Eighty years ago, half a world away, Europe was embroiled in war as German tanks ripped through Poland. Whining, low-flying Stuka planes struck terror, and Warsaw burned. WWII had begun. Hitler’s intimidation, which had won him Czechoslovakia and Austria, now turned into a deadly conflict.
With the invasion of Poland, 2 million Polish Jews were, overnight, swept into the Nazi death trap. The country would become the epicenter of the inferno, the site of all six death camps. In September 1939, the ghettos and death camps were still on the drawing board, but the writing was on the wall. Even on the first day of the invasion, shuls were burnt (sometimes with people still inside) and Jews were shot at random. Jewish neighborhoods in Warsaw and other cities were targeted for bombing by the Luftwaffe. Over 50,000 Jews (20,000 civilians and 30,000 military) were killed during the five-week invasion of Poland.
Two generations later, the Polish invasion poses many unanswered questions. Why was Poland the first country that Hitler invaded? Why did Stalin sign a non-aggression treaty with his mortal enemy? Why did Poland’s Western allies not come to her aid? Major Richard Anderson, professor of history at West Point Military Academy, shared some of his insight from years of researching and teaching on this very subject.
Why Poland? Why not England or Norway, which had greater strategic value? Anderson said Hitler had a bone to pick with Poland. Germany had grievances against Poland for centuries. The immediate grievance was the Danzig corridor, a strip of Germany that was given to the newly formed Polish state, splitting off eastern Germany. Hitler saw the Danzig corridor as part of the greater German Reich. Danzig was German speaking.
Hitler tried to intimidate the Poles into making concessions, as he did with the Czechs, but the proud Poles would not give up their independence, leaving war the only alternative. Anderson said the earlier thinking was that Hitler went to war out of desperation when diplomacy (read intimidation) failed. Now the consensus is that Hitler preferred war from the start.
Why Poland and not France? Hitler’s strategy was to pick off small weak countries, one by one, without provoking an international reaction. Had he invaded France, he would have to fight England and perhaps the United States. He felt he could invade Poland with impunity. He was a mastermind of timing.
Hitler could not have invaded Poland without the German-Soviet non-aggression pact, signed a few weeks before the invasion, perhaps with the purpose of enabling the invasion. How could Stalin agree to sign a treaty with his mortal enemy? How could Hitler, an enemy of communism, have agreed? Anderson tried to explain the complexity of the non-aggression pact.
The Russian army lacked leadership, unity and experience. It simply was not ready to take on the Germans, who had prepared for war for years. Stalin wanted to buy time. He thought that the non-aggression treaty would last into 1942 or 1943, but it was shattered when the Germans overran the the Soviet Union in June 1941.
Why Did the Western Allies Not Come to Poland’s Rescue?
The Polish command could not hope to defeat the vastly more powerful German army. The Polish plan was to buy time, to hold the Germans off long enough for England and France to intervene. The high command thought they could hold off the Germans for two or three months but were defeated in five weeks. England and France had committed themselves by treaty to defend Poland, if it were attacked. Why did these allies not intervene during the Polish crisis?
Anderson cited the military doctrine of the “tyranny of logistics.” It is very difficult to supply armies far away. The Royal Air Force could defend the home country but did not have, at that point, enough long-range bombers capable of reaching Poland or even Germany. The United States, the great “Arsenal of Democracy,” was fiercely isolationist and did not want to enter the war.
Given impossible circumstances, the Poles fought courageously, holding out longer than most countries in Europe. Holland and Belgium fell in a few days. Denmark and Luxembourg in a single day. Many countries like Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary (invaded in 1944), fell without a fight. Norway held out the longest, two months, before surrendering.
Jews Fight Alongside Poles in Defense of Their Land
Despite ingrained Polish anti-Semitism, Poles and Jews put aside their differences and fought hand in hand to defend their land. Over 100,000 Polish Jews fought to repel the Teutonic invader. Thirty thousand fell, representing one half of Polish battle deaths.
On October 6, 1939, the last pocket of Polish resistance surrendered. The Polish campaign was over. No surrender document was signed nor was a collaborationist government installed.
The Poles laid down their arms but lived to fight another day. Even as an occupied nation the Poles made heroic contributions to the allied cause. Many Polish fighters managed to escape the country and join up with allied armies. Poles first discovered and helped crack the vaunted secret German code “enigma.” The Polish underground, the strongest in all of Europe, led a two-month revolt in Warsaw in 1944 (not to be confused with the Jewish Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1944).
The invasion of Poland is a study in the effectiveness of cooperation and the failure of political alliances to save the day. It points out the danger and futility of appeasement. The invasion of Poland launched the Holocaust. For the Holocaust there is no answer.
By Jeff Klapper