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Europe: Invasion Of Poland 60 Years Ago Sparked World War II

It was September 1, 1939. Tension throughout Europe had been building for months. Adolph Hitler's German forces lay crouched, ready to spring. Poland stood defiant, with nowhere to run.

Prague, 30 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Sixty years ago, in the early morning of September 1, a long cat-and-mouse game ended. The world heard radio broadcasts like this one on German radio:

"On September 1 as of 5:45, the Germans have launched an invasion of Poland across the entire frontier..."

What followed, of course, is recorded in history. Six years of widening world war, a war that embroiled nations around the globe. The most terrible destruction up to that point in history. A war culminating with the horror of the U.S. atomic bombs that incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

What came before that autumn dawn 60 years ago was a series of events from which the statesmen of the world have promised, but failed, to draw lessons for all time. A determined villain, Hitler, faced well-meaning but weak-willed Allied leaders. He lied, threatened, and shrugged off their temporizing, their threats. In the end, he did what he had planned all along. And -- until too late -- the rest of Europe backed down.

Of course, Hitler blamed the Poles, the victims. In a September 1 address to the German populace, Hitler accused Poland of suppressing its German minority and threatening its German neighbor.

"I sent a message to the Polish ambassador over three weeks ago saying that if Poland sends further ultimatums, takes further steps to suppress the German people, or takes economic measures in an attempt to defeat them, the whole of Germany will cease to look on passively.... "

Hitler had not been subtle. For many years, he had shown his intentions. In his book Mein Kampf (My War), he had declared his plans to win Lebensraum (Living Room) for Germany. In the year before the invasion of Poland, he had acted out the preliminary steps of that plan.

Early in 1938, German Nazis instigated demonstrations by their Austrian sympathizers in Vienna, and provincial takeovers elsewhere in Austria. In the spring of 1938, under threat of a German invasion, Hitler required the Austrian quisling Arthur Seyss-Inquart to send a telegram from Vienna. The Nazis dictated the words. The telegram pleaded for German troops to -- in the telegram's phrase -- "establish peace and order in Austria." The German troops came. And Austria, as Austria, ceased to exist.

France, Britain and Russia did nothing.

A year before invading Poland, Hitler had fomented a similar quarrel with the Czechoslovak government of Eduard Benes. He accused the Czechs of abusing the German population of a strategically important area within Czechoslovakia's western border known as the Sudetenland.

As war clouds gathered and Hitler's threats grew louder, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain sought to head off armed conflict. Hitler faced him down repeatedly.

Finally, on September 29 and 30, 1938, Chamberlain and France's Edouard Daladier met with Hitler in Munich. They agreed that Czechoslovakia must cede the Sudetenland to Germany to avoid war. It was a meeting that for generations afterward made the name Munich synonymous with appeasement.

Within ten days of Munich, Hitler handed down secret orders for the invasion of Czechoslovakia, in defiance of French and British guarantees of the borders re-drawn at Munich. Six months later, Czech resistance having withered, Hitler's troops marched unopposed into the Czech lands and the Czech capital, Prague.

Czechoslovakia ceased to exist. Britain, Russia and France did nothing. Poland was next.

In his speech to the German nation on September 1, 1939, Hitler played the same dirge over Poland that he had over Austria and Czechoslovakia.

"I've tried for the last time to arrange mediation with the British government. I agreed to the proposals. I waited two full days to negotiate with the Polish government..."

And then came the words that amounted to a declaration of war, not just against Poland but against the world.

I've decided to use the same language with the Poles as they for the past months have used with us. As of 5:45 we will retaliate by shooting."

This time, France and England responded. On September 3, they declared war on Germany.

Russia earlier had signed a pact with Germany agreeing to a division of spoils in a conquered Central Europe. That did not prevent the German attack on Russia, launched in June 1941. On December 1941, Germany's ally Japan attacked U.S. installations at Pearl Harbor. The conflict, begun on the Polish-German border 60 years ago this week, had encircled the globe.