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(CRISIS and WAR in EUROPE, 1937 to 1940 – continued)

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CRISIS and WAR in EUROPE, 1937 to 1940 (5 of 11)

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Germany Invades Poland

Hitler's general staff had warned him that if war broke out with France the French would be able to pour into Germany. Germany had only 23 divisions along the German-French border. But Hitler was not impressed, and he still believed that Britain and France would not go to war against Germany.

On the night of 31 August 1939, Hitler faked an attack against a German radio station near the Polish border, which he planned to blame on the Poles and use as an excuse for his invasion. At 4:30 in the morning, September 1, Hitler's invasion began, with tanks, aircraft and trucks and only a few horse-drawn wagons. It was called Bewegungskrieg (War of Movement). In the US, Time magazine called it Blitzkrieg (lightning war), and that name stuck.

Poland's army was about as large as that of Germany, but its airforce was one-tenth the size of Germany's, and they had no armored and mechanized divisions. Poland's military leaders still believed in offensive and counter-offensive operations using cavalry. Contrary to myth, the cavalry knew better than to charge tanks. But as the historian Max Boot writes, "some did wind up getting mauled" by the tanks. note53  And, confirming Hitler's confidence, Germany's military began to overwhelm the Poles.

Chamberlain continued trying to negotiate with Germany, hoping the German invasion could be halted. Chamberlain's cabinet rebelled, and Chamberlain saw that his position as leader of the Conservative Party was in jeopardy. His cabinet advised Chamberlain that he had to announce an ultimatum to Germany. Chamberlain did so. Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3 and were joined by India and New Zealand.

The British had no way of reaching Poland with an army. The French could have invaded Germany as they had at the start of World War I, but they did now what they should have done then: they sat in their trenches. It was the beginning of what would be called the sit-down war (Sitzkrieg). By September 8 the Germans were on the outskirts of Warsaw. Some British forces landed in France on September 10. And Soviet armies moved to the Curzon line on the 17th, with hardly any opposition from the Poles – occupied as they were with the Germans.

Poland surrendered to Germany on September 24, with Hitler hoping that Britain would soon change its mind and give up its intent to wage war against Germany. Having taken Poland, Hitler was once more for peace. But Britain was not. Churchill, now appointed by Chamberlain as the First Lord of the Admiralty, announced that Britain was not in the war over the question of Danzig or merely to fight for Poland. "We are fighting," he said, "to save the whole world from the pestilence of Nazi tyranny, and in defense of all that is most sacred to man."  He spoke of the Soviet Union but did not find fault with it for having moved to the Curzon Line, only that he regretted that they were not still friendly with Poland.

The German public, meanwhile, had shown none of the enthusiasm that had erupted at the beginning of World War I. This was especially so in Berlin, where people were still accustomed to saying good morning rather than Heil Hitler! Berlin had a victory parade for troops returning from the Polish campaign, but despite the efforts of National Socialists to whip up an enthusiastic demonstration for the troops, the Berliners remained reserved and silent. Many Berliners feared war, and they remained concerned about everyday matters. Many in Germany's upper-middle and upper classes continued their effort to remain aloof from the influences of Hitler. Some women preferred collecting for private charity and doing volunteer work through the Red Cross rather than work with the National Socialist League of Women.

Across the whole of Germany, meanwhile, were a multitude of young men who thought they loved their country and were willing to fight for it, believing that Hitler was fighting for what was best for Germany. And across the whole of Germany common young people were absorbing popular culture – National Socialist culture. They were enjoying new certainties and joining the ranks of parading and strident National Socialists.

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