September 1, 1939

On September 1, 1939, Germany launched a massive assault on Poland, thereby igniting the Second World War.

Britain and France were both bound by treaty to come to Poland’s assistance. On September 2, Neville Chamberlain’s government sent a message to Germany proposing that hostilities should cease and that there should be an immediate conference among Britain, France, Poland, Germany, and Italy..and that the British government would be bound to take action unless German forces were withdrawn from Poland. “If the German Government should agree to withdraw their forces, then His Majesty’s Government would be willing to regard the position as being the same as it was before the German forces crossed the Polish frontier.”

According to General Edward Spears, who was then a member of Parliament, the assembly had been expecting a declaration of war. Few were happy with this temporizing by the Chamberlain government. Spears describes the scene:

Arthur Greenwood got up, tall, lanky, his dank, fair hair hanging to either side of his forehead. He swayed a little as he clutched at the box in front of him and gazed through his glasses at Chamberlain sitting opposite him, bolt-upright as usual. There was a moment’s silence, then something very astonishing happened.

Leo Amery, sitting in the corner seat of the third bench below the gangway on the government side, voiced in three words his own pent-up anguish and fury, as well as the repudiation by the whole House of a policy of surrender. Standing up he shouted across to Greenwood: “Speak for England!” It was clear that this great patriot sought at this crucial moment to proclaim that no loyalty had any meaning if it was in conflict with the country’s honour. What in effect he said was: “The Prime Minister has not spoken for Britain, then let the socialists do so. Let the lead go to anyone who will.” That shout was a cry of defiance. It meant that the house and the country would neither surrender nor accept a leader who might be prepared to trifle with the nation’s pledged word.

Greenwood then made a speech which I noted that night as certain to be the greatest of his life; a speech that would illuminate a career and justify a whole existence. It was remarkable neither for eloquence nor for dramatic effect, but the drama was there, we were all living it, we and millions more whose fate depended on the decisions taken in that small Chamber.

The reaction of the House evidently made an impact on Chamberlain: the declaration of war came the next day. France also declared war on Germany, but little effective action in support of the Poles was taken by either country. Spears continues:

Many of my fellow Members of Parliament were as worried as I was that we were doing nothing by way of air attack on Germany to relieve the intolerable pressure the German Luftwaffe was exerting on Poland…The Polish Ambassador, Count Raczinski, a young man gifted with rare qualities of fortitude and courage, asked to see me. He was justifiably upset at an answer given by the Minister concerned in the House of Commons on September 6th, to the effect that the information available indicated that the Germans were only bombing Polish military objectives and were not attacking the civilian population as such.

Spears was aware that this was not true–that according to press reports the Germans were in fact attacking population centers, and Raczinski provided him with further details. Spears met with Kingsley Wood, the Secretary of State for Air, demanding that aggressive action be taken in place of the propaganda-leaflet drops on Germany that were then the only British activity in the air.

It was ignominious, I told him, to stage a confetti war against an utterly ruthless enemy who was meanwhile destroying a whole nation, and to pretend we were thereby fulfilling our obligations. We were covering ourselves with ridicule by organizing this kind of carnival. It was as futile as reading a lesson on deportment to a homicidal maniac at the height of his frenzy.

France, also, did very little to provide support to the Poles. An advance from the Maginot line was announced, with the intention of drawing off German troops, but it was more of a political demonstration than a serious military operation.

Writing after the war, General Spears quotes German sources on the opportunity that was missed by not taking more aggressive action:

The Germans, notably General Zlander, were puzzled by Allied inactivity in the air. He wrote (February 1941) that it was a grave error on the part of the Allies not to have made a maximum effort at the time their opponent was fully occupied in Poland. Their attitude, he avowed, completely justified the German strategy of temporary non-aggression in the West.


(German) General Jodl declared at the Nuremberg Trial: “In 1939, catastrophe was only avoided because the 110 French and British Divisions remained inactive in front of our 23 divisions in the West.”

On September 17, the Soviet Union also attacked Poland, in accordance with Stalin’s agreement with Hitler. Despite a valiant resistance, there was no longer any hope of preserving Poland’s independence, and the country was partitioned between the two dictators.

The Polish Government went into exile. Many Polish troops and pilots escaped, along with naval units, and went on to support Allied operations throughout the remainder of the war. Polish codebreakers also made a great contribution to the Allied victory: they took the first steps toward breaking the German “Enigma” code and devised the earliest form of the “Bombe” device (later improved by Alan Turing and others) which partially automated this process.

More on the war in Poland and its consequences here.

The Spears quotations are from his remarkable memoir, Assignment to Catastrophe.

(Originally posted at Chicago Boyz on 9/3/2007, based on earlier Photon Courier posts)

9/1/2012: See also Lexington Green’s 2007 post on WWII and the loss of historical memory.

17 thoughts on “September 1, 1939”

  1. A friend of mine, a neurosurgeon, celebrates his birthday today. Amazingly, he was born in Poland on the day the Germans invaded and survived the war. He is now retired except for occasionally assisting his brother in surgery. His brother, and a sister who died a few years ago from cancer, were born in France during the war or soon after. They, with their parents, emigrated to the US not long after the war. When my friend was serving his military obligation, he ended as a LT Colonel in the Air Force and was chief of neurosurgery for the US military in Europe, he took a great risk and obtained a civilian passport so he could visit his birthplace. That was about 1973 when Air Force colonels were not welcome in Poland. The fact that the family is Jewish makes the story all the more remarkable.

  2. Thanks, Michael, for sharing

    We have family members who followed a similar path out after the war

    It was the start of war that caused President Roosevelt to dust off an important letter previously ignored from Einstein…the rest is history

  3. American troops and weapons won the war in Europe in WWI and President Wilson dictated the terms of surrender to Germany. Then he took American troops and weapons home. England and France had lost millions of troops and their equipment. So had Germany. But Germany rebuilt its army faster, and, having lost, replaced old fashioned military doctrines with new ideas. The French and English did not want to lose another million troops.

    Wilson created the League of Nations which was designed to bring World Peace through committee meetings and diplomacy. For some reason it failed.

    The American troops and weapons that beat the Germans were not present when German troops restarted the war. Eventually they returned and quickly won WW2.

    After WW2 American troops stayed. No need to make the same mistake twice. Today Wilson’s heirs ask “Why are we the sole gauranters of World Peace? Why can’t we go home and buy the world a Coke and sing in perfect harmony?”

    American troopd are committing suicide today because they are asked to die by leaders who lack the moral foundation to answer this question.

  4. Grey Eagle….”President Wilson dictated the terms of surrender to Germany”…well, sort of…but the common perception in Germany was that Wilson’s terms, under which the Armistice was accepted, were pretty different from the terms that were finally established at Versailles.

  5. “”President Wilson dictated the terms of surrender to Germany”…well, sort of…but the common perception in Germany was that Wilson’s terms, under which the Armistice was accepted, were pretty different from the terms that were finally established at Versailles.”

    That was a lot of the problem. Wilson has a great deal of undeserved respect as president. His presidency, in addition to segregating the civil service, had a lot to do with the fact that Germany felt betrayed and resumed the war as soon as they could rebuild the army. The Wiemar Republic was rebuilding the general staff and violating the terms of the Armistice long before Hitler.

  6. The point when Naziism could have been stopped at relatively low cost was in 1936, at the time of the Rhineland incursion. France and Britain then had significantly more military strength than did Germany, and a strong French ground attack could have wiped out the relatively light German forces that had been sent into the Rhineland. Hitler would almost certainly have been overthrown.

    Why didn’t they? There was a lot of moral-equivalence thinking, similar to the thinking of NYT types on Iran today. And the French had apparently organized their army in such a way that there was only ONE plan that could be executed at short notice…total mobilization (or at least that’s what they told the political leaders). And this the political leadership wasn’t willing to do.

  7. Hitler was a brilliant psychologist. He was right about the British and French so many times that his generals, who thought Germany would not be ready for a war until 1942, eventually gave up trying to second guess him. The German character was also part of that equation. They had never had a strong parliamentary system. One man rule was the norm for them.

    Hitler was wrong that Chamberlain, and the French, would accept the Polish invasion but he was right that nothing would be done about it.

  8. Hansard’s record of the proceedings in the House of Commons, September 3, 1939, in which Mr. Chamberlain announced that Britain was at war with Germany. Chamberlain’s announcement is somber. Lloyd George’s brief remarks are fascinating, as are Churchill’s.

    I notice that the proceedings of the previous day do not show Leo Amery’s famous exclamation — “Speak for England, Arthur!” — but you can where in Greenwood’s speech it must have occurred.

  9. “It was the start of war that caused President Roosevelt to dust off an important letter previously ignored from Einstein…”: not really. Try Richard Rhodes’ “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” to learn what actually happened.

  10. There is a ghost that haunts all those parts of Europe, Asia and Africa that once form the Roman Empire. It is ‘Romanitas’ – a word coined in the third century that is one of the first new words that became Medieval Latin.

    Romanitas is the desire to recreate the Roman empire at its greatest. It is reflected in European art, archetecture, food, laws, language and culture.

    The Germans have always taken pride in the fact that they were never permanently conquered by Rome. Even Julius Caesar failed to conquer the Germans. On the other hand, Germans invaded the lands that were once parts of the Roman empire several times in the last 1500 years.

    The peoples of the Middle East, the Persians, the Egyptians, the North Africans were less attracted to Romanitas because they were heirs to empires that existed when Romans were uncouth savages living nsked in Tuscan caves.

    The European Union has accomplished far more to rebuild the Roman Empire than Karl der Grosse, Barbarosa, the Hapsburgs, Napolean, or Hitler could. Of course the European Union could not exist without the umbrella of the Pax Americana.

    WW1 and WW2 in Europe, Africa and the Middle East were an expression of Romanitas.

    Wilson carved up Germany into little pieces by building countries around ethnic groups. Hitler reunited Germany under the slogan “One folk, one country”. The people he reunited spoke Germanic or Slavic languages. Of course, there were many WW1 revolutionaries who did not want to be reunited. I imagine Wilson went home because ethnicity was a problem that diplomacy could never solve.

  11. This thread is incomplete without the conclusion to Leo Amery’s greatest speech, delivered on May 7, 1940:

    Somehow or other we must get into the Government men who can match our enemies in fighting spirit, in daring, in resolution and in thirst for victory. Some 300 years ago, when this House found that its troops were being beaten again and again by the dash and daring of the Cavaliers, by Prince Rupert’s Cavalry, Oliver Cromwell spoke to John Hampden. In one of his speeches he recounted what he said. It was this: I said to him, “Your troops are most of them old, decayed serving men and tapsters and such kind of fellows. …You must get men of a spirit that are likely to go as far as they will go, or you will be beaten still.” It may not be easy to find these men. They can be found only by trial and by ruthlessly discarding all who fail and have their failings discovered. We are fighting to-day for our life, for our liberty, for our all; we cannot go on being led as we are. I have quoted certain words of Oliver Cromwell. I will quote certain other words. I do it with great reluctance, because I am speaking of those who are old friends and associates of mine, but they are words which, I think, are applicable to the present situation. This is what Cromwell said to the Long Parliament when he thought it was no longer fit to conduct the affairs of the nation: “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go”

    That was the end of Neville Chamberlain as Premier.

  12. When Czechoslovakia was partitioned to give ,i>Peace in our time I read that their army was the match of the Nazi Army –

    i am currently watching an excellent series on England during the London Blitz – Foyle’s War – not only are the mysteries well written as Foyle, a detective, as to solve comes such as war profiteering – pilfering much needed supplies for sale on the black market – but the research into the history of that time – is excellent – from the Nazi sympathizers to people who chose to sleep in their cars – in the outskirts of London = rather than be a target.

  13. Hitler had his limitations as a psychologist. He understood the Germans very well and manipulated them effectively. He understood his immediate neighbors in France and the eastern countries, and understood how to bluff them. But he didn’t understand Brits or Americans very well. He hadn’t travelled outside of Germany or Austria-Hungary, knew little if any of other languages, and got most of his ideas about Britain and America from films and cheap fiction.

    He formed a fairly accurate idea of the immediate response of one sector of the British ruling circles, but his most critical assumption — that Britain would accept a peace offer that would leave him in charge of Europe, so long as he left the Empire alone — was wrong, as we see so clearly with the luxury of hindsight. So was his assumption that the Blitz would terrorize the British public into wanting to make peace.

    Churchill understood Hitler far better than Hitler understood Churchill. Churchill saw that Hitler was at heart a one-trick pony, and his trick was to always double down and bet everything on the next throw of the dice. Churchill also saw clearly that all he had to do was to stay in the game somehow, and sooner or later Hitler would over-reach and the dice would go the other way. This was exactly what happened, not once but twice; the first time with the invasion of Russia, and the second time in declaring war on the USA when he didn’t have to.

    Also, he didn’t understand the Russians.

    So, Hitler was just good enough of a psychologist to gain the rope with which to hang himself.

  14. James – you have to think that Hitler was right to assume the British and French would do nothing after Poland – they did nothing after Austria, Czechoslovakia…

    I think he was a better psychologist than military tactician – declaring war on the US after Pearl harbor? No reason for it and Roosevelt would have had a hard time convincing America to go to Europe when they were just ready to kill the Japanese…

  15. I don’t think Hitler and his henchpersons really understood what American WAS and what it could do. The German fighter General Adolf Galland quoted from a speech given by Goering in 1942:

    “Some astronomical figures are expected from the American war industry. Now I am the last to underrate this industry. Obviously the Americans do very well in some technical fields. We know they produce a colossal amount of fast cars. And the development of radio is one of their special achievements, and so is the razor blade. . . . But you must not forget, there is one word in their language that is written with a capital B and this word is Bluff.”

    …to which Galland’s acid comment (in his memoirs) was:

    “Propaganda *may* be horrible, but bombs *certainly* are.”

  16. The British didn’t do enough, but they didn’t do nothing either. They declared war, which Hitler thought was unlikely, and refused to make peace. This put Germany under blockade and cut it off from most of the wold’s resources. This made him dependent on Eastern European resources, which means he either had to have the USSR as an ally, or conquer it. This was part of the chain of events that led to his downfall. Hitler didn’t anticipate as stubborn an opponent as Churchill gaining and keeping power, and keeping the pressure on him.

    He chose poorly.

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