On September 1, 1939, the Wehrmacht invaded neighboring Poland without warning. Hitler had been planning the Blitzkrieg since 1933. DW takes a look at the events leading up to WWII.
The war did not come as a surprise. Hitler was not secretive about his aggressive expansion policies.
But again and again, says Klaus Hesse from the Topography of Terror Documentation Center in Berliner, he maintained publicly that he was taking the peaceful route.
“Everything Hitler did was geared toward war ever since he came to power in 1933. From the very beginning, his aim was to revise the post-war order ordained in the Treaty of Versailles – to regain hegemony in Europe through an enlarged Germany. Everything was aimed at creating a large-scale economy that would allow Germany to wage a vast and long-term war in Europe.”
The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 forced Germany and its allies to accept sole responsibility for causing the First World War and committed it to making territorial concessions, disarming and paying reparations. As Hitler saw it, this was a great humiliation, and he made it his mission to rectify it.
The so-called “stab-in-the-back” conspiracy theory was particularly convenient for Hitler’s plans. And it wasn’t very difficult to convince the public that the Social Democrats and the Jews had “stabbed the Reich in the back.” And so a new war began within the country’s own boundaries.
Just a few days after he gained power, Hitler called for a country-wide boycott of Jewish shops on April 1, 1933. After that, he passed the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service,” which forced all non-“Aryans” and those not loyal to the National Socialist (NS) Party to retire from civil service.
From the very beginning, it was also about securing the financial means to wage war. Before the Nazis created a legal framework to regulate the pillaging of Jewish property and possessions, Jewish businesspeople were put under pressure to make profits off others fleeing the country. Emigrants had to pay 25 percent of their taxable assets to the German government, which in the first two years of NS rule alone earned the government 153 million reichsmarks. On all bank transfers abroad, there was a fee that had to be paid to a state banking institution, the “Deutsche Golddiskontbank.”
By September 1939, that fee had risen to 96 percent of the transfer sum.
Berlin 1936 – Olympic Games and war plans
Up to 1939, the majority of Germans saw Hitler as someone who could fix the country. His dictatorship brought about a positive change in the economic situation for many people. Unemployment sank, consumerism increased.
“So in this sense, Hitler was quite a populist – he knew you had to give the people butter along with guns,” Hesse told DW.
But weapons were, in fact, more important for the government.
While Berlin was hosting the Olympic Games, Hitler was busy solidifying his war plans. In four years, the Nazi armed forces, the Wehrmacht, were to be fit to carry out the war in the east. Hitler’s plan as noted in his classified “Four-Year Plan” was to make Germany self-sufficient in many areas so it could isolate itself from the world market and invest all its resources in arms and military buildup. Soon, half of the state’s expenditures were going towards weapons.
The same year, the Wehrmacht occupied the demilitarized Rheinland in the west of the country – in clear violation of the Treaty of Versailles. In November 1937, Hitler told his secret plans to a select circle of the Wehrmacht’s top generals: Germany needs more space, or “Lebensraum,” for the “preservation and growth of the German people.”
September 1938 – war postponed
In the year 1938, Hitler annexed his birth country Austria. Shortly thereafter, he threatened to invade Czechoslovakia because the local German population there supposedly suffered from discrimination.
British and French politicians feared a European war – and tried to avoid one through politics of appeasement. By giving Hitler what he understood to be his nation’s right, he would calm down – that was the hope.
In the Munich Agreement, the Sudetenland, the German-speaking border regions of Czechoslovakia, were ceded to Germany.
“Chamberlain let Hitler get away with a whole lot of territorial expansion without letting it come to war,” says historian Antony Beevor.
As for the what would have happened had an anti-appeasement Winston Churchill already been prime minister at the time, the historian can’t say.
“Would the British and the French have been in a stronger position in September 1939? We will never know.”
Hesse says the fear of war was palpable in Germany in 1938. “It became evident that the transformation from a weak Germany to a strong one was not going to be possible without war.”
The Munich Agreement was packaged by Nazi propaganda and sold to the German public as one of Hitler’s successful peace policies. But in reality, Hitler was upset about the agreement because he would have preferred to go to war then.
In September 1939 – no coup
What is tragic about the events around this time in history was that, as of September 1938, Hitler was very alone with his plans for war. His generals wanted to avoid a war at any cost. Chief of the German General Staff Franz Halder, who was a top commander in and around Berlin, along with Berlin’s chief of police had already formed a new government with civil service workers critical of the NS and former Social Democrat politicians. A secret brigade of assault troops was prepared to overrun the Reich Chancellery as soon as Hitler declared war.
But a year later, a coup was no longer on the agenda. Though no one cheered on September 1, 1939, most Germans stood behind Hitler nonetheless. And they were prepared to wage war for their “Führer.”
Sixty million people lost their lives in the Second World War. The National Socialists killed six million Jews. For Antony Beevor, the Second World War was the “biggest disaster caused by man in all of history.”
Experts say a German tanker that sank in the Baltic Sea at the end of World War II will sooner or later cause an environmental catastrophe. But getting authorities to take action is proving difficult.
The Franken was a floating gas station. The ship supplied the German navy operating in the Baltic Sea with fuel during World War Two. The tanker had a capacity of up to 10,000 tons (11,000 US tons) of fuel. Hit by Russian torpedoes, it sank near the Hel Peninsula off Gdansk on April 8, 1945, some of its tanks still well-filled.
After the war, international law of the day stipulated that the wreck was now Polish property. At the time, recovering the Franken was unprofitable. “It just sat there and wasn’t in anyone’s way,” says Benedykt Hac of the Maritime Institute in Gdansk.
But that has now changed, Hac, an experienced navigator and captain, says. The question is not whether a disaster will happen, but when, he warns.
Ticking time bomb
According to the most recent report on the tanker’s condition, there are still 3,136 m³ (828,444 liquid gallons) of fuel onboard. A significant amount, about 60 percent of the ship’s cargo, was lost during the attack, but there is still a lot left, says Hac. Thanks to “good German engineering,” he says, some of the tanks are still intact.
But even the best engineering can’t change the laws of physics. The saltwater is causing the steel of the tanks to corrode at a rate of 1 millimeter (0.039 inch) per decade. Over the past seven decades, 7 of the 12 millimeters of the tank walls may very well have vanished. If the hull corrodes even further, the wreck could collapse under its own weight, which could trigger an uncontrolled leak, Hac asserts — with dramatic consequences for the environment.
To make things worse, the Baltic Sea is an inland sea that is currently experiencing an unusually slow exchange of water with the neighboring North Sea. “As a scientist, I can’t remain silent,” Hac says.
‘Extremely important project’
Hac and his team unsuccessfully sought help in the matter for years. The cost of salvaging the fuel load is estimated at between €8 million ($9.4 million) and €20 million, which includes insurance and ordnance disposal. Poland’s Mare foundation launched an information campaign, and theGerman Baltic Sea Conservation Foundation (Baltcf) sponsored a pilot project to raise public awareness of the eco-threat. However, funds covered only the examination of the wreck from the outside and the development of methods and guidelines for the recovery of the hazardous materials on board and of standard procedures and implementation strategies for the authorities.
There’s no time to lose, says Baltcf Managing Director Peter Torkler, adding that in view of the dynamic economic development in Gdansk Bay and the advancement of tourism in the area, it should be regarded as an “extremely important project.”
In February of this year, the Baltcf decided to help with the Polish project, and on April 23, 2018, two Polish research ships from the Baltic Sea dive base, the IMOR, and the LITORAL, joined in. Divers spent about 60 hours underwater, 13 of them on the wreck. An information campaign was launched and an online petition to the Polish government to clean the Franken’s tanks was posted by the Mare foundation, with more than 45,000 people signing so far.
Saving the ecosystem
“We’re not out to condemn anyone, but are trying to mobilize people to save the ecosystem of Gdansk Bay,” says Olga Sarna, president of the board of the Mare foundation.
It’s also about “breaking the silence,” adds Peter Torkler, pointing out the Gdansk Marine Institute’s unsuccessful attempts to gain the interest of authorities.
However, in July, the Polish shipping minister, Marek Grobarczyk, at least set up a special team to solve the problems caused by the Franken, and the environmental activists are hoping, with his ministry’s backing, to receive EU emergency financing for the salvage operation.
Avoiding a precedent
German authorities, for their part, have been guarded in their response to the Franken case.
The wreck is in Polish waters, says Carolin Zerger from the Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU). She has suggested that Poland contact the expert group “SUBMERGED” from the Helsinki-based marine protection commission HELCOM, which assesses the environmental risks of hazardous objects submerged in the Baltic Sea.
Peter Torkler is not surprised at the German authorities’ attitude.
“Nobody wants to set a precedent,” he says. “Wrecks are a huge problem because there are thousands of them. This is something people don’t like to talk about in public.”
Cooperation is key
All the same, at an event in May, Germany’s Federal Foreign Office International Club (ICAA), an association of current and former German diplomats, put the issue on their agenda.
Peter Torkler believes that is a good sign. “After we saw how well the campaign is doing in Poland, we are now wondering what forums and institutions might take on the project in Germany,” he says.
It may be a major enterprise, Torkler says, but he is confident that “if everyone affected by this problem works together, we can achieve a lot together with Germany and Poland.”