Military history





On 1 September 1939 the first of a grand total of sixty divisions of German troops crossed the Third Reich’s border with Poland. Numbering nearly one and a half million men, they paused only to allow newsreel cameramen from Joseph Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry to film the ceremonial raising of the customs barriers by grinning soldiers of the vanguard. The advance was spearheaded by tanks from the German army’s five armoured divisions, with around 300 tanks apiece, accompanied by four fully motorized infantry divisions. Behind them marched the bulk of the infantry, their artillery and equipment pulled mainly by horses - roughly 5,000 of them for each division, making at least 300,000 animals altogether. As impressive as this was, the decisive technology deployed by the Germans was not on the ground, but in the air. The ban imposed by the Treaty of Versailles on German military planes meant that aircraft construction had been forced to start almost from scratch when Hitler repudiated the relevant clauses of the Treaty only four years before the outbreak of the war. The German planes were not only modern in construction, but had been tried and tested in the Spanish Civil War by the German Condor Legion, many of the veterans of which piloted the 897 bombers, 426 fighters and various reconnaissance and transport planes that now took to the skies over Poland.1

These massive forces confronted the Poles with overwhelming odds. Hoping that the invasion would be stopped by Anglo-French intervention, and anxious not to offend world opinion by seeming to provoke the Germans, the Polish government delayed mobilizing its armed forces until the last minute. Thus they were poorly prepared to resist the sudden, massive invasion of German troops. The Poles could muster 1.3 million men, but they possessed few tanks and little modern equipment. German armoured and motorized divisions outnumbered their Polish counterparts by a factor of 15 to 1 in the conflict. The Polish air force was able to deploy only 154 bombers and 159 fighters against the invading Germans. Most of the aircraft, particularly the fighters, were obsolete, while the Polish cavalry brigades had scarcely begun to abandon their horses in favour of machines. Stories of Polish cavalry squadrons quixotically charging German tank units were most probably apocryphal, but the disparity in resources and equipment was undeniable all the same. The Germans surrounded Poland on three sides, following their dismemberment of Czecho-Slovakia earlier in the year. In the south, the German client state of Slovakia provided the most important jumping-off point for the invasion, and indeed the Slovak government actually sent some units to fight their way into Poland alongside the German troops, lured by the promise of a small amount of extra territory once Poland had been defeated. Other German divisions entered Poland across its northern border, from East Prussia, while still more marched in from the west, cutting through the Polish Corridor created by the Peace Settlement to give Poland access to the Baltic. Polish forces were stretched too thinly to defend all these frontiers effectively. While Stuka dive-bombers attacked the Polish armies strung out along the border from above, German tanks and artillery drove through their defences, cut them off from each other and broke their communications. Within a few days the Polish air force had been driven from the skies, and German bombers were destroying Polish arms factories, strafing the retreating troops and terrorizing the people of Warsaw, L’d’ and other cities.2

On 16 September 1939 alone, 820 German aircraft dropped a total of 328,000 kilos of bombs on the defenceless Poles, who possessed a total of only 100 anti-aircraft guns for the whole of the country. So demoralizing were the air attacks that in some areas Polish troops threw down their arms, and German commanders on the ground asked for the bombing to stop. A typical action was witnessed by the American correspondent William L. Shirer, who managed to get permission to accompany German forces attacking the Polish Baltic port of Gdynia:

The Germans were using everything in the way of weapons, big guns, small guns, tanks, and airplanes. The Poles had nothing but machine-guns, rifles, and two anti-aircraft pieces which they were trying desperately to use as artillery against German machine-gun posts and German tanks. The Poles . . . had turned two large buildings, one an officers’ school, the other the Gdynia radio station, into fortresses and were firing machine-guns from several of the windows. After a half-hour a German shell struck the roof of the school and set it on fire. Then German infantry, supported - or through the glasses it looked as though they were led - by tanks, charged up the hill and surrounded the building . . . A German seaplane hovered over the ridge, spotting for the artillery. Later, a bombing plane joined it, and they dived low, machine-gunning the Polish lines. Finally a squadron of Nazi bombers arrived. It was a hopeless position for the Poles.3

Similar actions were repeated all over the country as the German forces advanced. Within a week the Polish forces were in complete disarray, and their structure of command was shattered. On 17 September the Polish government fled to Romania, where its hapless ministers were promptly interned by the authorities. The country was now entirely leaderless. A government-in-exile, formed on 30 September 1939 on the initiative of Polish diplomats in Paris and London, was unable to do anything. A single, furious Polish counter-attack, at the Battle of Kutno on 9 September, only succeeded in delaying the encirclement of Warsaw by a few days at most.4

In Warsaw itself, conditions deteriorated rapidly. Chaim Kaplan, a Jewish schoolteacher, noted on 28 September 1939:

There is no end to corpses of horses. They lie fallen in the middle of the street and there is no one to remove them and clear the road. They have been rotting for three days and nauseating all the passers-by. However, because of the starvation rampant in the city, there are many who eat the horses’ meat. They cut off chunks and eat them to quiet their hunger.5

One of the most vivid depictions of the chaotic scenes that followed the German invasion was penned by a Polish doctor, Zygmunt Klukowski. Born in 1885, he was by the outbreak of the war superintendent of the Zamość county hospital in the town of Szczebrzeszyn. Klukowski kept a diary, which he hid away in odd corners of his hospital, as an act of defiance and remembrance. At the end of the second week in September, he noted the streams of refugees fleeing from the encroaching German troops in the middle of the night, a scene that would be repeated many times, in many parts of Europe, in the years to come:

The entire highway was crowded with military convoys, all types of motorized vehicles, horse-drawn wagons, and thousands of people on foot. Everyone was moving in one direction only - east. When daylight came a mass of people on foot and on bicycles added to the confusion. It was completely weird. This whole mass of people, seized with panic, were going ahead, without knowing where or why, and without any knowledge of where the exodus would end. Large numbers of passenger cars, several official limousines, all filthy and covered with mud, were trying to pass the truck and wagon convoys. Most of the vehicles had Warsaw registration. It was a sad thing to see so many high-ranking officers such as colonels and generals fleeing together with their families. Many people were hanging on to the roofs and fenders of the cars and trucks. Many of the vehicles had broken windshields and windows, damaged hoods or doors. Much slower moving were all kinds of buses, new city buses from Warsaw, Cracow, and L’d’ and all full of passengers. After that came horse-drawn wagons of every description loaded with women and children, all very tired, hungry, and dirty. Riding bicycles were mostly young men; only occasionally could a young woman be seen. Walking on foot were many kinds of people. Some had left their houses on foot; others were forced to leave their vehicles abandoned.6

He reckoned that up to 30,000 people were fleeing the German advance in this way.7

Worse was to come. On 17 September 1939 Klukowski heard a German loudspeaker in the market square of Zamość announcing that the Red Army, with German agreement, had crossed Poland’s eastern border.8 Not long before the invasion, Hitler had secured the non-intervention of the Russian dictator, Josef Stalin, by signing secret clauses of a German- Soviet Pact on 24 August 1939 that arranged the partition of Poland between the two states along an agreed demarcation line.9 In the first two weeks after the German invasion, Stalin had held back while he extricated his forces from a successful conflict with Japan in Manchuria, concluded only in late August. But when it became clear that Polish resistance had been broken, the Soviet leadership authorized the Red Army to move into the country from the east. Stalin was keen to grasp the opportunity to regain territory that had belonged to Russia before the revolution of 1917. It had been the object of a bitter war between Russia and the newly created Polish state in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. Now he could win it back. Faced with a war on two fronts, the Polish armed forces, which had made no plans for such an eventuality, fought a bitter but entirely futile rearguard action to try to delay the inevitable. It was not long in coming. Squashed between two vastly superior armies, the Poles did not stand a chance. On 28 September 1939 a new treaty laid down the final border. By this time, the German assault on Warsaw was over. 1,200 aircraft had dropped huge quanitites of incendiary and other bombs on the Polish capital, raising a huge pall of smoke that made accuracy impossible; many civilians were killed as a result. In view of their hopeless situation, the Polish commanders in the city had negotiated a ceasefire on 27 September 1939. 120,000 Polish troops of the city’s garrison surrendered, after being assured that they could go home after a brief and formal captivity as prisoners of war. The last Polish military units surrendered on 6 October 1939.10

This was the first example of the still far from perfected ‘lightning war’, Hitler’s Blitzkrieg, a war of rapid movement, led by tanks and motorized divisions in conjunction with bombers terrorizing enemy troops and immobilizing enemy air forces, overwhelming a more conventionally minded opponent by the sheer speed and force of a knockout punch through enemy lines. The achievement of the lightning war could be read from the comparative statistics of losses on the two sides. Altogether the Poles lost some 70,000 troops killed in action against the German invaders and another 50,000 against the Russians, with at least 133,000 wounded in the conflict with the Germans and an unknown number of casualties in the action against the Red Army. The Germans took nearly 700,000 Polish prisoners and the Russians another 300,000. 150,000 Polish troops and airmen escaped abroad, especially to Britain, where many of them joined the armed forces. The German forces suffered 11,000 killed and 30,000 wounded, with another 3,400 missing in action; the Russians lost a mere 700 men, with a further 1,900 wounded. The figures graphically illustrated the unequal nature of the conflict; at the same time, however, German losses were far from negligible, in terms not just of personnel but also, more strikingly, of equipment. No fewer than 300 armoured vehicles, 370 guns and 5,000 other vehicles had been destroyed, along with a considerable number of aircraft, and these losses were only partially offset by the capture or surrender of (usually very inferior) Polish equivalents. These were modest but still ominous portents for the future.11

For the moment such concerns did not trouble Hitler. He had followed the campaign from his mobile headquarters in an armoured train stationed first in Pomerania, later in Upper Silesia, making occasional forays by car to view the action from a safe distance. On 19 September he entered Danzig, the formerly German city placed under League of Nations suzerainty by the Peace Settlement, to be greeted by ecstatic crowds of ethnic Germans rejoicing in what they saw as their liberation from foreign control. After two brief flights to inspect the scenes of destruction wrought by his armies and airplanes on Warsaw, he went back to Berlin.12 There were no parades or celebratory speeches in the capital, but the victory met with general satisfaction. ‘I have still to find a German, even among those who don’t like the regime,’ wrote Shirer in his diary, ‘who sees anything wrong in the German destruction of Poland.’13 Social Democratic agents reported that the great mass of people supported the war not least because they thought that the failure of the western powers to assist the Poles meant that Britain and France would soon be suing for peace, an impression strengthened by a much-trumpeted ‘peace offer’ from Hitler to the French and British in early October. Though this was quickly rejected, the continued inaction of the British and the French kept hopes alive that they could be persuaded to pull out of the war.14 Rumours of a peace deal with the western powers were rife at this time, and even led to spontaneous celebratory demonstrations on the streets of Berlin.15

Meanwhile, Goebbels’s propaganda machine had gone into overdrive to persuade Germans that the invasion had been inevitable in the light of a Polish threat of genocide against the ethnic Germans in their midst. The nationalistic military regime in Poland had indeed discriminated heavily against the German ethnic minority in the interwar years. At the onset of the German invasion in September 1939, gripped by fears of sabotage behind the lines, it had arrested between ten and fifteen thousand ethnic Germans and marched them towards the eastern part of the country, beating laggards and shooting many of those who gave up through exhaustion. There were also widespread attacks on members of the ethnic German minority, most of whom had made no attempt to disguise their desire to return to the German Reich ever since their forcible incorporation into Poland at the end of the First World War.16 Altogether, around 2,000 ethnic Germans were killed in mass shootings or died from exhaustion on the marches. Some 300 were killed in Bromberg (Bydgoszcz), where local ethnic Germans had staged an armed uprising against the town’s garrison in the belief that the war was virtually over, and had been killed by the enraged Poles. These events were cynically exploited by Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry to win maximum support in Germany for the invasion. Many Germans were convinced. Melita Maschmann, a young activist in the League of German Girls, the female wing of the Hitler Youth, was persuaded that war was morally justified not only in the light of the injustices of Versailles, which had ceded German-speaking areas to the new Polish state, but also by press and newsreel reports of Polish violence against the German-speaking minority. 60,000 ethnic Germans, she believed, had been brutally murdered by the Poles in ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Bromberg. How could Germany be to blame for acting to stop such hatred, such atrocities, she asked herself.17 Goebbels had initially estimated the total number of ethnic Germans killed at 5,800. It was not until February 1940 that, probably on Hitler’s personal instructions, the estimate was arbitrarily increased to 58,000, later remembered in rough approximation by Melita Maschmann.18 The figure not only convinced most Germans that the invasion had been justified, but also fuelled the hatred and resentment felt by the ethnic German minority in Poland against their former masters.19 Under Hitler’s orders, its bitterness was quickly brought into the service of a campaign of ethnic cleansing and mass murder that far outdid anything that had happened after the German occupation of Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938.20


The invasion of Poland was indeed the third successful annexation of foreign territory by the Third Reich. In 1938, Germany had annexed the independent republic of Austria. Later in the year, it had marched unopposed into the German-speaking border regions of Czechoslovakia. Both these moves had been sanctioned by international agreement and, on the whole, welcomed by the inhabitants of the areas concerned. They could be portrayed as justifiable revisions of the Treaty of Versailles, which had proclaimed national self-determination as a general principle but denied it to German-speakers in parts of East-Central Europe such as these. In March 1939, however, Hitler had clearly violated the international agreements of the previous year by marching into the rump state of Czecho-Slovakia, dismembering it and creating out of the Czech part the Reich Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. For the first time the Third Reich had taken over a substantial area of East-Central Europe that was not inhabited mainly by German speakers. This was in fact the first step towards the fulfilment of a long-nurtured Nazi programme of establishing a new ‘living-space’ (Lebensraum) for the Germans in East-Central and Eastern Europe, where the Slav inhabitants would be reduced to the status of slave labourers and providers of food for their German masters. The Czechs were treated as second-class citizens in the new Protectorate, and those who were drafted into German fields and factories to provide much-needed labour were placed under an especially harsh legal and police regime, more draconian even than that which the Germans themselves were experiencing under Hitler.21

At the same time, the Czechs, along with the newly (nominally) independent Slovaks, had been allowed their own civil administration, courts and other institutions. Some Germans at least possessed a degree of respect for Czech culture, and the Czech economy was undeniably advanced. German views of Poland and the Poles were far more negative. Independent Poland had been partitioned between Austria, Prussia and Russia in the eighteenth century and had only come into existence again as a sovereign state at the end of the First World War. Throughout that period, German nationalists mostly believed that the Poles were temperamentally unable to govern themselves. ‘Polish muddle’ (Polenwirtschaft ) was a common expression for chaos and inefficiency, and school textbooks commonly portrayed Poland as economically backward and mired in Catholic superstition. The invasion of Poland had little to do with the situation of the German-speaking minority there, which made up only 3 per cent of the population, in contrast to the Czechoslovak Republic, where ethnic Germans had constituted nearly a quarter of the inhabitants. Helped by a long tradition of writing and teaching on the topic, Germans were convinced that they had taken up the burden of a ‘civilizing mission’ in Poland over the centuries, and it was now time for them to do so again.22

Hitler had little to say about Poland and the Poles before the war, and his personal attitude towards them seemed in some ways unclear, in contrast to his long-held dislike of the Czechs, nurtured already in pre-1914 Vienna. What concentrated his mind and turned it sharply against the Poles was the refusal of the military government in Warsaw to make any concessions to his territorial demands, in contrast to the Czechs, who had obligingly caved in under international pressure in 1938, demonstrating their willingness to co-operate with the Third Reich in the dismemberment and eventual suppression of their state. Matters were made worse by the refusal of Britain and France to push Poland into conceding demands such as the return of Danzig to Germany. In 1934, when Hitler had concluded a ten-year non-aggression pact with the Poles, it had seemed possible that Poland might become a satellite state in a future European order dominated by Germany. But by 1939 it had become a serious obstacle to the eastward expansion of the Third Reich. It therefore had to be wiped from the map, and ruthlessly exploited to finance preparations for the coming war in the west.23

The decision as to what should be done had still not been taken when, on 22 August 1939, as final preparations were being made for the invasion, Hitler told his leading generals how he envisaged the coming war with Poland:

Our strength lies in our speed and our brutality. Genghis Khan hunted millions of women and children to their deaths, consciously and with a joyous heart. History sees in him only the great founder of a state . . . I have issued a command - and I will have everyone who utters even a single word of criticism shot - that the aim of the war lies not in reaching particular lines but in the physical annihilation of the enemy. Thus, so far only in the east, I have put my Death’s Head formations at the ready with the command to send man, woman and child of Polish descent and language to their deaths, pitilessly and remorselessly . . . Poland will be depopulated and settled with Germans.24

The Poles were, he told Goebbels, ‘more animals than men, totally dull and formless . . . The dirt of the Poles is unimaginable’.25 Poland had to be subjugated with complete ruthlessness. ‘The Poles’, he told the Nazi Party ideologue Alfred Rosenberg on 27 September 1939, consisted of ‘a thin Germanic layer: underneath frightful material . . . The towns thick with dirt . . . If Poland had gone on ruling the old German parts for a few more decades everything would have become lice-ridden and decayed. What was needed now was a determined and masterful hand to rule.’26 Hitler’s self-confidence grew rapidly as days, then weeks, passed in September 1939 without any sign of an effective intervention by the British and the French to help the Poles. The success of the German armies only increased his feeling of invulnerability. In the creation of the Reich Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, strategic and economic considerations had played the major role. With the takeover of Poland, however, for the first time, Hitler and the Nazis were ready to unleash the full force of their racial ideology. Occupied Poland was to become the proving-ground for the creation of the new racial order in East-Central Europe, a model for what Hitler intended subsequently to happen in the rest of the region - in Belarus, Russia, the Baltic states and the Ukraine. This was to show what the Nazi concept of a new ‘living-space’ for the Germans in the east would really mean in practice.27

1. Poland and East-Central Europe under the German-Soviet Pact, 1939-41

By early October 1939 Hitler had abandoned his initial idea of allowing the Poles to govern themselves in a rump state. Large chunks of Polish territory were annexed by the Reich to form the new Reich Districts of Danzig-West Prussia, under Albert Forster, Nazi Party Regional Leader of Danzig, and Posen (soon renamed the Wartheland), under Arthur Greiser, formerly President of the Danzig Senate. Other pieces of Poland were added on to the existing Reich Districts of East Prussia and Silesia. These measures extended the borders of the Third Reich some 150 to 200 kilometres eastward. Altogether, 90,000 square kilometres of territory were incorporated into the Reich, along with around 10 million people, 80 per cent of them Poles. The rest of Poland, known as the ‘General Government’, was put under the autocratic rule of Hans Frank, the Nazi Party’s legal expert, who had made his name in defending Nazis in criminal cases during the 1920s and since then risen to become Reich Commissioner for Justice and head of the Nazi Lawyers’ League. Despite his unconditional loyalty to Hitler, Frank had clashed repeatedly with Heinrich Himmler and the SS, who cared a good deal less for legal formalities than he did, and removing him to Poland was a convenient way of sidelining him. Moreover, his legal experience seemed to fit him well for the task of building up a new administrative structure from scratch. More than 11 million people lived in the General Government, which included the Lublin district and parts of the provinces of Warsaw and Cracow. It was not a ‘protectorate’ like Bohemia and Moravia, but a colony, outside the Reich and beyond its law, its Polish inhabitants effectively stateless and without rights. In the position of almost unlimited power that he was to enjoy as General Governor, Frank’s penchant for brutal and violent rhetoric quickly translated into the reality of brutal and violent action. With Forster, Greiser and Frank occupying the leading administrative positions, the whole area of occupied Poland was now in the hands of hardened ‘Old Fighters’ of the Nazi movement, portending the unrestrained implementation of extreme Nazi ideology that was to be the guiding principle of the occupation.28

Hitler announced his intentions on 17 October 1939 to a small group of senior officials. The General Government, Hitler told them, was to be autonomous from the Reich. It was to be the site of a ‘hard ethnic struggle that will not permit any legal restrictions. The methods will not be compatible with our normal principles.’ There was to be no attempt at efficient or orderly government. ‘ “Polish muddle” must be allowed to flourish.’ Transport and communications had to be maintained because Poland would be ‘an advanced jumping-off point’ for the invasion of the Soviet Union at some time in the future. But otherwise, ‘any tendencies towards stabilizing the situation in Poland are to be suppressed’. It was not the task of the administration ‘to put the country on a sound basis economically and financially’. There must be no opportunity for the Poles to reassert themselves. ‘The Polish intelligentsia must be prevented from forming itself into a ruling class. The standard of living in the country is to remain low; it is of use to us only as a reservoir of labour.’29

These drastic policies were implemented by a mixture of local paramilitary groups and SS task forces. At the very beginning of the war, Hitler ordered the establishment of an Ethnic German Self-Protection militia in Poland, which soon afterwards came under the aegis of the SS. The militia was organized, and then led in West Prussia, by Ludolf von Alvensleben, adjutant to Heinrich Himmler. He told his men on 16 October 1939: ‘You are now the master race here . . . Don’t be soft, be merciless, and clear out everything that is not German and could hinder us in the work of construction.’30 The militia began organized mass shootings of Polish civilians, without any authorization from the military or civil authorities, in widespread acts of revenge for supposed Polish atrocities against the ethnic Germans. Already on 7 October 1939 Alvensleben reported that 4,247 Poles had been subjected to the ‘sharpest measures’. In the month from 12 October to 11 November 1939 alone, some 2,000 men, women and children were shot by the militia in Klammer (Kulm district). No fewer than 10,000 Poles and Jews were brought by militiamen to Mniszek, in the parish of Dragass, from the surrounding areas, lined up on the edge of gravel pits, and shot. Militias, assisted by German soldiers, had shot another 8,000, in a wood near Karlshof, in the Zempelburg district, by 15 November 1939. By the time these activities had been brought to an end, early in 1940, many thousands more Poles had fallen victim to the militiamen’s rage. In the West Prussian town of Konitz, for example, the local Protestant militia, fired up by hatred and contempt for Poles, Catholics, Jews and anyone who did not fit in with the Nazis’ racial ideals, began on 26 September by shooting forty Poles and Jews, without even the pretence of a trial. Their tally of Jewish and Polish victims had reached 900 by the following January. Of the 65,000 Poles and Jews murdered in the last quarter of 1939, around half were killed by the militias, sometimes in bestial circumstances; these were the first mass shootings of civilians in the war.31


In the course of 1939 Himmler, Heydrich and other leading figures in the SS had been engaged in a lengthy debate about the best way of organizing the various bodies that had come under their control since the beginning of the Third Reich, including the Security Service, the Gestapo, the criminal police and a large number of specialized offices. Their discussions were lent urgency by the prospect of the forthcoming invasion of Poland, in which it was clear that the lines of responsibility and demarcation between the police and the Security Service would need to be redrawn if they were to assert themselves effectively against the mighty power of the German army. On 27 September 1939 Himmler and Heydrich created the Reich Security Head Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt ) to pull all the various parts of the police and SS together under a single, centralized directorate. As elaborated over the following months, the Office came to consist of seven departments. Two of these (I and II) ran the administration in all its various activities, from employment conditions to personnel files. The initial director, Werner Best, was eventually pushed aside by his rival Heydrich in June 1940 and his responsibilities divided between less ambitious figures. Heydrich’s Security Service itself occupied Departments III and VI, covering respectively domestic and foreign affairs. Department IV consisted of the Gestapo, with sections devoted to dealing with political opponents (IVA), the Churches and the Jews (IVB), ‘protective custody’ (IVC), occupied territories (IVD) and counter-espionage (IVE). The criminal police was put into Department V, and Department VII was created to investigate oppositional ideologies. The whole vast structure was in a state of constant flux, riven by internal rivalries, and undermined by periodic changes of personnel. However, a number of key individuals ensured a degree of coherence and continuity - notably Reinhard Heydrich, its overall head, Heinrich M̈ller, the Gestapo chief, Otto Ohlendorf, who ran Department III, Franz Six (Department VII) and Arthur Nebe (Department V). It was to all intents and purposes an independent body, deriving its legitimacy from Hitler’s personal prerogative power, staffed not with traditional, legally trained civil servants but with ideologically committed Nazis. A key part of its rationale was to politicize the police, many of whose senior officers, including M̈ller, were career policemen rather than Nazi fanatics. Cut loose from traditional administrative structures, the Reich Security Head Office intervened in every area where Heydrich felt an active, radical presence was needed, first of all in the racial reordering of occupied Poland.32

This now proceeded apace. Already on 8 September 1939 Heydrich was reported as saying that ‘we want to protect the little people, but the aristocrats, the Poles and Jews must be killed’, and expressing his impatience, as was Hitler himself, with the low rate of executions ordered by the formal military courts - a mere 200 a day at this time.33 Franz Halder, chief of the Army General Staff, believed that ‘it’s the aim of the Leader and of G̈ring to annihilate and exterminate the Polish people’.34 On 19 September 1939 Halder recorded Heydrich as saying there would be a ‘clear-out: Jews, intelligentsia, priesthood, aristocracy’. 60,000 names of Polish professionals and intellectuals had been gathered before the war; they were all to be killed. A meeting between Brauchitsch and Hitler on 18 October confirmed that the policy was to ‘prevent the Polish intelligentsia from building itself up to become a new leadership stratum. The low standard of living will be maintained. Cheap slaves. All the rabble must be cleared out of German territory. Creation of a complete disorganization.’35 Heydrich told his subordinate commanders that Hitler had ordered the deportation of Poland’s Jews into the General Government, along with professional and educated Poles, apart from the political leaders, who were to be put into concentration camps.36

Building on the experience of the occupation of Austria and Czechoslovakia, and acting on Hitler’s explicit orders, Heydrich organized five Task Forces (Einsatzgruppen), later increased to seven, to follow the army into Poland to carry out the Third Reich’s ideological policies.37 Their leaders were appointed by a special administrative unit created by Heydrich and put under the command of Werner Best.38 The men he appointed to lead the Task Forces and their various sub-units (Einsatzkommandos ) were senior Security Service and Security Police officers, mostly well-educated, middle-class men in their mid-to-late thirties who had turned to the far right in the Weimar Republic. Many of the older, more senior commanders had served in the violent paramilitary units of the Free Corps in the early 1920s; their younger subordinates had often been initiated into the politics of the ultra-nationalist, antisemitic far right during their university days in the early 1930s. A good number, though not all, had imbibed violent anti-Polish feelings as members of paramilitary units in the conflicts of 1919- 21 in Upper Silesia, as natives of areas forcibly ceded to Poland in the Peace Settlement, or as police officers along the German-Polish border. Best expected his officers not only to be senior, experienced and efficient administrators but also to have military experience of one kind or another.39

Typical of these men in most though not all respects was Bruno Streckenbach, an SS brigade leader born in Hamburg in 1902, son of a customs officer. Too young to fight in the First World War, Streckenbach joined a Free Corps unit in 1919 and was involved in fighting against left-wing revolutionaries in Hamburg before taking part in the Kapp putsch of March 1920. After working in various administrative jobs in the 1920s, Streckenbach joined the Nazi Party in 1930 and then in 1931 the SS; in November 1933 he became an officer in the SS Security Service, rising steadily through its ranks and becoming chief of the State Police in Hamburg in 1936, gaining a reputation for ruthlessness in the process. This recommended him to Best, who appointed him head of Task Force I in Poland in 1939. Streckenbach was unusual chiefly in his relative lack of educational attainments; a number of his subordinate officers had doctorates. Like them, however, he had a history of violent commitment to the extreme right.40

Streckenbach and the Task Forces, numbering in total about 2,700 men, were charged with establishing the political and economic security of the German occupation in the wake of the invasion. This included not only the killing of ‘the leading stratum of the population in Poland’ but also the ‘combating of all elements in enemy territory to the rear of the fighting troops who are hostile to the Reich and the Germans’.41 In practice this allowed the Task Forces considerable room for manoeuvre. The Task Forces were placed under the formal command of the army, which was ordered to assist them as far as the tactical situation allowed. This made sense insofar as the Task Forces were meant to deal with espionage, resistance, partisan groups and the like, but in practice they went very much their own way as the SS unfolded its massive campaign of arrests, deportations and murders.42 The Task Forces were armed with lists of Poles who had fought in one way or another against German rule in Silesia during the troubles that had accompanied the League of Nations plebiscites at the end of the First World War. Polish politicians, leading Catholics and proponents of Polish national identity were singled out for arrest. On 9 September 1939 the Nazi jurist Roland Freisler, State Secretary in the Reich Ministry of Justice, arrived in Bromberg to set up a series of show trials before a special court, which had condemned 100 men to death by the end of the year.43

The hospital director Dr Zygmunt Klukowski began recording in his diary mass executions of Poles in his district by the Germans, carried out on the slightest of pretexts - seventeen people in early January 1940, for example.44 The danger to him as an intellectual, professional man was particularly acute. Klukowski lived in constant fear of arrest, and indeed in June 1940 he was taken by German police from his hospital to an internment camp, where the Poles were put through punishing physical exercises, beaten ‘with sticks, whips, or fists’, and kept in filthy and insanitary conditions. Under interrogation he told the Germans that there was typhus in his hospital and he had to get back to stop it spreading into the town and possibly infecting them (‘In my head I was saying “glory be to the louse”,’ he later wrote in his diary). He was immediately released to go back to what he portrayed as his thoroughly infested hospital. He had been very lucky, he reflected; he had escaped being beaten or having to run round the prison training field, and he had got out quickly. The experience, he wrote, ‘surpassed all the rumors. I was unable before to comprehend the methodical disregard of personal dignity, how human beings could be treated much worse than any animals, while the physical abuses that were performed with sadistic pleasure clearly showed on the faces of the German Gestapo. But,’ he went on, ‘. . . the behavior of the prisoners was magnificent. No one begged for mercy; no one showed even a trace of cowardice . . . All the insults, mistreatment, and abuses were received calmly with the knowledge that they bring shame and disgrace to the German people.’45

Reprisals for even the most trivial offences were savage. In one incident in the village of Wawer, a Warsaw physician reported,

A drunken Polish peasant picked a quarrel with a German soldier and in the resulting brawl wounded him with a knife. The Germans seized this opportunity to carry out a real orgy of indiscriminate murder in alleged reprisal for the outrage. Altogether 122 people were killed. As, however, the inhabitants of this village, for some reason or other, apparently fell short of the pre-determined quota of victims, the Germans stopped a train to Warsaw at the local railway station (normally it did not call there at all), dragged out several passengers, absolutely innocent of any knowledge of what had happened, and executed them on the spot without any formalities. Three of them were left hanging with their heads down for four days at the local railway station. A huge board placed over the hideous scene told the story of the victims and threatened that a similar fate was in store for every locality where a German was killed or wounded.46

When a thirty-year-old stormtrooper leader and local official arrived drunk at the prison in Hohensalza, hauled the Polish prisoners out of their cells and had fifty-five of them shot on the spot, killing some of them personally, the only effect that the protests of other local officials had was to persuade Regional Leader Greiser to extract from him a promise not to touch any alcohol for the next ten years.47 In another incident, in Obluze, near Gdynia, the smashing-in of a window in the local police station resulted in the arrest of fifty Polish schoolboys. When they refused to name the culprit, their parents were ordered to beat them in front of the local church. The parents refused, so the SS men beat the boys with their rifle-butts then shot ten of them, leaving their bodies lying in front of the church for a whole day.48

Such incidents occurred on a daily basis through the winter of 1939-40 and involved a mixture of regular German troops, ethnic German militias and units from the Task Forces and the Order Police. While the army had not been ordered to kill the Polish intelligentsia, the view most soldiers and junior officers had of Poles as dangerous and treacherous subhumans was enough for them to target a large number of Polish intellectuals and professionals as part of what they thought of as preventive or reprisal measures.49Given the fierce if ineffective resistance they encountered from the Poles, German army commanders were extremely worried at the prospect of a guerrilla war against their troops, and took the most draconian retaliatory measures where they suspected it was emerging.50 ‘If there is shooting from a village behind the front,’ ordered Colonel-General von Bock on 10 September 1939, ‘and if it proves impossible to identify the house from which the shots came, then the whole village is to be burned to the ground.’51 By the time the military administration of occupied Poland ended on 26 October, 531 towns and villages had been burned to the ground, and 16,376 Poles had been executed.52 Lower-ranking German soldiers were fuelled by fear, contempt and rage as they encountered Polish resistance. In many units, officers gave pep-talks before the invasion, underlining the barbarism, bestiality and subhumanity of the Poles. Corporal Franz Ortner, a rifle-man, railed in a report against what he called the ‘brutalized’ Poles, who had, he thought, bayoneted the German wounded on the battlefield. A private, writing a letter home, described Polish actions against ethnic Germans as ‘brutish’. Poles were ‘insidious’, ‘treacherous’, ‘base’; they were mentally subnormal, cowardly, fanatical; they lived in ‘stinking holes’ instead of houses; and they were under the ‘baleful influence of Jewry’. Soldiers waxed indignant about the conditions in which Poles lived: ‘Everywhere foul straw, damp, pots and flannels’, wrote one of a Polish home he entered, confirming everything he had heard about the backwardness of the Poles.53

Typical examples of the ordinary soldier’s behaviour can be found in the diary of Gerhard M., a stormtrooper, born in Flensburg in 1914 and called up to the army shortly before the war. On 7 September 1939 his unit encountered resistance from ‘cowardly snipers’ in a Polish village. Gerhard M. had been a fireman before the war. But now he and the men of his unit burned the village to the ground.

Burning houses, weeping women, screaming children. A picture of misery. But the Polish people didn’t want it any better. In one of the primitive peasant houses we even surprised a woman servicing a Polish machine-gun. The house was turned over and set alight. After a short while the woman was surrounded by the flames and tried to get out. But we stopped her, as hard as it was. Soldiers can’t be treated any differently just because they’re in skirts. Her screaming rang in my ears long after. The whole village burned. We had to walk exactly in the middle of the street, because the heat from the burning houses on both sides was too great.54

Such scenes repeated themselves as the German armies advanced. A few days later, on 10 September 1939, Gerhard M.’s unit was fired on from another Polish village and set the houses alight.

Soon burning houses were lining our route, and out of the flames there sounded the screams of the people who had hidden in them and were unable any more to rescue themselves. The animals were bellowing in fear of death, a dog howled until it was burned up, but worst of all was the screaming of the people. It was dreadful. It’s still ringing in my ears even today. But they shot at us and so they deserved death.55

SS Task Forces, police units, ethnic German paramilitaries and regular German soldiers were thus killing civilians all over German-occupied Poland from September 1939 onwards. As well as observing actions of this kind, Dr Klukowski began to notice more and more young Polish men leaving for work in Germany in the early months of 1940. At the beginning of the year, indeed, the Reich Food Ministry, together with the Labour Ministry and the Office of the Four-Year Plan, had demanded a million Polish workers for the Reich economy. 75 per cent of them were to work in agriculture, where there was a serious labour shortage. These, as G̈ring decreed on 25 January 1940, were to come from the General Government. If they did not volunteer, they would have to be conscripted. Given the miserable conditions that existed in occupied Poland, the prospect of living in Germany was not unattractive, and over 80,000 Polish workers, a third of them women, were transported voluntarily to Germany on 154 special trains in February, mainly from the General Government. Once in Germany, however, they were subjected to harshly discriminatory laws and repressive measures.56 News of their treatment in Germany quickly led to a sharp decline in the number of volunteers, so that from April 1940 Frank introduced compulsion in an attempt to fulfil his quota. Increasingly, young Poles fled into the forests to avoid labour conscription in Germany; the beginnings of the Polish underground resistance movement date from this time.57 In January the resistance tried to assassinate the General Government’s police chief, and over the following weeks there were uprisings and murders of ethnic Germans in a number of villages. On 30 May 1940, Frank initiated a ‘pacification action’ in which 4,000 resistance fighters and intellectuals, half of whom were already in custody, were killed, along with some 3,000 Poles sentenced for criminal offences.58 This had little effect. In February 1940 there were still only 295,000 Poles, mostly prisoners of war, working as labourers in the Old Reich. This in no way made good the labour shortages that had been occasioned by the mass conscription of German men into the armed forces. By the summer of 1940, there were 700,000 Poles working as voluntary or forced labourers in the Old Reich; another 300,000 went to the Reich the following year. By this time, Frank was issuing local administrations with fixed quotas to fulfil. Often the police surrounded villages and arrested all the young men in them. Those who attempted to flee were shot. In towns, young Poles were simply rounded up by the police and the SS in cinemas or other public places, or on the streets, and shipped off without further ceremony. As a result of these methods, by September 1941 there were over a million Polish workers in the Old Reich. According to one estimate, only 15 per cent of them had gone there of their own accord.59

The mass deportation of young Poles as forced workers to the Reich was paralleled by a wholesale campaign of looting unleashed by the German occupation forces. When German soldiers tried to steal from his hospital, Klukowski managed to get rid of them by telling them once again that several of the patients had typhus.60 Others were not so quick-witted, or so well situated. The requirement for the troops to live off the land was not accompanied by any kind of detailed rules of requisitioning. From impounding chickens it was but a short step to requisitioning cooking equipment and then to stealing money and jewellery. 61 Typical was the experience of Gerhard M., whose unit arrived in a Polish town and stood on the street awaiting orders:

A resourceful chap had discovered a chocolate shop with its windows boarded over. Unfortunately the owner wasn’t there. So we cleared out the shop on tick. Our vehicles were piled high with chocolate until there was no more room. Every soldier ran around with his cheeks stuffed full, chewing. We were mightily pleased with the cheapness of the purchase. I discovered a store of really beautiful apples. All up onto our vehicle. A can of lemons and chocolate biscuits on the back of my bike, and then off we went again.62

Leading the way in the despoliation of occupied Poland was the General Governor himself. Frank made no effort to conceal his greed. He even referred to himself as a robber baron. He confiscated the country estate of the Potocki family for use as a rural retreat, and drove around his fiefdom in a limousine large enough to attract critical comment even from colleagues such as the Governor of Galicia. Aping Hitler, he built an imitation of the Berghof in the hills near Zakopane. The magnificent banquets he staged caused his waistline to expand so fast that he consulted a dietician because he could barely fit into his dress uniform any more.63

Looting and requisitioning were soon placed on a formal, quasi-legal basis in the territories incorporated into the Reich. On 27 September 1939 the German military government in Poland decreed a blanket confiscation of Polish property, confirming the order again on 5 October 1939. On 19 October 1939 G̈ring announced that the Office of the Four-Year Plan was seizing all Polish and Jewish property in the incorporated territories. This practice was formalized by a decree on 17 September 1940 that set up a central agency, the Head Office of the Trustees for the East (Haupttreuhandstelle Ost), to administer the confiscated enterprises. In February 1941 these already included over 205,000 businesses ranging in size from small workshops to major industrial enterprises. By June 1941, 50 per cent of businesses and a third of the larger landed estates in the annexed territories had been taken over by the requisitioned Trustees without compensation. In addition, the army took over a substantial number of farms to secure food supplies for the troops.64 Confiscations included the removal of scientific equipment from university laboratories for use in Germany. Even the Warsaw Zoo’s collection of stuffed animals was taken away.65 Metal was at a premium. Along the banks of the Vistula, one German paratrooper reported not long after the invasion, there were great crates ‘full of bars of copper, lead, zinc in enormous quantities. Everything, absolutely everything was loaded up and brought back to the Reich.’66 As had been the case in the Reich itself for some time, iron and steel objects, such as park railings and garden gates, even candelabras and saucepans, were collected to be melted down and used in armament and vehicle production in Germany.67 When the cold winter really began to bite, in January 1940, Dr Klukowski noted, ‘the German police took all sheepskin coats from passing villagers and left them only in jackets’.68 Not long afterwards the occupation forces began raiding villages and confiscating all the banknotes they found there.69


Not all German army commanders, particularly in the senior ranks, where the influence of Nazism was less extreme than lower down the army hierarchy, accepted this situation with equanimity. Some of them indeed were soon complaining of unauthorized shootings of Polish civilians on the orders of junior officers, and of looting and extortion by German troops, and alleging that ‘some of the prisoners were brutally beaten’. ‘Near Pultusk,’ reported a General Staff officer, ‘80 Jews have been mown down in a bestial manner. A court-martial has been established, also against two people who have been looting, murdering and raping in Bromberg.’ Such actions began to arouse concern in the army leadership. Already on 10 September 1939 Chief of the Army General Staff Franz Halder was noticing ‘dirty deeds behind the front’.70 In mid-October, complaints from army commanders led to an agreement that the ‘self-protection militias’ were to be dissolved, though in some areas it took several months for this to be brought about.71 But this did not end the senior officers’ concerns. On 25 October 1939 Walther von Brauchitsch, Commander-in-Chief of the army, rapped his officers sharply over the knuckles about their conduct in Poland:

A disturbing number of cases, for example of illegal expulsion, forbidden confiscation, self-enrichment, misappropriation and theft, maltreatment or threatening subordinates partly in over-excitement, partly in senseless drunkenness, disobedience with the most serious consequences for the troop unit under command, rape of a married woman, etc., yield a picture of soldiers with the habits of freebooting mercenaries (Landsknechtsmanieren), which cannot be strongly enough condemned.72

A number of other senior officers, including those whose belief in Hitler and National Socialism was beyond question, shared this view.73

In many instances, army leaders, concerned that they might be saddled with the responsibility for the mass murders now in progress, were only too pleased to devolve it onto the SS Security Service Task Force leaders by allowing them a free hand.74 Yet instances began to multiply of senior army officers taking action against SS units which they thought to be breaching the laws and conventions of war and causing disturbances behind the front that were a general threat to order. General von K̈chler, commander of the German Third Army, ordered the arrest and disarming of a police unit belonging to Task Force V after it had shot some Jews and set their houses on fire in Mlawa. He court-martialled members of an SS artillery regiment who had driven fifty Jews into a synagogue near Rozan after they had finished working on strengthening a bridge, and then shot them all ‘without reason’. Other officers took similar measures, even in one case arresting a member of Hitler’s SS bodyguard. Brauchitsch had met Hitler on 20 September and Heydrich on 21 September to try to sort out the situation. The only result was an amnesty issued by Hitler personally on 4 October for crimes committed ‘out of bitterness against the atrocities committed by the Poles’. Yet military discipline was being threatened, and a number of senior officers were deeply concerned. Rumours spread quickly through the officer corps. At his Cologne base in early December 1939, a thoughtful staff officer in his mid-thirties, Captain Hans Meier-Welcker, heard of the atrocities and wondered, ‘How will something like this avenge itself?’75

The most outspoken criticism of the occupation policy came from Colonel-General Johannes Blaskowitz, who had played a major part in the invasion and was appointed Commander-in-Chief East, in charge of the military administration of the conquered territories, in late October 1939. Military rule was formally brought to an end on 26 October 1939, and authority passed to the civil administration. Thus Blaskowitz had no general powers over the region. Nevertheless he remained responsible for its military defence. A few weeks after his appointment, Blaskowitz sent Hitler a lengthy memorandum detailing the crimes and atrocities committed by SS and police units in the area under his command. He repeated his allegations at greater length in a memorandum prepared for an official visit by the army Commander-in-Chief to his headquarters on 15 February 1940. He condemned the killing of tens of thousands of Jews and Poles as counter-productive. It would, he wrote, damage Germany’s reputation abroad. It would only strengthen Polish national feeling and drive more Poles and Jews into the resistance. It was harming the army’s reputation in the population. He warned of ‘the boundless brutalization and moral depravity that will spread through valuable German human material like an epidemic in the shortest time’ if it was allowed to continue. Blaskowitz instanced a number of cases of murder and looting by SS and police units. ‘Every soldier,’ he wrote, ‘feels himself disgusted and repelled by these crimes that are being committed in Poland by members of the Reich and representatives of its state authority.’76

The hatred and bitterness these actions were arousing in the population were driving Poles and Jews together in a common cause against the invader and needlessly endangering military security and economic life, he told the Nazi Leader.77 Hitler dismissed such scruples as ‘childish’. One could not fight a war with the methods of the Salvation Army. He had never liked or trusted Blaskowitz anyway, he told his adjutant, Gerhard Engel. He should be dismissed. The head of the army, Walther von Brauchitsch, brushed aside the incidents detailed by his subordinate as ‘regrettable errors of judgement’ or baseless ‘rumours’. In any case, he was fully behind what he called the ‘otherwise unusual, tough measures taken against the Polish population in the occupied territory’ that were in his view necessary in view of the need for the ‘securing of the German living-space’ ordered by Hitler. Lacking support from his superior, Blaskowitz was relieved of his command in May 1940. Although he subsequently served in senior posts in other theatres of war, Blaskowitz never gained his Field Marshal’s baton, unlike other generals of his standing.78

The generals, now more concerned with military events in the west, knuckled under.79 General Georg von K̈chler issued an order on 22 July 1940 banning his officers from indulging in ‘any criticism of the struggle being waged with the population in the General Government, for example the treatment of the Polish minorities, the Jews, and Church matters. The achievement of a final solution of this ethnic struggle,’ he added, ‘which has been raging for centuries along our eastern frontier, requires particularly tough measures.’80 Many senior army officers subscribed to this view. What they were concerned about in the main was indiscipline. Given the prevailing attitude of the troops and of junior and middle-ranking officers towards the Poles, it was scarcely surprising that the incidents where officers intervened to prevent atrocities were relatively few in number. The German army hierarchy did not, for example, intend to break the Geneva Convention of 1929 in relation to the nearly 700,000 prisoners of war they took in the Polish campaign, but there were numerous cases of military guards shooting Polish prisoners when they failed to keep up with a forced march, killing prisoners who were too weak or ill to stand, and penning prisoners into open-air camps with inadequate food and supplies. On 9 September 1939, when a motorized German infantry regiment took 300 Polish prisoners after a half-hour exchange of fire near Ciepiel’w, the colonel in charge, angered by the loss of fourteen of his men during the clash, lined all the prisoners up and had them machine-gunned into a ditch by the side of the road. A later Polish investigation identified a further sixty-three incidents of this kind, and many more must have gone unrecorded.81 In formal military executions alone at least 16,000 Poles were shot; one estimate puts the figure at 27,000.82

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