Polish support was sought by both the Allies and the Central Powers in World War I. The Allies announced as one of their war aims the re-establishment of an independent Polish state. The Germans, occupying the country with the Austrians after driving out the Russian armies, set up a Polish Government on 5 November 1916 in an effort to gain the favor of the nationalists. The Allied offer had a greater appeal to the Poles, and the Polish National Committee in Paris, the strongest exile group, under Ignace Paderewski, identified itself with the Allies.
The new Polish state commenced its existence in the midst of ruin and poverty following World War I. Its territory had been the scene of heavy fighting between the Central Powers and the Russians in the opening stages of World War I, and the German and Austrian occupation forces had systematically exploited the country in the several years that followed. The end of the war found Poland’s factories destroyed or idle, its livestock decimated, and the nation’s economy in a state of chaos.
But in the intervening years between world wars, Poland recovered, at least somewhat. At the same time, however, Adolph Hitler — Austrian by birth and an enlisted soldier during World War I, rose to power in Germany. More than anything else, Hitler’s rise was attributed to the conditions imposed on Germany following the first World War — reparations, drastic limitations in military capabilities, and a general neutering of German patriotism.
Hitler’s National Socialist regime quickly assumed complete control over Germany’s national life and future. A dictatorship was created and opposition suppressed. An extensive armaments program, expansion of the small armed force permitted the Reich under the treaty, and public construction work brought Germany a measure of economic recovery and improved the country’s military posture. Germany soon regained a semblance of the position it had held as a European power before its defeat in 1918.
The former Allies presented an obstacle to whatever plans Hitler may have had to recover the territories taken from Germany. Their armed forces had not been modernized or equipped with great numbers of the latest weapons, but these countries collectively controlled an industrial and military base stronger than Germany’s. Britain had the preponderance of seapower and could rely upon the population and material resources of its world-wide empire for support. France had the largest reservoir of trained manpower in western Europe by reason of its conscription program. Moreover, France had made defensive arrangements with Romania and the postwar states of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, in addition to its alliance with Poland.
Britain and France were reluctant to engage in an armed conflict with Germany to compel compliance with the territorial changes made at the time of Allied victory which were not absolutely essential to their own vital interests. Hitler estimated correctly this sentiment of the former Allied nations, and his foreign policy became a game of bluff. But to minimize the risks of an armed conflict while he executed his first designs in Europe, the German dictator felt it necessary to effect a rapprochement with Poland.
On 26 January 1934 the Polish and German Governments announced the signing of a pact binding both to the arbitration of differences. The agreement was to be in effect for 10 years unless renounced 6 months in advance by either of the contracting parties. In his justification of the agreement to the German people, Hitler claimed that he had entered into the pact to prevent the crystallization of bad feelings over the boundaries into a traditional enmity between the Germans and Poles. Relations with Poland had been bad at the time the National Socialist government was established, and Hitler desired to better these relations in the interests of peace.
Or so he said.
On 30 January 1937 Hitler reaffirmed the importance of the Polish-German pact to the assembled Reichstag, declaring it instrumental in easing tension between the two countries. However, since making the original agreement, Germany had reintroduced conscription and greatly expanded its Army. An Air Force had been organized, new warships constructed, and an underseas fleet created. Germany had remilitarized the Rhineland in March of the preceding year, and National Socialist agitators were stirring up trouble in Austria and Czechoslovakia, both soon to feel the pressure of Hitler’s demands.
Hitler gave the Poles no cause to doubt his intentions through the remainder of 1937 and into late 1938. During that time, he was fully occupied in his machinations to gain control of Austria and of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland area that had been part of Austria prior to World War I and was inhabited by a German-speaking population.
Hitler accelerated his war of nerves, and in March 1938, forced the resignation of Austrian Chancellor Dr. Kurt Schuschnigg, who was reluctant to bring war to his country. He was replaced by National Socialist Dr. Arthur Seyss-Inquart, whom he reluctantly brought into his cabinet as Minister of the Interior, giving Seyss-Inquart control of the police. Seyss-Inquart’s elevation to chancellor paved the way for German troops to enter and occupy the country. The Republic of Austria was dissolved and its territory incorporated into the Reich.
The annexation of Austria increased considerably the German threat to Czechoslovakia. Konrad Henlein’s Sudeten German Party within the country claimed to represent Czechoslovakia’s three million ethnic Germans and clamored for autonomy and union with the Reich. Hitler’s threatening attitude caused the Prague government to order full mobilization in September 1938. War appeared imminent.
On 29 September the former Allies and the pro-German Italians met with Hitler at Munich to hear his claims. Czechoslovakia was not represented at the meeting, but an agreement was reached granting the German leader’s demands. The Czechoslovak government, urged by Britain and France, accepted the stipulations laid down by Hitler; the alternative undoubtedly would have been war, without British or French support. The pact was hailed in the west for attaining “peace in our time,” as per Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain — words that would later come back to haunt him.
The Czechoslovak question settled temporarily, Hitler was free to turn his attention to Poland. On 24 October 1938 Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Reich Foreign Minister, made a series of requests that reopened old Polish-German wounds and precipitated a new crisis. The German proposals involved the return of Danzig to Germany, with Poland assured railway, port, and other economic facilities. Poland was also to permit the construction of an extraterritorial road and railroad across the Corridor. In return for these concessions, Germany would guarantee the Polish-German frontiers and extend the nonaggression pact as long as 25 years.
Pilsudski had warned his countrymen years earlier that the German attitude toward Danzig would be an indication of Germany’s true intentions toward Poland and Polish public opinion would never condone the surrender of Poland’s sovereignty in part of the Corridor. The diplomatic world was not surprised when Poland firmly rejected the German offer.
On 23 March 1939 Lithuania acceded to German demands for the Memelland, a small strip of former Reich territory along Lithuania’s southwestern frontier. The following day Germany and Romania concluded an economic agreement whereby the Germans would acquire almost the entire product of Romania’s extensive oil industry, partially resolving a pressing problem for the conduct of military operations by the German Armed Forces.
On 31 March Chamberlain addressed the British House of Commons, stating that Britain and France would assist Poland in the event Poland was attacked. The British and French Governments had reached an understanding, and Britain was to act as spokesman for the two nations. The issue of peace or war was left for Germany and Poland to decide.
Hitler would not permit much further delay in arriving at a solution of the territorial controversy favorable to Germany. The Poles, for their part, were determined to reject all German demands, since it was apparent to them that any concession would mean the fate that had befallen Czechoslovakia. This was the state of relations between Germany and Poland at the end of March 1939.
War would come next.
The German attack was a tactical surprise to the Polish Army, despite both the troop concentrations the Polish High Command knew were taking place beyond the frontier and the worsening diplomatic situation. The Polish Government had ordered a general mobilization on 30 August, but many reservists were still en route to join their organizations and some units were in the process of moving to concentration areas or defensive positions when the Wehrmacht commenced operations. Hitler’s headquarters, OKW, was in Berlin at the time of the attack, while OKH directed the Army effort from a field headquarters at Zossen, outside the Reich capital.
At 1000 on 1 September Hitler reported the opening of hostilities to the assembled Reichstag in the Kroll Opera House in Berlin. According to Hitler, the Wehrmacht was defending German territory and taking necessary counteraction to an organized Polish attack.