, Germany faced “the threatened global hegemony of North America”. Because Hitler saw the issue of great power politics through the ideological lens of race struggle and conspiracy theories, he believed the road to affluence based on economic development was but a ruse: that “world Jewry”, as he called it, would strangle Germany as it had done the German Empire, to prevent it from accessing the world’s oceans and raw materials. World war was a given outcome for Hitler once he assumed the leadership of the country: the only question was not if, but when and how it would happen.
Why Risk Everything?
Starting from his very first day in office, Hitler mobilized the German economy towards a single task: the creation of a German Lebensraum that could match the United States in size and access to raw materials. Contrary to popular belief, economic recovery was sacrificed on the altar of the gargantuan rearmament necessary for the war that would be required to carve such spaces out of Europe. The vanity projects of the Third Reich, from the Autobahn building sites to work creation programmes, were priced at a few hundred million Reichsmarks – figures that were entirely dwarfed by rearmament expenditure.
In the five years and ten months between 1st January 1933, and the Munich crisis, the percentage of GDP allocated to the military in Germany grew from less than one to more than 20 per cent. As reported by economic historian Adam Tooze in The Wages of Destruction, “never before had national production been redistributed on this scale or with such speed by a capitalist state in peacetime.”
Together with an economic offensive, Hitler proceeded with a diplomatic one, that in retrospect clearly shows his hegemonic intent. His aggression in Spain to place a pro-Nazi government in power was one such example. There were no Germans in Spain. Spain never encircled or threatened Germany. He promised not to intervene in Spain, but he did anyway. He declared he had no ambitions on Austria, then annexed it anyway. He negotiated a non-aggression pact with Poland, and then threatened to invade her if she didn’t bow to his demands. He threatened Czechoslovakia with war and destruction, telling the Czechs that his air force would burn Prague to the ground if they did not surrender.
At Munich in October of 1938 he declared he was satiated and had no more territorial ambitions, then in March of 1939 he both annexed the remainder of Czechoslovakia and demanded territory from Poland. At the end of the same month, he sent an identical ultimatum to Lithuania demanding that unfortunate country to surrender Memel or face invasion.
Germany’s aggregation of power was already well advanced by the time Hitler made his demands on Poland. Germany was already far more populous than France. The Reich was, in fact, nearly as populous as France and Britain together. She was hatching plans to challenge Britain on the sea, and she refused to disarm on land, or even to accept parity with France. The former point is important: Germany wasn’t prepared for a war with the British Empire, yet this quickly became a distinct possibility in 1938.
It got worse during the following year: the occupation of Prague caused considerable international outrage, and convinced the United States and Great Britain that no modus vivendi could be reached with Hitler. The subsequent rearmament program dwarfed Germany’s, as the Western Allies could draw on considerably more resources than the Reich.
Thus, Hitler realized that he would not be able to move against Eastern Europe, without also having to fight at least Britain and France. This posed a considerable problem, and the National Socialist regime decided to embark on a gigantic rearmament drive for the full spectrum of its armed forces, to prepare for a long-term war with the Western powers. This project failed: the delicate situation of Germany’s balance of paymens allowed for no further acceleration of rearmament.
This economic reversal was ollowed by a hardening of the diplomatic fronts. France found herself deprived of the Little Entente; hence the British and French guarantees on Poland and Romania. The flanking powers were the only ones that could then tip the balance one way or the other: the United States threw their economic might behind the Western Allies, but the USSR went the other way, for Stalin decided to foment inter-capitalist war. The subsequent Nazi-Soviet alliance rendered Germany near-immune to a British naval blockade.
Like in 1938, during the Danzig crisis Hitler was confronted by the virtual certainty that the Allies would declare war if Germany resorted to military means of offensive. But unlike 1938, he plunged forward. As he rationalized, there was “nothing to gain by waiting”: in time, the Allies would outstrip Germany’s military means, and the pact with Stalin gave Germany a temporary breathing space. The pathological worldview of National Socialism convinced him that the hour for the last stand had come, and he wanted to fight it at a time and place of his choosing.
The United Kingdom and France had signed mutually defensive treaties with Poland and warned Hitler that an invasion of Poland would result in declarations of war upon Germany. Hitler’s answer, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, contained political as well as economic clauses, and divided Eastern Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union. As Russia was the only country capable of bringing effective help to Poland, this tragically sealed the gallant little country’s fate for France and Britain could not save her, and were soon to be up to their necks in troubled waters themselves.
Poland’s strategic position was weak as she lay between Germany and the Soviet Union. She was further hampered by fact that more than ten million of her thirty-seven million people were non-Poles, her industrial base was weak and she included in her boundaries on the north and east, territories to which Germany and the Soviet Union had strong historical claims.
Polish commanders had two options, a forward defense of the borders, or an interior defense based on the major rivers. The forward defense would protect industry, communications and major population centers but it left the army vulnerable to being outflanked, surrounded and destroyed in detail. An interior defense avoided the potential loss of the covering forces but cost Poland most of its industrial areas and some major cities. In the end the Polish High Command decided on a compromise. The Army would deploy forward but only long enough for mobilization to be completed. Once that had occurred the Army would fight a delaying action to the south-east. The purpose of this was to preserve the Polish Army long enough for France to attack and defeat Germany in the West. The Poles counted on France to begin her attack within the two week time frame established in the treaty. Based on France’s performance at Munich, Poland had deep fears that France might abandon them just as they did the Czechs.
But the two armies were not evenly matched. Germany’s forces were larger, more modern and well balanced. The Polish Army was, however, well thought of in Europe and was reputed to have the continent’s finest cavalry. The infantry were tough, resourceful and brave. They were practiced in the arts of anti-tank warfare and heavy German losses of armor during the campaign would point this out. In a man to man infantry fight the Germans had no advantage over the Poles. The Polish tactical style was based upon their experiences in the Russian-Polish War and emphasized maneuver and the use of combined arms.
At dawn on September 1, the Luftwaffe struck at Polish airfields destroying most of the planes before they could get off the ground. With control of the skies assured the Germans began the systematic destruction of railroads and the few communications nodes. From the very outset the Polish mobilization plan was seriously compromised. Before the day ended, chaos reigned at Polish Army Headquarters.
The first phase of the campaign, fought on the frontiers was over by September 5 and the morning of the 7 found reconnaissance elements of Army Group South’s 10th Army just 36 miles southwest of Warsaw. Meanwhile, also on September 5, Bock’s Army Group North had cut across the corridor and turned southeast for Warsaw. Units of the 3rd Army reached the banks of the River Narew on September 7, just 25 miles north of Warsaw. The fast moving armored spearpoints of the German attacks left the immobile Polish armies cut up, surrounded and out of supply.
The destruction of Polish forces was accomplished in the second phase of the campaign. Intelligence reports indicated that large numbers of Polish troops had fled east of the Vistula. OKH (the German High Command) in accordance with von Bock’s earlier proposal, ordered a second deeper envelopment to the line of Bug River.
Meanwhile the closing of the inner ring around Warsaw witnessed some tough fighting as the Polish Poznan Army, bypassed in the first week of the war, changed heading and attacked toward Warsaw to the southeast. The German 8th and 10th Armies were put to the test as they were forced to turn some divisions completely around to meet the desperate Polish assault. In the end the gallant attack fell short and by September 19th the Poznan Army surrendered some 100 000 men and Poland’s last intact army. As this was occurring the second, deeper envelopment led by General Heinz Guderian’s panzers took the city of Brest-Litovsk on September 17, and continued past the city where they made contact with the 10th Army spearhead at Wlodowa 30 miles to the south. The war, for all practical purposes was over by September 17. Lvov surrender on the 19. Warsaw held out until September 27 and the last organized resistance ended October 6 with the surrender of 17 000 Polish soldiers at Kock.
Was Poland abandoned?
A common myth surrounding the German invasion and the fall of Poland is that the Western Allies either abandoned Poland, or gave her to Stalin. Neither of which are true.
The French did attack into western Germany. Gamelin promised by the 15th day to invade with 30 – 35 divisions, in fact France invaded on the 13th day with 41 divisions. The problem was that Germany was exceptionally well defended from the French border. The front stretched from the eastern border of Luxembourg to the Rhine near Karlsruhe. The French were unable to deploy their numbers effectively there, and the whole region was hilly and forested, the Palatinate Forest being actually a low mountain range. Beyond that lay the strong current of the Moselle, and beyond that the forested ridge of the Hünsruck.
The fact is that by the time the French had mobilised and were ready to attack, the Poles were already defeated. The day after the French crossed the German border the Russians crossed the Polish border. Even a vigorous thrust by the French wouldn’t have achieved anything in time, and would have left them isolated in Germany.
A Final Consideration
We want to conclude on another sobering note that is usually left out when discussing Fall Weiss: the German campaign was genocidal in nature from the start, the first of a series of terrifying events that scarred the European conscience for good. It is perhaps worth remembering how Hitler announced his intentions for Poland to his own generals:
“Our strength consists in our speed and in our brutality. Genghis Khan led millions of women and children to slaughter – with premeditation and a happy heart. History sees in him solely the founder of a state. It’s a matter of indifference to me what a weak western European civilization will say about me. I have issued the command – and I’ll have anybody who utters but one word of criticism executed by a firing squad – that our war aim does not consist in reaching certain lines, but in the physical destruction of the enemy. Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formation in readiness – for the present only in the East – with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”