109: Poland


On September 1, 1939 the German Wehrmacht would begin their invasion of Poland. But before we get there, we need to look at Interwar Poland. During this episode we will look at developments in Polish internal politics and foreign relations.


  • The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer
  • Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill and the Road to War by Tim Bouverie
  • The Origins of the Second World War: An International Perspective Edited by Frank McDonough
  • The Polish Campaign 1939 by Steven Zaloga and Victor Madej
  • The Foreign Policy of Jozef Pilsudski and Jozef Beck, 1926-1939: Misconceptions and Interpretations by Anna M. Cienciala
  • The French Government and the Danzig Crisis: The Italian Dimension by P.R. Stafford
  • Reflections from Rumania and Beyond: Marshal Smigly-Rydz in Exile by Stanley S. Seidner
  • Macht Arbeit Frei? Chapter: The War against Poland and the Beginning of German Economic Policy in the Occupied Territory by Witold Wojciech Medykowski
  • Poland Between the Wars, 1918-1939 Edited by Peter D. Stachura
  • Poland’s Preparation for World War Two by Michael Alfred Peszke
  • The Rebirth and Progress of the Polish Military During the Interwar Years by Jacek Czarnecki
  • Case White: The Invasion of Poland 1939 by Rober Forczyk
  • Poland 1939: The Outbreak of World War II by Roger Moorhouse
  • The Eastern Pact, 1933-1935: A Last Attempt at European Co-operation by Lisanne Radice (1977)
  • The Lights that Failed: European International History 1919-1933 by Zara Steiner
  • Agreement of Mutual Assistance between the United Kingdom and Poland, August 25, 1939.
  • Blitzkrieg Unleashed by Richard Hargreaves
  • The Great Powers and Poland: From Versailles to Yalta by Jan Karski
  • The History of the Panzerwaffe Volume 1: 1939-42 by Thomas Anderson
  • September Storm: The German Invasion of Poland by Gordon Rottman & Stephen Andrew
  • Britain and Poland, 1939-1943: The Betrayed Ally by Anita J. Prazmowska
  • March 1939: The British Guarantee to Poland - A Study in the Continuity of British Foreign Policy by Simon Newman (1976)
  • Poland 1939: The birth of Blitzkrieg by Steven J. Zaloga
  • Reflections from Rumania and Beyond: Marshal Smigly-Rydz in Exile by Stanley S. Seidner
  • Documents on German Foreign Policy 1918-1945
  • The British War Blue Book: Documents Concerning German-Polish Relations and the Outbreak of Hostilities Between Great Britain and Germany on September 3, 1939
  • The French Yellow Book: Diplomatic Documents (1938-1939)
  • Documents on German Foreign Policy 1918-1945 - Series D Volumn IV, VII
  • British Cabinet Papers - CAB 55/19/15, CAB 65/1/1-65/1/31, CAB 65/3/1-65/3/14, CAB 66/1/38-39, CAB 66/2/20


Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 109 - The September Campaign Pt. 1 - Poland. This week a big thank you goes out to Warren for the donation and to Mike and Claire for choosing to the support the podcast by becoming a Member. You can find out more about becoming a member over at historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. Welcome to the series of episodes I have entitled the September Campaign. In the early hours of September 1st, 1939, the German invasion of Poland would begin. Once the invasion began it would continue until early October, when the last organized resistance ended. The basic outline of the campaign is well known to anybody who has done much reading on the Second World War, the Germans invade, steamroll over the Polish forces, then the Soviets invade from the east carving off their own bit of Polish territory, and then the fighting would end. Of course the actual story is quite a bit more complicated. These episodes will start by looking at the situation in Poland before the invasion, because in a campaign as short as the September Campaign, almost every important decision about the defense of Poland had already been made by September 1st, and the events that followed were really just paying off those earlier decisions. After we discuss Poland and its plans to defend itself, we will then take some time to discuss the German plans for the invasion, and the state of the German military on the eve of the invasion. Then of course we will have several episodes on the September Campaign itself, and I will just say there have been a few different areas of research that have held surprises for me as I have prepared these episodes. Along the way we will try and tackle some of the well known pieces of the campaign, was the Polish air force destroyed on the ground? Did the German Blitzkrieg give the Wehrmacht an easy campaign? Did those Polish cavalry troopers really charge at a bunch of tanks with their lances? One final note before we get into it today, the name September Campaign is one of two names for the German invasion of 1939 that seems to be in common usage, with the other being the 1939 Defensive War. It generally feels more appropriate to use the name given to the events by the victims of German aggression. With that note, lets dive into 1920s Poland.

In the immediate aftermath of the First World War the nation of Poland was created and led by a government in Warsaw. It contained territories that had previously been a part of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires, both of which would no longer exist by the December 1918. Poland would then be invaded by the Soviet Red Army, which was still fighting the Russian Civil War, with the Soviets hoping for a quick and easy march through Poland on their way to their destination, Germany, where they hoped to kick off another Communist Revolution. They would not make it to Germany, and would instead be stopped just outside Warsaw, and their defeat at the hands of the young Polish Army would cause the Red Army to retreat all the way back to the other side of what Poland considered to be the border. During the Paris Peace Conference, in the many discussions that were had about various bits of territory in Eastern Europe, Poland would be given the rights to several small pieces of territory, most importantly a corridor between the heart of Polish territory and the Baltic sea, a corridor that ran just west of Danzig, and most importantly cut the German territories of Prussia in half. On Poland’s southern border there were also territorial disputes between Poland and Czechoslovakia with both nations claiming their rights to the Teschen area. To the Northeast, there were also disputes with Lithuania, with fighting between the new nations occurring in the aftermath of the Polish-Soviet War. The end result of all of these events was the Poland was a nation surrounded by other nations that really did not like Poland, including other small nations that were just as much at risk of Soviet or German aggression as Poland, all of which would have benefitted, just as Poland would have, from more amicable relations. In 1921 Poland would look further afield for Allies when an alliance was signed with France, who was also looking for anchors in Eastern Europe to ensure that in a war with Germany there would be threats from multiple direction. This alliance also came with a large loan that could be used to purchase French military hardware. The signing of the Locarno Treaty between German, France, Belgium, Italy, and Britain in late 1925 was seen a serious blow to the relationship between Poland and France. The Locarno treaties would see each of the nations agreeing that the borders in Western Europe were acceptable to all parties and there would be no future push for revision. This was a generally good development when it came to peace in Western Europe, but from a Polish perspective there was some concern that because Polish borders were not mentioned that perhaps France, Britain, and other nations saw the borders of Poland as something that could be changed, could be revised. While there would be no major changes in the years after Locarno, it was just one of many instances where the Polish government felt that France was not properly considering the needs of Poland and other nations in Eastern Europe.

One of the many challenges for the Polish government in the early 1920s was the large numbers of non-Polish ethnic minorities that inhabited the new Polish border regions. The Polish government would pursue a general policy of acceptance with these minorities, but these groups would be used as a manufactured sticking point by both Germany and Russia in later years as they sought their own revisionist policies. While minorities may not have experienced government-sanctioned discrimination, the same was not true for those who pursued Communist political policies. In the early 1920s the Polish government believed that the greatest threat to continued Polish independence came from the East in the form of either the Red Army or the possibility of a Communist revolution. To protect against the Red Army Poland would maintain a larger standing army, equipped as well as possible against the possibility of another Soviet invasion. To prevent the possibility of a revolution the Polish government would pursue a general policy of repression against all Communist activities. In some nations these type of anti-communist laws would be worded generically, or would be structured so that they were generally pretty broad but the government would typically apply them a specific way to target communists. In Poland, well you can’t say they were not saying exactly what they meant, a law would pass the Sejm, which was the parliamentary body of the new government which would say, among other things, the following “Whosoever with the intention of preparing or facilitating in future the violent overthrow of the social order existing in the Polish Republic: (a) disseminates even privately, in print or any other form, views to that end, particularly concerning the introduction of the system of soviets; (b) incites others to avoid military service or encourage antipathy towards that service; (c) advocates hatred between specific classes or groups of the populace; (d) disseminates false news or uses other means with a view to foment sedition or provoke disquiet in the populace; (e) incites hatred or contempt for the authorities … will be punished by a term of penal servitude of 2-10 years”. That specific law would not be put into practice, but only because the Polish leader at the time was attempting to gather greater support for his economic policies. This was something of a point of contention within Polish politics during this period, with many on the Right believing that the government should be putting in place further anti-communist measures, while the governments that were formed generally tried to tread a more measured path in the center.

One of the critical players in the first 15 years of Polish independence is Jozef Pilsudski. Before the First World War Pilsudski had lived in the Austro-Hungarian controlled areas around Krackow and he would lead a Vienna sanctioned paramilitary organization which the Austrians hoped to use against their enemies the Russians. During the war this is exactly what would happen, with Pilsudksi leading the Polish legion which fought under the Austro-Hungarian Army. Pilsudski would lead the nation upon its creation and through the Polish-Soviet war at which point he would step away from public life for a period time, if only because the new Polish government passed laws that severely limited the powers of the President of the nation, which Pilsudski was at the time. Even though Pilsudski would exit from any official position within the government in 1921, he was still highly influential within Polish politics due to his influence and connections with a large swath of Polish politicians and military leaders. Pilsudski at this time generally favored at least some socialist policies, and was one of the supporters of Polish maximalism, that Poland should expand its borders to its maximum possible extent both to gather as many Poles as possible within its borders, but also to provide larger buffer zones around the core Polish provinces in the center of the new nation. In 1926 Pilsudski would launch a military coup. The young Polish government was trying to deal with a myriad of problems within Poland, although the one that would precipitate the coup would be the financial issues of the mid 1920s. In the wake of the First World War there would be a general economic downturn which would cause serious issues for some nations around the world, like Poland which was so dependent on the export of certain items. Pilsudski was already leaning toward the belief that the democratically elected government was not strong and united enough to bring Poland through the trying times that it was facing, and there was also a rumor that they were looking at a severe reduction in military spending to try and save money. Then on May 12, 1926 the coup would be launched when Pilsudski and 3,000 troops marched into Warsaw. But instead of quickly folding, the government would be protected by loyalist troops and officers. Two days of fighting would follow during which over 800 soldiers and almost 500 civilians would be killed or wounded. Eventually the government would relent and they would surrender on the morning of May 15th.

After the coup was successful a new government was put in place known as Sanacja (Sanazia) which directly translates into English as Sanitation but is better understood as cleansing or renewal. The basic structures of government in Poland were all kept in place after the coup, so the parliamentary body the Sejm, still met and had largely the same political make up as before. The piece that changed was the head of the government, the President, and his cabinet. Unlike in many other coups, Pilsudski as the leader did not take over as President of the new government. Instead Ignacy Moscicki would take the position of President while Pilsudki would elect to become the Minister of Defense. However, it should be very clearly understood that while Pilsudski may not have been the President, he was still seen as the leader of the new government, and things were not going to happen that Pilsudski was not in support of. This government would still be in place when the war started, although it would change over time as the leadership changed, including Pilsudski who would die in 1935. From a military perspective this was an important moment for the future of the Polish military because of how the coup had developed. There had been a clear divide among the military between those officers who were in support of Pilsudski and those that were not in support of Pilsudski. Those that were in the anti-Pilsudski camp would very soon find themselves either retired early, simply sidelined and denied promotion, or in some cases even arrested. Many of those officers had served in the Polish military since its inception, and many had shown promise as military commanders during the Polish-Soviet War, and now they were removed, it was basically a purge. The exact nature of this new government, and importantly whether it was or was not an authoritarian regime, is a hotly debated topic. In the aftermath of the coup some steps would be taken to shift internal policies, although they would largely remain the same, at least initially. But as the months went by new laws would be introduced that began to curtail some freedoms that had been enjoyed in the previous years. For example in October 1926 a new government decree would reduce the ability of the citizens to criticize the government or its representatives. After the Sanacja was established in 1926 it would continue in power until 1928, there was some influence on free politics during this time, but nothing that would massively change election results. There was definitely some fiddling with the 1928 election, specifically the use of government resources, facilities, and employees to help the government sponsored candidates, but these 1928 elections are widely considered to be free elections, or at least free enough. But then something interesting happened,

the Nonpartisan Bloc for Cooperation with the Government, the Sanacja coalition, did not gain a majority of the seats. They did gain the most votes, but in the very factious world of Polish politics, the most votes could be obtained with just 20% of the vote. This left the other parties with a majority of the seats in the parliament and Senate, although the true opposition was equally incapable of mustering a strong majority. Pilsudski and the other Sanacja leaders were, to put it kindly, displeased with this result.Actions were not immediately taken, but just 2 years later another round of elections would be held, after some political maneuvering. In these new elections in 1930 there would be nothing left to chance. True political repressive measures would be put in place, and opposition parties would have their ability to spread their message curtailed, the press would be more controlled. The structure of this control would often be in the form of government economic sanctions being placed on the publications in question. The national government did not have monopolies on items, but they were able to determine information about where some newspapers bought their supplies of say paper, and instead of shutting down the newspaper they would convince suppliers to stop deliveries, preventing publication, or maybe to drastically increase prices to make it more difficult. Those supplies might then be redirected towards publications that were printing more supportive articles, allowing them to flood the market with additional copies to increase their reader base without greatly increasing costs. This tactic specifically would be expanded on during the election campaign to ensure that far more material was available that was very favorable to the government. There were also some instances of just straight up censorship of various stories, which prevented the publication of anything but the official version that was specified by the government. Other actions would taken beyond this type of repression of the message, and some leaders of the opposition would even be arrested. The elections would be called for in August, to be held in November, but many of the leaders of the center and left parties would be arrested during on the night of September 9th. Most of those that were arrested were eventually released, but during the election that followed in November the government Coalition would gain and strong majority in the Sejm and in the Polish Senate. In the aftermath of the elections, the opposition would still take their seats in parliament, even if the number of those seats would be reduced, then the Great Depression would happen and support for the Sanacja government would only increase. In the end, 1928 would be the last free elections held in Poland until after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

While Polish internal politics was trending towards one party rule, in its foreign policy the best way to describe its actions would be a general distrust. Pilsudski and the government would pursue a policy built on a few assumptions: the first was that neither Russia or Germany could really be trusted. Both were seen as enemies, with Pilsudski having a deep distrust of Russia that went back to his pre-World War 1 days, and had only been greatly amplified by the Polish-Soviet War. The other major assumption was that neither of those nations, due to the their economic and political situations, would be in a position to be a major threat to Poland for about a decade. As it would happen, coming in the late 1920s, all of these assumptions would prove to be correct. Against these assumptions Polish planning would revolve around long term plans to improve the economic, industrial, and military capabilities of Poland. The Great Depression would substantially derail all of these plans, with the catastrophic drop in agricultural prices hitting the Polish export economy hard, and the collapse of available foreign capital also grinding many existing programs to a halt, The one constant in Polish foreign relations, at least from a positive side, was France. France and Poland had signed an alliance early in the 1920s, but then over the next 15 years it was a long series of events that would cause many Polish leaders to begin to doubt France’s seriousness. The Locarno pact that we discussed earlier would be a concern, with guarantees of borders in Western Europe making it seem to leaders in Warsaw like France was not serious about attacking Germany in a war with Poland. Then during the early 1930s there were two primary problems in French and Polish relations. The first was a simple fear that France might make some kind of diplomatic agreement directly with Germany that would result in an adjustment of Polish borders in Germany’s favor, to put it in terms of future events, Pilsudski and the Polish government was concerned that the French were going to Munich them. The second was the unyielding, unremitting, and unrelenting resistance the Poland would put up against any military agreement that involved the Soviet Union. France pushed for some kind of grand Eastern European Pact that would bring together many countries, both most importantly the three most powerful: Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union. Poland would resist any of these attempts, the distrust of Soviet intentions was just too strong and there was simply no scenario, in the shadow of the 1919 invasion, and the years of occupation that preceded it, that a Polish government would willfully allow Soviet troops to march through Polish territory. This completely shut down of such an idea made any kind of military alliance a dead end, and it would in fact never get anywhere. France would attempt to move around the Polish problem by working directly with the Soviets, to mixed results, most importantly in the weeks and months before the German and Soviet Nonaggression Pact was signed in August 1939. French and Polish relations never completely deteriorated during the interwar years, if only because both countries desperately needed the other. France needed Poland as some kind of counterweight that would force Germany into a two front war, which was believed to be essential not just to French war planning but French survival in a war with Germany. Poland needed France for its industry, money, military equipment, and also as a counterweight that would distract at least some German troops in time of war, hopefully enough that the greatly outnumbered Polish military might have a better chance.

Just because Pilsudski and others in the Polish government saw both the Soviet Union and Germany as a threat did not mean they did not do the type of diplomatic maneuverings you might expect in such a situation. The most important outcomes of these efforts would be the Polish-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of July 25, 1932 and the Polish-German Declaration of Non-Aggression signed in 1934. Along with these non-aggression agreements some additional economic agreements would be signed which would normalize economic relations between Poland and the other nations . The key to both agreements was that nobody really trusted them, Pilsudski and others believed that both Hitler and Stalin were just giving their nations time to rearm. But Poland also needed the same time to do the same thing, so it just kind of worked out. Of course later in the 1930s the agreements that were signed in the early 1930s would have little impact on the choices made by Germany and the Soviet Union. The political cooperation between Poland and Germany did not end with the nonaggression agreement, and immediately after the Munich Agreement had been signed the Polish government would take advantage of the situation to resolve a disagreement with Czechoslovakia that dated back to 1918. On the border of Poland and Czechsolvakia was the Teschen region, which had at one point been a Duchy. During the Paris Peace Conference Poland and Czechoslovakia had appealed to the powers at the conference to settle the dispute they had about the area, with both sides believing that it should be added to their nation. It was important due to its coal industry, and during the confusing days of late 1918 there had even been clashes between Polish and Czech military units to try and assert control. The ruling handed down from Paris left most of the area, about 400 square miles within the new nation of Czechoslovakia. Poland was not pleased, but was also not at a point where they could really push the matter. This would all change in September 1938, when in the wake of the Munich Agreement the POlish government would renounce the minority convention that they had signed with Prague in 1925 that had accepted the new border, and on the 21st of September the Polish ambassador delivered a message demanding that Teschen immediately be handed over to Polish control. On the 27th another message was delivered, with a 12 hour ultimatum attached. Czechslovakia, which was still reeling from Munich, appealed to France and Britain, but the response was to give into Polish demands, and so they did. And with that those 400 square miles, and over 200,000 citizens, were now part of Poland. It was the end of almost 2 decades of disagreement about the area, and then just a few months later Germany would take control of the rest of Czechoslovakia and the nation would cease to exist. While Poland and Czechoslovakia had a rocky relationship, the German takeover posed a serious problem for Polish military preparations. Suddenly the German military had access to hundreds of additional miles of the Polish border, stretching the already thin resources available to the Polish Army even further. I hope you will join me next episode as we begin a discussion of Polish military preparations in the 1930s as they desperately tried to build up a military that was capable of defending against their larger neighbors, but also tried to determine how best to use their resources to defend the nation.