Targeting Poland | Facing History & Ourselves

Targeting Poland

Get insight into the German public opinion on Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939 with these primary source excerpts.
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At a Glance

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English — US


  • History
  • The Holocaust

On August 31, 1939, the Nazis faked an attack on a radio station in Gleiwitz, a German town on the Polish border. The Gestapo kidnapped and killed a man, dressed him in a Polish military uniform, and left his body at the station to create the impression that Poland was behind the attack. 1  The next morning, the Germans marched into Poland in retaliation for the Polish “attack on Gleiwitz.” That evening, relatives and neighbors gathered around the radio in the home of Max von der Grün’s grandparents as Hitler declared war.

No one cheered . . . not even my aunt who had always cheered for Hitler; no one cried “Heil!” or turned somersaults with joy. . . . No one spoke. . . .

My grandfather wept. I could scarcely believe that I was seeing this old, worn-out man crying. No one asked him why he was crying. . . .

No one displayed any enthusiasm. Not in school, not on the streets, not in the shops, not even among the Hitler Youth. No one dared to look anyone else in the face for fear that he might be asked what he thought about the war.

Of course, not everyone felt this way. A few of the boys in my class . . . regretted that they were not older, for then they could have volunteered to join the Army; meanwhile I consoled myself with the thought that the war would be over by the time I got out of school. . . . Three days after Hitler attacked Poland, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. 2

Journalist William Shirer observed a similar reaction in Berlin on September 3, 1939: 

In 1914, I believe, the excitement in Berlin on the first day of the World War was tremendous. Today, no excitement, no hurrahs, no cheering, no throwing of flowers, no war fever, no war hysteria. There is not even any hate for the French and British—despite Hitler’s various proclamations . . . accusing the “English warmongers and capitalistic Jews” of starting this war. 3

Connection Questions

  1. How do you account for the reactions in Max von der Grün’s village to news of Germany’s invasion of Poland?
  2. In what ways do Max von der Grün’s and William Shirer’s accounts of the outbreak of the war differ? How does the response of German people to this outbreak of war differ from the response at the beginning of World War I described in Chapter 3 (see reading, War Fever in Vienna)?
  • 1Doris L. Bergen, War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust, 3rd ed. (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), 130.
  • 2Max von der Grün, Howl Like the Wolves: Growing Up in Nazi Germany (New York: William Morrow, 1980), 173–74.
  • 3William L. Shirer, Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934–1941 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 201. Reproduced by permission of Don Congdon Associates, Inc.

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, "Targeting Poland," last updated August 2, 2016.

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