Germany's occupation of Poland is one of the darkest chapters of World War II. Some 6 million people, almost 18 percent of the Polish population, were killed during the Nazi reign of terror that saw mass executions, forced evictions and enslavement.
Adolf Hitler left no doubt about his goal before he ordered the invasion of Poland. Addressing generals and commanders at a reception he gave at his Berchtesgaden retreat on August 22, 1939, Hitler said he was not interested "in reaching a specific line or a new border." He wanted "the destruction of the enemy."
On September 1, 1939, German soldiers marched across the border into neighboring Poland. The vastly superior Wehrmacht forces advanced so quickly that the Polish government was forced to flee to Romania just 16 days later. On September 27, the defenders of the Polish capital, Warsaw, gave up. Nine days later, the last remaining Polish troops laid down their weapons.
Thus begun a nightmarish occupation that would last more than five years. In Poland, the Nazis had more time than in any other occupied country to implement their policies against people they classified as "racially inferior."
The task of implementing Hitler's plan fell to Hans Frank, a 39-year-old lawyer, Nazi Party member and brutal champion of the Nazis' vision of racial purity. Frank was named "Governor-General" of a large chunk of Poland, an area of about 95,000 square kilometers (36,680sq mi), with approximately 10 million inhabitants. This was the western part of Poland that had been annexed by the German Reich, while the eastern half of the country was occupied by the Red Army in accordance with the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the 1939 non-aggression treaty between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
War Crimes Committed from the Outset
Frank was unashamedly proud of his ruthless regime, which contrasted with the comparatively lenient system of rule in the "Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia," as the Nazis called the majority ethnic-Czech region they had occupied. In 1940, Frank told a reporter for the Völkische Beobachter newspaper: "In Prague, for example, large red posters were hung up announcing that seven Czechs had been executed that day." That had made him think: "If I had to hang up a poster every time we shot seven Poles, we'd have to cut down all the Polish forests, and we still wouldn't be able to produce enough paper for all the posters I'd need."
German soldiers committed war crimes in Poland from the very outset. One soldier in the 41st infantry division noted, "Polish civilians and soldiers are dragged out everywhere. When we finish our operation, the entire village is on fire. Nobody is left alive, also all the dogs were shot."
Wehrmacht soldiers without battle experience thought they saw snipers everywhere, and ended up firing at anything that moved -- often their own comrades. And if Polish soldiers merely shot at them, the Germans took revenge by setting entire villages ablaze or taking hostages and executing them.
Following a gun battle by Ciepielow, Colonel Walter Wessel of the 29th motorized infantry division had 300 captured Polish soldiers stripped of their uniform jackets and then shot as partisans.
Although Jews weren't persecuted systematically during the "Polish campaign," the anti-Semitism of the German troops surfaced time and again. The war diary of one machine gun battalion noted, "All the male inhabitants are standing under guard in a large square. The only exceptions are the Jews, who are not standing, but have been made to kneel and pray constantly."
On the very day the last Polish soldiers gave themselves up, Hitler gave a speech to the German parliament, the Reichstag, promising to "reorganize the ethnographic conditions" in Europe. Hitler appointed SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler to carry out this project, whereupon Himmler was named Reich Commissioner for the Consolidation of German Nationhood.
Plan for German Colonization up to the Urals
Himmler had his staff draw up an Eastern General Plan, a blueprint for the German colonization of all areas up to the Urals. After all, as Joseph Goebbels claimed, eastern Europe had always been Germany's "destiny." The propaganda minister predicted, "Tough peasant races will stand guard in the East." SS leader Reinhard Heydrich said German settlers would act as a bulwark against the "raging tides of Asia."
He wanted the annexed parts of western Poland to be "depolonized" and "germanized" as quickly as possible. To this end, some eight million Jews and Poles were to be moved into the General Government, the area of Poland under Nazi military control. Their places were to be taken by ethnic Germans "repatriated" from around the Baltic and from Volhynia and Galicia in western Ukraine.
An employee at the German Foreign Institute explained: "If, for example, a train-load of immigrants from the Baltic region contains 20 German master bakers, 20 Polish bakeries must be evacuated in Posen [Posnan] and the rest of the Warthegau [an administrative region of Poland]."
The people deported to the General Government were only permitted to carry one suitcase each, as well as "one blanket per Pole." Beds had to be left behind. Securities and valuables could not be taken -- "wedding rings excepted."
Himmler ordered all those living in the annexed eastern zones to be classified by race. The list of alleged "Germanic peoples" divided ethnic Germans into four groups. These ranged from those who identified themselves as German and were thus naturalized immediately, to Poles considered "capable of germanization," who were deported for so-called "training" in the Altreich (Old Empire), as the Nazis called the area under German control before 1939. Such Poles were thus given German citizenship on a probationary basis.
A Nation of Slaves
The Nazis' aim was to transform the Poles into a nation of slaves. In May 1940 Himmler wrote that "the non-German peoples of the East may not receive any education beyond four-year elementary school." Their educational goal was to be as follows: "The ability to do simple sums no higher than 500, write their name, and understand that it is their divine duty to obey Germans, be honest, diligent and well-behaved." The SS Reichsführer did not consider reading an essential element of the Polish curriculum.
In October 1940 Hitler ordered "all members of the Polish intelligentsia" to be killed. SS leader Heydrich therefore instructed the heads of the security police task forces to ensure that the remaining members of the Polish "political leadership" be "rendered harmless and placed in a concentration camp." He also saw to it that lists of "teachers, clergymen, noblemen, legionaries, returning officers, etc." were drawn up immediately.
Poland's new masters were interested not only in landowners but more specifically in the influential Catholic clergy. German soldiers murdered 214 priests in the West Prussian diocese of Kulm-Pelplin alone. Elsewhere in West Prussia, Protestant ethnic Germans sawed off Catholic crucifixes and demolished statues of the Virgin Mary. Some 60,000 Poles fell victim to the Nazis' campaign against the intelligentsia.
In the fall of 1939, occupied Poland became a nightmare of often spontaneous and wanton terror. For instance, the head of Radom district threatened the death penalty for anyone caught felling trees in the forest for use as firewood. Throughout the country, the SS and the police slaughtered all those they considered to be Polish nationalists. The race-based expulsions and resettlement carried out by Himmler's henchmen sowed fear, unrest and chaos.
Creation of Jewish Ghettos
But the Jews would soon be the main focus of the Nazis' attention. Poland's Jews were forced to wear white armbands with a blue Star of David almost two years before Jews in the Altreich were made to sew yellow stars on their clothes. As early as September 21, 1939, Heydrich decreed that "the Jewry" in the areas under his control were to be "concentrated in ghettos for easier control and subsequent expulsion."
The occupiers set up the first major ghetto in Lodz, which they renamed Litzmannstadt, in the "Reich District of Wartheland" (also known as the Warthegau), where 3.7 million Poles and 400,000 Jews were resettled for "germanization." In late April 1940, regional governor Friedrich Uebelhoer had 144,000 Jews corralled into an area of just 4 square kilometers (1 sq mi). As a result, the people in Lodz ghetto had to live six to a room on average.
In mid-November 1940, the Nazis set up the Warsaw ghetto, into which they packed at least half a million people. Very soon, more that 5,000 people a month were dying of hunger, typhoid and other infectious diseases in this "Jewish reservation."
In his novel "Kaputt," Italian author Curzio Malaparte reported that Governor-General Frank had pointed out the high wall of the ghetto to him, saying, "Those poor Jews all have lung disease, but at least this wall protects them from the wind."
The creation of Lviv ghetto in late 1941 more-or-less completed the imprisonment of Poland's Jews, who could now be given "special treatment," as their systematic annihilation was officially termed.
"The Jewish problem must be solved during the war because this is the only way it can be completed without a general global hullabaloo," wrote Franz Rademacher, the diplomat who headed the "Jewish department" of the German foreign ministry. Although no written order has ever been found in which Hitler ordered the "final solution of the Jewish problem," there is much evidence to suggest that the Fuhrer decided to wipe out the European Jewry in the fall of 1941.
'We Have to Destroy the Jews Wherever We Find Them'
In mid-December of that year, Governor-General Frank told his cabinet in Krakow that he had asked Berlin what was going to be done with the Jews. The reply had allegedly been: "Liquidate them yourself." Frank therefore announced, "Gentlemen, I would ask you to steel yourself against any thoughts of compassion. We have to destroy the Jews wherever we find them."
Measures were quickly put into place to carry out this genocide. The SS had the first extermination camp built in Chelmno near Lodz in November 1941. To this they had added the slaughterhouses of Auschwitz, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka and Majdanek by the summer of 1942. The lack of technology for large-scale killing initially proved the biggest problem. At first the SS locked Jews in sealed trucks and poisoned them with exhaust fumes, but that wasn't considered quick enough.
SS researchers eventually hit upon a more satisfactory procedure whereby Soviet prisoners-of-war and Poles in Auschwitz were poisoned using the pesticide Zyklon B, which contains cyanide. In this way, the SS murdered more than a million people at the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp alone. Rings, coins and tooth fillings from the victims were melted down, enabling Himmler's men to send a phenomenal 33 metric tons of gold to the Reichsbank in Berlin.
Some Poles considered the mass murder of the Jews "a strange stroke of luck of divine providence." One Catholic priest said, "Setting aside all the injustices the Germans have committed and continue to commit in our country, this is a good start that shows us a way in which the Polish people can liberate themselves from the Jewish scourge, a solution that should be pursued by the Poles themselves, albeit naturally in a less cruel manner, when they are eventually liberated."
Nevertheless, sympathy and solidarity with the Jews were more widespread in Poland than anti-Semitism. Tens of thousands of Jews in the General Government survived the occupation, most of them hidden by fellow Poles, even though the Nazis typically shot all the members of any family found to be harboring Jews.
Even minor offenses led to Poles being sent to Germany as forced laborers. In this way, more than two million people were enslaved.
Resistance Groups in the Forests
From the very beginning, the Nazis' policy toward occupied Poland was beset by an intractable contradiction: You can't destroy what you want to exploit. This dilemma became all too clear after Himmler ordered the city of Lublin and Zamosc district in southeastern Poland to be made a German "settlement area" within the General Government.
In November 1942, police officers began brutally evacuating more than 100,000 Polish farmers to make way for 20,000 ethnic Germans. Those fit for work were sent to Germany as slave laborers, old people and children were resettled in so-called "retirement villages," while anyone deemed "inferior" or "unreliable" was deported to Auschwitz.
The Poles fled the police, hiding in the forests, and forming resistance groups that made the General Government unsafe for Germans. The more unbearable the suppression and slaughter by the Nazis became, the more determined the Poles became to die in battle rather than hoping to escape their fate.
The defeat of the Wehrmacht forces besieging the Russian city of Stalingrad in January 1943 lifted the hopes of resistance fighters across Poland. On April 20, 1943, Governor-General Frank complained to the German head of chancellery: "The murder of Germans is increasing to an alarming degree. Trains are being attacked, and transport routes are being made unsafe."
Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
The day before, posters had appeared on the walls of the Warsaw ghetto: "Brothers, the time has come to fight and take revenge on our occupiers. If you can bear arms, come and join our fighters! The elderly and women can provide support. Arm yourselves!" Unfortunately, weapons were in short supply. Only about a tenth of the approximately 1,200 insurgents had a gun, yet they soon found themselves up against almost 2,000 heavily-armed police officers and SS men.
The Germans even used flame-throwers on the Jewish resistance fighters. For a month, insurgents waged a desperate guerrilla war on their occupiers. Several thousand Jews were executed immediately. About 50,000 more died in the Treblinka gas chambers. On May 16, 1943, Jürgen Stroop, the SS officer in charge of Warsaw district, reported: "The former Jewish residential district of Warsaw no longer exists."
The Nazis answered stiffer resistance with yet more brutality. Between October 1943 and July 1944, a total of 2,705 Poles were publicly executed in Warsaw. Another 4,000 were killed in secret.
Nevertheless, Governor-General Frank realized that the Germans were at a numeric disadvantage and could not keep the Poles under their thumb indefinitely. He conceded that "this negative, disapproving, destructive approach is now almost impossible to maintain." Frank therefore believed the Poles should be given the prospect of an improved standard of living through a more pragmatic cultural policy and better nutrition.
In a letter to Hitler, Frank raise doubts about the closing of schools as well as the mass arrests and executions by the German police. Referring to the Soviet massacre of more than 20,000 Polish officers and other professionals and academics in Katyn in 1940, Frank proposed the Poles be "actively involved in the defense against Bolshevism." However Hitler refused to entertain any such notion, preferring ruthless brute force instead. In January 1944 loyal, obedient Frank therefore issued an order that a hundred Poles were to be executed for every German killed.
Another occupation-era tragedy occurred on August 1 that summer, when the Armia Krajowa -- the home guard of the Polish government-in-exile -- staged an armed uprising in an attempt to recapture Warsaw ahead of the arrival of the Red Army. Emboldened by the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler on July 20 and the successful "D-Day" landing of Allied forces in Normandy on June 6, Polish patriots believed they could force the Germans to withdraw from Warsaw.
The insurgents managed to liberate the half of Warsaw west of the River Vistula, but the occupiers struck back with brutal might. Although the Soviets had already reached the eastern banks of the Vistula, they wanted to secure their positions before pressing on.
'A Nation of Such Courage is Immortal'
Himmler, whom Hitler had tasked with quelling the rebellion, had the SS shoot civilians at random until ammunition began running low. The Germans then launched an offensive in which nearly 40,000 men were sent after the rebels holed up in the old town. Bitter house-to-house fighting ensued, but the insurgents lacked experience, weapons and ammunition.
More than 150,000 people died in the battle for the city. Before they eventually capitulated after 63 days, the Polish home guard sent out one last radio message from Warsaw: "A nation of such courage is immortal."
When the Red Army finally began putting an end to the Nazis' horrific occupation of Poland, the country had turned into a gigantic cemetery. Of the 35 million people who had lived in Poland at the start of the War, six million had perished -- almost 18 percent of the population.
Red Army soldiers entered Krakow, the capital of the General Government, on January 17, 1945.
Frank's official diary contains the following entry for that day: "The Governor-General left Krakow castle in a motorcade in splendid winter weather and brilliant sunshine." On the journey back to his native Bavaria, Frank and three of his staff burnt most of the official files they had taken with them.
After the War, Frank was brought before the Nuremberg Trials, accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. In a moment of enlightenment he admitted, "In a thousand years, people will still be blaming Germany."
But in his closing remarks, Frank complained about the "most horrific mass crimes" allegedly committed against Germans in the East, acts which he said "easily match any guilt on our part."
Frank was found guilty, and sent to the gallows.
Editor's note: This story originates from the "Germans in the East" issue of SPIEGEL's quarterly history magazine, DER SPIEGEL GESCHICHTE, which was published earlier this year. A second feature, " A Time of Retribution: Paying with Life and Limb for the Crimes of Nazi Germany," has also been posted in English.
Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2011
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH