History Mystery: Why Did Hitler Target Poland in 1939?

January 13, 2021 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IIAdolf HitlerNazi GermanyPolandSoviet Union

History Mystery: Why Did Hitler Target Poland in 1939?

The decision to invade Poland was one in a series of risky moves that led to World War II.

Here's What You Need to Know: Hitler’s great gamble for a Nazi invasion of Poland succeeded at the cost of 48,000 casualties.

Historians often compare Adolf Hitler to a gambler. He kept making risky bets that paid off time and again—until they didn’t. Poland was one example because it led to general war. What brought Hitler to take this risk? With the benefit of hindsight it is seen as enormous, but what did the situation look like to the German Führer and his closest advisers at the time? The popular modern view of Hitler is that of a raving lunatic, screaming at subordinates while pushing phantom armies around a map in his bunker. While he deserves every negative epithet given him, he did not decide all his strategic and operational decisions from mad, angry rants. In the years leading to World War II there were numerous events that took him down the road from a promise to rebuild the nation to inevitable conflict. However skewed, there was method to his madness, which came close to paying off in the early years of the fighting. The war officially began with the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, but numerous factors led to this attack.

Logic, Planning, Revenge: Why Hitler Targeted Poland

While many of the calculations for war were based on some modicum of logic and reasoned planning, revenge, the basest of human emotions, played its part. German humiliation over the conditions placed upon the nation at the end of World War I had not abated in the two decades since the conflict ended. Over time the mass emotional reaction to the treaty stipulations became a festering sore among the population. This wound was ripe for exploitation by the Nazi propaganda machine during the party’s rise to power.

The Treaty of Versailles imposed severe restrictions on the German military. The ground forces were limited in size to 100,000 troops in 10 divisions, including 4,000 officers. The Army could be used only for the “internal maintenance of order” and defense. Also prohibited were staples of the German military system, such as a general staff, most officer training schools, and any sort of reserves or paramilitary groups.  Additionally, tanks and heavy weapons were denied. Chemical weapons were expressly forbidden. Defensive positions along the east bank of the Rhine River had to be demolished for a distance of 50 kilometers from the riverbank. The west bank was similarly denuded of defenses. This left the country defenseless against attack.

The humiliation of Versailles went beyond just military limitations. Germany lost land to Poland and France. The French received Alsace-Lorraine, lost decades before during the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. The “Polish Corridor,” a strip of land given to Poland granting it access to the Baltic Sea, meant East Prussia was now physically separate from the rest of the country. The formerly German city of Danzig was made a “Free City,” controlled by the Poles despite its largely German population. All of Germany’s overseas colonies and territories were transferred to other nations. Last was a crushing debt of reparations, equivalent to billions of dollars today. (Read more about the conflicts and events that led to the Second World War inside the pages of WWII History magazine.) 

The cumulative effect of the treaty requirements created a sense of injustice among the German populace, which the Nazis were all too willing to use in their grab for power. The party came into power on a promise to right the wrongs of Versailles and make Germany strong again. Germany suffered many internal troubles throughout the 1920s and early 30s, something the German people remembered. Once national power was restored in the late 1930s, it became a natural, brutal progression to use that power against nations that had taken German lands. The Polish Corridor stood out in particular; regaining it meant reconnecting East Prussia to Germany proper.

With revenge in mind, the next step for Hitler was rearmament. This was the key prerequisite for any resurgence of Germany as a major power. Even before Hitler began rearmament in late 1933, the military had been secretly preparing for a fast expansion through a combination of training, liberal interpretation of the treaty restrictions, and secret weapons development projects. This allowed the Nazis to quickly create a massive military machine, faster than Germany’s opponents thought possible.

Initial steps included rebuilding the German arms industry so it could produce the necessary weapons. The plans for fast wartime expansion of the Army were instead applied to peacetime growth. The first increase was to 300,000 troops in 21 divisions. This program was to be finished by 1937, but Hitler advanced this timetable to the fall of 1934, barely a year later. During this period Hitler began to consolidate his power, moving against men like Ernst Röhm, the leader of the Nazi Party’s paramilitary arm, the Sturmabteilung (SA). He also absorbed the powers of the military commander in chief when the German President Paul von Hindenburg died in August 1934. Afterward German soldiers and sailors were required to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler personally, a throwback to the oath given the kaiser during the imperial period. By the end of 1934, German Army strength reached 240,000.

On March 16, 1935, Hitler publicly rejected the Versailles Treaty and ordered a further expansion of the army to 36 divisions under a new defense law. Conscription was also reintroduced. Within two months another law created the Luftwaffe. The conscription program created a large pool of trained manpower, something the Germans lacked due to Versailles. Changes at the command level also made the German military more effective. The Reichswehr was renamed the Wehrmacht, with the three branches called the Heer (army), Kriegsmarine (navy), and Luftwaffe (air force). The general staff was rebuilt, and Hitler was solidly placed as the military’s supreme commander. Generals who disagreed with Hitler were retired or removed through scandal or accusations of misconduct. The Führer created a modern, powerful force completely under his control.

While this buildup was touted as smooth and organized with Teutonic efficiency, the process was difficult. German industry needed time to create modern weapons, most of which were only designs on a drawing board. Raw materials, trained labor, and factory capacity were insufficient to provide for all three services’ needs. The navy took a back seat to the Army and air force. This decision made sense because Germany’s primary opponents bordered the nation, rendering a powerful fleet unnecessary in the short term.

Making it Up as they Go: The Rapid Expansion of the Nazi German Army

Building on its secret experiments, the Army started an ambitious program for armored vehicles, but they were learning as they went. The first models were lightly armed and armored vehicles, which would later prove inferior to enemy tanks, though the Germans usually handled theirs better. Without making sacrifices elsewhere, it was impossible to build as many vehicles and artillery pieces as were needed. Hitler was unwilling to strain the peacetime German economy, so production rates were kept low.

The rapid expansion also placed a strain on personnel. There were not enough qualified officers and NCOs to fill all the required billets. Fast promotions and the recall of World War I veterans alleviated these problems, but only to a limited extent. Many of the veterans were getting too old for field service and needed refresher training. Many officers were lost to the newly formed Luftwaffe, and many staff officers for air units were ground forces men untrained and inexperienced in air operations. Another quick solution was to militarize entire police units to capitalize on the training and discipline of their NCOs and officers.

Despite these difficulties, rearmament did produce results. By October 1937, the army reached an active strength of 39 divisions in 14 corps, including three panzer and four motorized divisions. There were 29 divisions in reserve with more of their soldiers having recent training through the conscription program. In 1938, a dozen more divisions, including two panzer and four motorized, were also formed along with 22 more reserve divisions. Some of these units came from the absorption of the Austrian Army, which occurred that year. Further expansion occurred in 1939.

Possessing a powerful army gave Hitler options in the expansionist risks he took. Like many Germans, he sought revenge for perceived injustices. For the Führer the scales could only be balanced through war, and a strong military made war feasible, even desirable, as it would prove Germany was again formidable and to be respected. By 1939, the Army had 102 divisions, half of them active. Total strength was around 1.8 million troops. While there were still shortages in certain types of weapons and equipment, the Nazi propaganda machine had done its work, and these shortcomings were not apparent. Foreign observers saw a formidable modern force, and Hitler was happy to let them believe that image.

Prior to the Polish Crisis, Germany had gotten extensive practice in territorial acquisition, though without war. Instead, political maneuvering and bluff achieved Nazi goals up to that point. There was tension; war clouds loomed over Europe for several years before September 1939. However, until then each crisis had been resolved in Germany’s favor, a winning streak that increased confidence within the Reich in its own ability and the moral cowardice of its opponents. Hitler was susceptible to a gambler’s faith in a winning streak, and this was a factor in the Nazi invasion of Poland.