Berlin, Germany · August 29, 1939

Adolf Hitler ordered the German invasion of Poland to begin on August 26, 1939. Troops, pan­zer tanks, and air­craft had been lining up near Poland’s west­ern bor­der since mid-August. Though planned since late March 1939, the inva­sion was bound to rile Poland’s east­ern neigh­bor, the Soviet Union. That con­cern was laid to rest when, at the invita­tion of Joseph Stalin, Soviet Foreign Minis­ter Vya­cheslav Molo­tov and Ger­man Foreign Minis­ter Joachim von Rib­ben­trop inked a 10‑year bi­lateral non­aggres­sion pact (Molotov-Ribben­trop Pact) in Moscow early on the morning of August 24, 1939.

The next day Hitler’s smirk of tri­umph was shred­ded by the “bomb­shell” that the Brit­ish and Polish govern­ments had con­cluded a mutual assis­tance pact that after­noon. On the evening of the 25th, when things looked dan­ger­ously out of con­trol, an irri­table Hitler issued a stop order and huddled with his ad­visers to con­coct a ploy to divert atten­tion away from their real objec­tive. Late on this date in 1939 Hitler and Rib­ben­trop handed the British am­bas­sador, Sir Nevile Hender­son, terms that would allegedly en­sure peace, not war. The Dan­zig en­clave and the Polish Cor­ri­dor (see map) were to be an­nexed by Ger­many, terms modi­fied the next day to holding a pleb­i­scite in the Polish Cor­ri­dor. Both terri­tories were viewed as the illegit­i­mate off­spring of the 1919 Ver­sailles peace settle­ment. Poles who had been born or had settled in those places after 1919 could not vote, while all Ger­mans born but not living there could. Safe­guards for Ger­man minori­ties living in Poland would have to be put in place. If Poland accepted these terms, Ger­many would agree to the Brit­ish demand to in­volve the Soviet Union in any settle­ment. A Polish pleni­po­ten­ti­ary with full powers to accept the terms was to arrive in Berlin by noon, August 30.

The Poles, how­ever, would have nothing to do with a meeting in Ber­lin, sug­gesting instead a town near the Polish-Ger­man border. When the Polish am­bas­sador, Józef Lipski, visited Ribben­trop’s office on August 30, he too was pre­sented with Hitler’s demands. Because the am­bas­sa­dor lacked author­ity to en­dorse the Ger­many’s terms, Rib­ben­trop ended the meeting. Soon Ger­man radios blared reports that Poland had rejected Ger­many’s offer. The diplo­matic do-si-do was a hoax on every­one. Hitler had no inten­tion of acting on his own offer. Troops, armor, and airplanes were in place, set to launch on September 1.

Hitler Protects His Eastern Flank with Soviet Pact and Offers Western Demo­cracies “Options” for Settling German-Polish Crisis

Ribbentrop signs 1939 pact overseen by Stalin and MolotovPolish Corridor and the Danzig enclave

Left: German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop signs the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact in Moscow. The pact was typed and dated August 23, 1939. Behind him is Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and, to his left, Soviet Foreign Minister Vya­cheslav Molo­tov. The pact had a secret proto­col that par­celed out half of Poland, sand­wiched between the two states, to each signa­tory in the event of a Ger­man inva­sion of Poland. Hitler believed that the pact pro­tected his east­ern flank when the inevi­table war with Poland came. But in truth the near simul­ta­neous inva­sions of Poland by Ger­many (on Septem­ber 1, 1939) and the Soviet Union (on Septem­ber 17, 1939) brought Hitler face to face with a rapidly arming colos­sus whose leader had no inten­tion of giving Ger­many a free hand on his west­ern fron­tier. Opera­tion Bar­ba­rossa, Hitler’s stab-in-the-back inva­sion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, offered the pros­pect of nipping in the bud the threat Stalin’s machi­na­tions might have in Germany’s Polish conquests.

Right: Areas on Germany’s eastern frontier where Hitler pro­posed terri­torial “readjust­ments”; namely, the Polish Cor­ri­dor (colored gray) and the Danzig enclave (“Free City of Danzig,” today’s Gdańsk, colored orange), two of Germany’s so-called “lost terri­tories.” During the last week of August 1939, Poland’s Western allies—Great Britain and France—made it clear that German-Polish rela­tions were key to Euro­pean war or peace. An argu­ment can be made that Great Britain and France pro­pelled them­selves into the dead­liest war in his­tory by guaran­teeing the Poles (who naturally had their own national agen­da) their inde­pen­dence earlier in the year (March 31, 1939) and then for­malizing that guaran­tee on August 25, 1939, in a mutual mili­tary alli­ance directed against Germany. Turning their back on that August guarantee to Poland would have brought national dishonor to both Western democracies.

The Nazi Invasion of Poland: U.S. War Department Documentary Using Captured German Films