The prosecution at Nuremberg considered the event which marked the beginning of World War II – the Third Reich's invasion of Poland – between 4 and 6 December. The reason for the aggression was the issue of the Danzig Corridor, the territory between East Prussia and the rest of Germany where the Free City of Danzig (now Gdansk) was located. Hitler had stated that he wanted to repatriate the Prussian city in order to physically reunify Germany, but in reality, he wanted to take over all of Poland.

A present from Versailles

After World War I, Germany was forced to cede the province of West Prussia with its centre in Danzig to Poland under the Treaty of Versailles, as the country was re-established after over a century and access to the sea was one of the guarantees proposed by United States President Woodrow Wilson in his Fourteen Points of 1918. But East Prussia, with its core in Königsberg, remained German territory and thus was cut off from the rest of Germany.

Danzig, an important port in the Baltics, had changed hands several times since its foundation in 997. In the years 997 to 1308 and 1466 to 1793, it belonged to Poland and was called Gdansk. The city was taken over by Prussia during the Second Partition of Poland in 1793 and subsequently became part of Germany.

On the lands of West Prussia, Poland established the Pomeranian Voivodship. But Danzig, along with 200 surrounding settlements, became a Free City. Officially it was not part of either Germany or Poland. It was under the protectorate of the League of Nations and was part of the customs union with Poland. In essence, it was an associated Polish territory where strong German cultural influence was maintained. The 1923 census showed that more than 95% of Danzig's population spoke German from birth.

The territory of the Pomeranian Voivodship was called the Danzig (or Polish) Corridor. Its width did not exceed 200 km (in the narrowest and most vulnerable place – only 30 km), and in the north, it had access to the Baltic Sea.

Hitler Vows Friendship

It was always Hitler’s ambition to retrieve West Prussia, but for a long time, he concealed this intention and diligently imitated good neighbourliness with the Poles. In 1934, the two countries signed the Declaration on the non-use of force between Germany and Poland (also known as the Piłsudski-Hitler Pact), which enabled the Reich to ensure security along its eastern borders. Four years later, on 20 February 1938, Hitler declared in the Reichstag:

“…And so, the way to a friendly understanding has been successfully paved, an understanding which, beginning with Danzig, has today, in spite of the attempts of certain mischief makers, succeeded in finally taking the poison out of the relations between Germany and Poland and transforming them into a sincere, friendly cooperation. Relying on her friendships, Germany will not leave a stone unturned to save that ideal which provides the foundation for the task which is ahead of us - peace”.

These words were quoted by Hartley Shawcross, Chief Prosecutor for the United Kingdom, at the Nuremberg trials. Still “more striking”, he called the “cordial references” to Poland in Hitler's speech in the Sportpalast at Berlin on 26 September 1938.

“The most difficult problem that confronted me was that of our relations with Poland. There was a danger that Poles and Germans would regard each other as hereditary enemies. I wanted to prevent this. I know well enough that I should not have been successful if Poland had had a democratic constitution. For these democracies which indulge in phrases about peace are often the most bloodthirsty agitators for war. In Poland, there ruled no democracy, just a man. And with him I succeeded, in precisely 12 months, in coming to an agreement which, for ten years in the first instance, entirely removed the danger of a conflict. We are all convinced that this agreement will bring lasting pacification. We realise that here are two peoples which must live together and neither of which can do away with the other.”

But just a month after these saccharine speeches were delivered, on 25 October, the Polish ambassador to Berlin, Józef Lipski, reported to Polish Foreign Minister Józef Beck that the German Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, had asked him to hand Danzig over to the Reich. Ribbentrop also put forward demands for the building of an extraterritorial motor road and railway line across the Pomeranian Voivodeship to facilitate ties with Königsberg and East Prussia.

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“From that moment onwards until the Polish Government had made it plain, during a visit of the Defendant Ribbentrop to Warsaw which ended on 27 January 1939, that they would not consent to hand over Danzig to German sovereignty, negotiations on these German demands continued,” Shawcross said.

Diplomacy Through Crosshairs (or Diplomacy Through a Rifle Scope)

On 24 November 1938, Chief of Staff of the German High Command, Wilhelm Keitel, issued an order that stated:

“The Führer has ordered: preparations are also to be made to enable the Free State of Danzig to be occupied by German troops by surprise.”

A full-fledged war with Poland was not planned at the time, the Reich intended to limit itself to seizing the corridor. After Ribbentrop, who demanded Danzig from Warsaw in January 1939, came back with nothing, Hitler continued to deliver flattering speeches:

“"We have just celebrated the fifth anniversary of the conclusion of our non-aggression pact with Poland. There can scarcely be any difference of opinion to-day among the true friends of peace with regard to the value of this agreement. One only needs to ask oneself what might have happened to Europe if this agreement, which brought such relief, had not been entered into five years ago. In signing it, this great Polish marshal and patriot rendered his people just as great a service as the leaders of the National Socialist State rendered the German people. During the troubled months of the past year the friendship between Germany and Poland was one of the reassuring factors in the political life of Europe."

After Germany invaded the Czech Lands in March 1939 and took the Klaipeda Region (Memelland) on the border with East Prussia from Lithuania, pressure on its “friends” to the east resumed. On 21 and 26 March, Ribbentrop again demanded that Warsaw hand over the city of Danzig to Germany, as well as two future roads to Königsberg – a railway and a road for vehicle traffic. In return, he promised generous gifts: to recognise Poland's western borders, not to claim lands and towns in the Danzig Corridor, to give Danzig Harbour free port status, and even to support Polish claims to Ukraine. However, Warsaw refused.

Failed to “Appease the Aggressor”

Despite the annexation of the Sudetenland, invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Anschluss with Austria, and the annexation of the Klaipeda Region, Hitler demanded new lands, and there was no reason to think that he would eventually stop. Only now did the Western democracies realise that the “policy of appeasement” towards the aggressor had failed.

“The events of March 1939 had at last convinced both the English and the French Governments that the Nazi designs of aggression were not limited to men of German race, and that the specter of European war resulting from further aggressions by Nazi Germany had not, after all, been exorcised by the Munich Agreement,” Shawcross stressed at Nuremberg.

On 31 March 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain told the House of Commons that “in the event of any action which clearly threatened Polish independence, and which the Polish Government accordingly considered it vital to resist, His Majesty’s Government would feel themselves bound at once to lend the Polish Government all support in their power”. On 6 April, the Anglo-Polish communique was issued, stating that the states were ready to conclude an agreement.

On 14 April 1939, after Italian troops had entered Albania, US President Franklin Roosevelt addressed Mussolini and Hitler, saying: “Are you willing to give assurance that your armed forces will not attack or invade the territory or possessions of the following independent nations?” A list of 31 countries followed, which included Poland, Finland, the Baltic States, Yugoslavia and the USSR. In response, Hitler said in the Reichstag that he “cannot say in advance what measures he will take in the future to ensure peace”.

“Fall Weiss” (or “Plan White”)

Indeed, the Nazis were preparing for war at full speed. On 3 April, Keitel issued the High Command of the Armed Forces a directive; attached to this document were the orders Fall Weiss ("Plan White") that provided for an invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939.

On 11 April, Hitler issued his directive for the uniform preparation of the war by the Armed Forces:

“…the Armed Forces must be prepared for the following eventualities:

1. Safeguarding of the frontiers

2. Fall Weiss,

3. The annexation of Danzig”.

“Then, in an annex to that document which bore the heading ‘Political Hypotheses and Aims’, it was stated that quarrels with Poland should be avoided,” Shawcross said, citing Hitler's directive. “But should Poland change her policy and adopt a threatening attitude towards Germany, a final settlement would be necessary, notwithstanding the Polish Pact. The Free City of Danzig was to be incorporated in the Reich at the outbreak of the conflict at the latest. The policy aimed at limiting the war to Poland, and this was considered possible at that time with the internal crises in France and resulting British restraint.”

According to the prosecutor, the wording of that document did not directly involve the intention of immediate aggression, but Shawcross saw the “true purpose” of the directive in the phrase: “The aim is then to destroy Polish military strength and to create, in the East, a situation which satisfies the requirements of defence.”

The Führer took advantage of Poland's attempt to defend itself with British assistance in order to present Germany as an innocent victim. He claimed that the new Anglo-Polish guarantee of mutual assistance against aggression violated the German-Polish Pact of 1934, and that Germany would therefore dissolve the agreement.

 In the Reichstag on 28 April 1939, Hitler described the Polish Government's alleged rejection of an offer he had made with regard to Danzig and the Polish Corridor, and stated:

"I have regretted greatly this incomprehensible attitude of the Polish Government, but that alone is not the decisive fact. The worst is that now Poland, like Czechoslovakia a year ago, believes, under the pressure of a lying international campaign, that it must call up its troops, although Germany on her part has not called up a single man, and had not thought of proceeding in any way against Poland.... The intention to attack on the part of Germany which was merely invented by the international Press."

John Griffith-Jones, a member of the British prosecuting team at the Nuremberg trials said:

“There was Hitler, probably with a copy of the orders for Fall Weiss in his pocket as he spoke, saying that the intention to attack [Poland], by Germany, was an invention of the international press.”

Danzig Is No Subject of the Dispute

On 23 May, the Führer held a conference with the military, including Minister of Aviation Hermann Göring, Commander-in-Chief of the Navy Erich Röder and Chief of Staff of the German High Command Wilhelm Keitel. The cards were out on the table: Germany wanted much more than Danzig.

 “Danzig is not the subject of the dispute at all. It is a question of expanding our living space in the East,” Hitler was quoted as saying by the Tribunal. After listing a number of justifications, he added, “there is, therefore, no question of sparing Poland, and we are left with the decision to attack Poland at the earliest opportunity.”

On 14 June, General Blaskowitz, Commander-in-Chief of the 3rd Army Group, issued a detailed battle plan for the Fall Weiss. The following day, Von Brauchitsch, Commander-in-Chief of the German Army, issued a memorandum in which it was stated that the object of the impending operation was to destroy the Polish Armed Forces. On 22 June, Keitel submitted a preliminary timetable for the operation, which Hitler seems to have approved.

On 12 and 13 August, Hitler and Ribbentrop had a conference with Ciano, the Italian Foreign Minister. The Führer said there that the Polish problem must be resolved immediately; otherwise, the weather would interfere with the war:

“Poland is a continuous swamp from September to May and hardly any military operations can be carried out there.”

On 25 August, the British and the Polish governments entered into an agreement on common protection. The treaty contained an express agreement for mutual assistance against aggression, to provide military assistance if any of its participants were attacked by a third party.

On 31 August, Hitler issued a top-secret order for the attack to commence in the early hours of the 1st of September.

“And so, Hitler and his confederates now before this Tribunal began the first of their wars of aggression for which they had prepared so long and so thoroughly. They waged it so fiercely that within a few weeks, Poland was overrun,” Shawcross concluded.

Phoney War

On 1 September 1939, German troops launched attacks on the entire border of Poland without any declaration of war. By 5 September they had occupied the Danzig Corridor, by 14 September they had surrounded Warsaw and begun their siege.

On 3 September, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany in response to this invasion. On 7 September, French troops crossed the border into Saarland without encountering any resistance – the German population had been evacuated.

However, on 12 September, the Allied forces decided to stop the offensive, because “the events in Poland did not justify further military action in the Saarland.” In essence, it was a renunciation of the Franco-Polish Treaty so much relied upon in Warsaw. The German High Command was able to deploy almost no units on the Western Front, so France and the UK had every chance to change the tide of the campaign, but took no advantage of it. These events have gone down in history as the “Phoney War”.

“And if we did not collapse already in the year 1939, that was due only to the fact that during the Polish campaign, the approximately 110 French and British divisions in the West were held completely inactive against the 23 German divisions,” Alfred Jodl, a defendant at the Nuremberg Trials, and former Chief of Operations Staff of the German High Command, said later.

End of Poland and beginning of World War II

On 28 September, having exhausted all its forces to defend the capital, the Polish command surrendered. On the same day, in accordance with the new treaty, the Polish lands were divided between Germany and the USSR under a secret protocol to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Some territories were taken by Lithuania and Slovakia. On 6 October, the last pockets of resistance in Kock fell.

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German Foreign Minister Ulrich Friedrich Wilhelm Joachim von Ribbentrop (right).
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On 6 October, Hitler offered to convene a peace conference with the participation of all major powers in order to resolve the existing contradictions. France and Great Britain, having learned from experience, said that they would only agree to the conference if the Third Reich immediately withdrew its troops from Poland and Czechoslovakia and returned these countries’ independence. Germany rejected the conditions; the peace conference did not take place.

On 23 November, Hitler reviewed his militarist project starting from 1937 in a speech to top military commanders:

“One year later Austria came... It brought about an essential reinforcement of the Reich. The next step was Bohemia, Moravia, and Poland. This step also was not possible to accomplish in one move… But I was not quite clear at the time whether I should start first against the East and then in the West, or vice versa... The compulsion to fight with Poland came first. One might accuse me of wanting to fight again and again. In struggle, I see the fate of all beings.”

By the end of 1939, Great Britain and France were engaged in a war with Germany, but no attempts at an offensive were made. The hostilities took place only at sea, where German submarines sank over a hundred British ships. A new German act of aggression was brewing in Europe, and yet no one was prepared for it.

Polish Government Abandoned its People to the Mercy of Fate

Dmitry Surzhik, a senior researcher at the Centre for the History of Wars and Geopolitics of the Institute of World History of the Russian Academy of Sciences:

Since the early days of statehood, the Polish Republic has enjoyed the support of England and France. Poland was the foundation of the Eastern European sanitary cordon around the Soviet Union, and neither London nor Paris ever made this secret. Therefore, despite the Polish authorities pandering to Hitler, Great Britain and France decided to help and wage war with Germany.

But the assistance did not go beyond the bilateral consultations that took place in March 1939, and was limited to a naval blockade. The French troops advanced 10 km deep into German territory and then stopped there. Both Britain and France believed that they had to take a secondary role and wait for Poland to defeat the German troops on its own.

At the time, many had shown this political short-sightedness: if we turn to the Anglo-French assessments of the Polish Armed Forces, they seemed incredibly positive and did not reflect the real potential of the Polish troops. It is difficult to say what the reason was, but the number of Polish forces, for example, was overstated by 15% or more. They did not consider transport issues at all, the low level of tactical training and the emphasis on cavalry instead of mechanised troops was also ignored.

By 17 September, when Soviet troops entered eastern Poland, the Polish military and political leadership had already left the country and German troops had already been near Warsaw for a week. But to say that the Soviet Union somehow pulled back the Polish troops, which could have attacked and crushed Germany, is implausible. According to the international legal norms of that time, if the government left the country, the state no longer exists.

This explains the persistence of Stalin to stay in Moscow in 1941, and his famous phrase: “Let the Western Front’s command take their shovels and dig their own graves.” The Polish leadership abandoned its troops and its people to the mercy of fate.

By Daniil Sidorov