This week marks the anniversary of the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, which led to the outbreak of World War II.
Poland had long been part of Hitler’s war plans to give the Germans more territory for its living space, Lebensraum. Germans and Hitler resented the fact that Poland had been re-created in 1919, built mostly out of German former territories, especially the region of West Prussia and the city of Danzig. In addition, Nazi ideology painted Poland as a country ruled by Jews and communists who were considered subhuman.
Using France’s and Great Britain’s appeasement policies, Hitler boldly dismantled the Versailles Treaty’s provisions in the 1930s. He pushed for rearmament (1935–1937), the occupation of the Rhineland (1936), and the annexation of Austria (March 1938). Reluctant to wage another war, France and Great Britain pressured their ally, Czechoslovakia, to yield the region of the Sudetenland to Germany at the Munich Conference in the fall of 1938. Once again, Hitler did not stop there and in March 1939 Germans occupied the rest of the country. Although they had pledged to protect the integrity of rump Czechoslovakia, France and Great Britain did not intervene. Very much aware that Poland was the likely next target of Hitler’s aggression, they then guaranteed the integrity of the Polish state.
In preparation for the attack, Hitler first signed a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union, the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. On the eve of September 1, undercover Germans dressed as Poles and posing as anti-German saboteurs staged a phony attack on a German radio station. The next morning, Germany invaded Poland as “retaliation.” Within weeks, German troops, with more than 2,000 tanks and over 1,000 planes, defeated the Polish army which also had to fight against a Soviet invasion launched on September 17. Warsaw surrendered on September 17, 1939, and the war was de facto over by October 6, although Poland never formally surrendered.
Both France and Great Britain had signed military alliance treaties with Poland, pacts of mutual defense that promised that if either was attacked the other would come to their assistance. On September 3, 1939, both countries declared war on Germany.
Would France and Great Britain let Hitler once again get away with aggressive military actions or would they carry the war through until Hitlerism was crushed?
Having declared war on Germany, both France and Great Britain prepared for war and mobilized troops but still hoped to avoid a military conflict. What followed was a period called “Phoney War” (“drôle de guerre” in French and “Sitzkrieg” aka “sitting war” in German) that lasted until April 1940 where seemingly very little of military importance took place.
The first casualty was the British ocean liner Athenia, sunk by German submarine on September 3. The British dropped anti-Nazi propaganda leaflet over Germany and France moved some troops in the Saarland but stopped when they encountered German resistance. The French stayed behind their “ligne Maginot,” a set of fortification thought to be impenetrable.
The Allies intervened in Norway but were not match to German forces. The Phoney War was finally over in May 1940 when the Germans started their broad western offensive. They invaded the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxemburg before taking Paris on June 14. While the French signed an armistice on June 22, 1940, and French resistance vouched to continue fighting, Great Britain remained the only major power resisting the Germans in Europe.
It would take another five years of brutal fighting to finally crush Hitlerism.