We have detected that you are using an older version of Internet Explorer and to have access to all the features on this site, you will need to update your browser to Internet Explorer 8. Alternatively, download Mozilla Firefox or Chrome.

The Invasion of Poland

LAURENCE REES: Of course by that stage they’ve pursued the occupation of Poland. To what extent was that occupation driven by ideological considerations?

RICHARD EVANS: It’s too often forgotten, I think, that Hitler’s racial policies didn’t start in 1941 with the invasion of the Soviet Union, it started in September 1939 with the invasion of Poland and from the very outset this was an ideological war. The aim was to subjugate the Polish people, to ghettoize the Jews, to eradicate Polish national identity and to destroy Polish culture and this happened from the word go. Within a few weeks the SS had massacred Poles in large numbers and they were being dispossessed. Whole sets of institutions were set up to take Polish property away from them, they were thrown out of their farms and their businesses were all taken over by the Germans. They were drafted in their hundreds of thousands into forced labour in Germany over the next couple of years. Polish artworks and museums are ransacked. They began to bring in ethnic Germans from the Soviet Union under the Nazi-Soviet agreement, and thousands and thousands of ethnic Germans in the Soviet Union thought it would be better to be under German rule than Soviet rule, not surprisingly given Stalin’s ethnic policies.

So there was the destruction of Polish culture and the ideological eradication of Polish national identity and within this the very large Jewish minority in Poland was also dispossessed, but treated even more harshly than the Poles and put into ghettos, eventually concentrated in the main towns under conditions of unspeakable inhumanity and deprivation.

LAURENCE REES: And why did the Nazis treat Poland so differently from France?

RICHARD EVANS: The Nazis believed that the Poles, the Slavs, were racially inferior. They were sub humans, and to that extent they didn’t really think that the French were that inferior; they had more respect. A lot of senior army officers for example spoke French and had been to France, there was this idea that France in some ways was part of European civilisation whereas Hitler lumped the Poles together with the Ukrainians and the Russians as being absolutely racially inferior. Curiously with the Czechs he had a rather more ambivalent attitude and that was partly for historical reasons because the Czechs had been part of the Habsburg Empire and had their own particular long traditions, but also for more immediate reasons because the Czechs had simply given in. When he first saw the Munich Agreement and then invaded their country the Poles resisted from the outset and Hitler was very angry that the Poles dug their heels in and refused to make any agreements to deal with him at all, so there was an element of revenge about his treatment of Poles.

LAURENCE REES: Of course, there’s no way this occupation could possibly have happened in the way it did if this was simply one man’s view - many Germans must have shared these beliefs.

RICHARD EVANS: There’s a very long term, deep rooted, contempt for the Poles amongst the Germans which goes back as far as the eighteenth century when Prussia gobbled up a large part of Poland. It’s equivalent to the way to the way that the Victorian English thought about the Irish: they were dirty, they were backward, they were catholic, they were disorganised and they couldn’t run their own affairs. There’s a German word for a Polish way of doing things, which just means a mess and a muddle, so there was a long term contempt and you find this even amongst the working classes and in the social democratic movement before the First World War - you find a contempt for Poles, Slavs and Russians. They’re seen as being very backward, not part of European civilisation. The same does not really apply to the Czechs and it certainly doesn’t apply to the French or the Danes or the Dutch.

LAURENCE REES: Is that sufficient to explain the immediate unleashing of brutal atrocities in Poland, or is it that Nazi ideology was grafted onto this more general feeling?

RICHARD EVANS: It’s both; I think that it is a Nazi ideology that’s grafted on so that the dispossession, maltreatment and eviction of the Poles is something that is planned and ordered by Hitler before the war begins. But if you look at the behaviour of the German troops when they come into Poland you find them looting Polish shops, shooting up main streets, going into palaces and ransacking them, there’s a sense of having an absolute free for all. There certainly is looting and theft in the German invasion of France, and other parts of Europe, but its much more widespread and more extreme in Poland.

LAURENCE REES: Of course in Poland there were some officers who complained to Hitler about the terrible mistreatment of the Poles. Why are these people protesting? Is it just that they’re naturally better people?

RICHARD EVANS: The officers who protest against the treatment of partly the Poles but particularly the Jews - with mass shootings already going on and the widespread looting, theft and disorder - tend to be older officers whose views have been formed before the Nazis came to power and they see it as a violation of the laws of war, that the opposing side when defeated should be treated honourably. They see it as a source of indiscipline among the troops, so what they really object to is the troops running wild in Polish towns and doing whatever they like, committing all kinds of crimes tolerated by the younger officers who are much more Nazified than the older ones. Interestingly this doesn’t happen with the invasion of the Soviet Union, because you have the additional factor there of Bolshevism, and all the older officers are rabidly anti-Communist with virtually no exceptions, so that they see this kind of treatment of the Soviet citizens as being much more tolerable than that of the Poles.