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The Shot that Ignited Europe

Alex Constantine - August 29, 2009

August 29, 2009

THE 70th anniversary of the start of World War II will be officially marked on Tuesday when German Chancellor Angela Merkel meets the prime ministers of Russia and Poland in Gdansk to commemorate the day Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler's tanks rolled across Poland's borders.

Wreaths will also be laid in the capital cities where diplomats tried to head off the September1 invasion, but little attention will be paid to the place where the most momentous conflict of the 20th century began, a small radio station on the edge of what was then the German town of Gleiwitz. It was there that a Polish-speaking farmer, Franciszek Honiok, was shot dead by Nazi troops a few hours before the invasion, becoming the first of more than 60 million people who would be killed during the next six years.

While the shot that started World War I by felling Archduke Ferdinand of Austria has been so well documented that it still echoes across the world, Honiok and the German bullet that killed him have been almost forgotten.

"Nobody has ever wanted to talk about what happened, it's always been secret," says Honiok's nephew Pawel at his home in the Polish village of Koszecin.

Pawel, 73, a retired mechanic, lives an hour's drive from Gleiwitz, which is now the Polish town of Gliwice.

"The Germans were in control of us until 1945, and then the Russians took over and they had no interest in digging up the truth about what had happened back at the start of the war," he says.

"Even my own family (was) too afraid to talk about it when I was a child and it was more than 25 years before we started to hear anything at all about what happened to him (Franciszek)."

A war memorial event will be held tomorrow at the radio station, which became a museum in 2005, but the tour buses that occasionally pull up there are usually drawn by its 111m tower, one of the world's highest wooden structures, rather than its role in kicking off the slaughter of WorldWar II.

Hitler had decided well before the end of August 1939 to invade Poland. His previous advances into Austria and Czechoslovakia had not been resisted by the leading powers but the Allies were bracing for war if Hitler attacked Poland. Searching for excuses to justify an attack, the Nazis had escalated tension along the Polish border for several months and decided they needed to stage an eye-catching provocation that could be blamed on the Poles.

As part of the plan Honiok, 43, an unmarried Catholic farmer, was arrested by the Gestapo at his home in the village of Polomia on August 30. He appears to have been singled out because of his involvement in a 1921 uprising against German rule of Silesia, a border region spanning present-day Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic that has a strong regional identity. According to his nephew, Honiok's family had always identified with Silesia and Poland, and bridled at German rule.

Nazi officer Alfred Naujocks and the six SS troops under his command had already spent two weeks in Gleiwitz, a 100,000-strong mining and farming centre, preparing for the provocation. The town has changed nationality several times during the centuries but in 1939 it had been German for 198 years and sat 6km inside German territory.

Naujocks, a 26-year-old SS major or assault unit leader, and his men posed as civilian mining experts but spent their days examining the forest and fields around the radio station, which relayed broadcasts to several countries.

The German military had been building up its forces in the region for weeks and at 4am on August 31 the executive order to launch the invasion was confirmed in Berlin.

At 6pm that evening the Berlin office of Heinrich Himmler, the overseer of the Gestapo and police forces, called the police station in Gleiwitz and ordered it to reduce the security at the radio station. "The number of guards was reduced from six to two and the police commander was told that if there happened to be any trouble at the station he should not exactly rush to send officers," says Andrzej Jarczewski, director of the radio station museum. At 8pm Naujocks and his squad arrived in two cars at the radio station's three-storey cement-rendered office.

Dressed in plain clothes to masquerade as Polish partisans, they charged up a few steps and through the station's front door, meeting no resistance from the guards and quickly overpowering the three engineers on duty.

The SS team fired several shots to intimidate the radio workers but they were perplexed by what they found in the main control room, a large airy room with high ceilings and dark brown flooring.

The station was merely a relay station so instead of the broadcasting booth and microphone that they had expected they found only walls of technical controls: flickering dials, blinking switches, valves and tubes.

A Polish-speaking SS soldier, Karl Hornack, ordered an engineer named Nawroth to connect a microphone that was normally used only to break into a transmission for emergency broadcasts. The other engineers and the two guards had their hands tied and were led to a basement.

Hornack then pulled two typewritten sheets from his pocket and interrupted the scheduled musical program by yelling into the microphone. His pre-written statement declared that Polish fighters had attacked the town and urged all Poles to take up arms against Germany.

But Hornack got out only nine Polish words, which translate as "Attention! This is Gliwice. The broadcasting station is in Polish hands ..." before the quick-witted engineer Nawroth cut off the broadcast by surreptitiously pressing a red control button as he passed a console. That button, which stills sits in the console today, is marked "Ein" or "In", and broke the transmission by retracting part of the antenna.

According to Jarczewski, the frantic broadcast about invading Poles caused barely a ripple inGleiwitz. "Whenever we have asked old people about that night, they said that nobody took it seriously. Nobody believed that Poland was going to attack Germany. At that time there were about 40,000 German soldiers in the area getting ready to invade Poland, so you couldn't cross the street without bumping into a German soldier. When the local people heard the broadcast they just thought it was some sort of prank but it wasn't designed for local consumption. The real audience was France and Britain, so Hitler could say he had been provoked into invading Poland."

After 12 minutes inside the station Naujocks ordered his men to withdraw but first they had to complete their doctored evidence that Polish fighters were behind the attack. Naujocks told the Nuremberg war trials in 1945 and 1946 that Honiok had been knocked out with drugs and taken along on the raid. At the end of the raid Honiok was dragged unconscious into the radio station, where he was killed with a bullet in the forehead. His body was left just inside the main door. Then the SS men drove off before the police arrived.

Naujocks said the farmer had been referred to by his captors as a piece of konserve or canned meat, which could be prepared in advance and taken on the raid to suggest Polish involvement.

Within hours two other ostensible provocations were launched in other parts of Silesia by German troops reportedly dressed in Polish military uniforms. Eight hours after Honiok's death, six people were killed in one of those incidents in the town of Hochlingden.

But the Gleiwitz raid had come first and it was singled out by the German propaganda machine. An official German photographer was rushed to the scene to capture evidence of Honiok's body inside the radio station.

Radio Cologne reported that German police had fought off Polish attackers at Gleiwitz and the BBC said "the German News Agency reports that the attack came at about 8pm thisevening when the Poles forced their way into the studio and began broadcasting a statement in Polish".

The BBC report went on: "Within a quarter of an hour, say reports, the Poles were overpowered by German police, who opened fire on them. Several of the Poles were reported killed but the numbers are not yet known."

The next morning, September 1, Hitler unleashed his forces before telling the German parliament, the Reichstag, that the previous night's "frontier incidents" and Poland's military mobilisation had forced him to "pacify" the country.

"Since 5.45am we have been returning fire," Hitler told the cheering Reichstag.

On September 3, France and Britain responded by declaring war on Germany, with Australia immediately following suit. Two weeks later Hitler's new ally, the Soviet Union, launched an attack on Poland.

Naujocks was involved in the killing of civilians in several countries during the war but he deserted to the Americans in 1944 and was never charged with war crimes. He appeared as a witness at Nuremberg, where he gave the first public account of what had happened at Gleiwitz. Soon before his death in the late 1960s he told British journalist Comer Clarke during an interview in Hamburg that even though he had gone on to perform other "unpleasant" jobs for his Nazi superiors, "I realised that I and my Gleiwitz unit were all marked men. We all knew too much. Eventually I was sent to the eastern front in one of the Waffen SS divisions to fight the Russians. I felt sure that there were orders to see that I got myself shot in action, but I knew the division's commander, Sepp Dietrich. He saw to it that it didn't happen.

"Then I got injured and was returned to Germany for office work."

The family of Honiok, the war's forgotten first victim, has never found his body.

"His death was never registered at the local church or with municipal authorities," says Pawel, "so we do not even know where he is buried."


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