Germany Invades Poland

Germany’s invasion of Poland initiated the first fighting in World War II, demonstrated to the Western powers that a policy of appeasement was untenable, as the Nazis had come to seem insatiable, and launched the German policies that would result in the Holocaust.

Summary of Event

On March 15, 1939, after the Nazis had staged a bogus crisis, German troops marched into Czechoslovakia and occupied Prague, thus completing the annexation of the Czech state that Adolf Hitler had planned in 1938. Hitler and his henchmen then turned their attention to Poland. On March 21, Joachim von Ribbentrop, foreign minister of Germany, summoned Józef Beck, the foreign minister of Poland, to Berlin and gave him a list of German demands. Danzig, a free city administered under the supervision of the League of Nations, in which Poland had certain economic rights, was to revert to German control; Germany would receive an extraterritorial road and railway across the Polish Corridor, a strip of Polish territory separating East Prussia from the remainder of the German Reich; and Poland would agree to associate itself with Germany in an anti-Russian policy. Colonel Beck rejected these demands. [kw]Germany Invades Poland (Sept. 1, 1939)
[kw]Invades Poland, Germany (Sept. 1, 1939)
[kw]Poland, Germany Invades (Sept. 1, 1939)
Poland;German invasion
Germany;invasion of Poland
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];outbreak
[g]Germany;Sept. 1, 1939: Germany Invades Poland[10070]
[g]Poland;Sept. 1, 1939: Germany Invades Poland[10070]
[c]World War II;Sept. 1, 1939: Germany Invades Poland[10070]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;Sept. 1, 1939: Germany Invades Poland[10070]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Sept. 1, 1939: Germany Invades Poland[10070]
Hitler, Adolf
[p]Hitler, Adolf;invasion of Poland
Ribbentrop, Joachim von
Beck, Józef
Chamberlain, Neville
Halifax, Lord (Edward Frederick Lindley Wood)
Stalin, Joseph
Litvinov, Maksim Maksimovich
Molotov, Vyacheslav Mikhailovich
Mussolini, Benito
Ciano, Galeazzo
Daladier, Édouard

In the meantime, alarmed by the seizure of Prague, Great Britain and France guaranteed Poland’s independence and territorial integrity. On March 31, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced that if Germany invaded Poland, Great Britain and France would give Poland all the support in their power. London and Paris could not, however, give effective direct assistance to Warsaw because Poland was separated from them geographically by Germany. Poland’s best help could come only from the Soviet Union, and in the weeks following the Anglo-French guarantee, Moscow became the center of European diplomacy.

Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was worried about Hitler’s rising power, especially because the Red Army was undergoing reorganization in the wake of the executions of so many of its high officers in 1937. Stalin decided to explore the feelings of both the Allies and the Nazis. On April 16, 1939, Maksim Maksimovich Litvinov, the Soviet commissar for foreign affairs, who was believed to be friendly toward the West, approached the Allies with an offer to conclude a mutual assistance pact. The next day, the Soviet ambassador in Berlin inquired of the Reich foreign ministry whether Russo-German relations might be improved. The Germans made some noncommittal answers at once. The Allies made no answer at all until, after a delay of three weeks, Chamberlain and his Conservative cabinet, with their inveterate suspicion of Russian motives, virtually rejected Litvinov’s advances. Meanwhile, Litvinov had been replaced by the iron-willed opportunist Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov.

Hitler now scored a success in another quarter. On May 22, he made the Pact of Steel Pact of Steel (1939) with Italy, in which the two powers pledged themselves to fight as allies in the event one of them went to war. Benito Mussolini, the Fascist dictator of Italy, was anxious for gain and, over the protest of his son-in-law and foreign minister, Galeazzo Ciano, committed his country to war on Hitler’s terms. This alliance strengthened Hitler’s position, and on May 23, he told his generals that war with Poland was inevitable. Hoping to prevent the Soviet Union from helping Poland, the Nazis opened serious talks with the Russians on May 30.

During the next two months, the situation did not develop rapidly. The Russian and German negotiators hesitated to commit their countries to a clearly defined pact. By now, the West had also sent delegates to Moscow, but they also acted slowly, unable to carry the strongly anticommunist and anti-Russian Colonel Beck with them. Because most of their country had been occupied by Russia for more than a century prior to 1918, the Poles were understandably reluctant to readmit the Red Army in 1939. On the other side, Stalin distrusted the West. With the events in Munich still in mind, he doubted their determination to resist Hitler and suspected them of wishing to embroil him in war with Germany. In August, it became apparent that Stalin had chosen Hitler because Hitler could give more and ask for less than Chamberlain or French premier Édouard Daladier. In the early hours of August 24, the Soviet-German nonaggression pact was signed; a secret protocol spelled out the share of Poland that each power would take. Nazi-Soviet Pact (1939)[Nazi Soviet Pact]
Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (1939)[Molotov Ribbentrop Pact]

Poland’s situation was now critical. On August 23, believing that his pact with Stalin would convince Chamberlain and Daladier that helping Poland would be futile, Hitler ordered his attack to begin at dawn on August 26. The British, however, were determined to honor their guarantee, and they signed a formal treaty with Poland on August 25. The same day, facing the prospect of war with less than ten fully equipped divisions, Mussolini informed Hitler that he would remain neutral in the event of a conflict. At this point, Hitler paused; in the evening, he ordered the invasion, then only twelve hours away, to be postponed.

Hitler attempted to separate the Poles from their allies. Daladier and Chamberlain stood firm, however, and when it became apparent that his efforts to shake them had failed, Hitler unleashed his army and air force on Poland. On September 1, at 4:45 a.m., six armored divisions (panzers) rolled forward while the pilots of the German Luftwaffe struck at the Polish airfields. The Germans had developed a new kind of warfare based on the rapid advance of tanks and mobile artillery, closely supported by aircraft. This so-called Blitzkrieg (literally, lightning war) was launched with devastating success.

The Luftwaffe smashed the Polish railway system, with the result that Polish attempts to mobilize effectively failed. Air strikes against Polish troops attempting to defend Warsaw were so successful that Polish forces collapsed completely in that area. Heavy air attacks also occurred against military targets inside Warsaw once the Germans realized that their armor could not operate effectively in the narrow streets. Considerable collateral damage and casualties among the civilian populace also resulted from air attacks. Having hoped that, with good luck and bad weather, Poland could resist for six months, the West watched the Polish army become torn to pieces within two weeks.

On September 3, the British and French government fulfilled their commitment to Poland by declaring war. Nevertheless, they were unable to do anything to avert Poland’s fate, and the Poles found themselves in an impossible strategic situation. Their entire country was a flat plain; the only defensible feature was the Bug River. It lay so far to the east, however, that a defense along it would have forced the Poles to surrender all their economic assets and political centers. Nevertheless, by placing most of their troops in the Polish corridor and between Warsaw and the industrial city of Ladz, the rest of the Polish army was stretched dangerously thin. German armored forces quickly broke through Poland’s border defenses and penetrated deep into the interior. On September 17, the Russians hastily invaded Poland from the east to secure their portion of the spoils; by October 2, 1939, all organized Polish resistance had ceased.


Following the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, the Allies had realized that allowing Hitler to annex territory until he was satisfied was not going to be an effective means to prevent war. Germany’s forces would keep expanding until they were too powerful to be resisted should the nation desire to add western Europe to its territories. France and England therefore made Poland their “line in the sand.” Should the Nazis invade, war would result. The ultimatum gave Hitler momentary pause, but only momentary, and with the invasion of Poland, he crossed the line. Two days later, with the French and English declarations of war, World War II began.

The process by which the Wehrmacht (the German armed forces) analyzed its performance after the Polish invasion explains why the German army did so well on World War II battlefields. By early October, the high command obtained reports from units down to the regimental level. The army then established a rigorous training program throughout to correct mistakes. Thereafter the army trained for sixteen hours a day and six to seven days a week. When the Wehrmacht streamed west in May, 1940, few armies of the twentieth century had been as well trained or disciplined.

From the beginning, the German invaders embarked on Hitler’s racial and ideological crusade. Atrocities fell immediately on Jews as well as Poles. Hitler ordered that Poland’s ruling and intellectual elites be liquidated. Stalin’s secret police also wiped out large numbers of army officers and the Polish intelligentsia. An even deadlier fate devastated the Jews. There were 3.25 million Jews in Poland in 1939; less than 10 percent survived to 1945. The largest number were exterminated in various death camps, of which Treblinka, Sobibór, and Auschwitz have become particular symbols of the Holocaust. The Jewish partisan movement began in the summer of 1942 as a result of the German action to liquidate the ghettos by transporting the Jews to the death camps. The nightmare lasted only a few years, but wounds of the German invasion lingered long after the fighting ended. Poland;German invasion
Germany;invasion of Poland
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];outbreak

Further Reading

  • Bullock, Alan. Hitler: A Study in Tyranny. Rev. ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1964. This definitive biography tells the story of Hitler’s career, which culminated in the outbreak of World War II.
  • Chodakiewicz, Marek Jan. Between Nazis and Soviets: Occupation Politics in Poland, 1939-1947. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2004. Study of the internal politics of Poland during German occupation during World War II, as well as during the Soviet occupation that occurred in the war’s aftermath. Maps, bibliographic references, index.
  • Colvin, Ian. Vansittart in Office. London: Victor Gollancz, 1965. Fills in details of British diplomatic activity behind the Chamberlain administration.
  • Garliński, Jozef. Poland in the Second World War. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1985. Concludes that despite the mistakes it committed, the Polish government could not have avoided confrontation with Germany and the Soviet Union.
  • Gross, Jan. Polish Society Under German Occupation: The General Government, 1939-1944. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979. The longest and most severe occupation by Germany of any European country receives detailed consideration here.
  • Krakowski, Shmuel. The War of the Damned: Jewish Armed Resistance in Poland, 1942-1944. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1984. Krakowski describes the conflict in Poland between Hitler’s forces and the Jews, who were determined to resist the Third Reich even at the cost of their lives.
  • Namier, Lewis B. Europe in Decay: A Study of Disintegration, 1936-1940. London: Macmillan, 1949. Reprint. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1963. A series of well-written, analytic reviews of the memoirs of some of the principal leaders who participated in the diplomatic prelude to the war—a series of pictures of demoralized and debased European ministers of state.
  • Reynaud, Paul. In the Thick of the Fight. Translated by J. D. Lambert. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1955. A personal memoir by the French statesman and cabinet minister.
  • Taylor, A. J. P. The Origins of the Second World War. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1961. An interpretation of the events leading up to the invasion of Poland that blames Britain and France for causing the war.
  • Toynbee, Arnold, and Veronica M. Toynbee, eds. Survey of International Affairs, 1939-1946. The Eve of War, 1939. London: Oxford University Press, 1959. A detailed study, country by country, of the events of the summer of 1939, written by experts.
  • Trzcinska-Croydon, Lilka. The Labyrinth of Dangerous Hours: A Memoir of the Second World War. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004. Personal memoir of a Polish fighter in the underground resistance who was eventually captured and sent to Auschwitz.

Germany Attempts to Restructure the Versailles Treaty

Hitler Comes to Power in Germany

Nazi Concentration Camps Begin Operating

German Troops March into the Rhineland

The Anschluss


Nazi Extermination of the Jews

Nazi-Soviet Pact

Germany Invades Norway

Gypsies Are Exterminated in Nazi Death Camps