This week in history: Nazis invade Poland

The Nazi invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939 marked the beginning of World War II. Here’s how Chicagoans reacted to the news.

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Chicago Daily News front page newspaper announcing Nazi invasion of Poland

The front page of the Chicago Daily News on Sept. 1, 1939, proclaimed the news of the Nazi invasion of Poland.

From the Sun-Times archives

As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

On Sept. 1, 1939, all news in Chicago stopped. Whatever Chicago Daily News editors had planned for the front page of the afternoon paper, which would hit newsstands about 5 p.m., it all seemed far less important as bulletins arrived from foreign correspondent Wallace R. Deuel in Europe.

“Adolf Hitler today threw down the supreme challenge,” he wrote that day. “Told by France and England that to use force against Poland would mean a European war, the Chancellor acted with the same blind faith in his mission that has marked him throughout — rather than surrender, he ordered the armed might of the Reich into action.

“The German army and air force struck Poland this morning.”

The Nazi invasion of Poland catapulted the globe into World War II. Though it would be another two years until the U.S. officially joined, the action shattered the safety millions of Americans felt as the United Kingdom, France and other countries fell victim to Nazi bombings and invasions.

As the attack on Polish cities continued, Hitler called Nazi Germany’s legislative body, the Reichstag, to a session, Deuel reported. He and every major political figure in Germany, not to mention ambassadors from the U.K. and U.S., attended. If the building had been bombed, history would have turned out quite differently.

Hitler spoke for an almost an hour. In his 34-minute speech, while wearing a “special tunic of army field gray and black trousers,” he stated his case.

“He began with a passionate denunciation of the Treaty of Versailles in general, and its provisions dealing with Danzig and the Polish Corridor in particular,” the reporter recounted. “Then he went on to say that he had made the most moderate proposals to Poland for a peaceful revision between the two countries. Instead of showing any sign of willingness to discuss the proposals, however, Hitler said, the Poles had mobilized their armed forces and increased their attacks on Danzig and Germans in Poland.”

In what appeared to be an effort to assuage the West, Hitler assured listeners that “the Reich has no claims to advance in Western Europe,” a promise he would soon break.

“If statesmen in the West declare that this affects their interests, I can only regret such a statement,” he said. “But it cannot make me hesitate a single second in the fulfillment of my duty!”

Of his costume, the Chancellor concluded, “I shall take it off only after victory or I shall not live to experience the end.”

In Paris and London, the French and English governments prepared for war by first issuing ultimatums as both countries held alliances with Poland.

“Britain, [Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain] said, will stand unhesitantly behind her military obligations to aid Poland in case of aggression,” Deuel wrote, adding that Chamberlain placed all “the blame for the invasion on Germany, declaring that Poland had offered to negotiate the dispute and had been turned down.”

Most of the stories on the front page were devoted to the invasion of Poland and the world’s response to it, but a few Chicago-based stories did end up at the very bottom of the page. A local union representing motion picture operators and stage hands threatened to strike, and a car crash in Peoria killed one Chicagoan and injured another. And on the national stage, a federal judge returned an indictment for William R. “Billy” Skidmore, the payoff man in Chicago’s gambling racket.

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