Adolf Hitler was the leader of Nazi Germany from 1934 until 1945, when he committed suicide. His role in World War II led to him being widely regarded as one of the most destructive figures in history and a major catalyst for what many regard as genocide.
The “the man who started world war 1” is the person who is said to have started World War II. He was Adolf Hitler, and he caused a lot of destruction in Europe.
He was an SS specialist in well-executed dirty acts, tasked with portraying Poland as a monster.
SS-Sturmbannführer Alfred Naujocks was anxiously waiting in a hotel room with a squad of seven SS soldiers on the afternoon of August 31, 1939, close to the Polish border in the German town of Gleiwitz. They had arrived in town two days before and reconnoitered their objective while masquerading as mining engineers. They were now waiting for the news to spread. Their mission was to orchestrate an assault that would provide Hitler with the justification he needed to declare war on Poland. They were about to launch World War II.
Naujocks (above) was an early SS recruit who became SS security head Reinhard Heydrich’s go-to operator. (Sueddeutsche Zeitung/Sueddeutsche Zeitung/Sueddeutsche Zeitung (Photo courtesy of Alamy Stock Photo)
Naujocks, a 27-year-old from Kiel on Germany’s Baltic coast, was a long-time Nazi supporter. He had briefly studied university before joining the SS in 1931, when he acquired a flair for brawling and had his nose crushed by an iron bar–wielding Communist. Naujocks had advanced quickly within the SS hierarchy, coming under the favor of Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the German police network and SS security agency, the Sicherheitsdienst, or SD, according to one contemporaneous. In that role, Naujocks murdered a dissident Nazi in Prague in 1935 and assisted in the establishment of Salon Kitty, a renowned high-class brothel in Berlin frequented by visiting VIPs who could be easily blackmailed; the rooms were bugged, and the “madam” was an SS operative.
Naujocks was the SD leader’s agent of choice to handle the operation in Gleiwitz after proving himself to Heydrich. And it was Heydrich’s nasal, high-pitched voice on the other end of the line from Berlin that gave him the order to begin: “Grossmutter gestorben” (Grandmother has died). Naujocks then summoned his troops for a final briefing, reaffirming their individual missions and goals. The mission has started.
TENSIONS IN THE RELATIONSHIP Germany and Poland, which had been at odds for almost two decades, had reached a breaking point in the previous few months. The Treaty of Versailles mandated Germany’s territorial losses to Poland in the aftermath of World War I, mainly a swath of what had been eastern Germany on the Polish border, including portions of Upper Silesia and the provinces of West Prussia and Posen. These losses, which covered over 25,000 square miles (about the size of West Virginia), not only housed upwards of five million people, including a significant German minority, but also cut East Prussia off from the rest of Germany by establishing the so-called “Polish Corridor.”
However, Hitler’s rage, fueled by his racial biases and conviction that Germany’s national destiny lay in eastward expansion, extended beyond territorial losses. Hitler started to target Poland, ratcheting up the rhetoric and moaning constantly about Polish perfidy, as he became more reckless in his saber-rattling, eager to capitalize on what he regarded as Western weakness and impatient for a conflict that he believed would define him and his Third Reich.
Reinhard Heydrich, the SD commander. (Fototeca Gilardi/AKG-Images)
Even if the Poles had made territorial concessions by the summer of 1939—which they did not—it would not have been enough. Hitler was determined to win his war. However, he was confronted with a two-fold issue. For one thing, Poland had friends in the British and French, both of which had promised to defend Poland against foreign invasion. For another, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Germans backed Hitler completely, they could not stomach another global war.
As a result, Hitler had to disguise his aggressive objectives in order to look defensive—to portray Poland as the aggressor. He reasoned that in this manner, the German people could be convinced to support the war, and Poland’s foreign allies would lose support. On August 22, 1939, during a speech to his top military leaders at his Alpine hideaway above Berchtesgaden, Hitler summed up his stance. “I will provide a propagandist cause for beginning the war, regardless of whether it is plausible or not,” he stated, adding, “I shall give a propaganda reason for launching the war, regardless of whether it is believable or not.” The victor will not be questioned whether he spoke the truth later.”
Much of Hitler’s propaganda assault had been broadcast across the globe during that summer. While Hitler raged openly about Polish stubbornness and the injustices of Germany’s postwar territorial losses, his lieutenants worked discreetly to destabilize relations and portray Poland as the aggressor. To that purpose, Heydrich cleared the region near the Polish border of any “politically unreliable individuals.” Isolated homes, barns, and farmsteads were targeted in arson assaults inside that zone in order to spread the lie that Polish rebels were to blame in the German press. Throughout the summer of 1939, German media published a slew of gruesome stories on what they dubbed “Polish terror,” with accusations of “Polish bandits,” “increasing anxiety,” and the “terrible suffering” of the German minority. Newspaper reports towards the end of the summer claimed that Poles had killed 66 Germans.
The SS built a training facility in Bernau, north of Berlin, while the German media was preoccupied slandering its eastern neighbors. More than 300 volunteers—mostly from the German province of Upper Silesia, which included Gleiwitz and is now part of southwestern Poland and the Czech Republic—were preparing for infiltration and sabotage operations against Poland, as well as training with Polish weapons and uniforms and improving their Polish language skills. Those agents were ready to go by the end of August.
They would be deployed in three planned attacks throughout Upper Silesia on the night of August 31. Aside from the Gleiwitz assault, there would be a raid on an isolated cabin for forestry workers and a German customs station in the Hochlinden area, where the SS soldiers would mimic border breaches by breaking windows, shooting into the air, and singing and cursing in poor Polish. It nearly would have been funny if it hadn’t been for the corpses of six concentration camp prisoners, who were given the derogatory code name “Konserven” (canned goods), clothed in Polish uniforms, and then shot and placed at the customs station to lend credibility to the scenario.
IN THE MIDST OF ALL THIS MURDEROUS PRETENSE, THE ACTION AT Gleiwitz was particularly significant. The assailants were simply needed to give voice to their “mission” and expose their objectives to the world there, whether by accident or purpose. To that aim, Naujocks thought he’d devised the ideal strategy. He had selected the radio transmitter facility at Gleiwitz, with its 380-foot wooden tower, as a suitable target from his previous survey. He estimated that he and his men could easily seize possession of the location, detain the station’s personnel, fire a few bullets into the ceiling, and broadcast an incendiary message in Polish over the airwaves before escaping into the night. He had decided that the optimum moment for the attack would be around 8 p.m., when darkness would offer cover and most people would be at home listening to their radios.
Initially, Naujocks’ Gleiwitz strategy was to avoid any bloodshed. His superiors, on the other hand, had determined that a clinching piece of proof was needed to make the propaganda more successful. The Gestapo’s Heinrich Müller told the Naujocks that a Pole would be sent, whose wounded body would be placed at the radio station as incontrovertible “evidence” of Polish involvement for the assault. As a result, using one of the Konserven—random concentration camp prisoners employed at Hochlinden—wasn’t enough; it had to be an ethnic Pole with a known history of anti-German activism. Franciszek Honiok was the guy in question.
Franciszek Honiok was a supporter of Polish interests and an ethnic Pole residing in Germany. Following a short imprisonment at the police barracks in Beuthen, Germany, these characteristics marked him for execution. (Shutterstock/Stuart Clarke)
Honiok was regarded as nearly completely nondescript by those who observed him throughout the procedure. The 43-year-old farmer was shorter than usual, standing five feet two inches tall, and his dark blond hair was receding at the temples. He was otherwise unremarkable, dressed in a crumpled gray suit with a little unkempt appearance.
Honiok was most likely chosen for his gruesome part from a file at Gestapo headquarters in Berlin’s Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse. He was almost overqualified in several ways. He had fought on the Polish side during the Silesian Uprisings that followed World War I, having been born in Upper Silesia in 1896. He returned to Germany in 1925 after a short stay in Poland, where he was obliged to resist deportation to Poland, a battle he won all the way to the League of Nations in Geneva. Honiok was still widely known in his German home town of Hohenlieben—about 10 miles north of Gleiwitz—as a strong supporter of the Polish cause, even if his firebrand days were gone by 1939.
Honiok had no clue what was in store for him when Gestapo officers dragged him away from there on the afternoon of August 30, 1939. They took him to the police barracks in the historic city of Beuthen, where he was fed and watered, and then to the Gestapo headquarters in neighboring Oppeln, where he spent an unpleasant night confined in a file room. He was “apathetic, his head continuously bent” throughout, according to his captors. Except for a few words of instruction from his Gestapo escort, he never spoke, and no one talked to him. Furthermore, despite the German obsession with paperwork, he was not recorded in any of the places he traveled through; it seemed that they intended him to be untraceable. His captors brought him to the Gleiwitz police station the next morning, August 31, and put him in solitary confinement—again, with no documents recorded. It would be his final day on earth.
ACROSS TOWN THAT EVENING, Alfred Naujocks and his men, dressed in civilian clothing to seem like Polish rebels, piled into two vehicles and drove northeast to the transmitter station. They raced inside the building as darkness was falling, arriving exactly at 8 p.m. as planned. The SS agents overwhelmed the employees and brought them down to the basement, where they were forced to face the wall with their wrists tied behind their backs, despite the station manager rising to meet them. Meanwhile, Naujocks and one of his team’s radio technicians attempted to figure out how to make their explosive broadcast.
One of the issues Naujocks had to address in his preparations was how to guarantee that the declaration was heard. He had contemplated going after Gleiwitz’s major radio station, which had a considerably bigger facility with studios closer to the city center, but had decided against it. The bigger station would have posed a greater logistical problem, and the transmitter station would have been more likely to monitor and shut off its transmissions. As a result, he chose to attack the transmitter station directly, significantly reducing the chances of the broadcast being stopped.
The transmitter station, on the other hand, simply possessed a “storm microphone,” which was used to interrupt local programming to warn of severe weather. The microphone was discovered in a closet by Naujocks’ technician, who was unable to attach it. As a result, Naujocks dragged the station’s employees from the basement, one by one, until one of them—a technician called Nawroth—successfully connected the device. Karl Hornack, the group’s sole proficient Polish speaker, came up with a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket. He read: As a gun was discharged into the air to create a martial mood, he read:
“UWAGA! GLIWICE GLIWICE GLIWICE GLIWICE GLIWICE G ROZGONNIA ZNADUJE SI W POLSKICH RKACH!” ROZGONNIA ZNADUJE SI W POLSKICH RKACH!
(“Attention! Gleiwitz is the name of the town. The radio station has been taken over by Poles!”)
The fictitious “Polish Freedom Committee” then issued a call to arms, urging the Polish people in Germany to oppose German authority and carry out sabotage activities, with the promise that the Polish army would soon march in as a liberator. Exclusively the first nine words were broadcast—and only to the area of Gleiwitz itself—for reasons that have never been fully explained. The rest was swallowed up by a cacophony of static. In Berlin, Heydrich listened intently but heard nothing.
A seemingly harmless radio transmitter station in Gleiwitz, Germany, played a significant part in ensuring Hitler’s desire for a conflict with Poland. (Bridgeman Images/SZ Photo)
SS handlers brought an unconscious Franciszek Honiok to the building while Naujocks was preoccupied with the broadcast. An SS member in a white coat, posing as a doctor, had visited Honiok in his cell at the Gleiwitz police station just before 8 p.m. and given him an injection. Honiok was then driven the short distance to the transmitter station, where he was carried inside by two of Naujocks’ men and placed near the rear door. Someone shot him at some point, although it’s unclear when. Naujocks paused momentarily as he exited the radio station to inspect the now-dead Honiok, his face covered with his own blood. Later, Naujocks claimed that neither he nor his guys had shot him. He told authorities he knew nothing about the guy, not even his name: “I was not accountable for him,” he claimed.
Franciszek Honiok was a non-essential member of the team. He was nothing more than a corpse, a bleeding, mute witness to be paraded in front of the German and worldwide press as evidence of “Polish aggression.” His assassination exemplified the Nazi regime’s arrogant, disdainful cruelty, and it was a terrible foretaste of the tragedy that would befall Poland. But it had a much greater importance than that. It was a solitary death that foreshadowed the deaths of at least 50 million others: a single tragedy foreshadowing a mass massacre.
Even if the deception to which Honiok’s corpse had lent bogus credence—Naujocks’ radio broadcast—had failed, the German media were already prepared and ready to publish the tale. Radios were screaming and newspaper presses were cranking out stories about the Polish “attack” and the impending German “retaliation” within hours. Hitler’s tanks had already advanced into Poland by the time most Germans read those remarks the next morning. World War II has officially started.
German newspapers reported on the alleged Polish assault on the Gleiwitz station on September 1, 1939, as the German invasion was well underway. (AKG-Images)
WHAT ABOUT ALFRED NAUJOCKS, ON THE OTHER HAND? What was the outcome of his war? On the surface, he had an outstanding military career. Naujocks seemed to have lived a James Bond-like life as Heydrich’s cat’s paw, engaging in and directing several successful covert missions. He orchestrated the abduction of two British secret agents in neutral Holland in November 1939, known as the “Venlo Incident,” which exposed Britain’s MI6 secret intelligence service’s whole Western European network. In 1943, he oversaw a harsh crackdown on the Danish resistance, and he was one of the masterminds of Operation Bernhard, a brilliant German scheme to fabricate massive amounts of Sterling bank notes and dump them over the UK in order to bring the British economy to its knees. Despite the fact that Naujocks never saw the project through to completion and the air-drop was never carried out, the operation resulted in the production of £150 million in counterfeit notes ($195,525,000 at the time, or nearly $3 billion today)—some of the best forgeries the Bank of England had ever seen.
However, Naujocks’ illustrious career was not what it appeared. It was clear that life as Heydrich’s chosen one was not easy. His boss was demanding and spiteful, and he didn’t let his agents go lightly, probably owing to the weight of incriminating information. Later, Naujocks said that his relationship with Heydrich was extremely poisonous, with a series of bitter confrontations. Some of the more severe missions caused Naujocks to hesitate, and they claimed to have refused to carry out a high-profile murder. As a consequence, Heydrich chastised him and called him a coward. In 1940, however, when the Naujocks decided to quit the SD, Heydrich rejected five petitions for transfer. Naujocks was accused with corruption in 1941, deprived of his rank, and deployed to the Eastern Front as a regular Waffen-SS soldier. He had no doubt Heydrich was attempting to assassinate him.
After Heydrich was assassinated in Prague by British-trained Czechoslovak operatives in June 1942, Naujocks said that he was able to “breathe again” for the first time throughout the war. He accepted a desk position in the German administration in occupied Belgium’s Brussels and fell into a comfortable routine, enjoying the benefits that come with being a German officer. Former SD colleagues continued to approach him with covert missions, no doubt due to his notoriety, but he generally declined, claiming poor health and citing his shrapnel injuries in the Eastern Front.
Then, in the fall of 1944, a group of Naujocks defected. When he surrendered to approaching American forces near the German border in Belgium, he introduced himself as Alfred Bonsen and requested to be brought to a superior officer. He had a change of clothing, a significant amount of money in three currencies, and a note addressed to a Foreign Office officer in London in his kit bag. When he revealed his real name, the Americans turned him over to the British, who sent him to the notorious “London Cage,” a facility in Kensington where high-profile inmates are interrogated.
Naujocks were despised by the British. Despite admitting that he was a “goldmine of information,” praising his “truthfulness and frankness,” and appreciating the fact that he never sought to make a bargain, his interrogators were harsh in their evaluation of him. He was a “effeminate sadist,” a “killer without shame,” a “callous murderer” capable of “any underhanded action,” and a guy who “would sell his own mother,” they said. They concluded that he was a coward at best and that he was involved in “another evil scheme” at worst. “This guy should most definitely be put to death,” the report said emphatically.
The transmitter station, now a museum in Gliwice, Poland, has a plaque commemorating its past as a “site of Nazi provocation.” (Getty Images/Sean Gallup) )
And that was the plan for him after the British had done milking the Naujocks for information. They transported Naujocks to the American occupation zone in Germany on August 31, 1945, six years to the day after the Gleiwitz operation and almost four months after the war ended, where he would be questioned again and his affidavits recorded for use in the Nuremberg trials. However, Naujocks did not testify at Nuremberg; instead, the Americans turned him over to Denmark, where he was prosecuted for war crimes alongside many former SS and Gestapo leaders. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 1949 and spent just a year in a Danish prison before being deported back to Germany. He then vanished into postwar anonymity, posing as a woman in Hamburg.
Naujocks had faded from memory at that time. He, like Franciszek Honiok, had faded into the background of World War II’s larger narrative. All he left behind when he died in 1966 at the age of 54 was a frantic 1960 biography by Günter Peis, an Austrian journalist and historian whom Naujocks had met during the Nuremberg trials. The preface was written by Naujocks. “I am the guy who began the war,” it starts.
This article first appeared in World War II magazine’s February 2019 edition. Subscribe here.
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