Bloody Sunday (1939)
Bloody Sunday (German: Bromberger Blutsonntag; Polish: Krwawa niedziela) was a series of killings of members of the German minority that took place at the beginning of World War II. On September 3, 1939, two days after the beginning of the German invasion of Poland, highly controversial killings occurred in and around Bydgoszcz (German: Bromberg), a Polish city with a sizable German minority. The number of casualties and other details of the incident are disputed among historians.
The term "Bloody sunday" was created and supported by the Nazi-propaganda officials. An instruction issued by the press said:
(...)must show news on the barbarism of Poles in Bromberg. The expression "bloody sunday" must enter as a permanent term in the dictionary and circumnavigate the globe. For that reason, this term must be continuously underlined..
Bydgoszcz (Bromberg) was part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth until 1772, when it was annexed by the Kingdom of Prussia during the First Partition of Poland. As a part of Prussia, the city was affected by the unification of Germany in 1871 and became part of the German Empire. It would remain a part of the German Empire until the end of World War I. In February 1920, the Treaty of Versailles awarded the city and the surrounding region to the Second Polish Republic (the administrative region of Pomeranian Voivodeship). This resulted in a number of ethnic Germans leaving the region for Germany. Over the interwar period, the German population decreased even further. The 1931 Polish Census reported the German population in the city was 117,200; according to the German historian Hugo Rasmus, only about 10,000 Germans remained by 1939.
The emergence of the Nazi Party in Germany had an important impact on the city. Adolf Hitler revitalized the Völkisch movement, making an appeal to the Germans living outside of Germany's post-World War I borders. It was Hitler's explicit goal to reverse the work of the Treaty of Versailles and create a Greater German State. By March 1939, these ambitions, charges of atrocities on both sides of the German-Polish border, distrust, and rising nationalist sentiment led to the complete deterioration of Polish-German relations. Hitler's demands for the Polish Corridor and Polish opposition to negotiations with him fueled ethnic tensions. For months prior to the 1939 German invasion of Poland, German newspapers and politicians like Adolf Hitler had carried out a national and international propaganda campaign accusing Polish authorities of organizing or tolerating violent ethnic cleansing of ethnic Germans living in Poland.
After armed conflict erupted on September 1, 1939, statements that persecutions of ethnic Germans had occurred in Poland, especially in Bydgoszcz, continued to appear in the Nazi press.
According to the most widely accepted version,[by whom?] the incident stemmed from groups of German saboteurs attacking Polish troops behind the front lines. This version holds that, as a contingent of the Polish Army was withdrawing through Bydgoszcz (Army Pomorze's 9th, 15th, and 27th Infantry Division) it was attacked by German irregulars from within the city. According to a British witness, a retreating Polish artillery unit was shot at by Germans from within a house; the Poles returned fire and were subsequently shot at from a Jesuit church. In the ensuing fight both sides suffered some casualties; captured German nonuniformed armed insurgents were executed on the spot and some mob lynching was also reported. A Polish investigation concluded in 2004 that Polish troops had been shot at by members of the German minority and German military intelligence (Abwehr) agents; around 40–50 Poles and between 100 to 300 Germans were killed.
The Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau investigation in 1939–1940 concluded that the events were a result of panic and confusion among the Polish troops. The Wehrmacht investigation included the interrogation of captive Polish soldiers, ethnic Germans from Bydgoszcz and surrounding villages, and Polish civilians. The bodies of the victims were exhumed and the cause of death and the possible involvement of military rifles was assessed. According to this investigation, a squad of Polish soldiers was sent in to clarify the situation after hearing shots being fired within the city. Uniformed Polish soldiers, assisted by the local Polish population, were led to houses from which shots were allegedly heard. In households where weapons were found, people were subject to summary executions.
German reprisals and further atrocities
The killings were followed by German reprisals and oppression, including a "de-Polonisation" campaign. In an act of retaliation for the killings on Bloody Sunday, a number of Polish civilians were executed by German military units of the Einsatzgruppen, Waffen SS, and Wehrmacht. According to German historian Christian Raitz von Frentz, 876 Poles were tried by German tribunal for involvement in the events of Bloody Sunday before the end of 1939. 87 men and 13 women were sentenced without the right to appeal. Polish historian Czesław Madajczyk notes 120 executions in relation to Bloody Sunday, and the execution of 20 hostages after a German soldier was allegedly attacked by a Polish sniper.
According to a German version, Polish snipers attacked German troops in Bydgoszcz for several days (Polish sources and witnesses do not confirm this). The German governor, General Walter Braemer, (the commander of the rear army area), ordered the execution of 80 Polish hostages over the next few days. By September 8, between 200 to 400 Polish civilians had been killed. According to Richard Rhodes, a number of Boy Scouts were set up in the marketplace against a wall and shot; a devoted priest who rushed to administer the last sacrament was shot too, receiving five wounds. Murders continued all week; 34 of the leading tradespeople and merchants of the town were shot, as well as many other leading citizens.
Many Poles, particularly members of the intelligentsia and the Jews, were singled out for deportation, or killed outright. More than 20,000 Polish citizens of Bydgoszcz (14% of the population) were either shot or died in concentration camps during the occupation.
The debate in scholarship
The exact number of victims of Bloody Sunday is disputed. Peter Aurich (a pseudonym of the German journalist Peter Nasarski ) put the number of German civilian deaths in Bydgoszcz at 366, while Hugo Rasmus estimates it as at least 415. Two Polish historians, Włodzimierz Jastrzębski and Czesław Madajczyk, estimate ethnic German deaths at 103 (Jastrzębski), and about 300 (150 on September 3, the rest in the days after). The Polish historians point out that since these losses occurred during actual combat, most of the civilian losses should be attributed to accidents common in urban combat conditions; they argue that civilian losses might have occurred when the town was attacked by the German airforce (Luftwaffe). Strafing civilians in the town by the Luftwaffe is confirmed by German witnesses. Nazi propaganda reinforced Polish perceptions of the German minority as hostile, and during the invasion reported that the German minority was aiding the forces. This contributed Polish misconceptions, as the Poles were expecting the German minority to be actively hostile.
An even bigger debate in the scholarship concerns the question whether—as the Polish historiography suggests—there were indeed any members of a German fifth column in the city who opened fire on the Polish troops (and if so, whether they were composed of members of the Bydgoszcz German minority or not), or whether—as critics among the German historiography argue—Polish troops (or panicking civilians) overreacted in the confusion and targeted innocent German civilians.
The account of Peter Nasarski alias Aurich has been called by Harry Gordon one of the most thorough German accounts; his work is however generally rejected in Poland, perhaps because he indiscriminately used witness statements collected by Nazi officials. According to Nasarski, after police forces retreated from Bydgoszcz, agitated Polish civilians accused many Germans of assaulting Polish soldiers and executed them and any Poles who stood up in their defence. Rasmus attributes the situation to confusion and the disorganised state of the Polish forces in the city. von Frentz wrote that "In Bydgoszcz, the event was probably caused by confusion among the rapidly retreating soldiers, a general breakdown in public order and panic among the Polish majority after two German air raids and the discovery of a small reconnaissance group of the German Army on the previous day." He quotes Nazi German reports about the civilian victims and atrocities, later corroborated by a Red Cross commission that the Nazis invited to the scene. von Frentz also noted that eyewitness accounts of atrocities committed against the German population are as unreliable as Polish accounts of the fifth columnists. No ethnic Germans are known to have spoken of participation in that event. In the post-war collaboration trials, no ethnic German was charged in relation to Bloody Sunday. Another counterargument to the fifth column theory is that Polish troops were being targeted by advance units of the German regular army (Heer), or that the shots were fired by Polish soldiers in the confusion of the mass withdrawal. von Frentz claims that Polish troops and civilians massacred German civilians due to confusion. Polish historians feel the German historiography is based on Nazi German sources, ignoring numerous Polish sources.
Polish historians, such as Madajczyk, Jastrzębski, Karol Marian Pospieszalski, Ryszard Wojan, and others claim that the killings were triggered when the ethnic Germans, dressed up as civilians, opened fire on the Polish troops. The Poles retaliated, killing many and executing prisoners afterwards. Polish historians like Pospieszalski and Janusz Kutta point to a Nazi top secret false flag Operation Himmler (which took place on August 31 – September 1) and was designed to create an illusion of Polish aggression against Germany. Thus there is argument that actions like the Gleiwitz incident and events in Bydgoszcz were all part of a larger Nazi plan to discredit the Poles. Polish historians such as Pospieszalski and Wojan argue that the German fifth column agents (or their higher-ups) might have been deliberately aiming to produce a situation likely to result in German civilian casualties as a way to fuel Nazi propaganda. This argument has been criticized: Harry Gordon questions whether the Germans were willing to sacrifice their citizens for propaganda gains.
In 2003, the director of the Institute of History of the Academy of Bydgoszcz Wlodzimierz Jastrzębski reversed his earlier opinion on the subject. He said that there was no German diversion. Rather, Poles "lost their nerve" and vented their anger on helpless German civilians.
In 2004, historian Tomasz Chinciński in a publication of Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) summarized recent research related to Bloody Sunday, confirming that the majority of historians agree that an "insurrection" by agents who had arrived from the Third Reich as well as some German inhabitants of Bydgoszcz took place. He has published a work detailing new evidence of German diversionary activity in September 1939 in Poland. There are numerous Polish eyewitness accounts of action of a German fifth column which included members of local minority; Pospieszalski cited multiple witnesses for at least 46 cases of German civilians opening fire on Polish troops. There are numerous Polish Army reports and German documents confirming the saboteur actions of armed German Poles in other cities. According to German historians, any members of the fifth column, if present in the city, were infiltrators from Germany, not natives of Bydgoszcz. Eyewitness accounts have been criticised by Richard Blanke. In 2004, Chinciński discussed previously unpublished reports of Polish Army Pomorze, which reported "a large scale diversion" in Bydgoszcz on September 3 and numerous smaller incidents in surrounding area around that time.
A number of Polish and German historians discussed the problem September 4, 2006, at the German Historical Institute in Warsaw. Chinciński discussed newly discovered documents of the Abwehr that show that there were indeed plans for fifth column and diversion activities in Bydgoszcz; he discussed the bias of the Polish communist era historiography, which minimized cases of Polish mob lynching of ethnic Germans, which did occur in Bydgoszcz. German historian Hans-Erich Volkmann noted problems with German historiography, outlining some of the unreliability inherent in early post-war studies, which were still significantly affected by the Nazi era, and that the Bydgoszcz events were and still are used for political purposes. Overall, German and Polish historians continue to argue with one another over the validity of their claims, but a consensus version is emerging.
- Bundesarchiv description: German: Polen.- Deutsche Soldaten und internationale Journalisten vor Leichen getöteter Volksdeutscher (Opfer des "Bromberger Blutsonntag"
English: Poland.- German soldiers and international journalists in front of the bodies of killed Volksdeutsche (victims of the "Bromberg Bloody Sunday").
- Bundesarchiv (image source) also cites the original caption, which is written in a propagandistic style: German: Herr Chamberlein! Sie haben Polen die Blanko-Vollmacht für diese Schandtaten erteilt! Auf Ihr Haupt kommt das Blut dieser Opfer! Wenn Sie noch einen Funken Gefühl für Menschlichkeit, Wahrheitsliebe und Fairneß im Leibe hätten, müßte Sie das Grausen packen beim Anblick der Bilddokumente über die Bromberger Blutopfer. UBz: Ausländische Journalisten überzeugen sich an Ort und Stelle von den furchtbaren Mordtaten der Polen in Bromberg.
English: Bromberg, corpses of slain ethnic Germans. Mr. Chamberlain! You gave Poland a blank cheque for this atrocity! On your head the blood of these victims comes! If you had any spark of feeling left, for humanity, truthfulness and fairness, you would have been filled with horror at the sight of the visual evidence of the Bromberg blood victims. For example: foreign journalists bear witness at the scene of Poland's terrible acts of murder in Bromberg. 9.9.39 photo Weltbild Fremke 212-39
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Bydgoszcz Bloody Sunday of 1939.|
- (German) A documentary about Bromberg/Bydgoszcz from a Polish/German cooperation
- (Polish) Witold Kulesza, "I Don’t Want to Polemise with the Myth of the Bromberg (Bydgoszcz) Bloody Sunday", Bulletin of the Institute of National Remembrance, issue: 121 / 2003/2004
- (Polish) Wydarzenia 3 i 4 września 1939 r. w Bydgoszczy – „Blutsonntag", reproduction of text from Historia Bydgoszczy, Tom II, część druga 1939–1945, Marian Biskup (ed.), Bydgoszcz 2004
- (Polish) Katarzyna Staszak, Bogusław Kunach, Krwawa niedziela poprawia Niemcom samopoczucie. Romowa z Guenterem Schubertem
- (Polish) Selection of Polish articles (regional press) on Bloody Sunday: Express Bydgoski, Ofiaromwojny.republika.pl, Gazeta Pomorska 22, Ofiaromwojny.republika.pl