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 over Poland was now un­avoid­able. In Germany even Adolf Hitler’s polit­i­cal oppo­nents assumed that if the Fuehrer attacked Poland he would have the major­ity of the popu­la­tion behind him. Joseph Goebbels’ propa­ganda organs blamed the intransi­gence of the Poles to nego­ti­ate changes to the Polish land corridor between West and East Prussia and the status of the ethnic German enclave of Danzig (modern Gdańsk) on alleged British and French policies aimed at “preventing Germany’s resurgence through encirclement.”

For their part 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 Germany’s south­eastern neighbor, Czecho­slo­va­kia, in March 1939 in defi­ance of the 1938 Munich Agree­ment to which all three men, plus Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, had been signatories.

On this date, August 28, 1939, both Chamberlain and Daladier 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 non­event. (Their spy agen­cies and senior anti-Hitler German offi­cers had supplied both senior states­men 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 in German armor 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, a greater part of which had, prior to Octo­ber 1918 and the birth of the Polish Repub­lic, once belonged to Impe­rial Germany. The air force, anti­air­craft 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 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. Hospi­tals were cleared of non­essen­tial cases, rail­way stations installed blue lights in anti­ci­pation of expected blackouts, and children in British cities were pre­paring for evacu­ation to the country­side beginning September 1. The watchword was, “Be Prepared.”

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

Poland August 1939 Player: Neville Chamberlain, 1869–1940Poland August 1939 Player: Édouard 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 French Premier Édouard Daladier to honor their coun­tries’ 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 Premier 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 prophesied they would precipitate the war they wished to avoid. War came anyway.

Poland August 1939 Player: Wilhelm Keitel, 1882–1946Poland August 1939 Player: Hans 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 Non­ag­gres­sion 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 counterintelligence 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 after the discovery of their connec­tion to the July 1944 bomb plot to kill Hitler at his East Prussia headquarters.

German and Soviet Invasion of Poland, September 1939, As Seen in Colorized German Newsreels

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