In September 1939 the Third Reich fought against... Polish fascists?

The motif of the so-called Polnische Wirtschaft, i.e. the Polish economy and administration characterised by disorder, anarchy, dirtiness, malaise and passivity, was used. The stereotype of Poland as a seasonal state was in the headlines. It was argued that the Second Republic was inherently aggressive, especially towards the German and Jewish minorities – says Prof. Grzegorz Kucharczyk, historian, author of the book The Third German Reich. Modernity and Hatred.

TVP WEEKLY: Analysing the publications of the German media in the interwar period, one cannot help thinking that the negative image of Poles was shaped more by the media of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933) than by the Third German Reich. Is this claim valid?

The key question is: what happened to Germany between the First and Second World Wars? Between 1919 and 1933, a democratic and republican Germany raised the generation that would later do the so-called German clean-up in the East in a spirit of hatred towards Poland. Anti-Polonism among our western neighbours was not an aberration of narrow nationalist circles, but an important part of the narrative of the political mainstream. The mainstream media and academia of the Weimar Republic anchored anti-Polonism in its compatriots.

German scientists, lawyers, doctors met with Poles, e.g. at scientific conferences, and knew that this propaganda was untrue. Are there testimonies that they opposed it?

These conferences were not attended by members of the Selbstschutz (paramilitary organisation composed of people of German nationality active during WWI and WWII), who in September 1939 in Pomerania and Greater Poland carried out mass murders of Poles as part of the Intelligenzaktion. Nor by the doctors in SS uniforms who drew up the so-called Generalplan Ost (Master Plan for the East) or the Germans who participated in the actions to exterminate Poles. They did not attend scientific conferences, but read newspapers and textbooks, listened to radio broadcasts and, when the time came, carried out the orders of their Führer. During the Second World War, the German elite assumed that the Germans were doing terrible things in the East, but they were doing it for the good of the fatherland.

The political class of the Weimar Republic was also united by the desire to overturn the Treaty of Versailles. It was disputed whether this should be done in a peaceful or a military way.

But there was a consensus that its revision was necessary. Even German pacifists such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Alfred Hermann Fried argued in 1919 that the Treaty of Versailles was an attempt to lock a great nation in an iron cage. They opposed the treaty and the existence of an independent Polish state, which, in the unanimous opinion of all German political options, was an oppression and trampling of German honour. The Communists were also part of this trend. They, in turn, argued hostility towards Poland with the strategy of the Comintern. They argued that an independent Poland, as Stalin had said, was a wall separating the Russian revolution from the German revolution. There was one common denominator in the fragmented German political scene of the Weimar Republic: hostility towards Poland.
Demonstration in Berlin against the peace terms of the Treaty of Versailles, SPD members on their way to the Reich Chancellery in Pariser Platz, Brandenburg Gate in the background. 18 May 1919 – Photo by A. & E. Frankl/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Were there no exceptions to the rule?

There were certain exceptions, such as Hellmut von Gerlach, close to the left wing of German liberalism, individual Social Democrats, or authors who questioned the entire German political culture, such as Friedrich Wilhelm Fersten. But when we analyse the votes and debates in the Reichstag on Poland between 1919 and 1933, we can see that all factions spoke unequivocally hostilely towards our country.

How was Poland portrayed in the German press of the Weimar Republic? What propaganda stereotypes were used?

Above all, the motif of the so-called Polnische Wirtschaft, i.e. the Polish economy and administration characterised by disorder, anarchy, dirtiness, malaise and passivity, was used. The headlines featured the stereotype of Poland as a seasonal state, a state organism that has the bug of decay implanted in it. It was argued that the Second Republic was an inherently aggressive state, especially towards the German and Jewish national minorities. The border with Poland was presented as the so-called bleeding border, as a line that divides and is the ignition of conflict. The Silesian insurgents were called “[Wojciech] Korfanty’s gangs”. The atmosphere of hostility towards Poland was constantly heated up, also in school textbooks, especially for history and geography. They visualised the injustice that befell Germany at Versailles. It presented maps that showed that the Polish-German border of 1919 was unjust because it left millions of Germans on the Polish side.

While the military and diplomatic struggle for the borders of the reborn Poland was still going on, news of a wave of alleged pogroms against Jews on Polish soil appeared in the German press.

The first reports on the subject appeared at the turn of 1918/1919. They were later reproduced by the Western press. It was written that on 27 December 1919, the day the Greater Poland Uprising broke out, there was a huge pogrom against the Jewish population in Poznan. Of course, the news was completely fanciful, just like other similar information.

Reports published in the German press about alleged massacres in Poland had political consequences. They were used at the Paris Conference to strike at Poland’s rebirth after the partitions.

The Polish delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, which culminated in the Treaty of Versailles, had to contend with growing propaganda, especially from Jewish circles in the United States. They portrayed Poland as a country of pogroms, hatred and aggression. The so-called Minority Treaty was therefore invented and attached to the Treaty of Versailles. It did not apply to all states, but only to a few countries in Central Europe, including Poland. It stated that the rule of law in these countries, in terms of respecting the norms of national minority autonomy, would be upheld by the League of Nations. All Polish parties during the ratification debate of the Treaty of Versailles in the Legislative Sejm described this action as a violation of our sovereignty.
As a result of the Treaty of Versailles, Poland regained much of the land taken from it by Prussia in the First and Second Partitions: most of Greater Poland and much of the former Royal Prussia, albeit with little access to the sea. And after the plebiscite in Upper Silesia and the Third Silesian Uprising, also a part of the industrial basin with Katowice and Chorzów. Photo shows the entry of the Polish army into Silesia – a parade on the square in Katowice, 20 June1922. Photo: A. & E. Frankl/ullstein bild
Let us return to German media propaganda during the Weimar Republic. It was taken to the point of absurdity. I found information that the German Reichswehr regarded the scouting first-aid exercises conducted in Koźmin Wielkopolski as evidence confirming Poland’s preparations for war.

Yes, this fitted into the propaganda narrative of Poland as a country focused solely on aggression. There were plenty of such reports. German radio stations were broadcasting programmes similar to the famous radio play from the United States entitled “The War of the Worlds”, about an alleged alien invasion of Earth, which caused panic among Americans. German broadcasts talking about alleged Polish aggression against border areas were very popular and excited listeners.

After the NSDAP and Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, anti-Polish propaganda was tactically faded out.

Looking at the beginnings of the National Socialist movement in Germany, i.e. the 1920s, it has to be said that it was anti-Slav and especially anti-Polish from the start. The National Socialist German Workers’ Party in no way broke out of the national consensus. After 30 January 1933, the anti-Polish propaganda was squelched because Hitler had more pressing matters to deal with than continuing the cold war with Poland from the Weimar Republic. He had to consolidate power in Germany, take action on the remilitarisation of the Rhineland, the anschluss of Austria and the Czech Sudetenland. Poland was next in line. But the propaganda potential was there all along, it was just stifled for a while. As early as April 1939, at a special meeting in the Reich Propaganda Ministry, there was a clear directive: we were unfreezing propaganda against Poland.

It was when it became clear that Poland would not help Germany attack the Soviets?

When Poland accepted the so-called British guarantees and overnight Dr Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda in Adolf Hitler’s government, ordered the unfreezing of Polish phobias. The stereotypes of the Weimar Republic, i.e. the Polnische Wirtschaft, the seasonal state and the motif of Polish violence, i.e. the alleged persecution of the German minority in Poland, returned in propaganda.

In addition to these propaganda themes, there was the issue of the Free City of Danzig (Gdańsk) and Poland as the greatest ally of Germany’s eternal enemy, France.

Yes, but even more exploited was the motif of Poland as an ally of perfidious Albion.

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And what was German propaganda like after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact?

Since 23 August 1939, anti-Soviet messages have disappeared. The Soviets were no longer referred to as the Jewish-Bolsheviks, as that was the message of the German press so far. There was talk of a long tradition of German-Russian cooperation. The examples of Friedrich the Great and Otto von Bismarck, who together with Russia had secured peace in Central Europe, were cited. Characteristic propaganda prepared the ground for a joint attack on Poland.

An article appeared in the Soviet press on 7 September 1939, which can be seen as a media prelude to an armed assault on Poland. Political Commissar Nikolai Osipov wrote that the Red Army was tasked with pre-empting the aggressors’ assault on the socialist homeland and fulfilling internationalist tasks.

And a day later, the Comintern, based in Moscow, published a declaration saying that the international proletariat in the ongoing war could not support Poland because it was a fascist state oppressing other nations and rejected Soviet aid. This was the aftermath of a conversation that took place on the same day, between Joseph Stalin and Georgi Dmitrov, leader of the Comintern and a figurehead, because in fact Joseph Stalin was in charge of everything. The directives of the Comintern were binding on the Soviets and the Communist parties in the West. In some countries, like France, they were very strong. The Communists also had considerable influence in Hollywood. The directives of the Comintern were adhered to until 22 June 1941, when Adolf Hitler attacked the Soviets.

However, this did not make the propaganda about Poland as a fascist country die out.

Unfortunately, no. If today we hear from the mouths of some propagandists and defamers that Poland was allegedly an accomplice to the Holocaust, we should be reminded that the roots of this way of thinking go back at least to 1939. It was then that anti-Polish German propaganda met its sister reflection in the form of anti-Polish Soviet propaganda, which exploited similar themes. Slogans appeared in the Soviet press: Poland as a prison of nations, Poland as a so-called ragged state. This is further proof of the cooperation of the totalitarianisms, which on 23 August 1939 signed a death sentence not only for Poland, but also for the whole of Central Europe. They proceeded to carry out the sentence on 1 September and 17 September 1939. Paradoxically, based on totalitarian propaganda, it can be said that in September 1939, the Third Reich fought against the Polish fascists.

Why was a free state not established in the west of Lithuania, by the Baltic Sea?

The French, Germans and Poles were involved in the territorial altercation.

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How was the subject of the attack on Poland presented in the West German press after 1945?

It was explained that this was a mistake, but it was emphasised that the Poles also had a guilty conscience, especially after 1926. German publicists argued that the authoritarianism of Piłsudski’s rule was harsh on Polish citizens and Poles of German origin. There was no expiation or revision of the fact that the Germans had gone astray. All the blame was placed on Goebbelsian propaganda.

That is to say, nothing happened. To paraphrase the words of German philosopher and NSDAP member Martin Heidegger in his 1946 letter on “humanism”: the German boys in the Second World War set off to the East on a mission of civilisation, undertaken for the good of humanity.

Unfortunately, similar thinking was also emerging in other circles, not just German. The Brazilian conservative writer and Catholic columnist Dr Plinio Correa de Oliveira, author of a penetrating analysis on the attacks on Christianity entitled Revolution and Counter-Revolution, used to spout fables about the Germans. He praised them as the “Spaniards of the East”, who gave great services to the Christianisation of Central and Eastern Europe. In the latter context, he preached apologies to the Teutonic Knights, called by one 15th-century Polish bishop “scoundrels marked with the cross” and by Blessed Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński “knights of false Christianity”. One reads with appreciation the reflections of the Brazilian writer on the causes and symptoms of successive revolutionary upheavals. One’s hair stands on end when reading his vision of an alternative history in which Germany Christianises Russia, without the Reformation, and reaches India and China.

– Interviewed by Tomasz Plaskota

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

– Translated by jz

Historian Grzegorz Kucharczyk is a researcher at the Historical Institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences and the Pilecki Institute. He has recently published his book entitled “III Rzesza Niemiecka. Nowoczesność i nienawiść” [The Third German Reich. Modernity and Hatred].
Main photo: 1 September 1939 – German troops remove the border barrier between the Third Reich and Poland. The Nazi invasion and occupation of Poland led to Britain and France declaring war on them on 3 September 1939 and formally starting World War II. Photo: Universal History Archive/Getty Images
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