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The Nuremberg Trials: Judgement - The Aggression Against Poland

By March, 1939, the plan to annex Austria and Czechoslovakia, which had been discussed by Hitler at the meeting of the 5th November, 1937, had been accomplished. The time had now come for the German leaders to consider further acts of aggression, made more possible of attainment because of that accomplishment.

On the 23rd May, 1939, a meeting was held in Hitler's study in the new Reich Chancellery in Berlin. Hitler announced his decision to attack Poland and gave his reasons, and discussed the effect the decision might have on other countries. In point of time, this was the second of the important meetings ,to which reference has already been made, and in order to appreciate the full significance of what was said and done, it is necessary to state shortly some of the main events in the history of German-Polish relations.

As long ago as the year 1925 an Arbitration Treaty between Germany and Poland had been made at Locarno, providing for the settlement of all disputes between the two countries. On the 26th January, 1934, a German-Polish declaration of non-aggression was made. signed on behalf of the German Government by the defendant von Neurath. On the 30th January, 1934, and again on the 30th January, 1937, Hitler made speeches in the Reichstag in which he expressed his view that Poland and Germany could work together in harmony and peace. On the 2h February, 1938, Hitler made a third speech in the Reichstag in the course of which he said with regard to Poland:

" And so the way to a friendly understanding has been successfully paved, an understanding which, beginning with Danzig, has today, in spite of the attempts of certain mischief makers succeeded in finally taking the poison out of the relations between Germany and Poland and transforming them into a sincere, friendly cooperation. Relying on her friendships, Germany will not leave a stone unturned to save that ideal which provides the foundation for the task which is ahead of us peace."

On the 26th September, 1938, in the middle of the crisis over the Sudetenland, Hitler made the speech in Berlin which has already been quoted, and announced that he had informed the British Prime Minister that when the Czechoslovakian problem has been solved there would be no more territorial problems for Germany in Europe. Nevertheless, on the 24th November of the same year, an OKW directive was issued to the German armed forces to make preparations for an attack upon Danzig; it stated:

"The Feuhrer has ordered:

(1) Preparations are also to be made to enable the Free State of Danzig to be occupied by German troops by surprise."

In spite of having ordered military preparatians for the occupation of Danzig, Hitler, on the 30th January, 1939, said in a speech in the Reichstag:

"During the troubled months of the past year, the friendship between Germany and Poland has been one of the most reassuring factors in the political life of Europe."

Five days previously, on the 25th January, 1939, Ribbentrop said in the course of a speech in Warsaw:

"Thus Poland and Germany can look forward to the future with full confidence in the solid basis of their mutual relations."

Following the occupation of Bohemia and Moravia by Germany on the 15th March, 1939, which was a flagrant breach of the Munich Agreement, Great Britain gave an assurance to Poland on the 31st March, 1939, that in the event of any action which clearly threatened Polish independence, and which the Polish Government accordingly considered it vital to resist with their national forces, Great Britain would feel itself bound at once to lend Poland all the support in its power. The French Government took the same stand. It is interesting to note in this connection, that one of the arguments frequently presented by the defence in the present case is that the defendants were influenced to think that their conduct was not in breach of international law by the acquiescence of other Powers. The declarations of Great Britain and France showed, at least, that this view could be held no longer.

On the 3rd April, 1939, a revised OKW directive was issued to the armed forces, which after referring to the question of Danzig made reference to Fall Weiss (the military code name for the German invasion of Poland) and stated:

"The Fuehrer had added the following directions to Fall Weiss:

(1) Preparations must be made in such a way that the operation can be carried out at any time from the 1st September, 1939, onwards.

(2) The High Command of the Armed Forces has been directed to draw up a precise timetable for Fall Weiss and to arrange by conferences the synchronised timings between the three branches of the Armed Forces." On the 11th April, 1939, a further directive was signed by Hitler and issued to the armed forces, and in one of the annexes to that document the words occur:

" Quarrels with Poland should be avoided. Should Poland however adopt a threatening attitude towards Germany, " a final settlement " will be necessary, notwithstanding the pact with Poland. The aim is then to destroy Polish military strength, and to create in the East a situation which satisfies the requirements of defence. The Free State of Danzig will be incorporated into Germany at the outbreak of the conflict at the latest. Policy aims at limiting the war to Poland, and this is considered possible in view of the internal crisis in France, and British restraint as a result of this."

In spite of the contents of these two directives, Hitler made a speech in the Reichstag on the 28th April, 1939, in which, after describing the Polish Government's alleged rejection of an offer he had made with regard to Danzig and the Polish Corridor, he stated:

" I have regretted greatly this incomprehensible attitude of the Polish Government, but that alone is not the decisive fact the worst is that now Poland like Czechoslovakia a year ago believes, under the pressure of a lying international campaign, that it must call up its troops, although Germany on her part has not called up a single man, and had not thought of proceeding in any way against Poland.... The intention to attack on the part of Germany which was merely invented by the international Press"

It was four Weeks after making this speech that Hitler, on the 23rd May, 1939, held the important military conference to which reference has already been made. Among the persons present were the defendants Goering, Raeder and Keitel. The adjutant on duty that day was Lieutenant-Colonel Schmundt, and he made a record of what happened, certifying it with his signature as a correct record.

The purpose of the meeting was to enable Hitler to inform the heads of the armed forces and their staffs of his views on the political situation and his future aims. After analysing the political situation and reviewing the course of events since 1933, Hitler announced his decision to attack Poland. He admitted that the quarrel with Poland over Danzig was not the reason for this attack, but the necessity for Germany to enlarge her living space and secure her food supplies. He said:

"The solution of the problem demands courage. The principle by which one evades solving the problem by adapting oneself to circumstances is inadmissible. Circumstances must rather be adapted to. This is impossible without invasion of foreign states or attacks upon foreign property."

Later in his address he added:

" There is therefore no question of sparing Poland, and we are left with the decision to attack Poland at the first suitable opportunity. We cannot expect a repetition of the Czech affair. There will be war. Our task is to isolate Poland. The success of the isolation will be decisive. . . The isolation of Poland is a matter of skilful politics."

Lt. Col. Schmundt's record of the meeting reveals that Hitler fully realised the possibility of Great Britain and France coming to Poland's assistance. If, therefore, the isolation of Poland could not be achieved, Hitler was of opinion that Germany should attack Great Britain and France first, or at any rate should concentrate primarily on the war in the West, in order to defeat Great Britain and France quickly, or at least to destroy their effectiveness. Nevertheless, Hitler stressed that war with England and France would be a life and death struggle, which might last a long time, and that preparations must be made accordingly.

During the weeks which followed this conference, other meetings were held and directives were issued in preparation for the war. The defendant Ribbentrop was sent to Moscow to negotiate a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union.

On the 22nd August, 1939, there took place the important meeting of that day, to which reference has already been made. The Prosecution have put in evidence two unsigned captured documents which appear to be records made of this meeting by persons who were present. The first document is headed: " The Fuehrer's speech to the Commanders-in-Chief on the 22nd August, 1939 . . . " The purpose of the speech was to announce the decision to make war on Poland at once, and Hitler began by saying:

" It was clear to me that a conflict with Poland had to come sooner or later. I had already made this decision in the Spring, but I thought that I would first turn against the West in a few years, and only afterwards against the East . . . I wanted to establish an acceptable relationship with Poland in order to fight first against the West. But this plan, which was agreeable to me, could not be executed since essential points have changed. It became clear to me that Poland would attack us in case of a conflict with the West."

Hitler then went to to explain why he had decided that the most favourable moment had arrived for starting the war. "Now," said Hitler, " Poland is in the position in which I wanted her . . . I am only afraid that at the last moment some Schweinehund will make a proposal for mediation . . . A beginning has been made for the destruction of England's hegemony."

This document closely resembles one of the documents put in evidence on behalf of the defendant Raeder. This latter document consists of a summary of the same speech, compiled on the day it was made, by one Admiral Boehm, from notes he had taken during the meeting. In substance it says that the moment had arrived to settle the dispute with Poland by military invasion, that although a conflict between Germany and the West was unavoidable in the long run, the likelihood of Great Britain and France coming to Poland's assistance was not great, and that even if a war in the West should come about, the first aim should be the crushing of the Polish military strength. It also contains a statement by Hitler that an appropriate propaganda reason for invading Poland would be given, the truth or falsehood of which was unimportant, since " the Right lies in Victory."

The second unsigned document put in evidence by the Prosecution is headed: " Second Speech by the Fuehrer on the 22nd August, 1939," and it is in the form of notes of the main points made by Hitler. Some of these are as follows:

" Everybody shall have to make a point of it that we were determined from the beginning to fight the Western Powers. Struggle for life or death . . . destruction of Poland in the foreground. The aim is elimination of living forces, not the arrival at a certain line. Even if war should break out in the West, the destruction of Poland shall be the primary objective. I shall give a propagandist cause for starting the war -never mind whether it be plausible or not. The victor shall not be asked later on whether we told the truth or not.

In starting and making a war, not the Right is what matters, but Victory . . . The start will be ordered probably by Saturday morning." (That is to say, the 26th August.)

In spite of it being described as a second speech, there are sufficient points of similarity with the two previously mentioned documents to make it appear very probable that this is an account of the same speech, not as detailed as the other two, but in substance the same.

These three documents establish that the final decision as to the date of Poland's destruction, which had been agreed upon and planned earlier in the year, was reached by Hitler shortly before the 22nd August, 1939 They also show that although he hoped to be able to avoid having to fight Great Britain and France as well, he fully realised there was a risk of this happening, but it was a risk which he was determined to take.

The events of the last days of August confirm this determination. On the 22nd August, 1939, the same day as the speech just referred to the British Prime Minister wrote a letter to Hitler, in which he said:

"Having thus made our position perfectly clear, I wish to repeat to you my conviction that war between our two peoples would be the greatest calamity that could occur."

On the 23rd August Hitler replied:

"The question of the treatment of European problems on a peaceful basis is not a decision which rests with Germany, but primarily on those who since the crime committed by the Versailles Diktat have stubbornly and consistently opposed any peaceful revision. Only after a change of spirit on the part of the responsible Powers can there be any real change in the relationship between England and Germany."

There followed a number of appeals to Hitler to refrain from forcing the Polish issue to the point of war. These were from President Roosevelt on the 24th and 25th August; from His Holiness the Pope on the 24th and 31st August; and from M. Daladier, the Prime Minister of France, on the 26th August. All these appeals fell on deaf ears.

On the 25th August, Great Britain signed a pact of mutual assistance with Poland, which reinforced the understanding she had given to Poland earlier in the year. This coupled with the news of Mussolini's unwillingness to enter the war on Germany's side, made Hitler hesitate for a moment. The invasion of Poland, which was timed to start on the 26th August, was postponed until a further attempt had been made to persuade Great Britain not to intervene. Hitler offered to enter into a comprehensive agreement with Great Britain, once the Polish question had been settled. In reply to this, Great Britain made a counter-suggestion for the settlement of the Polish dispute by negotiation. On the 29th August Hitler informed the British Ambassador that the German Government, though sceptical as to the result, would be prepared to enter into direct negotiations with a Polish emissary, provided he arrived in Berlin with plenipotentiary powers by midnight for the following day, August 30th. The Polish Government were informed of this, but with the example of Schuschnigg and Hacha before them, they decided not to send such an emissary. At midnight on the 30th August the defendant Ribbentrop read to the British Ambassador at top speed a document containing the first precise formulation of the German demands against Poland. He refused, however, to give the Ambassador a copy of this, and stated that in any case it was too late now, since no Polish plenipotentiary had arrived.

In the opinion of the Tribunal, the manner in which these negotiations were conducted by Hitler and Ribbentrop showed that they were not entered into in good faith or with any desire to maintain peace, but solely in the attempt to prevent Great Britain and France from honouring their obligations to Poland.

Parallel with these negotiations were the unsuccessful attempts made by Goering to effect the isolation of Poland by persuading Great Britain not to stand by her pledged word, through the services of one Birger Dahlerus, a Swede. Dahlerus, who was called as a witness by Goering, had a considerable knowledge of England and of things English, and in July, 1939, was anxious to bring about a better understanding between England and Germany, in the hope of preventing a war between the two countries. He got into contact with Goering as well as with official circles in London, and during the latter part of August, Goering used him as an unofficial intermediary to try and deter the British Government from their opposition to Germany's intentions towards Poland. Dahlerus, of course, had no knowledge at the time of the decision which Hitler had secretly announced on the 22nd August, nor of the German military directives for the attack on Poland which were already in existence. As he admitted in his evidence, it was not until the 26th September, after the conquest of Poland was virtually complete, that he first realised that Goering's aim all along had been to get Great Britain's consent to Germany's seizure of Poland.

After all attempts to persuade Germany to agree to a settlement of her dispute with Poland on a reasonable basis had failed, Hitler, on the 31st August, issued his final directive, in which he announced that the attack on Poland would start in the early morning hours of the 1st September, and gave instructions as to what action would be taken if Great Britain and France should enter the war in defence of Poland.

In the opinion of the Tribunal, the events of the days immediately preceding the 1st September, 1939, demonstrate the determination of Hitler and his associates to carry out the declared intention of invading Poland at all costs, despite appeals from every quarter. With the ever increasing evidence before him that this intention would lead to war with Great Britain and France as well, Hitler was resolved not to depart from the course he had set for himself. The Tribunal is fully satisfied by the evidence that the war initiated by Germany against Poland on the 1st September, 1939, was most plainly an aggressive war, which was to develop in due course into a war which embraced almost the whole world, and resulted in the commission of countless crimes, both against the laws and customs of war, and against humanity.

Sources: The Avalon Project