September 1939: The German army and the invasion of Poland

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Frederick D. Marquardt


World War II, German, Army, Invasion, Poland

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | European History | History


The criminal conduct of the German army during World War Two has been the subject of numerous historical studies. Scholars have firmly established that the Wehrmacht played a central role in implementing genocidal policies from 1941 to 1945 as part of its brutal occupation of Eastern Europe. This study argues, however, that the history of the German army's wartime participation in the mass murder of civilians in Eastern Europe cannot be limited to the years 1941-1945, but must include events during the military campaign against Poland in September 1939.

Beginning with the months prior to the invasion, the study considers the attitudes of German officers towards destroying Poland. While Germany's military leadership may have feared starting a general European war in 1939, most German commanders nevertheless shared Hitler's desire to see Poland obliterated. Once the decision for an attack had been made, fear of and disdain for Poland's civilian population, both Jewish and non-Jewish, then informed Wehrmacht preparations for the invasion and facilitated cooperation between the army and the SS during the invasion. The result was extensive collaboration between the army and SS in suppressing civilian resistance, which foreshadowed the highly destructive character of German policies in the occupied Soviet Union.

Subsequent sections of the study focus on Wehrmacht reprisal policy against civilians and the behavior of German soldiers towards Jews and Poles during the campaign. German army field reports and testimony given later by Polish civilians recount the shooting of hostages, burning of houses, and wanton violence against apparently uninvolved bystanders, including small children and the elderly. Internal army documents suggest that the official policy of collective punishment rationalized the sometimes brutal treatment of Poles and Jews by German soldiers. In addition, letters, diaries, and after-action reports written by soldiers show that their behavior was informed by racial and anti-Semitic stereotypes to which they had been exposed before the war, in many cases, before 1933.


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