Salzburg, Austria August 11, 1939

On this date in 1939 near Salzburg, Austria, Adolf Hitler’s foreign minis­ter Joachim von Rib­ben­trop told Ital­ian dicta­tor Benito Musso­lini’s foreign minis­ter, Gale­azzo Ciano, about Hitler’s deci­sion “to set Europe on fire.” “We want war,” Ribben­trop said to the 36‑year‑old Ciano (who was Musso­lini’s son-in-law), though the German foreign minis­ter refrained from telling his Italian counter­part that Hitler had just signed the order to occupy the League of Nations-admin­is­tered Free City of Danzig (see map below) and had mobilized the German Army along the German-Polish frontier.

The meeting between Ribbentrop and Ciano, a sub­sti­tute for a sum­mit of the two dic­ta­tors can­celed the week before, was to im­press on Mus­so­lini that there would be no “second Munich”—a refer­ence to the 1938 con­fer­ence of leaders from Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy (in atten­dance were Ribben­trop and Ciano) that gar­nered Germany only a sliver of Czecho­slo­va­kia, namely, German-speaking Sudeten­land. (Later in Novem­ber the two foreign minis­ters par­celed out more Czech terri­tory and citi­zens when they “super­vised” the trans­fer of 5,000 sq. miles and over one mil­lion inhabitants to Hungary, many of them not even Hungarians.)

The next day, August 12, Ciano visited Hitler at his lux­u­rious Alpine resi­dence, the Berg­hof, where he cau­tioned Hitler of the harm war would inflict on the Ital­ian people. Later in the month Hitler separately con­firmed his deci­sion to attack Poland with­out giving Mus­so­lini the date. On Friday, Septem­ber 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland and Danzig, Mus­so­lini wrote Hitler that he was worried their joint mili­tary and econo­mic alli­ance, the so-called “Pact of Steel” that Ciano and Rib­ben­trop had ini­tialed in Berlin in May 1939, would drag an unpre­pared Italy into the con­flict, and he wanted to bail out. Mus­so­lini was reassured when Hitler promptly cabled back that Ital­ian troops were not needed in Poland. Musso­lini told Hitler that Ital­ian inter­ven­tion would only be pos­sible were Italy given suf­ficient mili­tary materiel and raw materials such as oil, rubber, and molyb­denum, which is mostly used to make alloys to increase strength, hard­ness, elec­trical conduc­tivity, and resis­tance to corro­sion and wear. Precious imports like these would help Italy with­stand French and British attacks, which would surely come now that both demo­cra­cies had declared war on Germany (Septem­ber 3, 1939). Mus­so­lini, who all along had expected to be involved in a Euro­pean war after 1942, stayed out of the con­flict until June 10, 1940, when his greed to share in the spoils of war spurred a change of heart.

Countdown to War in Europe, 1939

Eve of World War II in Europe: Polish Corridor and Danzig EnclaveEve of World War II in Europe: Leading European statesmen at the Fuehrerbau in Munich, September 1938

Left: The “Polish Corridor,” which provided Poland access to the Baltic Sea via ter­ri­tory that had pre­viously been part of German West Prussia, cut post-World War I Germany in two. Germans were required to carry a pass­port when paying an over­land visit to East Prussia, now an island surrounded by Lith­u­ania and the Baltic Sea to the north, Poland to the south, and, to the west, the Free City of Danzig (today’s Gdańsk), which was under League of Nations pro­tec­tion and in a binding customs union with Poland. The Nazis con­sidered the entire geo­political arrange­ment intol­erable and insisted that Poland hand over Danzig and permit the Germans to build an extra­terri­torial multi­lane auto­bahn and a rail line across the corridor to East Prussia.

Right: After the four major European power brokers agreed in Munich in Septem­ber 1938 to split German-speaking Sudeten­land from Czecho­slo­va­kia, Germans in the Danzig enclave, where they made up 95 per­cent of its popu­la­tion, requested reuni­fi­ca­tion with the Third Reich. Great Britain’s Neville Cham­ber­lain and France’s Édouard Dala­dier (both to Hitler’s right in this 1938 photo) con­signed the fate of their coun­tries to poli­ti­cians in Warsaw in 1939 when they offered to take any action against another nation that threat­ened Poland’s inde­pen­dence. Polish Foreign Minis­ter Józef Beck saw the British gua­ran­tee as putting Hitler in his place, though it was impos­sible for Poland’s two allies to provide any effective protection.

Removing Polish insignia, Sopot, September 1, 1939"Danzig is German" stamp, September 1939

Left: German troops remove Polish insig­nia at the Polish-Danzig border near Sopot (German, Zoppot), Septem­ber 1, 1939, after blasting through Polish defenses. The following day the Free City of Danzig was annexed by Nazi Germany and most of the local Poles, Slavs (Kas­zu­bians), Jews, and oppo­si­tion leaders were arrested and sent to con­cen­tra­tion camps or expelled. As many as 110,000 peo­ple were deported to nearby Stutt­hof con­cen­tra­tion camp, which was com­pleted on Septem­ber 2, 1939, and 85,000 victims perished there.

Right: “Danzig is German” stamp issued by Nazi postal autho­ri­ties to cele­brate Danzig’s return to the German father­land in the momen­tous first days of the inva­sion. The can­cel­la­tion mark, dated Septem­ber 19, 1939, reads, “Danzig jubilantly greets its Führer and liberator Adolf Hitler.”

Invasion of Poland, September 1939

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