Angus Thuermer is 92 now, a retired CIA agent living the quiet life in the picturesque horse country of northern Virginia. But 70 years ago, when war was about to break out in Europe, he was working as a junior reporter in the Berlin bureau of The Associated Press. In late August 1939, his bureau chief sent him to Gleiwitz, along the Polish border, since he knew "something was going to happen."
One evening, Thuermer took a taxi outside of town and promptly found himself in the midst of a Wehrmacht regiment marching along the border. Realizing he had better leave before he got into trouble, Thuermer ordered the taxi to take him back to Gleiwitz. A couple of evenings later—Aug. 31, to be exact—he was woken up by sounds outside his hotel. He looked out of his seventh-floor window and saw German troops in a field car followed by countless others marching. Then a band suddenly appeared. That convinced him it was only an exercise. "You don't take a band to go to war," he said, recalling his thinking at the time. So he went back to sleep. The next morning, he looked out the window again and saw trucks bringing back wounded German soldiers from Poland.
Feeling somewhat sheepish that he had slept through the first night of the conflagration that would become World War II, Thuermer rushed to find the press officer of a German Army unit that had moved into his hotel. Introducing himself, he explained that he was eager to accompany German troops into Poland, since it was normal practice for AP reporters to do so. They had been allowed to accompany German troops into Austria and the Sudetenland, he pointed out. "Yes, Herr Thuermer, but this time it is different," the German press officer replied. "You go back to Berlin and to the Propaganda Ministry and they will tell you what is happening."
The German officer was right: this time, it was different. This was really war. Americans like Thuermer who lived in Germany at the time had a unique vantage point on the early period of the conflict. Unlike Britain and France, the United States would remain formally neutral for more than another two years, which meant it could continue to station diplomats and journalists in Berlin. The German invasion of Poland was a drama that they watched from the perspective that the host country afforded them—as they had watched Adolph Hitler's rise to power, his early campaign of terror, and his first steps toward fulfilling his dreams of conquest.
To those Americans who came to see him, Hitler repeatedly listed his grievances against Poland right from the very beginning. Shortly after taking power in 1933, he granted an interview to Hamilton Fish Armstrong, the founding editor of the prestigious quarterly Foreign Affairs. The Polish frontier was "impossible and intolerable," he complained to him, and to accept it was absolutely "unthinkable." He portrayed Germany as crippled by the terms of the Versailles Treaty, while "Poland holds a naked knife in her teeth and looks at us menacingly." He claimed that there were 50 soldiers in the armies of France, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Belgium for every soldier of the German Army, which meant that any new fighting would be the sole responsibility of the Allies. "To say the contrary is to say that a toothless rabbit would start a battle with a tiger," he insisted to Armstrong. The American recalled that, as Hitler spoke, a lock of hair came down menacingly over his eye.
Americans in Berlin were in a unique position to assess the speed at which the German rabbit acquired more and more teeth. Truman Smith, a highly skilled American military attaché who had met Hitler as far back as 1922 during his first tour of duty in Germany, was reassigned to Berlin in the mid-1930s. He was particularly impressed with the rapid development of German air power under its new ruler. Smith helped arrange an invitation from the Luftwaffe's commander in chief, Herman Goering, to Charles Lindbergh, the famed pilot who had made the first transatlantic crossing, to visit German aircraft factories and airfields. Lindbergh reported that Germany was "now able to produce military aircraft faster than any European country … A person would have to be blind not to realize that they have already built up tremendous strength."
Since Lindbergh was openly sympathetic to the Germans, it was easy to dismiss some of his assessments as prejudiced. He was one of the leaders of the powerful isolationist movement, composed of those who felt that the United States had committed a grievous error by allowing itself to be dragged into World War I and that, at all costs, it should avoid letting that happen again. Europe should deal with its own problems, the isolationists maintained.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt was increasingly alarmed by Hitler, but he was acutely conscious of the fact that there was little popular support for American involvement in another war. Thus, he tried desperately to head off the coming conflict. On April 15, 1939, the president issued an appeal to Hitler and Italy's Benito Mussolini not to attack 31 countries, including Poland, for at least 10 years. He wasn't optimistic about the chances for success, but he was still stung by the mocking response from Berlin. Hitler responded by reading off the list of all 31 in front of the Reichstag, while his Nazi deputies laughed derisively. Mussolini dismissed Roosevelt's proposal as "absurd."
As war looked more and more likely, many Americans weren't sure who really had the upper hand militarily—an impression reinforced by some Polish officials. Jay Pierrepont Moffat, chief of the Division of European Affairs at the State Department, noted in his diary as late as Aug. 18, 1939:
Moffat concluded: "The whole conversation represented a point of view of unreasonable optimism and still more unreasonable underrating of one's opponent, that, if typical of Polish mentality in general, causes me to feel considerable foreboding."
H. R. Knickerbocker, another American correspondent based in Berlin, recalled hearing estimates from his Polish sources that would prove almost as much off the mark. The key question that everyone was pondering, he noted, was how long the Poles could hold out before the French could mobilize an offensive against the Germans that would rescue them. "Optimistic Poles said they could hold out for three years; pessimistic Poles said one year," he wrote. "The French thought the Poles could hold out for six months."
Earlier in the summer, Moffat had rated the chances of a war at 50-50. Once he heard the "bombshell" news of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, he upped the odds to 75-25. In Berlin, American diplomats were increasingly inclined to put them even higher. They could see the preparations. Jacob Beam, a young political officer at the embassy, recalled: "From about the middle of August, searchlights pierced the Berlin skies, pinpointing planes at what seemed to be very great heights. Troop convoys crossed the city escorted by roaring motorcycle brigades manned by goggled riders looking like men from Mars."
Walking to the U.S. Embassy on Aug. 31, consular officer William Russell had already read the morning headlines in the German papers: LAST WARNINGS and UNENDURABLE OUTRAGES and MURDEROUS POLES. He heard the steady roar of the engines of bomber aircraft heading east. And just as he was approaching the embassy, a small man with a shaved head, holding a gray hat in his trembling hand, touched his arm. "I must talk to you," he said.
Hans Neuman, a Jew who had been released from Dachau a week earlier, had been trying to get an American visa without success. Now he pleaded for Russell to arrange for him to jump the long queue of desperate applicants, most of whom were also Jewish. "War is going to start tonight. I have friends who know," he said. "If I don't get across the border, I'll lose my last chance to escape."
Although Russell was used to desperate pleas, he believed Neuman—and did manage to get him the life-saving visa that day, even helping him get on a plane to leave the country. Neuman's story would prove one of the few with a happy ending on that last day before war broke out.
Another involved Jozef Lipski, the Polish ambassador to Germany. His British counterpart, Sir Nevile Henderson, had called Lipski to inform him about his stormy meeting with Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, which left little doubt that the Germans were about to attack Poland. That conversation had taken place at 2 a.m. on Aug. 31. Around noon the same day, Jacob Beam, the young American diplomat, saw Lipski sitting in his car at a Shell station, waiting for his tank to be filled. After the war, Beam met Lipski and told him he had seen him then. Lipski explained that he had stayed with his car, fearing that the Germans might seize it. Early that evening, only a few hours before the Germans invaded, Lipski escaped back to his homeland.
But if American diplomats in Berlin like Russell and Beam had a better sense of the enormity of the storm that was about to be unleashed than many others at that fateful time, some of them still hadn't recognized just how quickly Hitler's forces would be able to overwhelm Poland and then most of continental Europe. William Shirer, the CBS radio correspondent in Berlin achieved later fame as the author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, noted in his diary his surprise that, during the first blackout in the German capital after war broke out, nothing happened. "Curious that not a single Polish bomber got through tonight," he wrote on Sept. 1. "But will it be the same with the British and the French?" The next day, he noted further: "No air-raid tonight. Where are the Poles?"
In his radio broadcast on Sept. 2, Shirer reported that Berliners, who seemed nervous during the first night of the blackout, were beginning to sense that life didn't have to change much. "After, say, 1 a.m. this morning, when it became fairly evident that if the Poles were going to send over any planes, they would have come by that time, most people went to sleep. Taxis, creeping along with little slits of light to identify them, did a big business all through the night."
After Hitler's declaration of war on Sept. 1, the diplomat William Russell noted, "One expected something terrific to happen immediately. Nothing did." But Russell also pointed out that the mood was quite different from the jubilation that had accompanied the outbreak of the previous war. "The people I have met seem calm and sad and resigned. They stand around in little groups in front of our Embassy building, staring at us through the windows. I think this is nothing like the beginning of the World War in 1914." In contrast to the enthusiasm of that era, Russell added: "Today, I think they feel that they have been led into something which may turn out to be too big for them."
How correct he would prove to be, but only much later. The string of initial German victories in Poland, the Americans in Berlin reported, produced increasing confidence of the German people and the military in the wisdom of Hitler's actions. On Sept. 6, Shirer noted in his diary: "It begins to look like a rout for the Poles." He reported that the U.S. military attaches at the embassy were stunned by the speed of the German advance, and many correspondents were depressed. On Sept. 12, William Russell, the consular officer, despaired in his diary: "The war is raging in Poland. What can England and France be thinking of? we ask each other. Why don't they attack Germany now, so she will have to fight on two fronts?"
When the Soviet Union attacked Poland from the east on Sept. 17, the Americans knew that the country's fate was sealed. For the American correspondents, another sign was the sudden willingness of the German authorities to allow them to go to the front. Arriving in Sopot on the Baltic coast, Shirer wrote in his diary on Sept. 18:
Reaching Gdynia the next day, Shirer witnessed the Germans mercilessly bombarding one of the last Polish units still resisting them in that area—from the sea, and from three sides on land. The German battleship Schleswig-Holstein was anchored in Danzig's harbor, firing shells at the Polish position, while the artillery was opening up from positions surrounding it. "The Germans were using everything in the way of weapons, big guns, small guns, tanks, and airplanes," he wrote. "The Poles had nothing but machine-guns, rifles, and two anti-aircraft pieces which they were trying desperately to use as artillery against German machine-gun posts and German tanks." He added: "It was a hopeless position for the Poles. And yet they fought on. The German officers with us kept praising their courage."
Joseph Grigg, a correspondent for United Press, was among the first group of foreign newsmen to reach Warsaw, arriving on Oct. 5. They were brought there to see Hitler come to the Polish capital for his victory parade. Grigg was struck by the sight of the bombed-out city. "Such devastation would be difficult to imagine. The whole center of the city had been laid in ruins," he recalled. "The Polish population looked bewildered and stunned." He concluded that the Poles had never had a chance against the German invaders. "The advance of the German mechanized forces across the flat plains of Poland was unleashed with a precision and swing never before seen in history."
Later, a German general would explain to the American correspondent that this was really a more humane type of warfare. "It is our new philosophy of war," Gen. Alexander Loehr declared. "It is the most merciful type of warfare. It surprises your enemy, paralyzes him at one blow and shortens a war by weeks, maybe months. In the long run it saves untold casualties on both sides."
But the message Hitler delivered to the foreign correspondents who were brought to Warsaw on Oct. 5 was one of pure menace. His face pallid but acting like "a triumphant conqueror," Griggs reported, Hitler briefly met the foreign correspondents at Warsaw's airport before boarding his flight back to Berlin. "Gentlemen, you have seen the ruins of Warsaw," he told them. "Let that be a warning to those statesmen in London and Paris who still think of continuing this war."
By this point, some Germans truly believed that Hitler would convince the rest of the world to stand aside for his conquests. But most of the Americans who were witnesses to the defeat of Poland left convinced that this was only the opening act of a long drama. Many believed that, eventually, their country would find itself involved in this epic struggle, too, even if many of their countrymen back home were still hoping to avoid such an outcome at all costs. As Hitler predicted, the fall of Poland would prove to be lesson for the world—but not the lesson he hoped it would be.