Several months after Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland, on August 23, 1939, a fateful meeting occurred in Moscow between German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov. Afterward, they announced publicly that Germany and the USSR had signed the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact to prevent hostilities between the two countries.
However, the ministers kept secret the fact that, in addition to agreeing not to attack each other, Germany and the USSR had also agreed to overrun the countries that lay between them. Specifically, they agreed that Germany and the USSR would each take over one half of Poland, with a further provision that the USSR would take over Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia without German interference.
Germany’s invasion of Poland came quickly and with overwhelming force. The attack began on September 1, 1939, with heavy air strikes followed by a rapidly advancing ground invasion. Hitler referred to the strategy as blitzkrieg, or “lightning war.” The object of the blitzkrieg strategy was to shock the opponent so severely that there would be little resistance, allowing the country to be overrun quickly, with minimal German losses.
The primary obstacle to the German invasion force proved to be the Polish capital of Warsaw, which did not surrender until September 27, after a prolonged siege. By this time, all of western Poland was firmly under German control.
Although Germany’s invasion of Poland is often cited as the definitive example of the blitzkrieg tactic, not all historians share this view. Rather than rush straight to Warsaw and topple the government, Germany’s forces moved relatively slowly, focusing much of their energy on targets that were neither military nor political in nature. They sought not just to destroy the Polish government but also to obliterate the Polish people. In the first days and weeks of the war, both Jewish and non-Jewish civilians were killed regardless of whether they resisted. Villages and towns were burned, and fleeing survivors were ruthlessly chased down and shot.
It was in this invasion that the real nature of Hitler’s plan began to reveal itself. Although the regular German army, the Wehrmacht, defeated the Polish military within days of the initial invasion, a more sinister set of squadrons followed—the Totenkopf, or “Death’s Head,” part of the soon-to-be-infamous S.S. These squadrons immediately began rounding up and killing Polish civilians. Larger groups of Jews were singled out and herded into the central Warsaw ghetto where they were slowly starved for the next two years. Smaller groups encountered along the way were shot on the spot. Although Jews were particularly singled out, the non-Jewish Polish peasantry was treated little better. Though these atrocities would pale in comparison with what was to come, the initial weeks of Hitler’s invasion were a gruesome demonstration of the German war machine’s capabilities and intentions.