The Unknown History Of The 1939 German-Polish Conflict
A Brief Synopsis
To understand how the war in 1939 between Poland and Germany, and consequently WW2, unfolded, it is not sufficient to look at – and accept – the widely-held view that peace-loving and weak little Poland was attacked by an ever-marauding National Socialist Germany. Rather, one must look much deeper into history.
This conflict which cost many millions of lives did not originate with the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, as is still claimed today by over-simplifying historians. It is not just a black-and-white story, but a complex one. It was also not caused by the Polish mobilization of her army two days previous, on August 30, 1939, although the mobilization of a country’s army, according to international standards, is equal to a declaration of war on the neighboring country.
German-Polish relations are even today poisoned by centuries-old, deep-seated hatred on the Polish side. For centuries the Poles have been taught from early childhood on
that Germans were evil and ought to be fought whenever there was a promise of success. Hate on such a scale, as it was and still is promoted in Poland today against her westerly neighbor, eventually leads to a chauvinism that knows few constraints. In Poland, as in all countries, the respective elites use the means accessible to them to shape public sentiment. Traditionally these elites have been the Polish Catholic Church, writers, intellectuals, politicians and the press. For a balanced understanding of the forces which moved Poland inexorably ever closer to the war against Germany, it is essential to investigate the role these components of the Polish society have played in the past. And it is fairly easy to find abundant evidence for the above claim and to trace it from the present time back into the distant past.
„Póki swiat swiatem, Polak Niemcowi nie bedzie bratem.“ This is a Polish proverb, and translated into English it means: „As long as the world will exist, the Pole will never be the German’s brother.“1 While the age of this proverb cannot be traced precisely, it is reflected by a recent poll (1989) taken amongst students of three educational establishments in Warsaw, where only four of 135 fourth-graders [ten-year-olds!] declared having amicable feelings toward the German people. Half of the students questioned considered the Germans to be cruel, spiteful and bloodthirsty. One of the students wrote: „The Germans are as bad as wild animals. Such a people oughtn’t even to exist. And now they even want to unite!“2 One year later, in 1990, the then Polish Prime Minister Lech Walesa made his feelings towards his German neighbors publicly known: „I do not even shrink from a statement that is not going to make me popular in Germany: if the Germans destabilize Europe anew, in some way or other, then partition is no longer what will have to be resorted to, but rather that country will have to be erased from the map, pure and simple. East and West have at their disposal the advanced technology necessary to carry this verdict out.“3
It can reasonably be assumed that these remarks of a public figure like the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Polish president Lech Walesa reflect emotions that are very common in his country. While the three samples of hateful Polish sentiments against Germans were expressed in very recent times, there are many more outbursts of chauvinistic feelings and intentions against Germans in the not too distant past, only some 60 years ago. An example is this Polish slogan from Litzmannstadt, January 1945: „Reich Germans pack your suitcases, ethnic Germans buy your coffins!“4 It is especially important to know this in order to fully understand what this writer proposes: namely, that unrestricted expression of hate and disregard of the rights of others in international affairs can lead to tragedies of unimaginable proportions.
Many years before the differences between Germany and Poland escalated to the point of no return, numerous diplomatic efforts were made by the German government to defuse the ever more dangerous situation the two countries were facing. These efforts were all rejected by Poland. One of them comes to mind: on January 6th, 1939, the German Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop met with the Polish Foreign Minister Josef Beck in Munich to discuss the differences between the two countries. Von Ribbentrop proposed „the following solution: the return of Danzig to Germany. In return, all of Poland’s economic interests in this region would be guaranteed, and most generously at that. Germany would be given access to her province of East Prussia by means of an extraterritorial highway and rail line. In return, Germany would guarantee the Corridor and the entire Polish status, in other words, a final and permanent recognition of each nation’s borders.“ Beck replied: „For the first time I am pessimistic…“ Particularly in the matter of Danzig I see ‘no possibility of cooperation.’„5
The belligerent policy of the Polish leadership was, and is of course, echoed by the public in that country. It goes without saying that a diplomat cannot use the same language as the little man at home can. The desired goal, however, is the same. It is the destruction, and if need be, the extermination of the Germans as Mr. Walesa so clearly stated. A leading role in forging the public view in Poland is that of the Catholic Church. To read what she taught her followers is truly blood-curdling. In 1922 the Polish Canon of Posen, prelate Kos, recited a song of hate which he had borrowed from a 1902 drama by Lucjan Rydel, „Jency“ (The Prisoners): „Where the German sets down his foot, the earth bleeds for 100 years. Where the German carries water and drinks, wells are foul for 100 years. Where the German breathes, the plague rages for 100 years. Where the German shakes hands, peace breaks down. He cheats the strong, he robs and dominates the weak, and if there were a path leading straight to Heaven, he wouldn’t hesitate to dethrone God Himself. And we would even see the German steal the sun from the sky.“6 This is by no means a single, individual case. On August 26th, 1920, the Polish pastor in Adelnau said in a speech:„All Germans residing in Poland ought to be hanged.“7 And another Polish proverb: „Zdechly Niemiec, zdechly pies, mala to roznica jest“ – „A croaked German, is a croaked dog, is just a small difference“.8
Here is the text of another Polish-Catholic war song which was sung in 1848 at the Pan-Slavic Congress in Prague:
„Brothers, take up your scythes! Let us hurry to war!
Poland’s oppression is over, we shall tarry no more.
Gather hordes about yourselves. Our enemy, the German, shall fall!
Loot and rob and burn! Let the enemies die a painful death.
He that hangs the German dogs will gain God’s reward.
I, the provost, promise you shall attain Heaven for it.
Every sin will be forgiven, even well-planned murder,
If it promotes Polish freedom everywhere.
But curses on the evil one who dares speak well of Germany to us.
Poland shall and must survive. The Pope and God have promised it.
Russia and Prussia must fall. Hail the Polish banner!
So rejoice ye all: Polzka zyje, great and small!“9
Not only did these „Christian“ priests excel in rhetoric aimed at cultivating deadly hate against Germans during the pre-1939 years, they also prayed in their churches, „O wielk wojn ludów prosimy Cie, Panie! (We pray to you for the great War of Peoples, oh Lord!)“10
Later, when their wishes came true, they actively participated in murdering unsuspecting German soldiers. „…Cardinal Wyszynski confirmed the fact ‘that during the war there was not one single Polish priest who did not fight against the Germans with a weapon in his hand.’ The war lasted only three short weeks, the German occupation lasted several years. This explains the extraordinary high number of priest-partisans who even were joined by bishops.“11 Further back in history, we find that „The Archbishop of Gnesen, around the turn of the 13th century, had the habit of calling the Germans ‘dog heads’. He criticized a bishop from Brixen that he would have preached excellently, had he not been a dog-head and a German.“12
To fully understand the implications that this and other hateful utterances about Germans have on the Polish psyche, one has to know that ‘dog’ is an abusive name that would be hard to top as insult to a German. It is obvious that through this centuries-long conditioning of the common people of Poland by the Catholic hierarchy, from the bishops down to the lowliest clergymen, Polish literature and the press would not be far behind in duplicating the still-continuing vilification of Germans. And indeed there is a plethora of well-documented hostile charges. In his Mythos vom Deutschen in der polnischen Volksüberlieferung und Literatur, Dr. Kurt Lück from Posen explored this propensity to malign Germans. I will repeat here only a few examples in order to illustrate how deeply the Poles are influenced by their elites. In his novel Grazyna, which is used in Polish schools as a learning tool, Mickiewicz uses terms like „psiarnia Krzyzakow“ – the dog-pack of the Teutonic Knights . In his novel Pan Tadeusz he writes of „all district presidents, privy councillors, commissaries and all dog-brothers“, and in his book Trzech Budrysowhe writes of „Krzyxacy psubraty“ – „Knights of the Cross, the dog brothers“. Henryk Sienkiewicz, in his novel Krzyzacy (Knights of the Cross), repeatedly uses the abusive term„dog-brothers“. Jan Kochanowski, in his Proporzec (1569), calls the German Knights of the Cross „pies niepocigniony“: unsurpassable dogs. K. Przerwa-Tetmajer, in the short story „Nefzowie“: „The German manufacturer is called by the Polish workers rudy pies – red-haired dog.“13
It is not difficult to imagine how this perversion of civilized human conduct eventually must lead to a Fascist mentality that was also present in the Polish media. They did not mince words when it came to arousing public fanaticism without restrictions when it was time to go to war against Germany. They were the ultimate instrument for instilling in the public the view that Poland was the peerless power that would chasten Germany by defeating her in a few days. Characteristic of this was, for example, an oil painting that showed Marshal Rydz-Smigly, the Polish commander-in-chief, riding on horseback through the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.14 This painting was found by German troops in the Presidential Palace in Warsaw and was not even completely dry. When war finally came, the Germans in Polish territory suffered terribly. They had to bear the unspeakable hate of the Poles. Some 35,000 of them(German authorities then claimed 58,000 murdered Germans!) were murdered, often under the most bestial circumstances. Dr. Kurt Lück (op.cit.) writes on page 271: „Poles had thrown dead dogs into many of the graves of murdered ethnic Germans. Near Neustadt in West Prussia, the Poles slashed open the belly of a captured German officer, tore out his intestines and stuffed a dead dog inside. This report is reliably documented.“15 And a German mother grieves for her sons. She writes on October 12th, 1939: „Oh, but that our dear boys [her sons] had to die such terrible deaths. 12 people were lying in the ditch, and all of them had been cruelly beaten to death. Eyes gouged out, skulls smashed, heads split open, teeth knocked out… little Karl had a hole in his head, probably from a stabbing implement. Little Paul had the flesh torn off his arms, and all this while they were still alive. Now they rest in a mass grave of more than 40, free at last of their terror and pain. They have peace now, but I never shall…“16 And between 1919 and 1921 400,000 ethnic Germans fled their homes and crossed the German border in order to save their lives.
I personally once knew a German who told me that after serving in the German army he was drafted into the Polish army after 1945, and that the Poles destroyed German cemeteries and looted the graves in order to get at the golden wedding bands the corpses were still wearing.
What can one say of the hate that speaks from the pages of one of the more popular papers, the largest Polish newspaper Ilustrowany Kurjer Codzienny, which appeared on April 20th, 1929, in Cracow? „Away with the Germans behind their natural border! Let’s get rid of them behind the Oder!“ „Silesian Oppeln is Polish to the core; just as all of Silesia and all of Pomerania were Polish before the German onslaught!“17
„To absorb all of East Prussia into Poland and to extend our western borders to the Oder and Neisse rivers, that is our goal. It is within reach, and at this moment it is the Polish people’s great mission. Our war against Germany will make the world pause in amazement.“18
„There will be no peace in Europe until all Polish lands shall have been restored completely to Poland, until the name Prussia, being that of a people long since gone, shall have been wiped from the map of Europe, and until the Germans have moved their capital Berlin farther westwards.“19
On October 1923, Stanislaus Grabski, who later was to become Minister of Public Worship and Instruction, announced: „We want to base our relations on love, but there is one kind of love for one’s own people and another kind for strangers. Their percentage is decidedly too high here. Posen [which had been given to Poland after the First World War]can show us one way to reduce that percentage from 14% or even 20% to 1½%. The foreign element will have to see if it would not be better off elsewhere. The Polish land is exclusively for the Poles!“20
„(The Germans in Poland) are intelligent enough to realize that in the event of war no enemy on Polish soil will get away alive… The Führer is far away, but the Polish soldiers are close, and in the woods there is no shortage of branches.“21
„We are ready to make a pact with the devil if he will help us in the battle against Germany. Hear – against Germany, not just against Hitler. In an upcoming war, German blood will be spilled in rivers such as all of world history has never seen before.“22
„Poland’s decision of August 30, 1939 that was the basis for general mobilization marked a turning point in the history of Europe. It forced Hitler to wage war at a time when he hoped to gain further unbloody victories.“23
Heinz Splittgerber, in his short book Unkenntnis oder Infamie?, quotes a number of Polish sources which reflect the atmosphere in Poland immediately before the hostilities commenced. On August 7th, 1939 the Ilustrowany Kurjer featured an article „which described with provocative effrontery how military units were continually foraying across the border into German territory in order to destroy military installations and to take weapons and tools of the German Wehrmacht back to Poland. Most Polish diplomats and politicians understood that Poland’s actions would perforce lead to war. Foreign Minister Beck… tenaciously pursued the bloodthirsty plan of plunging Europe into another great war, since it would presumably result in territorial gains for Poland.“24 He goes on to cite some 14 incidents where Polish soldiers aggressively crossed the border, destroying houses, shooting and killing German farmers and customs officers. One of them: „August 29th: „State Police Offices in Elbing, Köslin and Breslau, Main Customs Office in Beuthen and Gleiwitz: Polish soldiers invade Reich German territory, attack against German customs house, shots taken at German customs officials, Polish machine guns stationed on Reich German territory.“25
These and many more are the things one must take into account before making the fallacious accusation that Germany was the one to have started WW2. The following quotations are added here to show that not only Poland was bent on war against Germany, but also her ally Great Britain (and France). Although it is still widely believed that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain on September 29th, 1938 (Munich) honestly tried for peace, one has to consider the possibility that his real goals were somewhat different. Only five months later, on February 22nd, 1939, he let the cat out of the bag when he said in Blackburn: „… During the past two days we have discussed the progress of our arms build-up. The figures are indeed overwhelming, perhaps even to such an extent that the people are no longer able even to comprehend them…. Ships, cannons, planes and ammunition are now pouring out of our dock yards and factories in an ever-increasing torrent…“26
Max Klüver writes: „Of the considerable body of evidence that gives cause to doubt whether Chamberlain actually wanted peace, one noteworthy item is a conversation [after Hitler’s address to the Reichstag on April 28th,1939, W.R.] between Chamberlain’s chief advisor Wilson, and Göring’s colleague Wohlthat… When Wohlthat, taking his leave, again stressed his conviction that Hitler did not want war, Wilson’s answer was indicative of the fundamental British attitude that could not be a basis for negotiations between equals: ‘I said that I was not surprised to hear him say that as I had thought myself that Hitler cannot have overlooked the tremendous increases which we have made in our defensive and offensive preparations, including for instance the very large increase in our Air Force.’„27
And on April 27th, 1939, England mobilized her armed forces. Heinz Splittgerber quotes Dirk Bavendamm, Roosevelts Weg zum Krieg (Ullstein-Verlag, Berlin 1989, p. 593), who writes: „Since England had never yet introduced universal conscription during peacetime, this alone virtually amounted to a declaration of war against Germany. From 1935 to 1939 (before the outbreak of the war) England’s annual expenditure on war materials had increased more than five-fold.“28
In 1992 and 1993, Max Klüver, another German historian, spent five weeks in the Public Record Office in London searching through documents which, after fifty years of being hidden from public scrutiny, were now open to researchers. He writes in his book Es war nicht Hitlers Krieg: „How little the British cared about Danzig and the allegedly endangered Polish independence is also shown by the following brief prepared for Colonel Beck’s visit of April 3 . The brief states: ‘Danzig is an artificial structure, the maintenance of which is a bad casus belli. But it is unlikely that the Germans would accept less than a total solution of the Danzig question except for a substantial quid pro quo which could hardly be less than a guarantee of Poland’s neutrality.“ But such a deal would be a bad bargain for England. „It would shake Polish morale, increase their vulnerability to German penetration and so defeat the policy of forming a bloc against German expansion. It should not therefore be to our interest to suggest that the Poles abandon their rights in Danzig on the ground that they are not defensible.“29 Klüver concludes: „So there we have it clearly stated: in the own British interest, the matter of Danzig must not be solved and peace preserved. The British guarantee to Poland, however, had reinforced the Polish in their stubbornness and made them completely obdurate where any solution to the Danzig question was concerned.“30 The American Professor Dr. Burton Klein, a Jewish economist, wrote in his book Germany’s Economic Preparations for War: „Germany produced butter as well as ‘cannons’, and much more butter and much fewer cannons than was generally assumed.“31 And again: „The overall state of the German war economy … was not that of a nation geared towards total war, but rather that of a national economy mobilized at first only for small and locally restricted wars and which only later succumbed to the pressure of military necessity after it had become an incontrovertible fact. For instance, in the fall of 1939 the German preparations for provision with steel, oil and other important raw materials were anything but adequate for an intense engagement with the Great Powers.“32 One only has to compare Mr. Klein’s observations with what Mr. Bavendamm wrote about the British preparations for a major war at the same time, and the blurred picture that is painted by historians becomes much more transparent: the Germans were not the ones to provoke WW2.
Besides Chamberlain, there were others in influential and powerful positions in England who were much more outspoken about their wishes. Winston Churchill, for instance, said before the House of Commons on October 5th, 1938: „… but there can never be friendship between the British democracy and the Nazi power, that Power which spurns Christian ethics, which cheers its onwards course by a barbarous paganism, which vaunts the spirit of aggression and conquest, which derives strength and perverted pleasure from persecution, and uses, as we have seen, with pitiless brutality the threat of murderous force.“33
Hitler, of course, knew this very well. In Saarbrücken, on October 9th, 1938 he said:„…All it would take would be for Mr. Duff Cooper or Mr. Eden or Mr. Churchill to come to power in England instead of Chamberlain, and we know very well that it would be the goal of these men to immediately start a new world war. They do not even try to disguise their intents, they state them openly…“34
As we all know, the British government under Chamberlain gave Poland the guarantee that England would come to its aid if Poland should be attacked. This was on March 31st, 1939. Its purpose was to incite Poland to escalate its endeavors for war against Germany. It happened as planned: England declared war on Germany on September 3rd, 1939, but not on the Soviet Union who also attacked Poland, and this is proof enough that it was England’s (and Chamberlain’s) intention in the first place to make war on Germany. Thus WW2 was arranged by a complicity between Britain and Poland. It was not Hitler’s war, it was England’s and Poland’s war. The Poles were merely the stooges. Some of them knew it too – Jules Lukasiewicz, the Polish ambassador to Paris, for instance, who on March 29th, 1939 told his foreign minister in Warsaw:
„It is childishly naive and also unfair to suggest to a nation in a position like Poland, to compromise its relations with such a strong neighbour as Germany and to expose the world to the catastrophe of war, for no other reason than to pander to the wishes of Chamberlain’s domestic policies. It would be even more naive to assume that the Polish government did not understand the true purpose of this manoeuver and its consequences.“35
Sixty years have passed since Poland got her wish. Germany lost large additional areas to Poland. Today these regions can hardly be compared to what they originally were. Houses, farms, the infrastructure, agriculture, even the dikes of the Oder river are decaying. Financial help from Germany goes to Poland as if nothing had happened between the two countries. The 2,000,000 Germans still remaining in Poland are largely forgotten by their brothers in the west. They now suffer the same fate as other Germans did in Poland in earlier times: „In earlier times the aim was already to eradicate all things German. For instance, in the 18th century, the Catholic Germans from Bamberg who had followed their Bishop and immigrated to Poland after the plague were forcibly Polonized; they were denied German church services, German confession and the German catechism, and were reeducated to become Poles. By the time of the First World War these Germans from Bamberg had become so thoroughly Polonized that despite their traditional Bamberg costumes, which they still wore and for which they were still called ‘Bamberki’, they could no longer speak German.“36
Not only is today’s German minority in Poland in danger of losing its identity; the same happened even to famous Germans of the past. Veit Stoss, who was born in Nuremberg and died there too, is now called Wit Stwosz, only because in 1440 in Cracow he created the famous high altar in the Marienkirche, 13 meters (39 feet) high and entirely carved from wood. Nikolaus Kopernikus, the famous German astronomer, is now called Mikolaj Kopernik. He lived in Thorn, never spoke a word of Polish, and published his works in Latin. His ancestors were all Germans. The last names of the surviving Germans have been Polonized: Seligman(n), a name also common in the English-speaking world, would now be Swienty! No comparable phenomenon exists in Germany. Poles who immigrated to Germany generations ago still bear their Polish names, and nobody pressures them to change them. They are considered Germans, and they are.
As this map shows, Polish chauvinism literally knows no bounds. The world went through the Second World War largely because of Poland and her taste for lands that belong to others. Some of her aspirations she accomplished in 1945, but this map suggests that there may still be more to Polish desires. Even today’s Czechia and Slovakia are on the list. As Adam Mickiewicz wrote: „But each of you has in his soul the seeds of the future rights and the extent of the future frontiers.“
As far as I as German am concerned, I wholeheartedly agree with what Freda Utley wrote in 1945 after she visited destroyed Germany:
„War propaganda has obscured the true facts of history, otherwise Americans might realize that the German record is no more aggressive, if as aggressive, as that of the French, British and Dutch who conquered huge empires in Asia and Africa while the Germans stayed at home composing music, studying philosophy, and listening to their poets. Not so long ago the Germans were, in fact, among the most ‘peace-loving’ peoples of the world and might become so again, given a world in which it is possible to live in peace.
„Mistaken as the Boeklers of Germany may be in believing that concessions can be won from the Western powers by negotiation, their attitude proves the willingness of many Germans to trust to peaceful means to obtain their ends.“37
24Heinz Splittgerber, Unkenntnis oder Infamie? Darstellungen und Tatsachen zum Kriegsausbruch 1939, pp. 12-13. Quoted from Oskar Reile, Der deutsche Geheimdienst im Zweiten Weltkrieg, Ostfront, pp.278, 280 f., Augsburg: Weltbild, 1990.
31Burton H. Klein, Germany’s Economic Preparations for War, vol. CIX, Cambridge, Mass., 1959. Quoted in: Joachim Nolywaika, Die Sieger im Schatten ihrer Schuld, p. 54, Rosenheim: Deutsche Verlagsgesellschaft, 1994.
36Else Löser, op.cit. (Note 1).
37Freda Utley, Kostspielige Rache, p. 162. [English original: The High Cost of Vengeance, Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1949.] Quoted in: Else Löser, Polen und die Fälschungen seiner Geschichte, p. 49, Kaiserslautern: self-pub., 1982.