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Holocaust1st September 1939

Einsatzgruppen operate in Poland

Polish civilians shelter from a German attack
Polish civilians shelter from a German attack

The German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 was not only a crucial event because it led – two days later – to the outbreak of the war. It was also the point at which the practical consequences of the Nazis’ racist vision became widely apparent. As Professor Richard Evans says: ‘It’s too often forgotten, I think, that Hitler’s racial policies didn’t start in 1941 with the invasion of the Soviet Union, they 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.’

Five (eventually six) Einsatzgruppen (task forces) of around 3,000 security police (including many SS and SD personnel) entered Poland in the first days of the invasion. Their task was to identify and deal with ‘enemies of the state’. This was a category that included the ‘leadership class’ in Poland – prominent Jewish figures, priests, politicians – anyone in fact the Nazis considered any kind of threat to their rule. Reinhard Heydrich, head of the SD (the security force within the SS) played a crucial role in coordinating the work of the Einsatzgruppen – as he was later to do during the early months of the invasion of the Soviet Union when Einsatzgruppen also operated behind the front line.

The leaders of the Einsatzgruppen were permitted considerable latitude in how they carried out their work. But the way to curry favour with their superiors was always to be more brutal still. After all, Hitler had said to his Generals just before the war began, in a speech on 22 August 1939, that they should ‘close their hearts to pity’ and ‘act brutally’.i  And many Germans in Poland followed those instructions. By the following year the Nazis killed an estimated 60,000 of these internal ‘enemies’ in Poland.ii

Especially in the first weeks of the invasion, the killings in Poland had a chaotic fervor to them that suggested the unleashing of pent up hatred (that was certainly the case with many of the ethnic Germans living in Poland, who had felt mistreated by the Poles, and who now proceeded to wreak revenge).   

‘An awful lot is written about what happened after the invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 in terms of Einsatzgruppen going in and atrocities being committed against civilians,’ says Professor Mary Fulbrook. ‘But that was happening already in September 1939. If you take just the first week of the war and you look at eastern Upper Silesia you get burnings of synagogues with people inside the synagogues dying in the flames. I think when you look at the first four or five weeks of the war where the Einsatzgruppen in Poland are actually committing atrocities, I think it’s on a scale that we haven’t yet adequately registered. The secondary literature has not really picked up on the latest research on that. At Będzin on the 8th of September 1939 we’re talking about several hundred civilians being burnt alive or shot while they were trying to escape, or jumping into the river to put the flames out and being shot as they popped their heads out of the water for air. This is a massive atrocity and it’s the kind of thing that you get in the early summer of 1941 just after the invasion of the Soviet Union.’

There were protests from some army commanders about what the Einsatzgruppen were doing, and several meetings between the army leadership and Heydrich were held. But it was always clear where Hitler’s sympathies lay. When Colonel-General Johannes Blaskowitz complained about the killings, Hitler’s reaction, according to Major Engel, his army adjutant, was to say that ‘one can’t fight a war with Salvation Army methods’ and to accuse the Colonel-General of having ‘childish attitudes’.iii

As a result of Nazi policies, Poland became the scene of immense ethnic cleansing. Ethnic Germans from territory like the Baltic States arrived to be rehoused in property snatched from the Poles, who were, in turn, forcibly deported to the south east of Poland to the area the Nazis now called the ‘General Government’. The General Government was imagined as a kind of dumping ground for people no longer wanted in the areas of Poland – like Danzig, West Prussia – which were to be ‘Germanized’.

Hitler had told his Gauleiters that ‘they had ten years to tell him that Germanization of their provinces was complete and he would ask no questions about their methods.’iv  This type of order, coupled with the knowledge that Hitler wanted the Germans who entered Poland to ‘act brutally’, brought predictable results.

As for the two million Polish Jews who now fell into German hands, they were – as could have been expected from Nazi ideology – treated worst of all. Thousands were killed by the Einsatzgruppen and many more were forced into ghettos – with the policy of ghettoization of the Polish Jews ubiquitous by the end of 1940. There was, as yet, no mass extermination of the Jews in operation, but it was clear from the first that the Jews were a particular target of the Nazis. 

What was also clear, within weeks of the invasion of Poland, was that the Nazis were committing war crimes on a massive scale. The German army knew this, and though some officers protested, there was never any attempt to rise up against the regime. Now, compromised by their passivity in the Polish campaign, the German army would actively participate in the war crimes that would be committed in the war against the Soviet Union, beginning in June 1941.


i Quoted in Laurence Rees, The Nazis: A Warning from History, BBC Books, 2005, p. 108
ii Ian Kershaw, Hitler, 1936-1945: Nemesis, Allen Lane, 2000, p. 241
iii Quoted in Rees, The Nazis, pp. 116-117
iv Ibid.,  p. 112