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EUROPE PREPARES FOR WAR OR PEACE

London England; Paris, France; Warsaw, Poland · August 28, 1939

Public opinion in Europe had shifted from dread of war and a longing for peace evi­dent in the Czech Sudeten crisis of Septem­ber 1938 to a fata­listic accep­tance that war was now un­avoid­able. British and French poli­ti­cians were more con­fi­dent that they could take their coun­tries into war if pushed by Nazi aggres­sion against demo­cratic Poland. Prime Minis­ter Neville Cham­ber­lain and Pre­mier Édouard Dala­dier both felt betrayed when Adolf Hitler occu­pied Czecho­slo­va­kia in March 1939 in defi­ance of the 1938 Munich Agree­ment to which all three men, plus Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, had been signatories.

On this date in 1939 both West­ern leaders believed that this year’s stra­tegy of staring down rather than appeasing the ag­gres­sor had kept the door open to further nego­ti­a­tions in the Polish case now that the pre­dicted inva­sion of Poland was a non­event. (Their spy agen­cies and senior anti-Hitler Ger­man offi­cers had supplied both men with the Ger­man time­table for mobi­li­za­tion and in­va­sion.) The French and British govern­ments sensed that Hitler had “climbed down” from war, there­by mate­rially strength­ening their posi­tion, and that the Polish crisis had exposed chinks in German armor.

Among the chinks in German armor were rumored splits within Hitler’s Nazi Party and the Ger­man high com­mand’s supposed rethinking of next steps—even the pos­si­bility of a mili­tary coup. The Poles were placing no bets on events out­side their con­trol. Earlier, on August 23, War­saw ordered the mobi­li­za­tion of all army units in the Polish Cor­ri­dor and much of West­ern Poland. The air force, anti­aircraft defenses, and all senior staff units were also mobi­lized. Now on August 27 the remaining Polish reserve units were mobi­lized, and the following day mea­sures were made for evac­u­ating peo­ple from the west­ern fron­tier to en­sure that the area—Poland’s most populous—was ready for military action.

The British, after ordering the mobi­li­zation of 35,000 Ter­ri­torial Army soldiers on this date, were taking no chances with their coun­try’s major art trea­sures. Col­lec­tions from the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Natural His­tory Museum, and the Imperial War Museum began their eva­cu­a­tion to areas out­side London and to the west of Eng­land. Other col­lec­tions were crated and sent to stately manors for storage. The watchword was, “Be Prepared.”





Players in the Drama Leading Up to the Invasion of Poland in 1939

Neville Chamberlain, 1869–1940 Édouard Daladier, 1884–1970

Left: Convinced that he could appeal to the practical self-interest of Euro­pean states to settle disputes among them­selves, British Prime Minis­ter Neville Cham­ber­lain (1869–1940) is best remem­bered for appeasing Hitler. After Ger­many’s uni­lat­eral annex­a­tion of the Czech state in March 1939, Cham­ber­lain reversed course and worked hard to ob­struct Hitler’s designs on Poland. During the last week of August 1939, the Brit­ish prime minis­ter believed that a firm stance by him and Édouard Dala­dier, the prime minis­ter of France, to honor their coun­try’s treaty com­mit­ments to Poland would pay divi­dends by moving Hitler to the nego­ti­a­ting table, where a solu­tion to the Polish ques­tion would then be guaranteed by an international settlement.

Right: French Prime Minister Édouard Dala­dier (1884–1970) had no il­lu­sions about Hitler’s ulti­mate goals. A signa­tory him­self to the ill-fated Munich Agree­ment, he told Cham­ber­lain in 1938: “Today, it is the turn of Czecho­slo­va­kia. Tomorrow, it will be the turn of Poland.” He urged their two coun­tries to stick together. If the two allies capitu­lated again to Hitler, he prophesied they would precipitate the war they wished to avoid. War came anyway.

Wilhelm Keitel, 1882–1946 Hans Oster, 1887–1945

Left: Chief of staff and de facto war minister under Hitler, Wil­helm Kei­tel (1882–1946) believed that the August 1939 Ger­man-Soviet Non­aggres­sion Pact (Molotov-Ribben­trop Pact) mili­tated against the pros­pects of a war with Poland turning into a world war. Wrong on so many other counts begin­ning on Septem­ber 3, 1939, Kei­tel was tried by the vic­to­ri­ous Allies at Nurem­berg, sen­tenced to death, and hanged as a war criminal on October 16, 1946.

Right: A counterintelligence officer in the Ger­man Ab­wehr (Ger­man intel­li­gence ser­vice) under Adm. Wil­helm Canaris, Hans Oster (1887–1945) was delighted to hear that Hitler had re­scinded his order to march on Poland. “The Fuehrer is done for,” he pre­dicted. “It is now merely a ques­tion of time and man­ner: how could this un­masked impos­ter be removed with the least trouble and the most ele­gance.” Both Oster and Canaris were hanged on Hitler’s orders after the discovery of their connec­tion to the July 1944 bomb plot to kill Hitler at his East Prussia headquarters.

“Germany Invades Poland,” Film Segment from 1942 U.S. Office of War Information’s “The World at War”