Approach to Conflict : War in Poland

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On March 25, 1939, 10 days after he had completely dismembered Czechoslovakia, Adolf Hitler told the chief of the High Command of the Armed Forces (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or OKW ), Col. Gen. (later Field Marshal) Wilhelm Keitel, and the commander in chief of the army, Col. Gen. (later Field Marshal) Walther von Brauchitsch, that the time had come to consider solving the Polish problem by military means. A week later, on April 3, Part 2 of the annual directive for the German armed forces, drafted by Hitler himself, set forth a strategic outline for an attack on Poland to be prepared by Sept. 1, 1939. On April 28, in his first open move, Hitler abrogated the Polish-German non-aggression treaty of 1934 and declared that the issue of Danzig ( Gdansk) must be settled. Hitler’s turning against Poland surprised no one. On March 31, the British government, attempting to forestall the German dictator, had given a unilateral guarantee of Poland’s territorial integrity. (France had a military alliance with Poland dating back to 1921.)

Without hesitating, Hitler pressed forward. At a staff conference held on May 23, he stated that a repetition of the Czech affair was not to be expected. Further successes and the expansion of German Lebensraum ( space for living) could not be achieved without bloodshed. There would be war. Observers had noted after the Munich Conference (q.v.) of 1938 that the negotiated settlement had angered Hitler. He had wanted a chance to test the new Wehrmacht in action, and he was now determined to have it against Poland. This was the new element in the crisis which Hitler carefully nurtured through the spring and summer of 1939. He did not wish another Munich, but he did wish to cajole, frighten, or simply confuse the British and French sufficiently to keep them from intervening in the neat, small war that he intended to have with his neighbor on the east.

Poland, not a great power, with a population of 35,000,000 was also not a minor nation. In maintaining its national existence against foreign threats, it labored under several handicaps: approximately 10,000,000 of its people were non-Polish, its industrial base was weak, and it included in its boundaries on the north (Polish Corridor, q.v.) and on the east territory to which Germany and the Soviet Union could lay strong claims on ethnic and historical grounds. Polish policy as conducted by President Ignacy Moscicki and Foreign Minister Jozef Beck was to stand firm against all of Hitler’s demands. The Polish government drew encouragement from the French alliance, the British guarantee, and, apparently,from an underestimate of German strength and an overestimate of its own capabilities.

In the game Hitler started, the Soviet Union could; if it wished, play the last trump. Fear of a two!front war haunted the German military, and even Hitler would not at this time have risked fighting both the Western powers and the Soviet Union. In mid-April 1939, the USSR began negotiations with both sides. The British and French courted the Russians, but Joseph Stalin was not eager for trouble with Germany. The Russians made the overtures to Germany, first suggesting that the ideological conflict between nazism and communism need not be a bar to a general agreement, and then hinting that the Soviet Union would consider another partition of Poland. Hitler was cool toward these proposals until he realized that the Russians were not merely trying to make use of Germany to raise the price they could extract from the British and the French. His bargaining position was strong: the Soviet Union might have to fight for the Western powers, but all it needed to do for Hitler was to remain neutral and gather in the spoils. How well the Russians appraised the situation was demonstrated on May 3, when Maksim M. Litvinov, a Jew and a long-time advocate of international measures to restrain aggression, was suddenly dismissed as commissar of foreign affairs and replaced by Vyacheslav M. Molotov.

In July 1939; under the guise of conducting summer maneuvers, strong German forces moved into assembly areas on the Polish border. Others were sent to East Prussia on the pretext that they were to take part in celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Tannenberg (now Stcbark). In the first three weeks of August, German-inspired civil disorders broke out in Danzig and the Polish Corridor, and the remaining units scheduled to participate in the attack moved up to the border. On August 22, Hitler assembled the generals who would command the larger units and told them that the time was ripe to resolve the differences with Poland by war and to test the new German military machine. He predicted that Great Britain and France would not intervene. He intended to begin the attack on August 26.

In Moscow on the night of August 23, Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop agreed to the final wording of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Treaty, later known as the Nazi-Soviet Pact. A secret protocol placed Finland, Estonia, and Latvia in the Soviet sphere of interest and Lithuania in the German. The border of the Soviet and German spheres in Poland was established on the Narew (Narev), Vistula (Visla), and San rivers. Because time was pressing for Germany, the treaty was to go into effect as soon as it had been signed.

In a last attempt to intimidate Hitler, Great Britain announced on August 25 that she had entered into a full-fledged alliance with Poland. On the same day, Hitler’s ally Benito Mussolini informed him that Italy would not be able to take part militarily in any forthcoming war. These two reverses were not significant enough to deter Hitler, but they did cause him to hesitate. He canceled the August 26 starting date for the attack. For the next six days all of his moves were directed toward two objectives: the division of Poland and the West by various schemes and proposals for negotiations which he knew the Poles would not accept; and the undermining of French and British confidence by means of the recent agreement with the Soviet Union.

On August 31, Hitler signed Directive No. 1 for the Conduct of the War. During the night, SS units staged “incidents” along the border, of which the most notorious was an alleged raid on the radio station at Gleiwitz (now Gliwice) in Silesia. Before sunrise on the next morning, Sept. 1, 1939, the war began as the German armies marched into Poland. Two days later, when Great Britain and France declared war, Hitler said to Ribbentrop, “…it does not mean they will fight.”

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