Hitler’s Gamble: Nazi Germany Took Big Risks by Invading Poland

 In E3, CEE, Germany, Poland

Historians often com­pare Adolf Hitler to a gam­bler. He kept making risky bets that paid off time and again — until they didn’t. Poland was one exam­ple because it led to gen­er­al war. What brought Hitler to take this risk? With the ben­e­fit of hind­sight it is seen as enor­mous, but what did the sit­u­a­tion look like to the German Führer and his clos­est advis­ers at the time? The pop­u­lar modern view of Hitler is that of a raving lunatic, scream­ing at sub­or­di­nates while push­ing phan­tom armies around a map in his bunker. While he deserves every neg­a­tive epi­thet given him, he did not decide all his strate­gic and oper­a­tional deci­sions from mad, angry rants. In the years lead­ing to World War II there were numer­ous events that took him down the road from a promise to rebuild the nation to inevitable con­flict. However skewed, there was method to his mad­ness, which came close to paying off in the early years of the fight­ing. The war offi­cial­ly began with the Nazi inva­sion of Poland on September 1, 1939, but numer­ous fac­tors led to this attack.

Logic, Planning, Revenge: Why Hitler Targeted Poland

While many of the cal­cu­la­tions for war were based on some mod­icum of logic and rea­soned plan­ning, revenge, the basest of human emo­tions, played its part. German humil­i­a­tion over the con­di­tions placed upon the nation at the end of World War I had not abated in the two decades since the con­flict ended. Over time the mass emo­tion­al reac­tion to the treaty stip­u­la­tions became a fes­ter­ing sore among the pop­u­la­tion. This wound was ripe for exploita­tion by the Nazi pro­pa­gan­da machine during the party’s rise to power.

The Treaty of Versailles imposed severe restric­tions on the German mil­i­tary. The ground forces were lim­it­ed in size to 100,000 troops in 10 divi­sions, includ­ing 4,000 offi­cers. The Army could be used only for the “inter­nal main­te­nance of order” and defense. Also pro­hib­it­ed were sta­ples of the German mil­i­tary system, such as a gen­er­al staff, most offi­cer train­ing schools, and any sort of reserves or para­mil­i­tary groups.  Additionally, tanks and heavy weapons were denied. Chemical weapons were express­ly for­bid­den. Defensive posi­tions along the east bank of the Rhine River had to be demol­ished for a dis­tance of 50 kilo­me­ters from the river­bank. The west bank was sim­i­lar­ly denud­ed of defens­es. This left the coun­try defense­less against attack.

The humil­i­a­tion of Versailles went beyond just mil­i­tary lim­i­ta­tions. Germany lost land to Poland and France. The French received Alsace-Lorraine, lost decades before during the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. The “Polish Corridor,” a strip of land given to Poland grant­i­ng it access to the Baltic Sea, meant East Prussia was now phys­i­cal­ly sep­a­rate from the rest of the coun­try. The for­mer­ly German city of Danzig was made a “Free City,” con­trolled by the Poles despite its large­ly German pop­u­la­tion. All of Germany’s over­seas colonies and ter­ri­to­ries were trans­ferred to other nations. Last was a crush­ing debt of repa­ra­tions, equiv­a­lent to bil­lions of dol­lars today. (Read more about the con­flicts and events that led to the Second World War inside the pages of WWII History mag­a­zine.) 

The cumu­la­tive effect of the treaty require­ments cre­at­ed a sense of injus­tice among the German pop­u­lace, which the Nazis were all too will­ing to use in their grab for power. The party came into power on a promise to right the wrongs of Versailles and make Germany strong again. Germany suf­fered many inter­nal trou­bles through­out the 1920s and early 30s, some­thing the German people remem­bered. Once nation­al power was restored in the late 1930s, it became a nat­ur­al, brutal pro­gres­sion to use that power against nations that had taken German lands. The Polish Corridor stood out in par­tic­u­lar; regain­ing it meant recon­nect­ing East Prussia to Germany proper.

With revenge in mind, the next step for Hitler was rear­ma­ment. This was the key pre­req­ui­site for any resur­gence of Germany as a major power. Even before Hitler began rear­ma­ment in late 1933, the mil­i­tary had been secret­ly prepar­ing for a fast expan­sion through a com­bi­na­tion of train­ing, lib­er­al inter­pre­ta­tion of the treaty restric­tions, and secret weapons devel­op­ment projects. This allowed the Nazis to quick­ly create a mas­sive mil­i­tary machine, faster than Germany’s oppo­nents thought pos­si­ble.

Initial steps includ­ed rebuild­ing the German arms indus­try so it could pro­duce the nec­es­sary weapons. The plans for fast wartime expan­sion of the Army were instead applied to peace­time growth. The first increase was to 300,000 troops in 21 divi­sions. This pro­gram was to be fin­ished by 1937, but Hitler advanced this timetable to the fall of 1934, barely a year later. During this period Hitler began to con­sol­i­date his power, moving against men like Ernst Röhm, the leader of the Nazi Party’s para­mil­i­tary arm, the Sturmabteilung (SA). He also absorbed the powers of the mil­i­tary com­man­der in chief when the German President Paul von Hindenburg died in August 1934. Afterward German sol­diers and sailors were required to swear an oath of alle­giance to Hitler per­son­al­ly, a throw­back to the oath given the kaiser during the impe­r­i­al period. By the end of 1934, German Army strength reached 240,000.

On March 16, 1935, Hitler pub­licly reject­ed the Versailles Treaty and ordered a fur­ther expan­sion of the army to 36 divi­sions under a new defense law. Conscription was also rein­tro­duced. Within two months anoth­er law cre­at­ed the Luftwaffe. The con­scrip­tion pro­gram cre­at­ed a large pool of trained man­pow­er, some­thing the Germans lacked due to Versailles. Changes at the com­mand level also made the German mil­i­tary more effec­tive. The Reichswehr was renamed the Wehrmacht, with the three branch­es called the Heer (army), Kriegsmarine (navy), and Luftwaffe (air force). The gen­er­al staff was rebuilt, and Hitler was solid­ly placed as the military’s supreme com­man­der. Generals who dis­agreed with Hitler were retired or removed through scan­dal or accu­sa­tions of mis­con­duct. The Führer cre­at­ed a modern, pow­er­ful force com­plete­ly under his con­trol.

While this buildup was touted as smooth and orga­nized with Teutonic effi­cien­cy, the process was dif­fi­cult. German indus­try needed time to create modern weapons, most of which were only designs on a draw­ing board. Raw mate­ri­als, trained labor, and fac­to­ry capac­i­ty were insuf­fi­cient to pro­vide for all three ser­vices’ needs. The navy took a back seat to the Army and air force. This deci­sion made sense because Germany’s pri­ma­ry oppo­nents bor­dered the nation, ren­der­ing a pow­er­ful fleet unnec­es­sary in the short term.

Making it Up as they Go: The Rapid Expansion of the Nazi German Army

Building on its secret exper­i­ments, the Army start­ed an ambi­tious pro­gram for armored vehi­cles, but they were learn­ing as they went. The first models were light­ly armed and armored vehi­cles, which would later prove infe­ri­or to enemy tanks, though the Germans usu­al­ly han­dled theirs better. Without making sac­ri­fices else­where, it was impos­si­ble to build as many vehi­cles and artillery pieces as were needed. Hitler was unwill­ing to strain the peace­time German econ­o­my, so pro­duc­tion rates were kept low.

The rapid expan­sion also placed a strain on per­son­nel. There were not enough qual­i­fied offi­cers and NCOs to fill all the required bil­lets. Fast pro­mo­tions and the recall of World War I vet­er­ans alle­vi­at­ed these prob­lems, but only to a lim­it­ed extent. Many of the vet­er­ans were get­ting too old for field ser­vice and needed refresh­er train­ing. Many offi­cers were lost to the newly formed Luftwaffe, and many staff offi­cers for air units were ground forces men untrained and inex­pe­ri­enced in air oper­a­tions. Another quick solu­tion was to mil­i­ta­rize entire police units to cap­i­tal­ize on the train­ing and dis­ci­pline of their NCOs and offi­cers.

Despite these dif­fi­cul­ties, rear­ma­ment did pro­duce results. By October 1937, the army reached an active strength of 39 divi­sions in 14 corps, includ­ing three panzer and four motor­ized divi­sions. There were 29 divi­sions in reserve with more of their sol­diers having recent train­ing through the con­scrip­tion pro­gram. In 1938, a dozen more divi­sions, includ­ing two panzer and four motor­ized, were also formed along with 22 more reserve divi­sions. Some of these units came from the absorp­tion of the Austrian Army, which occurred that year. Further expan­sion occurred in 1939.

Possessing a pow­er­ful army gave Hitler options in the expan­sion­ist risks he took. Like many Germans, he sought revenge for per­ceived injus­tices. For the Führer the scales could only be bal­anced through war, and a strong mil­i­tary made war fea­si­ble, even desir­able, as it would prove Germany was again for­mi­da­ble and to be respect­ed. By 1939, the Army had 102 divi­sions, half of them active. Total strength was around 1.8 mil­lion troops. While there were still short­ages in cer­tain types of weapons and equip­ment, the Nazi pro­pa­gan­da machine had done its work, and these short­com­ings were not appar­ent. Foreign observers saw a for­mi­da­ble modern force, and Hitler was happy to let them believe that image.

Prior to the Polish Crisis, Germany had gotten exten­sive prac­tice in ter­ri­to­r­i­al acqui­si­tion, though with­out war. Instead, polit­i­cal maneu­ver­ing and bluff achieved Nazi goals up to that point. There was ten­sion; war clouds loomed over Europe for sev­er­al years before September 1939. However, until then each crisis had been resolved in Germany’s favor, a win­ning streak that increased con­fi­dence within the Reich in its own abil­i­ty and the moral cow­ardice of its oppo­nents. Hitler was sus­cep­ti­ble to a gambler’s faith in a win­ning streak, and this was a factor in the Nazi inva­sion of Poland.

National Interest source|articles

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