Campaign in Poland

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See: Causes of World War II
Position of the adversaries on outbreak of war.
Lithuanian troops re-enter Vilnius.

The Campaign in Poland consisted of military action between Germany and Poland in September 1939. It concluded with the complete and absolute defeat of Poland. Poland's partial mobilisation against Germany from 25 March 1939 was followed by her full mobilisation announced on August 30th (but authorised by the Polish Government on the 28th). It is generally accepted that mobilisation means war. Germany argued their military response was to "Macedonian conditions" on their borders and twenty years of Poland's deliberate provocations.

Mainstream victors' historians tend to agree on 1 September 1939, the beginning of the German-Poland campaign, as the commencement of World War II. Having both guaranteed Poland assistance if its borders were invaded, Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3rd. By these actions they turned what should have been a localised action between two nation-states into World War II, as Hitler had stated the invasion of Poland would be a localised war, and firmly believed that neither Britain or France would intervene.[1]

On September 17th the Soviet Union, under a secret clause in the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, invaded the eastern forty percent of Poland, trapping Polish armies and subsequently imprisoning thousands of Polish officers as Prisoners-of-War, and some civilian intellectuals etc., who were all later executed in the infamous Katyn massacre.

Slovakia also participated in the campaign, re-occupying contested areas that had been invaded and occupied by Poland after the Munich Agreement in 1938.

Finally, on September 19, Lithuania recovered the province of Vilna with its historic capital, which was illegally invaded and occupied by Poland in 1920.

It should be emphasized that their invasion of Poland (and in June 1940: Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland) by the Red Army failed to cause a declaration of war by either Great Britain or France against the Soviet Union.

Summary of Causes

As a result of the imposed[2] Treaty of Versailles (June 1919), among many other penalties imposed on Germany, was the loss of Danzig and Memel and the transfer to Poland of provinces in eastern Germany largely populated by Germans.[3][4][5]

"The [eastern] frontiers of Germany, as laid down by Articles 27 and 28 of the Treaty, constitute the greatest violation of the principles of self-determination, and are mere allotments of territory, marked out at random, and in violation of International Law....The labour of centuries was destroyed at a blow." ~ Francesco Nitti, former Prime Minister of Italy.[6]

Every German Government in the 1919-1939 period publicly declared that they would never accept the imposed eastern borders, and their aim was for revision by political means. Under Versailles, a pre-condition was Poland's signature to the appended "Treaty for the Protection of Minorities". However, under Poland's occupation the German population suffered continuous criminal actions leading to emigration, expulsions, and even deaths, resulting in constant complaints and protests to the League of Nations.[7][8][9][10][11]

"As for the Polish Corridor, it may be definitely said that Germany will never tolerate a condition of things by which East Prussia is separated from the German Reich." ~ Tomáš Masaryk, Czech Statesman.[12].
"There [the Corridor] lies the root of the next war." ~ Marshal Ferdinand Foch.[13]

The so-called Polish Corridor was the pre-1919 German province of West Prussia which now separated East Prussia and Danzig from Pomerania and the Reich. For several years the German Government had been making proposals to the Polish Governments about the 'corridor' to make all forms of transit easier. These included an extra-territorial autobahn and non-interference (passports, guards, customs etc) for German trains not stopping in the 'corridor'. These proposals were flatly refused by Poland.[14] By August 1939 the German position had hardened: they demanded a plebiscite of the population as it was in 1910 with a view to the return of the 'corridor' (but not the province of Posen).[15]

Polish intransigence over the status of, and countless incidents in Danzig, with its 98% German population[16][17], was another major factor. In mid-1939 the democratically elected Danzig Senate called for Danzig to be reunited with the Reich, echoed in Germany itself.


German battleship Schleswig-Holstein at Danzig firing on the illegal Polish base of Westerplatte.
An Allies map of the Campaign in Poland. The pink areas were originally Lithuania but awarded to Poland at at Versailles in 1919.
German & Soviet advances

Even before Versailles, President Theodore Roosevelt stated prophetically:

"The nation has as a matter of course a right to abrogate a treaty in a solemn and official manner for what she regards as a sufficient cause, just exactly as she has a right to declare war or exercise another power for a sufficient cause."[18]

This would not be lost on Germany. The Polish Foreign Minister, Josef Beck, and his military hierarchy "were convinced that Poland could withstand a German attack".[19] Poland had been encouraged in her provocations by Great Britain's March 1939 'blank cheque' guaranteeing Poland's sovereignty and borders.

Poland had begun partially mobilising its army since 25 March 1939 and on August 30th announced full mobilisation. It has long been accepted that mobilising armed forced against another country is a de facto declaration of war.[20] There were also rumours of an imminent Polish attack on Danzig, due to the new Polish blockade of the Free City.[21]

At 8 p.m. on August 31st uniformed Polish soldiers, speaking Polish, attacked the Gleiwitz broadcasting station in Upper Silesia. The staff were all locked in the cellar. A soldier then broadcast:

"This is Gleiwitz. The [radio] station is in Polish hands."

By the time the first police arrived from their station 1 km away the intruders had left. Upper Silesia had for 20 years been the scene of Polish nationalist unrest and terrorism. The Poles subsequently said this was a false flag operation by the Germans themselves, with not a scrap of evidence to support such an allegation. Upper Silesia had since 1919 been a hotbed of anti-German terrorism, so something of this nature is hardly surprising.

It is interesting that so many since have labelled Germany's reaction to these activities as belligerent.

Opening moves

"During the night" of 31 August - 1 September, 1939, the Poles blew up the massive and principal railway bridge at Dirschau and fighting took place with the Danzigers.[22] This would appear to show that Poland was the aggressor. At about 5 a.m., the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein, on a courtesy visit in Danzig harbour, was given orders to open fire on the illegal[23][24] Polish military base at the Westerplatte[25][26] at Danzig. Some consider these to be the opening shots of the German-Polish war. The following day German destroyers arrived to assist the bombardment of Westerplatte. Meanwhile, Polish forces attacked Danzig from the west but were repulsed.[27]

Berlin Radio at 5.40 a.m. broadcast the following: "The Fuhrer issued the following Proclamation to the army. The Polish State has refused a peaceful settlement of relations which I desired and has appealed to arms."[28]

Polish army demolition experts having blown up the vast railway bridge at Dirschau, built by Germany before The Great War, then proceeded to do the same to the massive bridge at Graudenz[29][30]; Swedish diplomat Johan Dahlerus telephoned Charles Spencer at the London Foreign Office saying "The Poles do not want to negotiate. They are sabotaging everything."[31] The German city of Beuthen in Upper Silesia was bombarded by Polish artillery; the German Consul in Crakow was murdered.

On the same morning the German Wehrmacht invaded Poland at four points. Telegraph and telephone wires were cut about 4 a.m., by whom is uncertain. The railway station at Granica was occupied by German troops; Dirschau was reportedly bombed; north-west of Naklo (Nakel) armoured German divisions crossed the frontier and fighting generally was in progress by 6 a.m. when the attack on the Westerplatte (Danzig) was reported.

The British Ambassador at Warsaw reported further on German activities (always upon information provided by the Poles): Myszyniec was attacked at 5 a.m., German forces crossed the river Vistula between then and 6.45, near Deutsch-Eylau. Tanks observed near Śmiłów; weak attack in direction of Leszno (Lissa); air raid on Posen; attack between Neu-Mittelwalde and Ruchtal; tank attack on front at Praszka-Krzepice; attack on Lubliniec and Tarnowskie Gory (Tarnowitz) each by one battalion with tanks; tank attack on front at Gleiwitz-Ratibor (Upper Silesia); air raids on the aerodromes and railway stations of Kattowitz and Crakow.[32]

Western Allies

As a result of the German invasion, two days later, on 3 September, Britain and France declared war on Germany. What began and should have remained a localized conflict over the fate of an ancient German city, Danzig, and negotiable border revisions, between two continental European nations, namely Germany and Poland, was now expanded by Britain and France into a continental war involving all of Europe's major powers.

Civilian atrocities

Following the outbreak of war significant atrocities and murders of ethnic Germans who lived in Poland, usually having lived and remained in the German provinces given to Poland under the Versailles Treaty, were carried out by the Polish military and even civilians.[33] The worst were those carried out in Bromberg and surrounding towns and villages.[34][35]

Defeat for Poland

After 37 days (October 6, 1939) Poland capitulated. The Polish government withdrew through Romania into exile in England. This rapid and forceful action by Germany became known by the term Blitzkrieg (lightning war).


Further reading

  • The Decadence of Europe by Francesco Nitti, London, 1923.
  • Embattled Borders by E. Alexander Powell, London, 1928.
  • The Eastern Frontiers of Germany by René Martel, London, 1930.
  • Death in Poland - The Fate of the Ethnic Germans in September 1939, by Edwin Erich Swinger, Jena, Germany, 1940, English-language edition 2004, second printing 2021.
  • The Origins of the Second World War by Professor A. J. P. Taylor, London, 1961.
  • Truth for Germany - The Guilt Question of the Second World War, by Udo Walendy, first published in Germany in 1965; new edition translated into English, 2008, Washington D.C. ISBN 978-0-906879-82-5
  • The Foreign Policy of the Third Reich by Professor Klaus Hildebrand, London, 1973, ISBN 0-7134-1127-9
  • Purnell's History of the Second World War London, 1981, vol.1, "Two Sides of the Polish Campaign" by General Walther K. Nehring, and Colonel A. T. Sawczynski, pps: 13-28.
  • 1939 - The War that had Many Fathers by Gerd Schultze-Rhonhof, Munich, English-language edition, 2011, ISBN 978-1-4466-8623-2
  • The German Minority in Interwar Poland by Professor Winson Chu, University of Cambridge Press, 2012/13, ISBN 978-1-107-00830-4

External links


Victory Parade in Warsaw on 5 October 1939:


  1. How War Came by Donald Cameron Watt, London, 1989, ISBN 0-434-84216-8, p.480
  2. It has come to be felt that there is a moral taint about treaties signed under duress"...[making them] morally discredited. ~ Carr, Professor Edward Hallett, The Twenty Years' Crisis 1919 - 1939 Macmillan, London, 1939, "The Sanctity of Treaties", p.241-1.
  3. The Decadence of Europe by Francesco Nitti, late Prime Minister of Italy, London,1923, pps:85-90.
  4. The Free City - Danzig and German Foreign Policy 1919-1934 by Professor Christoph M. Kimmich, Yale University Press, 1968.
  5. The Vanquished - Why the First World War Failed to End by Professor Robert Gerwarth, UK, 2016. ISBN 978-1-846-14811-8
  6. Nitti, 1923, p.87.
  7. Germany Under The Treaty by William Harbutt Dawson, New York & London, 1933.
  8. Polish Atrocities Against the German Minority in Poland, German Foreign Office publication, Second Revised English-language edition, Berlin, 1940.
  9. Watt, 1989, many references to this subject.
  10. The Cauldron Boils by Emil Lengyel, New York, 1932.
  11. The German Minority in Inter-War Poland by Professor Winson Chu, Cambridge University Press, 20013, ISBN 978-1-107-63462-6
  12. Saturday Review, London, October 1930.
  13. Dawson, 1933, p.93.
  14. Dawson, 1933
  15. Watt, 1989, p.514.
  16. The Danzig Dilemma by John Brown Mason, Stanford University Press & Oxford University Press, 1946
  17. Kimmich, 1968.
  18. Pringle, H. F., Theodore Roosevelt, p.309, cited in Carr, Professor Edward Hallett, The Twenty Years' Crisis 1919 - 1939, Macmillan, London, 1939, "The Sanctity of Treaties", p.234.
  19. Watt, 1989, p.487.
  20. "Mobilisation IS war!" - French General Raoul de Boisdeffre to Tsar Alexander III in 1894, to which the Tsar replied "That is as I understand it." ~ Senator Robert L. Owen, The Russian Imperial Conspiracy 1892-1914, New York, 1927, p.13.
  21. Documents on British Foreign Policy 1919-1939 edited by Professor E.L.Woodward, M.A., F.B.A., Rohan Butler, M.A., and Anne Orde, M.A., Third Series, vol.vii, 1939, Her Majesty's Stationary Office, London, 1954, p.195-6 & p.214 relating to the Polish Government sealing the Polish-Danzig frontier. Lord Halifax telegraphed Warsaw that this was just aggravating the situation.
  22. Documents on British Foreign Policy 1919-1939 Third Series, vol.vii, 1954, telegram from the British Ambassador in Berlin to Viscount Halifax in London, p.476-7 no.644.
  23. Kimmich, 1968, pps: 98-100, 131-138
  24. The Danzig Dilemma by John Brown Mason, Stanford University Press, 1946, numerous mentions but notably pps:204-212
  25. Martel, 1930, p.75.
  26. Mason, 1946, p.213: "A resolution of the League of Nations dated 7 May 1920 declared that Poland could not be authorised to establish a military or naval base in the Free City."
  27. Watt, 1989, p.531.
  28. Documents on British Foreign Policy 1919-1939, Third Series, vol.vii, 1954, p.473, no.637.
  29. Watt, 1989, p.531-2
  30. Documents on British Foreign Policy 1919-1939, Third Series, vol.vii, 1954, p.473, no.637.
  31. Documents on British Foreign Policy 1919-1939, Third Series, vol.vii, 1954, p.476-7, no.644.
  32. Documents on British Foreign Policy 1919-1939, Third Series, vol.vii, 1954, pps:476, 479, 481-2, 484-5, nos.642, 650, 655, 662.
  33. de Zayas, Prof.Dr. Alfred M., The Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau 1939-1945, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1989, ISBN: 0-8032-1680-7
  34. Swinger, Edwin Erich, Death in Poland - The Fate of the Ethnic Germans in September 1939, originally published at Jena, Germany, in 1940; translated in 2004 and reprinted in 2004 & 2021.
  35. Schadewaldte, Hans, The Polish Atrocities Against the German Minority in Poland, German Foreign Office, Second revised edition, Berlin, 1940, English-language edition.