Why was the Second World War started?

Background current

On September 1, 1939, the Second World War began with the invasion of Poland. It cost almost 60 million lives in six years. Poland suffered the longest from the brutal occupation policy of the National Socialists - a fact that strained the German-Polish relationship for many decades even after the end of the war.

"They have been firing back since 5.45 am!" This sentence is one of the most famous in German history. It was spoken by Adolf Hitler in the Berlin Reichstag on the morning of September 1, 1939. Today, the day is considered to be the beginning of the Second World War, which was triggered by Germany. In fact, that morning the German Wehrmacht attacked Poland without a declaration of war. Hitler passed off the attack as a defensive action and referred to the alleged Polish attack on the Gleiwitz transmitter the evening before, which the SS had orchestrated. France and Great Britain demanded the withdrawal of the German soldiers within two days. Hitler let the ultimatum pass. A war began that soon spread to large parts of the world. It would last for six years and kill nearly 60 million people.

The attack on Poland was a further step in the increasingly aggressive striving of the German Reich for world power and the development of "living space" since 1933. The international community took a wait-and-see attitude towards German expansion - the mood was still largely tired of the war. In addition, the Western powers (USA, Great Britain, France) saw National Socialist Germany as the most effective force for curbing Soviet influence in Central Europe. The German Reich was able to withdraw from the League of Nations with impunity, violate the arms restrictions of the Versailles Treaty and occupy the demilitarized Rhineland. The "Anschluss" of Austria followed in March 1938, which Hitler achieved without a military attack, but through enormous pressure on Vienna. In the case of Czechoslovakia, he finally openly threatened violence if his territorial claims were not met. This time the Western powers intervened and in September 1938 negotiated a compromise, the Munich Agreement, with which the Sudeten crisis was to be resolved. But the political strategy of appeasement did not have the desired effect: In March 1939, Wehrmacht soldiers marched into the independent parts of Czechoslovakia and dissolved the state.

Even in the aftermath, Hitler could not be stopped. First he planned the campaign against the Soviet Union. But when his search for allies failed, he switched to the "White" plan: the invasion of Poland. This project was favored by the fact that the Western powers and Stalin could not agree on a common counter-attack. Instead, the German Reich signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union on August 23, which also contained a secret supplementary agreement on the partition of Poland. France and Great Britain then signed an assistance pact with Poland. But Hitler was convinced that a quick success of the German-Soviet alliance would scare the Western powers back. They declared war on Germany on September 3, but initially did not intervene.

The National Socialists made the occupied territories of Poland an experimental field for their racially motivated extermination policy, which they continued in the later Russian campaign and which culminated in the murder of millions of European Jews in the extermination camps of German-occupied Poland since 1942. The enormous suffering that September 1, 1939 had brought to Poland, put a lasting strain on the German-Polish relationship. The global political situation after 1945 also contributed to this. The GDR and Poland were socialist "brother states", but the conflicts of the past were excluded. Poland saw with astonishment that the Federal Republic of Germany did not accept the Oder-Neisse line as a border. The first turning point was Willy Brandt's kneeling in Warsaw on December 7, 1970 in front of the memorial of the Jewish ghetto. Fundamental change did not take place until after the collapse of communism. With the border treaty concluded immediately after German reunification on November 14, 1990, Germany recognized the Oder-Neisse line as a German-Polish border that is binding under international law. In the following years, both sides promoted the German-Polish rapprochement. However, the recent turn to its own victims in Poland in the German debates on remembrance was viewed as insensitive. Today, current issues are in the foreground in relation to the two neighboring countries. It shows again and again how quickly the legacy of the Second World War can lead to resentment between the two states.


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