Berlin, Germany August 31, 1939

On August 22, 1939, in a meeting at his Bavarian mountain­top retreat, the Berg­hof, Adolf Hitler told his generals he would fabri­cate “a propa­gan­distic reason” to justify his plan­ned aggres­sion against neigh­boring Poland. The plan was for Nazi Party Schutz­staffel (SS) opera­tives to dress in Polish uni­forms, attack a German cus­toms post and a German radio trans­mitter sta­tion in Glei­witz, Upper Silesia (today’s Gli­wice, Poland), four miles inside the border between the two coun­tries, and broad­cast an anti-German dia­tribe in Polish and German. (It’s propa­gan­distic value was dimin­ished by the limited range of the trans­mitter’s signal.) To make the whole thing rea­lis­tic, “casual­ties” were needed. So six concen­tra­tion camp inmates were dressed as Polish sol­diers and shot at the cus­toms post by Germans “returning fire” to suit the story­line. A 43‑year-old German Sile­sian by the name of Franciszek (or Franz) Honiok, arrested by the state secret police, the Gestapo, the day before and dressed to look like a Polish sabo­teur, was murdered via lethal injec­tion, shot several times for appear­ance sake, and dumped at the radio station. Some conjecture Honiok to have been the first victim of World War II in Europe.

These cold-blooded murders to fool world opinion, which occurred on this date, August 31, 1939, were a fitting opening to mass mur­der on an unimag­in­able scale. The next day, Septem­ber 1, in “retali­a­tion” for Polish “frontier vio­la­tions of a nature no longer toler­able for a great power,” German troops and tanks “counter­attacked” across the 1,400‑mile border, slicing through Polish resis­tance like a hot knife through butter, while over­head Her­mann Goering’s Luft­waffe murdered people one Polish town and city at a time.

World opinion refused to buy into Hitler’s wicked farce as he and his foreign minis­ter, Joachim von Rib­ben­trop, had hoped. Hitler’s bes­tial nature, which he had culti­vated and cele­brated in public and pri­vate for two decades, was evi­dent to every Euro­pean states­man who had ever tried using peace­ful mea­sures to collar and tame the Nazi beast. Brit­ish Prime Minis­ter Neville Cham­ber­lain, who had seen Hitler up close on a half-dozen occa­sions, described the man as “the black­est devil he had ever met.” Vio­lence, racial hat­red, bluff, bad faith, inflam­ma­tory pro­pa­ganda, men­acing threats, and a lust to mur­der on an inter­na­tional scale were hall­marks of Hitler’s true char­ac­ter. The testy scene between British ambas­sador Sir Nevile Hen­der­son and Rib­ben­trop on August 29, when Germany made new demands to end the crisis over the status of Danzig and the Polish Corri­dor, had been over the top—and the best evi­dence that German leaders never truly con­tem­plated a gen­u­ine settle­ment. With resigna­tion Cham­ber­lain and his French counter­part, Premier Édouard Dala­dier, embraced the grue­some future and declared war on Nazi Germany on Sunday, September 3, 1939.

Two Principals in the Gleiwitz Charade

Poland August 1939 Player: Gleiwitz Incident Principal Reinhard Heydrich, 1904–1942Poland August 1939 Player: Gleiwitz Incident Principal Alfred Naujocks, 1911–1966

Left: The Gleiwitz Incident, a mock Polish attack on Ger­man soil, was the brain­child of arch-cri­minal Rein­hard Hey­drich (1904–1942), shown here in 1940 as an SS-Gruppen­fuehrer. Hey­drich was deputy to Reichs­fuehrer-SS Heinrich Him­mler and head of the Gestapo (Secret State Police). The “Butcher of Prague,” as Hey­drich later became known, was mor­tally wounded in late-May 1942 by two Czech nation­alists. (The killing was dramatized in the 2016 British-French-Czech film, Anthro­poid: Resis­tance Has a Code Name, by British film director Sean Ellis.) The Hey­drich-devised Glei­witz Inci­dent on the German-Polish border was approved by Hitler, who had requested the SS stage an event that had the appear­ance of Polish ag­gres­sion against Germany to help him justify the Nazi invasion of Poland.

Right: Just one of twenty-one similarly manu­fac­tured events that Hitler quickly attri­buted to Poles, the Glei­witz Inci­dent was mounted by SS officer Alfred Nau­jocks (1911–1966), shown here in a 1944 U.S. Army mug shot. A serial killer not quite in Hey­drich’s league, Nau­jocks in late 1939 had pro­vided the Gestapo with an uncoded list of Britain’s intel­li­gence agents through­out Europe, an espi­o­nage coup so catas­tro­phic and deadly for the British that Hitler him­self pinned the Iron Cross on Nau­jocks’ dress uni­form at a cere­mony in the Reich Chan­cel­lery. Nau­jocks moved on to en­gage in sabo­tage and terrorist actions against Danes from Decem­ber 1943 to autumn 1944. Before that he allegedly was involved in the deaths of several mem­bers of the Bel­gian under­ground. In October 1944 Nau­jocks was detained by U.S. service mem­bers as a possible war crimi­nal and spent the remainder of the war in deten­tion. He testi­fied at the post­war Nurem­burg trials about his role in the Glei­witz charade, sold his account to the media, and moved to Hamburg, where he became a businessman.

German Preparations for the Invasion of Poland: Staging the Gleiwitz Incident