Hitler Pushes East
Hitler's next move — the bold invasion of Poland — was the final stroke that ignited World War II. In the days following his speech to the German High Command, there was much diplomatic discussion as Hitler tried to overcome British opposition to his plans. Chamberlain had announced that if Poland's sovereignty were threatened, the British would “feel themselves bound at once to lend the Polish government all support at their power.” Mussolini was also bothered by Germany's planned aggression, and he strongly encouraged Hitler to continue negotiating with Poland rather than invade it. But Hitler refused to listen, and on August 31 he ordered his troops across the border. At the same time, he ordered that all terminally ill patients in German hospitals be euthanized to make room for the anticipated wounded.
Polish leaders had long believed that if Germany did attack, the Soviet Union would respond swiftly with troops. After all, Germany and the Soviet Union had been at odds ever since taking opposite sides in the Spanish Civil War. However, Hitler had cleverly eliminated any Soviet threat by signing a nonaggression pact with Stalin on August 23, 1939. As history would show, this pact was as meaningless to Hitler as the one he had signed with Poland.
Figure 2-2 Soviet commissar Vyacheslav Molotov signing the non-aggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union.
Photo courtesy of the National Archives (242-JRPE-44)
To give Hitler an excuse for his invasion, SS chief Heinrich Himmler concocted the story that Polish soldiers had attacked a German radio station in the border town of Gliwice. An unnamed prisoner was taken from a German concentration camp, placed in a Polish uniform, and shot by the Gestapo (the secret state police) outside the radio station. It was all Hitler needed to put his plan into motion.
Poland Is Brought to Its Knees
Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, with a brutally fast attack known as a blitzkrieg (a combination of two German words meaning “lightning war”) in which the enemy is hit with ruthless speed and efficiency with multiple methods of attack in an effort to destroy it before an effective defense can be mounted. This was in extreme contrast to the trench warfare of World War I, in which enemy armies dug in at fixed positions and then slugged it out.
The blitzkrieg against Poland was devastating. Even though Poland had a larger army, sudden air attacks destroyed much of its air force while it was still on the ground; then another wave of bombers took out the nation's roads and railways, assembly points, and munitions dumps and factories. German planes also attacked numerous civilian centers, causing extraordinary panic.
Figure 2-3 German troops parading through Warsaw, September 1939.
Photo courtesy of the National Archives (200-SFF-52)
German dive-bombers then attacked marching troops without mercy in an attempt to decimate enemy forces and demoralize anyone who was left. Civilian refugees were strafed with machine gun fire as they fled the approaching troops, causing still more chaos on Poland's already crowded roads and hindering Polish troops. Within a matter of hours, Hitler's troops brought Poland to its knees.
While the Luftwaffe rained bombs on Polish soldiers and civilians alike, wave after wave of motorized infantry, light tanks, and motor-drawn artillery poured into the country, followed by heavy tanks, doing as much damage as possible as they plunged deep into Poland. Once a region had been softened up with air attacks and artillery, it was occupied by German foot soldiers supported by artillery, who mopped up whatever resistance remained. More than 2 million German civilians living in Poland aided the German army by giving precise information on Polish troop movements.
Hitler's invasion of Poland had two goals: to regain territory lost after World War I and to impose German rule over the rest of the country. To this end, he almost immediately began a campaign to eradicate both enemies of Nazism and those he considered inferior, particularly Poland's large Jewish population. Numerous atrocities were committed in the weeks following the German invasion, including massacres of hundreds of unarmed military personnel and civilians, destruction of entire villages, and incarceration or murder of anyone who voiced any type of opposition against the new leadership. Hitler's army was a merciless iron hand held at the throat of the Polish people and its government, and it tightened its grip with each passing day.
Hitler's blitzkrieg succeeded beyond his wildest hopes. The Polish government was forced into exile, and of the nation's 1 million soldiers, 700,000 were taken prisoner and another 80,000 fled the country. Germany's expeditionary force of 1.5 million soldiers suffered minimally — just 45,000 dead, wounded, or missing.
Sixteen days after Germany invaded Poland, the Soviet Union sent troops into eastern Poland, supposedly to assist the Ukrainians and Belorussians who lived there. In reality, this action was part of a secret agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union to divide Poland among them, and it dealt the deathblow to Poland's struggle. On September 28 — the day after a heavily battered Warsaw finally fell — Germany and the Soviet Union signed a pact that divided Poland in two, with the eastern half going to the Soviet Union and the western half going to Germany. Hitler also conceded the Baltic States and Finland to the Soviet sphere of influence.
The Role of Finland
Finland's role in World War II can appear a little confusing as a result of its ongoing conflict with the Soviet Union. The nation was freed from Russian rule following the Bolshevik Revolution, but the relationship between the two nations remained tense. In early 1939, as Finland and Sweden were negotiating the fortification of some islands they shared in the Gulf of Bothnia, the Soviet Union began harassing Finland. In August, the secret pact between Germany and the Soviet Union placed Finland and the Baltic nations under the USSR's sphere of influence, and the Soviets began planning the conquest of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Relations between Finland and the Soviet Union continued to deteriorate, and on November 30, 1939, after claiming that Finnish soldiers had fired on Soviet troops, the Red Army attacked — only to be beaten back. The Soviets regrouped and attacked again early in 1940. Finland fought valiantly but faced overwhelming odds, so it reopened negotiations with the USSR and, in return for peace, lost the Karelian Isthmus and other territory along the border.
Late in 1940, Finland — technically neutral in the war but still anti-Soviet — allowed German troops to pass through from Soviet territory for the German occupation of Norway. When Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, Finland joined in. As a result, the nation was considered an Axis power by the United Kingdom, which declared war on Finland on December 6, 1941.
Great Britain and France declared war on Germany two days after Hitler invaded Poland. Those declarations of war included a blockage of German ports, which was initially very successful at denying Germany needed raw materials, especially food. Hitler asked the two nations to rescind their declarations and promised to leave the surrounding nations alone. This time, Great Britain and France refused to budge. The standoff would continue until Hitler's attack on Denmark and Norway in April 1940.