On this day in 1939, Britain and France declared war on Nazi Germany. What was to follow would be one of the most devastating periods of human history, with its legacy still keenly felt today.
After the First World War, the Treaty of Versailles had established the Free City of Danzig. Danzig, or Gdansk, as we now know it, had long been squabbled over by Germany and Poland, thanks to its status as an important seaport on the Baltic coast. The city was under the protection of the League of Nations, but Hitler felt that it should be returned to Germany. The same treaty had separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany and given the fertile farmland of Poznan and the Polish Corridor back to Poland. Britain and France had promised to protect Poland should another country threaten her and Hitler himself had agreed in 1934 to guarantee he would neither alter Danzig’s position, nor threaten the Polish Corridor for 10 years.
Believing Britain and France would continue with their policy of appeasement, Hitler rejected his previous commitments and instead signed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union in August. This came as a surprise to many, as the Russians had been in negotiations to protect Poland alongside Britain and France just a few months previously. However, the Soviet Union did have a strong interest and sphere of influence in eastern Poland.
In response to this, and Hitler’s earlier breach of the Munich Agreement by occupying Czechoslovakia, Britain signed the Anglo-Polish alliance, which guaranteed mutual support in the event of invasion by Germany. This threw Hitler, as it demonstrated that the policy of appeasement had been abandoned by the British. He postponed his invasion of Poland, which had been due to take place on 26th August. However, with support from the Soviet Union, it took only a few days for Hitler to compose himself and order the invasion.
Of course, there was very little that Poland could do against the Nazi threat; they were outnumbered and outgunned. Britain and France did declare war on Nazi Germany on 3rd September 1939, although, unfortunately, this did not help Poland, which was carved up between the two totalitarian states by October. Poland would remain occupied by Germany until 1945, when it then became a Soviet satellite state until 1990.
It is believed that around 100 million people were directly involved in the Second World War, encompassing more than 30 countries. The exact number of fatalities is unknown, but various sources place this at between 50 and 100 million. Approximately 11 million people would lose their lives in the Nazi concentration camps, several of which would be established in Poland, including Auschwitz. This included Jews, Poles, Gypsies, communists, homosexuals and the disabled, amongst other ethnic and political minorities. The conflict would extend much further than Europe, with conflicts in the Pacific, the Middle East and Africa too.
To find out how your students can experience the effects and impact of WW2, as well as gain a deeper understanding of its origins, please see our WW2 tours.