1 September 1939

Motiv 1 von 2Aufnahmedatum: 01.09.1939Systematik: Geschichte / Weltkrieg II / Polen / 1.9.1939 / Einmarsch

The peace was shattered with no warning, in the darkness before the dawn. In a space of minutes, just after 4:40 AM, bombs destroyed three quarters of a little town of Wielun, killing 1200 inhabitants. It was a Guernica at night, but twice as deadly, without a declaration of war, a bitter foretaste of all the death to rain from the sky for the nearly six years after. What started as a fire over a Polish town near Lodz ended with mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the other side of the world.

Closer to five o’clock, an old German navy vessel “Schleswig Holstein”, named after another part of Europe that the Nazi irredentists wanted to reunite in full with the Reich, and on an ostensible courtesy visit to the Free City of Danzig (Gdansk), opened fire on Polish military installations at nearby Westerplatte.

The first salvos of the Second World War were fired. The first wave of Wehrmacht troops, still without a declaration of war, followed around 8 AM, crossing the Polish border from East Prussia in the north, the Reich in the West, and the newly conquered Czechoslovakia in the south.

It was 77 years ago and there are fewer and fewer people who can still remember it. Soon it will be history, and no longer a living memory.

The date 1 September 1939 is widely considered as the start of the Second World War. It’s certainly the most common view, but there are other, not necessarily incorrect, ways of viewing that period in our recent past.

Some see the years between 1914 and 1945 as one great war against the spectre of the German supremacy in Europe, with two decades of uneasy truce in the middle punctuated by outbreaks of low level sporadic violence and bracketed by years of intense slaughter. Others see the Spanish civil war, which started in 1936 and finished a few months before September 1939, as a prelude to, and in many ways the opening salvo of the Second World War, as it presaged many of the world war’s grand themes and in one way or another involved most of its subsequent main participants. Others still castigate us for our Eurocentricity and point out that in Asia a bloody conflict erupted in 1937 with the Japanese invasion of China, which a few years later morphed into the Pacific war with the United States and the Asian war with Great Britain, becoming the other great theatre of WWII, next to Europe (and its subsidiary, the northern Africa). In a somewhat related view, some see both world wars as really European civil wars, which only to a minor extent got played out outside of Europe. This is certainly truer of the First than the Second World War.

Be all that as it may, and these are all interesting perspectives which makes us look from another angle over a familiar territory, 1 September 1939 largely it is. A major war, involving millions of soldiers had broken out in Central Europe, three days later both Great Britain and France declared war on Germany (and for the next few months did largely nothing, not counting dropping propaganda leaflets on Germany. Had they gone on the offensive, as almost everyone assumed their treaties with Poland entailed, they would have most likely defeated Germany, seeing most of her troops were committed in Poland and she had only limited stocks of munitions, which barely lasted the Polish operations alone), and on 17 September the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland in accordance with the secret protocols of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact.

The rest, as they say, is history, and one much more familiar to the Western readers, who largely, and not entirely unsurprisingly, see the war through the prism of the North African campaign and the Western front, and to the lesser extent the tremendous meat-grinder of the German-Soviet death match (or as A N Wilson lyrically calls it, the mechanised Iliad of suffering, which is somewhat unfair and misleading of the Iliad). For Great Britain the war only really started in 1940 with the battle for Norway, the German invasion of the Low Countries and France and the aerial Battle of Britain. For our cousins across the Atlantic pond it did not start until yet another year and a half had passed, by which stage it is said that the Wehrmacht scouts could see through their binoculars the towers of the Kremlin gleaming in the winter sun. But this was as close as they ever got.

Needless to say, chapters like the German (and the Soviet) attack on Poland, and the Soviet-Finnish “winter war” of 1939-40, might be vaguely familiar but largely unknown in any great detail. As the late war historian Sir John Keegan wrote two decades ago in his long lecture on historiography of the Second World War we still don’t have a good English-language book about the Polish-German war, or Fall Weiss (Case White) as it was known to Nazis and Wrzesien (September) as it was known to the Poles.

Consequently, the extent of popular historical knowledge (and that itself is an overstatement considering how little the general population knows about history) is that Germany invaded Poland, the Poles fought bravely but were quickly defeated, the end – until the war in the West in 1940. Oh, and those crazy-brave Polish cavalrymen charged the German tanks. How suicidally romantic but utterly futile; how very Polish.

Except the whole horse charges against German panzer thing is a myth. The origin of the meme actually lies in a German propaganda film, made soon after the fighting was over, largely for the foreign consumption, where a scene of Polish cavalry charging German tanks was staged for the cameras. The purpose of the exercise was to portray the Poles as backward, stupid and primitive, perhaps the European version of colonial “savages” charging imperial machine guns with their spears, a new Omdurman, with the Polish soldiers as Mahdi’s crazed dervishes The expected reaction from the viewers would be something along the lines of: no wonder they (the Poles) lost; maybe the Germans are right about their civilising mission in the East.

This is not to say that the Polish cavalry might not have been occasionally mowed down by armoured fire, but never in a suicidal head-on attack. There simply are no recorded instances of this ever happening, either in contemporary reports or subsequent memoirs and recollections. By 1939 cavalry was really largely a mounted infantry, where horses were used as a convenient means of transport in armies which were still largely unmotorised. Even the “modern” blitzing Wehrmacht relied on millions of horses for transport throughout the war. The Polish cavalry units would ride horses to an engagement and then dismount for the actual fight.

There were plenty of other ways to demonstrate one’s bravery and love of country than charging a tank, and over the months and years ahead there would plenty of opportunities for millions of soldiers and civilians to do so. The world is never far off from another global conflagration, today perhaps so closer than at any other time since the end of the Cold War. Lest we forget, not just for the sake of the memory of the fallen and the suffering, but as a cautionary tale that never loses its currency.