World War II began the moment the treaty was signed at Versailles, presumably ending the Great War, but actually priming the pump for an even more disastrous continuation of the conflict two decades later.
I’ll continue to make the argument that in retrospect, future historians will see World War I as beginning with the first Balkan War in 1912 — perhap even the Forst Moroccan Crisis in 1905 — and in terms of cause and effect, continuing through the post-war settlement, global depression and rise of fascist dictatorships, into World War II, then the Cold War, the Berlin Wall’s fall and communism’s collapse, up to the Yugoslav civil war in the 1990s.
It will be renamed the 80 Year War, or some such.
With apologies to the dead in Manchuria, our western-centric textbooks inform us that the German invasion of Poland was the specific trigger for WWII because France and the United Kingdom honored their treaties.
Seeing as the victorious WWI allies had detached Danzig/Gdansk from both Germany and reconstituted Poland, the city became an inevitable flash point, first incited through propaganda and then with bullets.
For Poles, the Battle of Westerplatte and the defense of the Polish post office are “cherished stories of heroism.” Günter Grass’s fictionalized account of the German attack on his hometown’s post office is a central episode in The Tin Drum.
The Defense of the Polish Post, by Nick Hodge (Local-Life)
… The Free City of Danzig had two post offices: one municipal and one Polish run. The Polish post office was considered an extraterritorial property of Poland, meaning it was exempt from local law in much the same way embassies or UN buildings are. As such, it became a sort of Polish headquarters within the Free City. As the situation between Poland and Germany worsened, the Polish military made the rather paltry effort of securing the post office by sending reserves sublieutenant Konrad Guderski to the post in April, 1939 to organize and train a security unit composed of official post office employees and civilian volunteers. In mid-August, as hostilities were beginning to seem imminent, 10 more employees were sent from Gdynia and Budgoszcz, bringing the staff of the Polish post office to somewhere near 100 people. On September 1, 1939, however, there were exactly 57 people in the building: Konrad Guderski (the only non-civilian), 42 local Polish employees, the 10 employees from Gdynia and Budgoszcz, and the building keeper, his wife and ten-year-old daughter who all lived in the building.
At 04:00, Germans cut the power from the building and at 04:45, in sync with the Schleswig-Holstein’s shelling of the small Polish garrison on Westerplatte, they began their assault on the Polish post office in Danzig. Armed with a small cache of mostly pistols, some machine guns and hand-grenades, the Polish defenders were able to repel the first German attack of the front of the building (though the Germans did enter the front door of the building briefly). At 11:00, the Germans were reinforced with 75mm artillery guns, but despite the extra firepower, the second German attack – through a wall in the side of the building – was also repulsed. Konrad Guderski, the Polish commander (if he can be called that), was killed during this second exchange.
At 15:00 the Germans called a ceasefire, demanding a Polish surrender. As the Polish post office employees – refusing surrender – holed up inside the building, the Germans received additional reinforcements to the tune of a 105mm artillery gun and a unit of combat engineers who spent the two-hour ceasefire diligently (and efficiently, of course) digging a trench under the building and equipping it with a 600kg explosive device. At 17:00, the device was detonated and the side wall of the building collapsed allowing the Germans to capture the entire building except for the basement. With the Poles holed up in the basement refusing surrender, at 18:00 the Germans brought automatic pumps, gas tanks and flamethrowers into the building [the squeamish should perhaps skip this passage…] and proceeded to flood the basement with burning gasoline. Five Poles burned to death before the rest evacuated the basement. The first two Poles to exit the building – waving white flags – were shot. The rest of the Polish defenders were allowed to surrender.
Sixteen Poles injured in the battle were sent to the city’s hospital where six of them died (five from burn wounds, including the building-keeper’s ten-year-old daughter). Though six people had managed to escape the building, two were captured the following day and sent with the other 28 survivors to Victoriaschule, a prison where they were interrogated and tortured along with many other Polish inhabitants of Danzig. All 38 survivors were put on trial, denied a defense lawyer and sentenced to death. They were executed by firing squad on October 5th.
Poland quickly was steamrolled by Nazi Germany in unexpected concert with the Soviet Union, which seized Polish territories in the east. Six years later much of the country was devastated, its Jewish population wiped out by the killing fields of the Holocaust, and its territory occupied by the Red Army. After border adjustments and ethnic cleansing, Poland reappeared as an ethnically and religiously homogeneous state, a fact ironically contributing to its ultimate success in resisting the imposition of communism.
Now, thirty years after Solidarity led Poland into the post-communist era, the country is controlled by a xenophobic and populist movement, in itself hardly unusual in the current age; for a certain segment of the Polish population, much of the story I’ve told so far in this post isn’t history at all. Rather, it is disputed history, hence the current example of the Museum of the Second World War recently opened in Gdansk.
Poland vs. History, by Timothy Snyder (New York Review of Books)
In early 2017, Poland was supposed to unveil what is perhaps the most ambitious museum devoted to World War II in any country. A striking cantilevered tower of glass and red cement is now rising above the completed subterranean chamber that will hold the museum’s 37,000 objects. The largest of these—an American tank, a Soviet tank, and a German railway car—had to be installed with the help of cranes during construction. In its exhibitions, the Museum of the Second World War promised to tell the story of the 1930s and 1940s in an entirely new way. Unlike other museums devoted to history’s most devastating war, which tend to begin and end with national history, the Gdańsk museum has set out to show the perspectives of societies around the world, through a sprawling collection gathered over the last eight years, and through themes that bring seemingly disparate experiences together. It is hard to think of a more fitting place for such a museum than Poland, whose citizens experienced the worst of the war.
Yet the current Polish government, led by the conservative Law and Justice party, now seems determined to cancel the museum, on the grounds that it does not express “the Polish point of view.” It is hard to interpret this phrase, which in practice seems to mean the suppression of both Polish experience and the history of the war in general. The new government’s gambit has been to replace the nearly completed global museum with an obscure (and as yet entirely non-existent) local one, and then to claim that nothing has really changed. The substitute museum would chronicle the Battle of Westerplatte, where Polish forces resisted the German surprise attack on the Baltic coast for seven days in September 1939. Heroic though it was, substituting this campaign for the entirety of World War II means eliminating the record of how Poles fought for their country and their fellow citizens over the succeeding five-and-a-half years. Such a move also means throwing away a historic opportunity to redefine the world’s understanding of the war.
It seems a “global” history of the war wouldn’t have been Polish enough.
Amid Holocaust law, Poland gives its Second World War museum a nationalist rebrand, by Liam Hoare (The JC)
… A spokesman for the museum said any changes are designed to “complete the message” of the main exhibition by “showing the heroes who dedicated their lives to defending their homeland.”
The Polish point of view “is not represented enough” and “needs to be balanced to show the actual victims and aggressors” in the war, he said.
The fate of Gdansk’s museum is a microcosm of a broader struggle across Europe between those who would come to terms with the past and those who ignore or revise it …
The museum’s web site has more information. I’m planning on a visit, and will provide a report at some point in the future.