The invasion of Poland (1 September – 6 October 1939), also known as the September campaign (Polish: kampania wrześniowa), 1939 defensive war (Polish: wojna obronna 1939 roku) and Poland campaign (German: Überfall auf Polen, Polenfeldzug), was a joint attack on the Republic of Poland by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union which marked the beginning of World War II. The German invasion began on 1 September 1939, one week after the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and the Soviet Union, and one day after the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union had approved the pact. The Soviets invaded Poland on 17 September. The campaign ended on 6 October with Germany and the Soviet Union dividing and annexing the whole of Poland under the terms of the German–Soviet Frontier Treaty.
German forces invaded Poland from the north, south, and west the morning after the Gleiwitz incident. Slovak military forces advanced alongside the Germans in northern Slovakia. As the Wehrmacht advanced, Polish forces withdrew from their forward bases of operation close to the Germany–Poland border to more established defense lines to the east. After the mid-September Polish defeat in the Battle of the Bzura, the Germans gained an undisputed advantage. Polish forces then withdrew to the southeast where they prepared for a long defence of the Romanian Bridgehead and awaited expected support and relief from France and the United Kingdom. On 3 September, based on their alliance agreements with Poland, the United Kingdom and France declared war on Germany; in the end their aid to Poland was very limited. France invaded a small part of Germany in the Saar Offensive, and the Polish army was effectively defeated even before the British Expeditionary Force could be transported to Europe, with the bulk of the BEF in France by the end of September.
On 17 September, the Soviet Red Army invaded Eastern Poland, the territory beyond the Curzon Line that fell into the Soviet „sphere of influence” according to the secret protocol of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact; this rendered the Polish plan of defence obsolete. Facing a second front, the Polish government concluded the defence of the Romanian Bridgehead was no longer feasible and ordered an emergency evacuation of all troops to neutral Romania. On 6 October, following the Polish defeat at the Battle of Kock, German and Soviet forces gained full control over Poland. The success of the invasion marked the end of the Second Polish Republic, though Poland never formally surrendered.
On 8 October, after an initial period of military administration, Germany directly annexed western Poland and the former Free City of Danzig and placed the remaining block of territory under the administration of the newly established General Government. The Soviet Union incorporated its newly acquired areas into its constituent Byelorussian and Ukrainian republics, and immediately started a campaign of Sovietization. In the aftermath of the invasion, a collective of underground resistance organizations formed the Polish Underground State within the territory of the former Polish state. Many of the military exiles who escaped Poland joined the Polish Armed Forces in the West, an armed force loyal to the Polish government-in-exile.
On 30 January 1933, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, under its leader Adolf Hitler, came to power in Germany. While some dissident elements within the Weimar Republic had long sought to annex territories belonging to Poland, it was Hitler’s own idea and not a realization of any pre-1933 Weimar plans to invade and partition Poland, annex Bohemia and Austria, and create satellite or puppet states economically subordinate to Germany. As part of this long-term policy, Hitler at first pursued a policy of rapprochement with Poland, trying to improve opinion in Germany, culminating in the German–Polish Non-Aggression Pact of 1934. Earlier, Hitler’s foreign policy worked to weaken ties between Poland and France and attempted to manoeuvre Poland into the Anti-Comintern Pact, forming a cooperative front against the Soviet Union. Poland would be granted territory to its northeast in Ukraine and Belarus if it agreed to wage war against the Soviet Union, but the concessions the Poles were expected to make meant that their homeland would become largely dependent on Germany, functioning as little more than a client state. The Poles feared that their independence would eventually be threatened altogether; historically Hitler had already denounced the right of Poland to independence in 1930, writing that Poles and Czechs were a „rabble not worth a penny more than the inhabitants of Sudan or India. How can they demand the rights of independent states?”
The population of the Free City of Danzig was strongly in favour of annexation by Germany, as were many of the ethnic German inhabitants of the Polish territory that separated the German exclave of East Prussia from the rest of the Reich. The Polish Corridor constituted land long disputed by Poland and Germany, and was inhabited by a Polish majority. The Corridor had become a part of Poland after the Treaty of Versailles. Many Germans also wanted the urban port city of Danzig and its environs (comprising the Free City of Danzig) to be reincorporated into Germany. Danzig city had a German majority, and had been separated from Germany after Versailles and made into the nominally independent Free City. Hitler sought to use this as casus belli, a reason for war, reverse the post-1918 territorial losses, and on many occasions had appealed to German nationalism, promising to „liberate” the German minority still in the Corridor, as well as Danzig.
Events leading to World War II
The invasion was referred to by Germany as the 1939 Defensive War (Verteidigungskrieg) since Hitler proclaimed that Poland had attacked Germany and that „Germans in Poland are persecuted with a bloody terror and are driven from their homes. The series of border violations, which are unbearable to a great power, prove that the Poles no longer are willing to respect the German frontier.”
Poland participated with Germany in the partition of Czechoslovakia that followed the Munich Agreement, although they were not part of the agreement. It coerced Czechoslovakia to surrender the region of Český Těšín by issuing an ultimatum to that effect on 30 September 1938, which was accepted by Czechoslovakia on 1 October. This region had a Polish majority and had been disputed between Czechoslovakia and Poland in the aftermath of World War I. The Polish annexation of Slovak territory (several villages in the regions of Čadca, Orava and Spiš) later served as the justification for the Slovak state to join the German invasion.
By 1937, Germany began to increase its demands for Danzig, while proposing that an extraterritorial roadway, part of the Reichsautobahn system, be built in order to connect East Prussia with Germany proper, running through the Polish Corridor. Poland rejected this proposal, fearing that after accepting these demands, it would become increasingly subject to the will of Germany and eventually lose its independence as the Czechs had. Polish leaders also distrusted Hitler. The British were also wary of Germany’s increasing strength and assertiveness threatening its balance of power strategy. On 31 March 1939, Poland formed a military alliance with the United Kingdom and with France, believing that Polish independence and territorial integrity would be defended with their support if it were to be threatened by Germany. On the other hand, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, still hoped to strike a deal with Hitler regarding Danzig (and possibly the Polish Corridor). Chamberlain and his supporters believed war could be avoided and hoped Germany would agree to leave the rest of Poland alone. German hegemony over Central Europe was also at stake. In private, Hitler said in May that Danzig was not the important issue to him, but pursuit of Lebensraum for Germany.