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. But 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 non-event. (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 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, anti-air­craft 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.”

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

Neville Chamberlain, 1869–1940Édouard 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 pro­phe­sized they would pre­cip­i­tate the war they wished to avoid. War came anyway.

Wilhelm Keitel, 1882–1946Hans 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 Non-Aggres­sion 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 counter-intelligence 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 when their con­nec­tion to the July 1944 bomb plot was discovered.

Segment from 1942 U.S. Government Film “The World at War”: Hitler Invades Poland