This week in history: Nazis stage fake attack at the start of WWII
On Aug. 31, 1939 — 75 years ago this week — Nazi agents staged a fake attack on the German radio transmission tower at Gleiwitz, on the German-Polish border. Adolf Hitler used this “attack” as a pretext for the invasion of Poland the next day.
By the summer of 1939, relations between Germany and Poland were quickly deteriorating. Hitler had insisted that Poland return the Polish Corridor to Germany, a strip of land that gave Poland access to the sea and the free city of Danzig but cut off Germany proper from its East Prussian territory. The Polish Corridor had been granted to the new state of Poland in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, a document that Hitler and most Germans had denounced.
For the previous few years, Hitler had been bloodlessly acquiring more and more territory in Europe in violation of the treaty. In 1936, Hitler sent his army into the Rhineland, which, though German, had been demilitarized by the treaty. England and France did nothing to stop him. In March 1938, Hitler's army moved into Austria. A few days later, Germany annexed the central European nation, again in violation of the treaty.
In September 1938, Hitler demanded the return of the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia, territory Germany had lost after World War I. Allied with France and friendly toward Britain, Czechoslovakia was the only stable democracy in central Europe. Prague called upon Paris to help defend its borders. Fearing Germany's strength and a repeat of the 1914-1918 war, Britain and France wanted a settlement and signed the Munich Pact with Germany. With its allies refusing to fight, Czechoslovakia gave up the Sudetenland to Hitler.
Hitler had stated throughout this crisis, as he had in his earlier bloodless invasions, that he was only working in the interests of protecting ethnic Germans throughout central Europe. Indeed, in Czechoslovakia there were several violent attacks on ethnic Germans by the Czech population, though these instances were relatively few. To strengthen his hand, Hitler had sent special units into the Sudetenland to fake anti-German attacks and increase anti-German propaganda. These false-flag operations gave Hitler the leverage he needed to issue ultimatums during the crisis, which led to his diplomatic victory.
In March 1939, Hitler made a mistake by invading and annexing the rump of Czechoslovakia. Not only was this move in violation of the September 1938 agreement at Munich but it also showed Hitler for what he really was — a madman with vast territorial ambitions in Europe who could not be trusted. There were virtually no ethnic Germans in the rump of Czechoslovakia.
Soon after, when Hitler announced that he wanted the Polish Corridor returned, Britain and France took a firm line and offered Poland a guarantee of its borders. That summer Hitler repeatedly accused Poles of attacking ethnic Germans in Poland, and again he sent agitators to fake incidents. Finally, Hitler decided to attack Poland. To give Germany its excuse, Hitler wanted a dramatic provocation that he could use to justify his actions.
Hitler's most loyal and fanatical followers belonged to the Schutzstaffel, the Protection Squad or SS. Headed by Heinrich Himmler, the SS controlled the machinery of the German police and concentration-camp system, as well having a stake in the Sicherheitsdienst, the Security Service, or the SD, which essentially functioned as Nazi Party intelligence. The head of the SD was Reinhard Heydrich.
A man of such ice-cold nerves that Hitler once called him “The Man with the Iron Heart,” Heydrich was one of those rare individuals who could accomplish anything he set his mind to. A concert-level violinist, an Olympic-level fencer and an ace fighter pilot, Heydrich had created in the SD an efficient organization that could take care of the dirty tricks that Hitler so often employed.
Heydrich's tool within the SD for these missions was something known as the Einsatzgruppen, Special Action Squads, which later would prove to be an integral part of the Holocaust. One of the men Heydrich used for such operations was Alfred Naujocks.
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