poland Archive

01 September 1939: Other Quotations

01 September 1939: Other Quotations

Below is a collection of quotations concerning the German attack on Poland in September 1939. Not all quotes are from 01 September, but they reference the events that began that day.

You and your men must have plenty to do now. I just can’t grasp that people’s lives are now under constant threat from other people. I’ll never understand it, and I find it terrible. Don’t go telling me it’s for the Fatherland’s sake.

Sophie Scholl to Fritz Hartnagel, 05 September 1939, in At the Heart of the White Rose: Letters and Diaries of Hans and Sophie Scholl (US, UK, CA, DE [eng], DE [deu]).

Finis Germaniae

Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, upon hearing that the final order for “Operation White”, the attack on Poland, had been given by Hitler. In An Honourable Defeat: A History of German Resistance to Hitler, 1933-1945, by Anton Gill. (US, UK, CA, DE [eng])

The inhabitants are an unbelievable rabble, very many Jews and very much mixed population. A people which surely is only comfortable under the knout. The thousands of prisoners-of-war will be good for our agriculture. In Germany they will surely be useful, industrious, willing and frugal.

Claus von Stauffenberg, reporting from his service in Poland. Here we see a Stauffenberg clearly not yet committed to resistance. From Stauffenberg: A Family History, 1905-1944, p. 115.


I do not have the impression that our friends the Bolsheviks are using kid-gloves. This war is truly a scourge of God for the entire Polish upper class. They ran from us eastward. We are not letting anyone except ethnic Germans cross the Vistula westward. The Russians will likely make short work of them, since, as is well known by now, the real danger is only in the nationalistic Polish upper class who naturally feel superior to the Russians. Many of them will go to Siberia. [ibid.]

On 1 September 1939 there were no scenes of enthusiasm, no cheering crowds in Berlin like those in Munich in which Hitler had heard the news of the declaration of war twenty-five years before. When he drove to address the Reichstag at the Kroll Opera House at 10 a.m., the streets were emptier than usual. Most of those who turned to watch the line of cars accompanying the Führer stared in silence.

Allan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, p. 547. (US, UK, CA, DE [eng], DE [deu])

I am asking of no German man more than I myself was ready to do throughout four years. There will be no hardships for Germans to which I myself will not submit. My whole life belongs henceforth more than ever to my people. I am from now on just the first soldier of the German Reich. I have once more put on that coat that was the most sacred and dear to me. I will not take it off again until victory is secured, or I will not survive the outcome.

Adolf Hitler quoted in Bullock, p. 547.

Question: You believe then that Hitler did not realize in September 1939 that he had started a World War?

Albert Speer: From what I observed, I had to assume that this was not his intention. He intended to carry his plans one step further, as with Czechoslovakia.

On the other hand, there is this consideration. From the standpoint of the balance of military power, 1939 must have been the best year to start a war, better than two or three years later.

Albert Speer responding to questions under interrogation. From Richard Overy, Interrogations: The Nazi Elite in Allied Hands, 1945, p. 331.

01 September 1939: Tragedy

01 September 1939: Tragedy

It was a strange morning. Silently we stepped back from the radio that had projected a message into the room which would outlast centuries, a message that was destined to change our world totally and the life of every single one of us. A message which meant death for thousands of those who had silently listened to it, sorrow and unhappiness, desperation and threat for every one of us, and perhaps only after years and years a creative significance. It was war again, a war, more terrible and far-reaching than ever before on earth any war had been. Once more an epoch came to an end, once more a new epoch began. Silently we stood in the room that had suddenly become deathly quiet and avoided looking at each other. From outside came the unconcerned twitter of the birds, frivolous in their love and subject to the gentle breeze, and in golden luster the trees swayed as if their leaves, like lips, wished to touch one another tenderly. It was not for ancient Mother Nature to know the cares of her creatures.

Once more I wandered down to the town to have a last look at peace. It lay calmly in the noon-day sun and seemed no different to me from other days. People went their accustomed way in their usual manner. There were no signs of hurry, they did not crowd talkatively together. Their behavior had a sabbath-like quality and at a certain moment I asked myself: “Can it be that they don’t know it yet?”

I recalled our old soldiers, weary and in rags, how they had come back from the battlefield, — my beating heart felt the whole past war in the one that was beginning today and which still hid its terror from our eyes. Again I was aware that the past was done for, work achieved was in ruins, Europe, our home, to which we had dedicated ourselves had suffered a destruction that would extend far beyond our life. Something new, a new world began, but how many hells, how many purgatories had to be crossed before it could be reached!

The sun shone full and strong. Homeward bound I suddenly noticed before me my own shadow as I had seen the shadow of the other war behind the actual one. During all this time it has never budged from me, that irremovable shadow, it hovers over every thought of mine by day and by night; perhaps its dark outline lies on some pages of this book, too. But, after all, shadows themselves are born of light. And only he who has experienced dawn and dusk, war and peace, ascent and decline, only he has truly lived.

From Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday (US, UK, CA, DE [eng], DE [deu].)

Russia, Germany, the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the (re-)writing of History

Russia, Germany, the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the (re-)writing of History

The 70th anniversaries of the Nazi-Soviet Pact (agreed on 23 Aug 1939, signed early morning 24 Aug), the invasion by Nazi Germany of Poland (1 Sep 1939) and the invasion by Soviet Russia of Poland (17 Sep 1939), have given rise to spectacular happenings in the world of history and historians. The “spectacular” aspect of it all was kicked off when the Russian Defense Ministry published a paper denouncing the “falsification” of history committed by many historians in the West who damn the Soviets for their part in the Nazi-Soviet Pact. The publication of this paper seems to have been in line with Russian President Medvedev’s publicly-declared efforts to combat what he deems “severe, evil, and aggressive” falsifications of history. Then, earlier this month, the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) released a statement which also defended the Nazi-Soviet Pact.

The Russian arguments concerning the Pact and the outbreak of war seem (to me) to go like this:

  • The Second World War began because Poland did not accede to justifiable German demands, namely the incorporation of the very German city of Danzig (Gdansk) into the Reich and transit routes — under German control — to East Prussia.
  • War between the Soviets and Nazis was inevitable, therefore Stalin had to do everything he could to put a buffer zone between the German military and the Russian border. This buffer zone would be the Baltic States and the regions of Poland which thereafter came under Soviet control.
  • The West, particularly Britain, pushed the Soviets into this position of needing to make a Pact with Germany by a) its (the West’s) failure to enter into defense agreements with the Soviets; b) by the example set in Munich regarding Czechoslovakia the year before; and c) by siding with Poland in its refusal to accede to justifiable German demands.

You can well imagine that many people in Poland are paying attention to these contemporary interpretations which make the 1939 devastation of Poland both inevitable and the fault of the devastated. On Thursday (28 Aug 2009) things went one step further, as a Russian historian branded Poland an ally of Nazi Germany between the months of March and August of 1939. This was too much for Wacław Radziwinowicz, who calls out the Russian historian, Natalia Narochnitskaya, in an article titled (sarcastically) “How we became Hitler’s allies” in the English version of Gazeta Wyborcza:

This time of the role of the recon historian was played by Natalia Narochnitskaya, member of the presidential Committee Against Historical Distortions Harmful to Russia.

Ms Narochnitskaya is a very professional force. Her day job is running the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation, which for the Kremlin’s money monitors the state of democracy in the West. So she is an experienced soldier of the ideological front, baptised by fire in positions deep in enemy territory.

Yesterday, the readers of Komsomolskaya Pravda found in the tabloid an interview in which Ms Narochnitskaya exposed the historical truth, praising Stalin for ‘revising’ Hitler’s ‘timetable of war.’ According to her, Poland in 1939 between March and August secretly conspired with Hitler against the Soviet Union.

‘There are documents which prove that the date of the invasion of Poland was set on 1 March 1939. And do you know what the Poles did for the next half-year?’ asks Ms Narochnitskaya. And she answers herself, ‘The Russophobe foreign minister Józef Beck negotiated with Hitler to become his ally, offering assistance in invading Ukraine so that Poland could stretch from a sea to a sea.’ [my emphasis]

(Komsomolskaya Pravda, by the way, is described in its Wikipedia entry as belonging to Gazprom. Gazprom is the enormous Russian natural gas company controlled by the State, which occasionally uses it to influence events in Europe by threatening to cutoff natural gas supplies.)

Narochnitskaya’s interpretation of events might simply seem silly to some, but a Pole such as Radziwinowicz cannot be blamed for seeing it as sinister:

I also have no doubts that it is the state propaganda that is feeding Russians today with hatred and contempt towards Poles, just as it has previously done towards Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians or Georgians. People like Ms Narochnitskaya attack us in newspapers and TV stations where every single word is closely controlled by the Kremlin. Working in Moscow, meeting people here, I feel on my own skin how hostility towards Poles is growing.

I really recommend you read the complete text of Radziwinowicz’s column. In the meantime, however, I want to bring up another event that added to the spectacular nature of these historical debates. On 20 August 2009, a group of over 130 German historians issued a declaration which ties together the 1939 and 1989 anniversaries being commemorated this year. (1989 references the Fall of the Berlin Wall.) The declaration openly blames Germany for the start of the war, but does not mince words when it comes to its assessment of the Soviet impact on Europe in the following years. It describes the Hitler-Stalin Pact as “ruinous” and does not grant the Soviets any kind of excuse based on, for example, the idea of the inevitability of war with Germany. Instead, the Pact “divid[ed] up the Baltic states, Poland, Finland and Romania between the two totalitarian dictatorships.” And both dictatorships’ invasions of Poland are mentioned in the same breath: “The attack on Poland by Germany and the Soviet Union in September 1939 marked the beginning of an unprecedented war of conquest and extermination…” The historians rightfully follow-up by emphasizing’s Germany’s guilt during the war, but they then emphasize the Soviets’ post-war dicatorships:

After Europe and Germany had been liberated from the Nazis/National Socialism, people in all the countries of Europe were hoping for a future in freedom and democracy. But these hopes were bitterly disappointed for many. The Soviet Union enforced new dictatorial regimes in the central and eastern European countries and in part of Germany – all of which had been weakened by the War and by Nazi rule – with devastating consequences for the societies, the economy and culture, and for countless people who were persecuted as political opponents or lost their lives because they stood in the way of those in power. Thus, the Germans not only bear a heavy responsibility for the extermination of European Jews, the persecution and murder of Sinti and Roma, homosexuals, the disabled, people stigmatized as anti-social or political dissidents, and for the millions upon millions of people who were victims of the War. We are painfully aware that if Germany had not started the Second World War, there would have been neither the Communist dictatorships in central and eastern Europe, nor the partition of the continent and of Germany.

Extraordinary stuff, and I have to believe that the recent Russian revisionism played a role in getting these historians together for this declaration. An article in the Scotsman claims as much by stating that the German intellectuals “signed a declaration calling on Russia to condemn the ‘ill-fated pact’.” I don’t know if the author of that article refers to the same declaration. I don’t find anything in the declaration I’ve quoted above which directly calls on Russia to issue condemnations. But I can see why one might interpret that.

It’s worth considering Russia’s reasons for this revisionism. I think James Rodgers’ piece at the BBC, titled “Russia acts against ‘false’ history”, states the reasons rather well:

The country sees its victory over Hitler’s forces as the greatest moment of the 20th Century.

The war is sometimes discussed in the news media as if it were a recent event, not increasingly distant history.

Any attempt to tarnish the glory of that triumph is seen as a deliberate attempt to make Russia look bad.

That’s only a part of his explanation; I recommend you read the article in full.

As with most historical revisionism, the Russian position does not spring from pure fantasy. Historians such as Ms Narochnitskaya need to reference actual, documented evidence or they will simply be laughed off and ignored as kooks. Narochnitskaya, as we saw above, highlights what she considers Polish complicity with Nazi Germany. The Poles and the Germans did, in fact, sign a non-aggression treaty, an event which Stalin most likely looked upon with disfavor. Here’s Alan Bullock in Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (Amazon UK):

Yet the first country with which Hitler had signed a Pact of Non-Aggression had been Poland, and for five years he treated Poland in the friendliest fashion, despite the unpopularity of such a policy in Germany. [p. 491 of 2005 Penguin paperback]

There were indeed direct talks between Nazi Germany and Jozef Beck’s Poland during 1939, a fact which Narochnitskaya is quite pleased to use to her and Russia’s advantage. And it’s probably true that Beck listened to German ideas of a pact explicitly aimed at the Soviets; Beck — and Poland — had every reason to fear both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. But the fact is that Beck rebuffed the Nazis.

[Hitler’s openness to negotiations with Poland] was not altered after Beck’s reply to Hitler in his speech to the Polish Diet on 5 May [1939]. Rejecting Hitler’s account of the negotiations between Poland and Germany and reaffirming Poland’s determination not to agree to the German demands, Beck spoke of ‘various other hints made by representatives of the Reich Government which extended much further than the subjects of discussion. I reserve the right to return to this matter if necessary.’ This covert reference to suggestions of a joint German-Polish front against Russia, and Beck’s declaration that peace could be bought too dearly, if it was at the price of national honour, did not, however, stir Hitler to reply. [Bullock 505]

Beck himself made the cover of TIME Magazine’s March 6, 1939 issue. The accompanying TIME article about Jozef Beck makes for very interesting historical reading, considering it is only a matter of months before the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the start of the War. TIME plays up Beck’s wheeling and dealing ways. We see a Beck who is willing to discuss matters with any European government. He visits Hitler at Berchtesgaden but also reaffirms non-aggression with the Soviets. He even discusses territorial and colonial ambitions with the Italians, as shown in this rather unflattering bit:

Some diplomatic correspondents even reported that Italy was ready to cut Poland in for some of France’s colonies, probably Madagascar, where anti-Semitic Poland might send some of her 3,200,000 Jews, which she wants no more than Germany wants hers. [p. 2 of the TIME article]

On the one hand, the TIME article emphasizes Poland’s precarious position between its giant neighbors; on the other hand, the article does not exactly present the Poles as victims. Beck comes across as a rather cynical realist.

But surely we can’t compare Beck’s cynicism with Stalin’s. By Bullock’s telling, it was actually Stalin who insisted on the “Secret Protocols” that were attached to the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement:

The pact itself presented no difficulties: Hitler had already accepted Molotov’s draft. But the Russians had added a postscript to the text: ‘The present pact shall be valid only if a special protocol is signed simultaneously covering the points in which the High Contracting Parties are interested in the field of foreign policy.’

To put it in crude terms, the Soviet Government did not propose to sign until it learned what its share of the spoils was going to be, and how Eastern Europe was to be parceled up. It was to complete this process of horse-trading that Ribbentrop was now to fly to Moscow. [524-525]

The evening appears to have been passed in the most cordial atmosphere. When toasts were drunk, ‘Herr Stalin spontaneously proposed a toast to the Führer: “I know how much the German nation loves its Führer; I should therefore like to drink his health.”‘ [530]

Bullock is quoting the German minutes of the discussion, which appear in the archives of the German Foreign Ministry. Presumably Ms Narochnitskaya also relies on such archives when she points out proof of Polish talks with Germany during 1939. Does she place equal emphasis on revelations such as these?

(Image credit: The lead image for this article is a blown-up portion of an image of the secret protocols attached to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The image was found at Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain. The German title reads “Geheimes Zusatzprotokoll” [“Secret additional protocol”].)