Germany’s occupation of Poland is one of the darkest chapters of World War II. Some 6 million people, almost 18 percent of the Polish population, were killed during the Nazi reign of terror that saw mass executions, forced evictions and enslavement.
Adolf Hitler left no doubt about his goal before he ordered the invasion of Poland. Addressing generals and commanders at a reception he gave at his Berchtesgaden retreat on August 22, 1939, Hitler said he was not interested “in reaching a specific line or a new border.” He wanted “the destruction of the enemy.”
On September 1, 1939, German soldiers marched across the border into neighboring Poland. The vastly superior Wehrmacht forces advanced so quickly that the Polish government was forced to flee to Romania just 16 days later. On September 27, the defenders of the Polish capital, Warsaw, gave up. Nine days later, the last remaining Polish troops laid down their weapons.
Thus begun a nightmarish occupation that would last more than five years. In Poland, the Nazis had more time than in any other occupied country to implement their policies against people they classified as “racially inferior.”
The task of implementing Hitler’s plan fell to Hans Frank, a 39-year-old lawyer, Nazi Party member and brutal champion of the Nazis’ vision of racial purity. Frank was named “Governor-General” of a large chunk of Poland, an area of about 95,000 square kilometers (36,680sq mi), with approximately 10 million inhabitants. This was the western part of Poland that had been annexed by the German Reich, while the eastern half of the country was occupied by the Red Army in accordance with the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the 1939 non-aggression treaty between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
War Crimes Committed from the Outset
Frank was unashamedly proud of his ruthless regime, which contrasted with the comparatively lenient system of rule in the “Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia,” as the Nazis called the majority ethnic-Czech region they had occupied. In 1940, Frank told a reporter for the Völkische Beobachter newspaper: “In Prague, for example, large red posters were hung up announcing that seven Czechs had been executed that day.” That had made him think: “If I had to hang up a poster every time we shot seven Poles, we’d have to cut down all the Polish forests, and we still wouldn’t be able to produce enough paper for all the posters I’d need.”
German soldiers committed war crimes in Poland from the very outset. One soldier in the 41st infantry division noted, “Polish civilians and soldiers are dragged out everywhere. When we finish our operation, the entire village is on fire. Nobody is left alive, also all the dogs were shot.”
Wehrmacht soldiers without battle experience thought they saw snipers everywhere, and ended up firing at anything that moved — often their own comrades. And if Polish soldiers merely shot at them, the Germans took revenge by setting entire villages ablaze or taking hostages and executing them.
Following a gun battle by Ciepielow, Colonel Walter Wessel of the 29th motorized infantry division had 300 captured Polish soldiers stripped of their uniform jackets and then shot as partisans.
Although Jews weren’t persecuted systematically during the “Polish campaign,” the anti-Semitism of the German troops surfaced time and again. The war diary of one machine gun battalion noted, “All the male inhabitants are standing under guard in a large square. The only exceptions are the Jews, who are not standing, but have been made to kneel and pray constantly.”
On the very day the last Polish soldiers gave themselves up, Hitler gave a speech to the German parliament, the Reichstag, promising to “reorganize the ethnographic conditions” in Europe. Hitler appointed SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler to carry out this project, whereupon Himmler was named Reich Commissioner for the Consolidation of German Nationhood.
A Nation of Slaves
The Nazis’ aim was to transform the Poles into a nation of slaves. In May 1940 Himmler wrote that “the non-German peoples of the East may not receive any education beyond four-year elementary school.” Their educational goal was to be as follows: “The ability to do simple sums no higher than 500, write their name, and understand that it is their divine duty to obey Germans, be honest, diligent and well-behaved.” The SS Reichsführer did not consider reading an essential element of the Polish curriculum.
In October 1940 Hitler ordered “all members of the Polish intelligentsia” to be killed. SS leader Heydrich therefore instructed the heads of the security police task forces to ensure that the remaining members of the Polish “political leadership” be “rendered harmless and placed in a concentration camp.” He also saw to it that lists of “teachers, clergymen, noblemen, legionaries, returning officers, etc.” were drawn up immediately.
Poland’s new masters were interested not only in landowners but more specifically in the influential Catholic clergy. German soldiers murdered 214 priests in the West Prussian diocese of Kulm-Pelplin alone. Elsewhere in West Prussia, Protestant ethnic Germans sawed off Catholic crucifixes and demolished statues of the Virgin Mary. Some 60,000 Poles fell victim to the Nazis’ campaign against the intelligentsia.
In the fall of 1939, occupied Poland became a nightmare of often spontaneous and wanton terror. For instance, the head of Radom district threatened the death penalty for anyone caught felling trees in the forest for use as firewood. Throughout the country, the SS and the police slaughtered all those they considered to be Polish nationalists. The race-based expulsions and resettlement carried out by Himmler’s henchmen sowed fear, unrest and chaos.