How did the Nazis fake an attack to start World War II?

Sunday marked 80 years since the start of World War II. Its beginning can be traced back to a piece of Nazi propaganda.

How did the Nazis fake an attack to start World War II?
Archive photo shows Hitler in Poland before the outbreak of World War II. Photo: DPA

Picture the start of the Second World War – the most devastating conflict in human history – and you think of tanks rolling across the Polish border in early September 1939. 

How many of us, however, are aware of the fact that this was in retaliation for an alleged attack on a German radio transmitter? 

Of course, it was nothing of the sort – what we call today a 'false flag' action. While almost everybody in Europe knew of Nazi Germany's desire to strike east, and grow their borders, the regime still needed an act of provocation as grounds for their invasion. 

An SS squad, led by Alfred Naujocks, was dispatched to the border town of Gleiwitz (today called Gliwice) on August 31st. Their job was to make it appear as if Poles had attacked the station.

A short message condemning the Nazi regime was broadcast over the transmitter.

The bodies of several inmates of Dachau, who had been executed hours previously, were then left, dressed in Polish Army uniforms and with forged identify cards on their person.

The former radio station in Gliwice, Poland. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The next day, the Nazi propaganda machine rolled into high gear. German and handpicked journalists were driven to the site and allowed to inspect it, albeit from a distance. Photos and newsreels were taken. 

That day, September 1st, Hitler declared war on Poland in a speech before the Reichstag, alluding to the actions at Gleiwitz when he said, “Yesterday fourteen additional violations of the border were recorded, among them three of a most serious nature. I have therefore resolved to speak to Poland in the same language that Poland has employed towards us in the months past.”

Even before the speech, however, Wehrmacht tanks and troops, as well as Luftwaffe planes were streaming across the border from multiple directions, quickly overwhelming the Polish armed forces stationed there.

The Polish struggled gamely against the Nazi armed forces, but were entirely defeated by October 6th.

It was only after the war that the truth about what happened at Gleiwitz became widely known, as some of those involved were interrogated by the Allied victors.

Alfred Naujocks admitted that he had been ordered to stage the attack, before absconding to escape justice. Other pieces of evidence were turned up by intelligence services, and it soon became clear that the 'attack' was entirely fabricated. 

Since then, various nations have fabricated similar 'casus belli', or justifications for war to further their aims.

It's worth remembering, however, that it was the Nazis who were the first to leverage broadcast media in a manner to so suddenly convince millions.

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German justice contaminated by Nazis in post-war years

Germany's justice system was still filled with former Nazis well into the 1970s, as the Cold War coloured efforts to root out fascists, according a damning official inquiry presented Thursday.

Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report
Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report "State Security in the Cold War". Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Uwe Anspach

In the 600-page collection of findings entitled “State Security in the Cold War”, historian Friedrich Kiessling and legal scholar Christoph Safferling focused on the period from the early 1950s until 1974.

Their research found that between 1953 and 1959, around three in four top officials at the federal prosecutor’s office, which commissioned the report, had belonged to the Nazi party.

More than 80 percent had worked in Adolf Hitler’s justice apparatus, and it would take until 1972 before they were no longer in the majority.

“On the face of it they were highly competent lawyers… but that came against the backdrop of the death sentences and race laws in which they were involved,” said Margaretha Sudhof, state secretary at the justice ministry, unveiling the report.

“These are disturbing contradictions to which our country has long remained blind.”

‘Combat mission’

It was not until 1992, two years after Germany’s national reunification, that the last prosecutor with a fascist background left the office.

“There was no break, let alone a conscious break, with the Nazi past” at the federal prosecutor’s office, the authors concluded, stressing “the great and long continuity” of the functions held and “the high number” of officials involved in Hitler’s regime.

Chief federal prosecutor Peter Frank commissioned the study in 2017. The federal prosecutor’s office is one of Germany’s most powerful institutions, handling the most serious national security cases including those involving terrorism and espionage.

With more than 100 prosecutors, it is “the central actor in the fight against terror,” the report authors said, underlining its growing role in the decades since the September 11th, 2001 attacks in the United States.

The researchers were given unfettered access to hundreds of files labelled classified after the war, and found that rooting out alleged communists was often prioritised over other threats, including from the far right.

“In the 1950s the federal prosecutor’s office had a combat mission – not a legal but a political one: to pursue all the communists in the country,” the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung said in a summary of the report.

‘Recycling’ Nazis

The fact that West Germany widely used former officials from the Nazi regime in its post-war administration had long been known.

For example, Hans Globke served as chief of staff and a trusted confidant to former conservative West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer between 1953 and 1963 and was responsible for recruitment to top posts.

However, Globke had also been a senior civil servant in the Nazi-era interior ministry and was involved in the drafting of the 1935 Nuremberg race laws that imposed the first dramatic restrictions on Jews.

In recent years, systematic digging into the past of key ministries and institutions has unearthed a troubling and previously hidden degree of “recycling” of Third Reich officials in the post-war decades.

A 2016 government report revealed that in 1957, more than a decade after the war ended, around 77 percent of senior officials at the justice ministry had been members of the Nazi party. That study, also carried out by Safferling, revealed that the number of former Nazis at the ministry did not decline after the fall of the regime but actually grew in the 1950s.

Part of the justification was cynical pragmatism: the new republic needed experienced civil servants to establish the West German justice system. Furthermore, the priorities of the Allies who won the war and “liberated” the country from the Nazis were quickly turned upside down in the Cold War context.

After seeking to de-Nazify West Germany after 1945, the aim quickly shifted to building a capitalist bulwark against the communist threat. That approach often meant turning a blind eye to Germans’ previous involvement in the Third Reich.

In recent years, Germany has embarked on a twilight attempt to provide justice for concentration camp victims, placing several former guards in their 90s on trial for wartime crimes.