Europe’s Most Terrible Years

Historians in the News
tags: European history, World War 2


Poland 1939: The Outbreak of World War II

by Roger Moorhouse

Basic Books, 408 pp., $32.00

“Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself”: The Mass Suicide of Ordinary Germans in 1945

by Florian Huber, translated from the German by Imogen Taylor

Little, Brown Spark, 292 pp., $29.00


On August 30, 1939, Franciszek Honiok, a Pole living in the village of Hohenlieben in what was then the German province of Silesia, was picked up off the street by the Gestapo. He was held in solitary confinement until the following day when he was taken to Gleiwitz, near the Polish border. That evening, on the coded order “Grossmutter gestorben” (Grandmother dead) from Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Gestapo, Honiok was injected with a sedative, driven to the nearby radio transmitter station, dumped there, and shot. SS Major Helmut Naujocks, who was in charge of the operation, forced one of the station’s staff to broadcast in Polish: “Attention! Here is Gleiwitz! The radio station is in Polish hands!”

The murder of Honiok was one of a number of crude false flag incidents staged to suggest that Germany had been attacked. Inmates were taken from a concentration camp, dressed in Polish uniforms, shot, and their bodies left at the German customs post in Hochlinden to appear as a Polish incursion. By the next morning, as German radio and newspapers blared news of the “attacks,” Wehrmacht tanks were already advancing into Poland.

On April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler shot himself in his Berlin bunker. That day in the small Pomeranian town of Demmin, a number of people killed themselves, then scores within a few days. They were among a wave of suicides across Germany that spring. Hitler was followed by Joseph Goebbels and his wife, who first poisoned their six children; Martin Bormann; Heinrich Himmler, who bit a cyanide capsule after he was arrested by British soldiers; 53 out of 554 German generals; and tens of thousands of other Germans.

Between those two dates Europe experienced the most terrible years in its history, years that were worse in Poland than in any other country. As Roger Moorhouse relates in Poland 1939: The Outbreak of World War II, the short, savage campaign to crush the Poles, who fought against hopeless odds, proved to be “a five-week struggle that prefaced nearly 300 weeks of slaughter.” Not only would almost all of the three million Polish Jews be methodically exterminated by the Germans, but as many Catholic Poles died as well. Warsaw was destroyed, and once Germany was at last defeated, the independence and integrity of Poland—the ostensible purpose for which Great Britain and France had gone to war—were conspicuously not restored.

Amid the horror, desolation, and bitterness with which the war ended, the story that Florian Huber tells in “Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself”: The Mass Suicide of Ordinary Germans in 1945 attracted little notice at the time. To the extent that it did, the reaction of the outside world—as to other German woes at that time, from the Allied firebombing of cities to the rape of millions of women by Russian soldiers to the expulsion of millions of Germans from Central Europe—tended to range from indifference to a vengeful sense that the Germans were the architects of their own misfortune or, more bluntly, that they had it coming. After so many years, those feelings of vengeance have faded, but looking at the way the war began helps to explain them.

Read entire article at New York Review of Books

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