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.
Not yet 30 years old, Naujocks had been an early street brawler for the Nazis in the days before the party came to power. In the book “Who's Who in Nazi Germany,” historian Robert Wistrich wrote:
“A well-known amateur boxer, (Naujocks) was frequently involved in brawls with communists. He joined the SS in 1931 and three years later enrolled in the SD, becoming one of Heydrich's most trusted agents. In 1939 he was made head of the sub-section of Section III of SD Ausland, (foreign section), and put in charge of such special duties as fabricating false papers, passports, identity cards and forged notes for the SD agents operating abroad.”
Heydrich had devised a scheme to give Hitler his justification for an attack upon Poland. Several border incidents would be created, under what was called “Operation Himmler,” after Heydrich's boss. An Einsatzgruppe unit under Naujocks would attack the Gleiwitz radio tower along the border then broadcast Polish propaganda into the Reich. This attack would be the centerpiece of “Operation Himmler.” Hitler had ordered his military to invade Poland on Aug. 26. Heydrich and Naujocks had only a few days to get things prepared for the attack on Gleiwitz on Aug. 25.
Naujocks and his team traveled to the town and checked into a hotel, claiming to be engineers looking for suitable materials to mine in the area. Under various pressures to avert war, and sensing the Poles and their Western allies might back down, Hitler postponed the invasion until Sept. 1. Naujocks and his men spent nearly two weeks in Gleiwitz waiting for the order to proceed.
It wasn't nearly enough, however, to broadcast anti-German propaganda. If the incident was to have a look of authenticity to it, it would have to appear as though a small skirmish had indeed taken place near the radio tower. To that end, Heinrich Müller, the head of the Gestapo, had several concentration-camp inmates shot or drugged and their bodies transported to the area. With Polish army uniforms and paybooks supplied by Adm. Wilhelm Canaris, the head of German military intelligence, the former camp prisoners now appeared to be Polish casualties of the battle. This aspect of plan was cynically named “Operation Canned Goods.”
Finally, on Aug. 31, the order arrived at Oberschlesischer Hotel in Gleiwitz and Naujocks' team went into action and rendezvoused en route to the tower with Müller, who handed over the bodies. In the book “SS Intelligence,” historian Edmund L. Blandford wrote:
“Naujocks then took his squad into the radio station, finding the two men on duty ready and compliant. The Polish speaker then yelled a short tirade into the microphone calling for war to begin between Poland and Germany. The squad then ran outside, firing off their pistols as they went. Years later, Naujocks would try to cash in on his claim as the 'man who started the war.' ”
The attack, such as it was, was a success. Hitler had his propaganda weapon with which to start the war. In his speech to the Reichstag the following day in which he formally declared war on Poland, Hitler cited the various border incidents and Gleiwitz in particular as “frontier violations of a nature no longer tolerable for a great power.”
American journalist William L. Shirer, reporting from Berlin when the war broke out, noted in his book “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” that the New York Times and other American newspapers reported on the Gleiwitz incident as one of the events that touched off the war. Additionally, Shirer suggests that many of the SS men who were involved in the operation were “put out of the way.” Whether they were killed or merely assigned to dangerous combat duty in Poland, Shirer doesn't say.
In any event, most of the hard facts of what happened at Gleiwitz come from Naujocks himself, who defected to the Americans in November 1944 after falling out of favor with his Nazi superiors. Little is known for certain about the SS men under his command who participated in the attack, though given the almost astronomical casualty rates suffered by Waffen-SS units in the war, it is entirely possible they were indeed all killed.
The attack on Gleiwitz was another criminal act and deception in a long line of lies and falsehoods perpetrated by Hitler and his regime. It was certainly not the last. With the invasion of Poland the Einsatzgruppen sought out Polish professionals, politicians, clergy and others who the Nazis believed would make trouble for them. Approximately 60,000 of Poland's intelligentsia were summarily shot by these SD thugs at the beginning of the conflict, and as it progressed millions more Poles died in the war or in the death camps.