The German-Soviet non-aggression pact of August 23rd 1939 cleared the path for a Nazi invasion of Poland. Both Hitler and Stalin had no regard for Polish sovereignty; they considered Poland undeserving of independent nationhood. For the Nazis, this was predicated upon race and territory. The Polish people were mostly Slavic, while Poland was also home to Europe’s largest population of Jews; both races were untermensch (‘sub-human’) according to Nazi racial theories. Poland was one of several eastern European nations that offered lebensraum for the German people – once its undesirable racial elements were either harnessed, displaced or purged.
Hitler scheduled an invasion of Poland for August 26th, however, the signing of the Polish-British Common Defence Pact that same day caused him to postpone. As Wehrmacht troops mobilised and massed on the Polish border, Hitler – as he had done in 1938 with the Czechoslovak government – issued Polish leaders with a series of demands. Nazi agents operating inside Poland launched ‘Operation Himmler’: fake attacks on German facilities to create the impression of Polish aggression. Shortly before dawn on September 1st, German forces rumbled across the border and the invasion of Poland was underway.
Invasion and war
The Wehrmacht crossed the border at several points with five separate armies, comprising around 1.5 million men. Some parts of the invasion force encountered little resistance. One regiment experienced virtually no fighting; it moved so quickly that by September 8th it had travelled more than 200 kilometres and was on the fringes of the Polish capital, Warsaw. Other regiments encountered strong resistance from Polish troops and civilians. But despite inflicting significant losses on the Germans – around 20,000 troops in total – local forces were no match for the invading Nazis. Despite promises they could withstand a German invasion for up to six months, the Polish army was soon in retreat. By late September Nazi forces controlled almost all of the western half of Poland.
Christian Leitz, historian
European governments responded swiftly and decisively to the invasion of Poland: there was no repeat of 1938. At 9.00am on September 3rd, the British ambassador in Berlin delivered Hitler an ultimatum from London: if hostilities had not ceased by 11.00am, Britain and Germany would be at war. The Fuhrer did not respond, so British prime minister Chamberlain formally declared war shortly after the deadline. France soon followed suit, as did British Commonwealth countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and India. The United States, Switzerland, Norway and the Baltic States all declared their neutrality. Hitler was surprised, perhaps even distressed by the British and French declaration of war. The decision to invade Poland had been a gamble, based on Hitler’s assumption that Chamberlain and Daladier were weak leaders who would clamour for another peace agreement, rather than risk going to war.
Slaughter and division
The invasion of Poland was marked by massacres and atrocities against the local population. In a speech to high-ranking Wehrmacht officers a week before the invasion, Hitler is alleged to have ordered them “to send to death mercilessly and without compassion the men, women and children of Polish race and language”. The occupying Nazi forces employed a grim policy of ‘collective responsibility’: for every German soldier killed, up to 50 locals would be executed in return. In December 1939, 107 Polish men between the ages of 16 and 70 were rounded up and executed outside Warsaw, in retaliation for the deaths of two German soldiers.
As the Germans were conquering western Poland, their new-found Soviet allies were planning an invasion from the east. The 800,000-strong Soviet Red Army entered Poland on September 17th, encountering much less resistance than the Germans. Many Poles thought the Soviets were the lesser of two evils; some even welcomed their presence. Within a week, some German and Soviet battalions were meeting up in central Poland. There was even a joint Nazi-Soviet victory parade in the town of Brest-Litovsk, recorded in photographs and on film. Poland was divided into two and remained this way until Hitler double-crossed Stalin and declared war on the Soviet Union in June 1941.
1. Hitler and Stalin had little regard for Polish sovereignty, believing Poland had no right to exist as an independent state.
2. A secret protocol in the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact divided Polish territory between Berlin and Moscow.
3. Around 1.5 million German troops invaded Poland on September 1st. This was followed by a Soviet invasion from the east three weeks later.
4. The conquest of Poland was achieved within a few weeks. German and Soviet troops met at designated points, occupying territories defined in the August 1939 pact.
5. The invasion triggered the outbreak of World War II, which lasted for six years and cost more than 48 million lives.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The invasion of Poland”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], https://alphahistory.com/nazigermany/the-invasion-of-poland/.