Tuesday, February 11, 2020

How Was Hitler's Invasion of Poland Different Than That of Austria and Czechoslavakia?

One Domino After the Other - Until You Run Out of Dominos

Hitler in Prague worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Hitler looks out over his new conquest of Prague in 1939.
How was the invasion of Poland differently from the almost peaceful occupations of Austria and Czechoslovakia of just months earlier? Why did the German plan to invade Poland result in a world war when the previous two invasins did not? We'll come to a definite answer to that question here.

As everyone familiar with the war knows, Adolf Hitler ran out of luck in Poland. Before that, he skillfully played a game of bluff and intimidation that resulted in virtually costless conquests for his armies. However, Poland turned out to be quite a different matter. Let's compare the German annexations of Austria and Czechoslovakia with his attempt to do the same with Poland.

Hitler in Vienna with Arthur Seyss-Inquart, Heinrich Himmler, and Reinhard Heydrich. worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Adolf Hitler in Vienna with (left to right) Arthur Seyss-Inquart, Heinrich Himmler, and Reinhard Heydrich.

Austria

Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg was no match for Hitler. He met with Hitler in hopes of accommodating the Fuhrer. Instead, Hitler threatened to invade and coerced Schuschnigg into naming supporters of the Third Reich to his cabinet. Austria did not have nearly enough armed forces to resist militarily. The appointees included hard-core Hitler supporter Arthur Seyss-Inquart as Minister of the Interior. This was the beginning of the end of an independent Austria.

Schushnigg pleaded with Great Britain and France for help. Since Austria did not have any defense treaties with other major powers, there was nobody to come to its aid.

Hitler and Austrian leader Schushnigg worldwartwo.filminspector.com
The negotiations between Hitler and Schuschnigg were big news.
Finally, Schushnigg realized his support within the country was slipping, so he called a binding plebiscite regarding annexation for 9 March 1938. Hitler was furious at this attempt to deny him victory. He put all sorts of pressure on him and moved troops to the border. Schuschnigg resigned two days later, on 11 March 1938, and gave a vapid resignation speech in which he advised the country not to resist a German invasion.

That was all that Hitler needed. He accompanied his troops into Austria the very next day, and the Anschluss was officially declared on 13 March 1938. Austria was alone and defenseless and the Allies really didn’t care what happened to it.

Women cheering Hitler in Czechoslovakia worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Czech women and girls cheer the arrival of German troops.

Czechoslavakia

Czechoslovakia was a slightly different matter than Austria, but not by much. Hitler planned an invasion of Czechoslovakia, which he discussed with his generals on 20 May 1938 (Case Green). He also ramped up military production of things like U-boats and battleships to show that he “meant business.” Case Green was planned for 1 October 1938. Perhaps hearing about Hitler’s plans, the Czechs ordered a partial mobilization on 21 May 1938.

The Allies were divided about supporting Czechoslovakia. The Polish ambassador to France, fearing an invasion of his own country, told the French they would not help. Not only that, they might block any attempt by Soviet forces to cross their territory to help the Czechs (unlikely as that was). The French didn’t trust the Poles and thought they might switch sides to join with Germany. There were massive confusion and distrust on the Allied side.

Sudetendeutsches Freikorps paramilitary organization troops worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Ethnic Germans of the Sudetendeutsches Freikorps paramilitary organization in Czechoslovakia that was affiliated with the SS-Totenkopfverbände.
The British acted as a sort of indifferent middleman. They told Czech president Edvard Beneš to work things out with Hitler. Beneš, however, had his own problems. The key defense area facing Germany, the Sudetenland, was populated with a high proportion of ethnic Germans. During World War II, “ethnic Germans” in other nations were often quite loyal to Germany and Hitler. Hitler inflamed their passions with highly questionable tales of supposed “atrocities” against them. These ethnic Germans, no doubt buttressed with actual Germans who simply drove across the border, began organizing demonstrations in support of Hitler and could cause Beneš and his military a lot of problems. A Czech "Freikorps" paramilitary organization, Sudetendeutsches Freikorps, was organized by ethnic Germans to cause trouble. It was similar to ones organized immediately after World War I that Hitler and his cronies remembered vividly.

Hitler meets Chamberlain in Berchtesgaden worldwartwo.filminspector.com
German leader Adolf Hitler greets British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (with Foreign Minister Joachim Ribbentrop on the right) on the steps of "The Berghof," near Berchtesgaden, on September 15, 1938 (Federal Archive Figure 183-H12478).
Hitler continued applying pressure on Beneš. He sent a massive force of troops to the border on “maneuvers” and ramped up the propaganda war. By September, things were beginning to get dicey, so British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain visited Hitler at Berchtesgaden. Hitler made a big speech about the “right of self-determination” of the ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland. Chamberlain was non-committal and flew back to England without any agreements.

Hitler in Prague with SdP founder Konrad Henlein worldwartwo.filminspector.com
SdP founder Konrad Henlein with Adolf Hitler.
Beneš could see what was happening and tried to fight back. He issued an arrest warrant for the Sudetenland leader of the ethnic Germans, Konrad Henlein, who had founded the Sudeten German Party (SdP). However, Henlein was in Germany at the time, so that was an exercise in futility.

Finally, the British and French reached a decision. They told Beneš to just give Hitler the Sudetenland in exchange for military guarantees. Beneš resisted, but Hitler now had what he wanted. He ramped up the agitations of the SdP, which began outright terrorist activities on 17 September 1938. This brought matters to a head, and once again Chamberlain flew to Germany. He told Hitler that he could have the Sudetenland. Poland later chipped in that, since Czechoslovakia was giving away free land, it also wanted the disputed Těšín district.

Hitler shakes Neville Chamberlain's hand in Munich worldwartwo.filminspector.com
A grateful Adolf Hitler shakes the hand of Neville Chamberlain upon the signing of the Munich Pact.
That led directly to the infamous Munich Pact. Realizing that he had been sold out, Beneš agreed on 25 September 1938 to what Chamberlain and Hitler, later joined by France, had decided. Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, French Premier Edouard Daladier, and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain met on 30 September 1938 and signed the Munich Agreement. Beneš, disgusted, resigned on 5 October 1938.

Czech fortifications in the Sudetenland worldwartwo.filminspector.com
The Sudetenland contained massive Czech fortifications that were designed to stop an invasion from Germany. Without those defenses, Czechoslovakia was virtually defenseless.
The Munich Pact gave Czechoslovakia’s entire defense region, with its massive forts and defensive structures, to Hitler. Czechoslovakia then began to break up, with Slovakia breaking off on 14 March 1939 and pledging allegiance to the Third Reich.

Hitler with Emil Hácha worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Hitler talks with Emil Hácha, Edvard Beneš's successor.
Hitler quickly sent troops into the defenseless rump state of Czechoslovakia on 15 March 1939, defying the Allies military guarantees to it, which, as Hitler expected, were not honored.

Pre-war Polish PZL-P-37 planes worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Unlike Austria and Czechoslovakia, Poland was ready, willing, and able to defend itself - or so it thought. Here, pre-war Polish PZL-P-37 planes are lined up.

Poland

The German plans for Poland were not that much different than for Austria and Czechoslovakia. Hitler always had his eyes on the lands of the East for “Lebensraum,” or the natural area of expansion of the Germanic peoples. He thought he might be able to pick Poland off as he did his earlier conquests. However, the Poles, having seen what had happened to Austria and Czechoslovakia, took precautions. On 31 March 1939, it established tight military alliances with France and the United Kingdom.

However, the alliances were only as strong as the will to honor them, and that was quite uncertain. Chamberlain in particular thought he could still make acceptable deals with Hitler. However, Hitler’s appetite had grown and he wanted to fulfill Germany’s manifest destiny as he had outlined it in the 1920s in “Mein Kampf.”

Polish 7TP light tanks in 1939 worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Polish 7TP light tanks in 1939.
As in previous instances, Hitler began planning an invasion. However, he held out hopes until the very end that he could work another deal like the Munich Pact over Poland. On 14 August 1939, he set a date for the invasion of late August (later pushed back to 1 September 1939). He basically disregarded the Allied guarantees to Poland. However, he was very worried about the Soviet reaction. So, he had his Foreign Minister, Joachim Ribbentrop, reach a quick deal with the Soviets where they would also invade Poland after the German invasion and then split it and the Baltic states among them.

Birger Dahlerus worldwartwo.filminspector.com
Birger Dahlerus was an amateur diplomat who practiced shuttle diplomacy between the Reich and Great Britain in the months leading up to World War II.
Hitler negotiated with the British and French right up until the day of the actual invasion and beyond. In fact, as Chamberlain went on the radio on 3 September 1939 and affirmed that Britain would honor its guarantees to Poland and declare war, the Germans’ unofficial emissary, Swedish businessman Birger Dahlerus, was waiting on the phone on hold for him from Germany.

German and Soviet troops at the 22 September 1939 military parade worldwartwo.filminspector.com
German and Soviet troops combined to invade Poland. Here, members of the Wehrmacht converse with Red Army soldiers at the 22 September 1939 joint military parade in Brest-Litovsk, Poland.

Conclusion

I went through all of that to show that the invasion of Poland was different simply because of the attitude of the Allies. That was basically all that changed. The positions of France and Great Britain, and in a sense that of the Soviet Union, was the only difference. They decided to stand up for Poland when they had not lifted a finger to defend either Austria or Czechoslovakia. Sometimes, your fate is not in your own hands, and that was the case for Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland in the late 1930s. That is why World War II began with the invasion of Poland and not with the invasions of Austria and Czechoslovakia.

I also pointed out that Poland’s own position about Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia was quite deferential. In fact, Poland not only accepted it, but Poland even chose to profit from it as well. Not exactly a profile in courage. The Soviet Union later did exactly the same thing regarding Poland. Things are much different when it is not one’s own head on the block, though, that's when you go screaming for help. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

Auschwitz concentration camp worldwartwo.filminspector.com
By not standing up to Hitler earlier, and even trying to profit from his political adventurism, Poland wound up with institutions like this - Auschwitz concentration camp.

2020

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