German aggression against Poland

On the 1st of September 1939, the German army invaded Polish territory under a false pretext. This launched the military conflict for which the Nazi leadership had been preparing ever since it gained power in 1933. They believed this purifying war was needed to allow the new German empire to be built, and Lebensraum (living space) to be gained for the German people. The war was meant to allow the Nazis to realise their far-reaching plans for the racial and social remodelling of the whole of Europe. The occupied eastern territory of Poland and the Soviet Union was designed to become a huge laboratory, to be inhabited by Slavs, Jews and other nations doomed to extinction, expulsion or enslavement for the benefit of the German Reich. Their territories would then be colonised after the war by the German master race.

A German soldier guards a group of arrested Poles and Jews, September 1939. (Photo: Harry Lore, courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives.)

According to Nazi ideas, the criterion for the success of the military campaign would be the destruction of the German nation's main enemy - the Jewish race. Nazi propaganda presented the military conflict as a battle for life and death between the German race and world Jewry. The Nazis claimed that Germany's defeat in the First World War was not the result of the German army's failures on the fronts, but treacherous Jews, who had stabbed Germany in the back as it was fighting (the Dolchstoßlegende). Several times, Hitler repeated his prophecy, in which - as in, for example, his Reichstag speech of the 30th of January 1939 - he cynically warned that if world Jewry unleashed a war, it would end in the extermination of Jews in Europe. In reality, things were the other way around: the conflict was provoked by Germany, and one of its aims was the extermination of European Jews. Only in the shadow of war were the Nazis able to implement Hitler's (link in Czech) self-fulfilling prophecy regarding the need for a showdown with the Jews.

The war was seen as an opportunity to purify the German race of all the allegedly degenerate and racially inferior population groups. These ideas started to be put into practice straight away in the Polish territories annexed to the German Reich, and on the territory of the Generalgouvernement, as the remaining Polish land under Nazi rule was known. This area was seen above all as a supplier of Untermensch labour and as a space where the Nazis' racial experiments could be carried out. From the start of the war on, responsibility for anti-Jewish and racial policy was increasingly transferred to the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Head Office for Reich Security) and the Reichsführer of the SS, Heinrich Himmler. This competence also extended to the newly-occupied territories, which brought an ever-increasing number of Jews into the Nazi sphere of power.

In September 1939, the German army occupied the western part of Poland, while the Soviet Union occupied the eastern part on the basis of the German-Soviet Pact. The four western provinces were included in the German Reich itself, while the rest of the occupied territories formed the Generalgouvernement, headed by governor Hans Frank.

The arrival of the German units in occupied Polish territory brought daily harassment of the Jewish population with it. Jews were arbitrarily expelled from their homes, humiliated and robbed of their property. During the invasion of Poland, the German army was followed by the Einsatzgruppen (task forces, essentially special forces; link in Czech), whose tasks included the carrying out of anti-Jewish policy. At this stage of the final solution, this consisted above all of humiliation, expulsion and pauperisation. In many cases, the local German population often participated spontaneously in the persecution and humiliation of their Jewish neighbours. Synagogues were burnt down in many places. From the 8th of September 1939 on, all Jewish shops had to be marked with a Star of David by compulsory decree. From the 1st of December on, all Jews in the Generalgouvernement older than ten years of age had to wear a band with a Star of David on their right arm.

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