German forces invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Polish troops fought valiantly in the face of vastly better equipped forces, with fierce engagements around Warsaw. Exhausted of food and water, the besieged capital surrendered on September 27, and fighting by regular Polish army units ended in early October.
Hitler’s pretext for military expansion eastward was the “need” for more Lebensraum, “living space,” for the German nation. On the eve of the invasion he reportedly stated in a meeting of high officials:
I have issued the command and I’ll have anybody who utters but one word of criticism executed by firing squad–that our war aim does not consist in reaching certain lines, but in the physical destruction of the enemy. Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formations in readiness—for the present only in the East— with orders to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space that we need.
In 1939 Germany directly annexed bordering western and northern Poland, disputed lands where many ethnic Germans (Volksdeutsche) resided. In contrast, the more extensive central and southern areas were formed into a separate “General Government,” which was ruled by German civil administrator Hans Frank. Krakow became the capital of the General Government, as the Germans planned to turn the Polish capital of Warsaw into a backwater town. After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, Germany also seized eastern Poland. (This territory had been invaded and occupied by the Soviets in September 1939, in accordance with the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact of August 1939 that divided Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union.)
One aspect of German policy in conquered Poland aimed to prevent its ethnically diverse population from uniting against Germany. “We need to divide [Poland’s many different ethnic groups] up into as many parts and splinter groups as possible,” wrote Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, in a top-secret memorandum, “The Treatment of Racial Aliens in the East,” dated May 25, 1940. According to the 1931 census by language, 69% of the population totaling 35 million inhabitants spoke Polish as their mother tongue. (Most of them were Roman Catholics.) Fifteen per cent were Ukrainians, 8.5% Jews, 4.7% Belorussians, and 2.2% Germans. Nearly three-fourths of the population were peasants or agricultural laborers, and another fifth, industrial workers. Poland had a small middle and upper class of well-educated professionals, entrepreneurs, and landowners.
In contrast to Nazi genocidal policy that targeted all of Poland’s 3.3 million Jewish men, women, and children for destruction, Nazi plans for the Polish Catholic majority focused on the murder or suppression of political, religious, and intellectual leaders. This policy had two aims: first, to prevent Polish elites from organizing resistance or from ever regrouping into a governing class; second, to exploit Poland’s leaderless, less educated majority of peasants and workers as unskilled laborers in agriculture and industry.