On This Day: September 1, 1939


From Newsweek: Scenes from the invasion of Poland

From MSN: Friends, foes, mark WWII’s start in Poland

Hitler’s speech on Sept. 1, 1939, from Berlin:

To the defense forces:

The Polish nation refused my efforts for a peaceful regulation of neighborly relations; instead it has appealed to weapons.

Germans in Poland are persecuted with a bloody terror and are driven from their homes. The series of border violations, which are unbearable to a great power, prove that the Poles no longer are willing to respect the German frontier. In order to put an end to this frantic activity no other means is left to me now than to meet force with force.

German defense forces will carry on the battle for the honor of the living rights of the re- awakened German people with firm determination.

I expect every German soldier, in view of the great tradition of eternal German soldiery, to do his duty until the end.

Remember always in all situations you are the representatives of National Socialist Greater Germany!

Long live our people and our Reich!

Hitler reviews the troops in Warsaw, October 5, 1939.

Excerpt from Viktor Klemperer’s stunning diary I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1933-1941:

September 3, Sunday afternoon

This torture of one’s nerves ever more unbearable. On Friday morning blackout ordered until further notice. We sit in the tiny cellar, the terrible damp closeness, the constant sweating and shivering, the smell of mold, the food shortage, makes everything even more miserable. I try to save butter and meat for Eva and Muschel, to make do myself as far as possible with still unrationed bread and fish. This in itself would all be trivial, but it is all only by the way. What will happen? From hour to hour we tell ourselves, now is the moment when everything is decided, whether Hitler is all-powerful, whether his rule will last indefinitely, or whether it falls now, now.

On Friday morning, September 1, the young butcher’s lad came and told us: There had been a radio announcement, we already held Danzig and the Corridor, the war with Poland was under way, England and France remained neutral. I said to Eva, then a morphine injection or something similar was the best thing for us, our life was over. But then we said to one another, that could not possibly be the way things were, the boy had often reported absurd things (he was a perfect example of the way in which people take in news reports). A little later we heard Hitler’s agitated voice, then the usual roaring, but could not make anything out. We said to ourselves, if the report were even only half true they must already be putting out the flags. Then down in town the dispatch of the outbreak of war. I asked several people whether English neutrality had already been declared. Only an intelligent salesgirl in a cigar shop on Chemnitzer Platz said: No – that would really be a joke! At the baker’s, at Vogel’s, they all said, as good as declared, all over in a few days! A young man in front of the newspaper display: The English are cowards, they won’t do anything. Ad thus with variations the general mood, vox populi (butter seller, newspaper man, bill collector of the gas company etc. etc.) In the afternoon read the Fuhrer’s speech. It seemed to me pessimistic as far as the external and the interal position were considered. Also all the regulations pointed and still point to more than a mere punitive expedition against Poland. And now this is the third day like this, it feels as if it has been three years: the waiting, the despairing, hoping, weighing up, not knowing. The newspaper yesterday, Saturday, vague and in fact anticipating a general outbreak of war: England, the attacker – English mobilization, French mobilization, they will bleed to death! etc., etc. But still no declaration of war on their side. Is it coming or will they fail to resist and merely demonstrate weakness?

The military bulletin is also unclear. Talks of successes everywhere, reports no serious opposition anywhere and yet also shows that German troops have nowhere advanced far beyond the frontiers. How does it all fit together? All in all: Reports and measures taken are serious, popular opinion absolutely certain of victory, ten thousand times more arrogant than in ’14. The consequence will either be an overwhelming, almost unchallenged victory, and England and France are castrated minor states, or a catastrophe ten thousand times worse than ’18. And the two of us right in the middle, helpless and probably lost in either case … And yet we force ourselves, and sometimes it even succeeds for a couple of hours, to go on with our everyday life: reading aloud, eating (as best we can), writing, garden. But as I lie down to sleep I think: Will they come for me tonight? Will I be shot, will I be put in a concentration camp?

Waiting in peaceful Dolzschen, cut off from the world, is particularly bad. One listens to every sound, watches every face, pays attention to everything. One learns nothing. One waits for the newspaper and can make nothing of it. At the moment I do tend to think that there will be war with the great powers.

At the butcher an old dear puts her hand on my shoulder and says in a voice full of tears: He has said that he will put on a soldier’s coat again and be a soldier himself, and if he falls, then Goering … A young lady brings me my ration card, looks at me with a friendly expression: Do you still remember me? I studied under you, I’ve married into the family here. — An old gentleman, very friendly, brings the blackout order: Terrible, that it’s war again – but yet one is so patriotic, when I saw a battery leaving yesterday, I wanted more than anything to go with them! No one is outraged by the Russian alliance, people think it is brilliant or an excellent joke – Vogel’s optimism (yesterday: We’ve almost finished off the Poles, the others won’t stir themselves!) is to our benefit in coffee, sausage, tea, soap etc. — Is this the general mood in Germany? Is it founded on facts or on hubris?

The Jewish Community in Dresden inquires whether I want to join it, since it represents the National Association of Jews locally; the Confessing Christians inquire whether I shall remain with them. I replied to the Gruber people that I was and will remain Protestant, I would not reply to the Jewish Community at all.

Note how on September 1 the Fuhrer declared lasting friendship with Russia in two words. Is there really no one in Germany who does not feel a pang of conscience? Once more: Machiavelli was mistaken; there is a line beyond which the separation of morality and politics is unpolitical and has to be paid for. Sooner or later. But can we wait until later?

September 1, 1939

Excerpt from William Shirer’s Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941 (more excerpts here):

BERLIN, AUGUST 31 three thirty a.m.

Tonight the great armies, navies, and air forces are all mobilized. Each country is shut off from the other. We have not been able today to get through to Paris or London, or of course to Warsaw, though I did talk to Tess in Geneva. At that, no precipitate action is expected tonight. Berlin is quite normal in appearance this evening. There has been no evacuation of women and children, not even any sandbagging of the windows. We’ll have to wait through still another night, it appears, before we know. And so to bed, almost at dawn.

BERLIN, September 1

At six a.m. Sigrid Schultz – bless her heart – phoned. She said: “it’s happened.” I was very sleepy – my body and mind numbed, paralysed. I mumbled: “Thanks, Sigrid,” and tumbled out of bed. The war is on!

It’s a “counter-attack”! At dawn this morning Hitler moved against Poland. It’s a fragrant, inexcusable, unprovoked act of aggression. But Hitler and the High Command call it a “counter-attack”. A grey morning with overhanging clouds. T he people in the street were apathetic when I drove to the Rundfunk for my first broadcast at eight fifteen a.m. Across from the Adlon the morning shift of workers was busy on the new I.G. Farben building just as if nothing had happened. None of the men brought the extras which the newsboys were shouting. Along the east-west axis the Luftwaffe were mounting five big anti-aircraft guns to protect Hitler when he addresses the Reichstag at ten a.m. Jordan and I had to remain at the radio to handle Hitler’s speech for America. Throughout the speech, I thought as I listened, ran a curious strain, as though Hitler himself were dazed at the fix he had got himself into and felt a little desperate about it. Somehow he did not carry conviction and there was much less cheering in the Reichstag than on previous, less important occasions. Jordan must have reacted the same way. As we waited to translate the speech for America, he whispered: “Sounds like his swan song.” It really did. He sounded discouraged when he told the Reichstag that Italy would not be coming into the war because “we are unwiling to call in outside help for this struggle. We will fulfil this task by ourselves.” And yet Paragraph 3 of the Axis military alliance calls for immediate, automatic Italian support with “all its military resources on land, at sea, and in the air.” What about that? He sounded desperate when, referring to Molotov’s speech of yesterday at the Russian ratification of the Nazi-Soviet accord, he said: “I can only underline every word of Foreign Commisar Molotov’s speech.”

Tomorrow Britain and France probably will come in and you have your second World War. The British and French tonight sent an ultimatum to Hitler to withdraw his troops from Poland or their ambassadors will ask for their passports. Presumably they will get their passports.

Later. Two thirty a.m. – Almost through our first blackout. The city is completely darkened. It takes a little getting used to. You grope around in the pitch-black streets and pretty soon your eyes get used to it. You can make out the whitewashed curbstones. We had our first air-raid alarm at seven p.m. I was at the radio just beginning my script for a broadcast at eight fifteen. The lights went out, and all the German employees grabbed their gas-masks and, not a little frightened, rushed for the shelter. No one offered me a mask, but the wardens insisted that I go to the cellar. In the darkness and confusion I escaped outside and went down to the studios, where I found a small room in which a candle was burning on a table. There I scribbled out my notes. No planes came over. But with the English and French in, it may be different tomorrow. I shall then be in the by no means pleasant predicament of hoping they bomb the hell out of this town without getting me. The ugly shrill of the sirens, the rushing to a cellar with your gas-mask (if you have one), the utter darkness of the night – how will human nerves stand for that long?

One curious thing about Berlin on this first night of the war: the cafes, restaurants, and beer-halls were packed. The people just a bit apprehensive after the air-raid, I felt. Finished broadcasting at one thirty a.m., stumbled a half-mile down the Kaiserdamm in the dark, and finally found a taxi. But another pedestrian appeared out of the dark and jumped in first. We finally shared it, he very drunk and the driver drunker, and both cursing the darkness and the war.

The isolation from the outside world that you feel on a night like this is increased by a new decree issued tonight prohibiting the listening to foreign broadcasts. Who’s afraid of the truth? And no wonder. Curious that not a single Polish bomber got through tonight. But will it be the same with the British and French?


Auden, an ex-pat sitting in New York, wrote the following poem about it. The poem has an interesting history in and of itself. Auden deleted the final two stanzas. (They’re included in the collection called Early Auden and are included below.) Auden proclaimed later that he was ashamed of this poem. Auden edited the famous valedictory line “We must love one another or die” to “We must love one another and die”, a totally different meaning, indicative of his conflicting feelings about this poem. Auden didn’t like that it sounded like he was patting himself on the back for his own humanism. E.M. Forster declared that because Auden wrote the words “We must love one another or die” he would follow Auden anywhere. Forster’s was a common response to the poem, and maybe one of the reasons Auden disliked it so much. But still, it’s an astonishing piece of work and it stands as a document of that day: Auden’s feelings about it, his editing of it, his rejection of it, is also part and parcel of those horrible chaotic end-times.

by W.H. Auden

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
‘I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,’
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the dead,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

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12 Responses to On This Day: September 1, 1939

  1. george says:

    Thanks for this – and the Auden poem. Both my parents were there on September 1, though they didn’t meet until after the war.

  2. sheila says:

    In Poland, really? Wow.

  3. Anthony says:

    Very powerful sequence: a thoughtful way to begin my day. Thank you.

  4. sheila says:

    Anthony – thank you. Scary scary times. Good to remember.

  5. DBW says:

    “there is a line beyond which the separation of morality and politics is unpolitical and has to be paid for. Sooner or later. But can we wait until later?”

    A chilling read.

  6. The echoes in our time make this an even more chilling read than it might have been at this time last year. I was particularly struck by these lines of Auden’s:

    //Faces along the bar
    Cling to their average day:
    The lights must never go out,
    The music must always play,//

  7. Scotter says:

    To go further down the rabbit hole, Clare Hollingworth, the journalist who got the scoop:


  8. Shawn says:

    And now the faces along the bar are now in Starbucks, where the music plays incessantly.

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