Hitler Violates Polish-German Nonaggression Pact with 1939 invasion

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.

German tank factory in the 1930s. Source: Wikimedia

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.

German troops march into Prague, Czechoslovakia, March 15, 1939. Source: Pinterest.

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.


World War I completely transformed the American army into a top-rate force

World War I was the first time in American history that the United States sent soldiers abroad to defend foreign soil. On April 6, 1917, when the United States declared war against Germany, the nation had a standing army of 127,500 officers and soldiers. By the end of the war, four million men had served in the United States Army, with an additional 800,000 in other military service branches.

Once war was declared, the army attempted to mobilize the troops very quickly. The fatigued British and French troops, who had been fighting since August 1914, sorely needed the relief offered by the American forces. In May 1917, General John Joseph “Black Jack” Pershing (pictured above) was designated the supreme commander of the American army in France, and the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) were created.

Pershing and his staff soon realized how ill-prepared the United States was to transport large numbers of soldiers and necessary equipment to the front, where supplies, rations, equipment, and trained soldiers were all in short supply. Since even the transport ships needed to bring American troops to Europe were scarce, the army pressed into service cruise ships, seized German ships, and borrowed Allied ships to transport American soldiers from New York, New Jersey, and Virginia.

The mobilization effort taxed the limits of the American military and required new organizational strategies and command structures to transport great numbers of troops and supplies quickly and efficiently.

Although the first American troops arrived in Europe in June 1917, the AEF did not fully participate at the front until October, when the First Division, one of the best-trained divisions of the AEF, entered the trenches at Nancy, France. Pershing wanted an American force that could operate independently of the other Allies, but his vision could not be realized until adequately trained troops with sufficient supplies reached Europe.

Training schools in America sent their best men to the front, and Pershing also established facilities in France to train new arrivals for combat.

Throughout 1917 and into 1918, American divisions were usually employed to augment French and British units in defending their lines and in staging attacks on German positions. Beginning in May 1918, with the first United States victory at Cantigny, AEF commanders increasingly assumed sole control of American forces in combat. By July 1918, French forces often were assigned to support AEF operations.

During the Battle of St. Mihiel, beginning September 12, 1918, Pershing commanded the American First Army, comprising seven divisions and more than 500,000 men, in the largest offensive operation ever undertaken by United States armed forces.

This successful offensive was followed by the Battle of Argonne, lasting from September 27 to October 6, 1918, during which Pershing commanded more than one million American and French soldiers. In these two military operations, Allied forces recovered more than two hundred square miles of French territory from the German army.

U.S. Army forces in action in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Source: Wikipedia

By the time Germany signed the Armistice on November 11, 1918, the American Expeditionary Forces had evolved into a modern, combat-tested army recognized as one of the best in the world. The United States had sustained more than 320,000 casualties in the First World War, including over 53,000 killed in action, over 63,000 non-combat related deaths, mainly due to the influenza pandemic of 1918, and 204,000 wounded.

In less than two years the United States had established new motorized and combat forces, equipped them with all types of ordnance including machine guns and tanks, and created an entirely new support organization capable of moving supplies thousands of miles in a timely manner.

World War I provided the United States with valuable strategic lessons and an officer corps that would become the nucleus for mobilizing and commanding sixteen million American military personnel in World War II.

(c) Library of Congress. Used with permission.

Germany forces a neutral America to enter World War I

Since the days of George Washington, Americans struggled to remain protected by the mighty oceans on its border. When European conflicts erupted, as they frequently did, many in the United States claimed exceptionalism. America was different. Why get involved in Europe’s self-destruction?

When Archduke Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and his wife were killed in cold blood in the summer of 1914, thus igniting the most destructive war in human history, the initial reaction in the United States was the expected will for neutrality. As a nation of immigrants, The United States would have difficulty picking a side. Despite the obvious ties to Britain based on history and language, there were many United States citizens who claimed Germany and Austria-Hungary as their parent lands. Support of either the ALLIES or the CENTRAL POWERS might prove divisive.

In the early days of the war, as Britain and France struggled against Germany, American leaders decided it was in the national interest to continue trade with all sides as before. A neutral nation cannot impose an embargo on one side and continue trade with the other and retain its neutral status. In addition, United States merchants and manufacturers feared that a boycott would cripple the American economy. Great Britain, with its powerful navy, had different ideas. A major part of the British strategy was to impose a blockade on Germany. American trade with the Central Powers simply could not be permitted. The results of the blockade were astonishing. Trade with England and France more than tripled between 1914 and 1916, while trade with Germany was cut by over ninety percent. It was this situation that prompted submarine warfare by the Germans against Americans at sea.

German U-boat Warfare

With American trade becoming more and more lopsided toward the Allied cause, many feared that it was only a matter of time before the United States would be at war. The issue that propelled most American fence sitters to side with the British was German submarine warfare.

The British, with the world’s largest navy, had effectively shut down German maritime trade. Because there was no hope of catching the British in numbers of ships, the Germans felt that the SUBMARINEwas their only key to survival. One “U-BOAT” could surreptitiously sink many battleships, only to slip away unseen. This practice would stop only if the British would lift their blockade.

Sinking the Lusitania

The isolationist American public had little concern if the British and Germans tangled on the high seas. The incident that changed everything was the sinking of the LUSITANIA. The Germans felt they had done their part to warn Americans about the danger of overseas travel.

The German government purchased advertisement space in American newspapers warning that Americans who traveled on ships carrying war contraband risked submarine attack. When the Lusitania departed New York, the Germans believed the massive passenger ship was loaded with munitions in its cargo hold. On May 7, 1915, a German U-boat torpedoed the ship without warning, sending 1,198 passengers, including 128 Americans, to an icy grave. The Lusitania, as it turned out, was carrying over 4 million rounds of ammunition.

President Woodrow Wilson was enraged. The British were breaking the rules, but the Germans were causing deaths.

Wilson’s Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, recommended a ban on American travel on any ships of nations at war. Wilson preferred a tougher line against the German Kaiser. He demanded an immediate end to submarine warfare, prompting Bryan to resign in protest. The Germans began a 2-year practice of pledging to cease submarine attacks, reneging on that pledge, and issuing it again under U.S. protest.

Wilson had other reasons for leaning toward the Allied side. He greatly admired the British government, and democracy in any form was preferable to German authoritarianism. The historical ties with Britain seemed to draw the United States closer to that side.

Many Americans felt a debt to France for their help in the American Revolution. Several hundred volunteers, appropriately named the LAFAYETTE ESCADRILLES, already volunteered to fight with the French in 1916. In November of that year, Wilson campaigned for re-election with a peace platform. “He kept us out of war,” read his campaign signs, and Americans narrowly returned him to the White House. But peace was not to be.

This work by The Independence Hall Association is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.