Eighty years ago, on September 1, 1939, World War II began with the German attack on Poland. I told the story of World Wars I & II in my post titled “War and Madness.” Now, on the 80th anniversary of that event, I am publishing more details on World War II’s beginning.
After World War I the former Austro-Hungarian Empire was broken up. It was a large country and included Austria and Hungary as well as the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia, and territories that are now part of Poland, Romania, Italy, Ukraine, Moldova, Serbia and Montenegro.
Some territory from the old Empire, along with a slice of Germany and a large chunk of eastern Russia, were used to recreate the ancient country of Poland. In order to give Poland access to the Baltic Sea at the free port of Danzig, the so-called Polish Corridor was established, and it divided East Prussia from the rest of Germany. Naturally, the Germans hated this arrangement.
Hitler came to power in 1933, and Germany immediately began rearming. This was a violation of the terms of the treaty ending World War I, but no one was willing to attempt enforcement.
In 1935 German troops moved into the demilitarized Rhineland. There was minimal protest. In March 1938 Germany annexed Austria, the most ethnic German part of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Later that year Hitler began putting pressure on Czechoslovakia to give up parts of that country peopled by German speaking Czechs. Hitler loudly proclaimed that this would be the end of his territorial ambitions. Neville Chamberlain, British Prime Minister, chose to believe the German Chancellor’s statement. Abandoned by the British and French, the Czechoslovaks were forced to comply and surrender the disputed territory. Five months later, in March of 1939, in clear violation of Hitler’s promises, the Germans occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia. At that point, Britain and France finally agreed that they must make a stand, and they signed an agreement with Poland guaranteeing its territorial integrity. They also initiated overtures to the Soviet Union regarding a possible alliance against Germany.
Germany began applying pressure on Poland immediately after the Czech occupation, and war seemed inevitable. But with the Soviet Union, Britain, and France allied against Germany, the latter’s military success would be extremely doubtful. At the last minute, however, Hitler shocked the British and French by signing a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union. Unknown to the world, the pact included a secret clause whereby Poland would be occupied and divided between the Germans and the Soviets. Once the pact was signed, Hitler went ahead with his plans to attack the Poles.
Hitler and Stalin distrusted each other, but Stalin believed that a war between Germany, France and Britain would be very destructive to all of these countries and put the Soviet Union in a much more favorable position as a world power. He would also get a large slice of Poland and a free hand in the Baltic states. As for Hitler, his immediate concern was to avoid a two-front war, so he temporarily swallowed his hatred of Russians and Communism and signed the pact.
The German invasion of Poland was an act of naked aggression. The Poles disliked the Germans, and they feared their power, but the Poles were not foolish enough to initiate a war against their much stronger neighbor regardless of Hitler’s provocations. Nevertheless, the Nazi propaganda machine tried to convince the German people that the Poles were the aggressors. They even went so far as to dress German civilian prisoners in Polish uniforms, kill them, and place their bodies in positions to make it appear that they had been attacking German installations. The evil machinations of Nazi leaders knew no bounds. Following this ugly bit of deception, German troops invaded Poland.
Having guaranteed Poland’s territorial integrity, the British and the French had no choice but to declare war on Germany. World War II had begun.