Berlin, Germany · August 31, 1939

On August 22, 1939, Adolf Hitler told his generals he would con­coct a story to justify his plan­ned aggres­sion against neigh­boring Poland. The plan was for Nazi 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) on what was then the border between the two states, and broad­cast an anti-Ger­man dia­tribe in Polish. 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 Ger­man Sile­sian, arrested by 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. These cold-blooded mur­ders to fool world opinion, which occurred on this date in 1939, were a fitting opening to mass mur­der on an un­imag­in­able scale. In “retali­a­tion” the next day, Septem­ber 1, Ger­man troops and tanks swarmed 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 sought peace­ful solutions to cage 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. Finally, Cham­ber­lain and his French counter­part, Prime Minis­ter Édouard Dala­dier, em­braced the grue­some future and declared war on Nazi Germany on Sunday, September 3, 1939.

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Two Principals in the Gleiwitz Charade

Reinhard Heydrich, 1904–1942Alfred 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 Hey­drich-devised Glei­witz Inci­dent 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 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.

German Preparations for the Invasion of Poland, Including Staging the Gleiwitz Incident