On the night of August 31st, 1939, the Nazi SS faked a Polish raid on a German radio station at Gleiwitz on the border with Poland. Some prisoners from a concentration camp were killed & their bodies, wearing Polish uniforms, were shown to the press. Announcing that it was responding to this “Polish attack,” at 4:35am the following morning, Germany send troops into Poland, beginning World War II in Europe.

The invasion came after a summer of diplomatic activity which focused on the Soviet Union. When Britain & France promised to guarantee Poland against German aggression in April 1939, they had no plans to give the Poles actual military assistance. They did nothing to reinforce Poland’s defenses, nor did they plan to attack Germany from the west. They did; however, try to draw the Soviet Union into a commitment to defend Poland.

Negotiations between Britian & France & Joseph Stalin’s Soviet regime made slow progress. The British government was reluctant to do a deal with a Communist dictatorship, while the Poles adamantly rejected the idea of allowing Soviet troops into Poland under any circumstances. For his part, Stalin was doubtful of the motives of the Western democracies, suspecting them of wishing to deflect Nazi aggression against the Soviet Union.

Hostility between the Communist Soviet Union & Nazi Germany was such a fixed & apparently deep-rooted aspect of European politics that an alliance between the two seemed unthinkable. Yet they had persuasive shared interests in the short term. Determined to make war on Poland, before the autumn rains set in, Hitler needed to reduce the number of enemies he might have to fight simultaneously. Stalin, for his part, was tempted by the chance to extend his rule westward at the expense of Poland & the Baltic States.

Serious discussion between the Nazi & Soviet regimes began secretly in late July. On August 21st, Joachim Von Ribbentrop, had been invited to Moscow. Two days later an astonished world learned of the signing of a Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. One of its secret terms provided for Germany & the Soviet Union to divide Poland between them.

With the agreement with Stalin in his pocket, Hitler ordered that the long-planned invasion of Poland should begin on August 26th. However, at the last moment, he hesitated. Britian & France assured Germany that they really did intend to go to war if he attacked the Poles – a formal military alliance between Britian & Poland was signed on August 25th.

From World War II: The Definitive Visual History

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