Poles in the Wehrmacht
Following the German invasion of Poland in 1939, Polish citizens of German extraction, the so-called "Volksdeutsche", as well as members of ethnic minorities from territories annexed by Nazi Germany, such as Silesians, Kashubians, Masurians, or Goralenvolk whom the Nazi propaganda wished to consider "almost" German (Wasserpolacken) were forcibly conscripted into the Wehrmacht, the German armed forces in occupied Poland. It is estimated that some 225,000 citizens of the Polish Second Republic were drafted, including into the Kriegsmarine and Waffen SS. The desertions among them were massive, nevertheless, most were too afraid to return to Poland after the war ended. It was a personal tragedy for many.
Although the Waffen SS on the Eastern Front contained a sizable number of non-Germans, no Polish-based unit was ever formed. Some other minorities, such as Polish citizens of Ukrainian, Belarusian, Russian, and Lithuanian origin, served both in the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS. However, Adolf Hitler was not interested in creating such units until the later stages of the war.
At the end of the Polish September Campaign, some German ideologues had proposed the creation of a polnische Reststaat ("Polish Rump State"), i.e. in a memorandum of Hans Adolf von Moltke on September 23, 1939, and in Hitler's Speech of October 6, 1939 to the Reichstag, in Berlin ("der entstehende polnische Reststaat"). The Generalgouvernement für die besetzten polnischen Gebiete ("General Government for the Occupied Polish Territories") was established by the Führer's decree of October 12, 1939, which came into force on October 26, 1939. The Germans contacted Wincenty Witos, offering him the post of Prime Minister, but he declined the offer. Joseph Stalin, at that time an ally of Nazi Germany, opposed such an idea, stating that Poland had ceased to exist and there was no point in re-creating it. During that time the name "Poland" was forbidden in the Soviet Union.
Władysław Studnicki, a pro-German Polish activist and publicist during the interwar period as early as November 20, 1939 presented to the Germans "An appeal to re-establish the Polish Army". Studnicki wrote that the army would help the Germans in their struggle with the Soviets, and promised he would help find proper volunteers. According to him, the biggest misfortune for the Polish Nation would be the Soviet occupation of the whole country and - as he stated - an army consisting of infantry and cavalry would not be a significant threat to the Germans. Berlin, however, expressed no interest in re-establishing the Polish Army. In early 1940 Joseph Goebbels met with Studnicki, telling him that such units were not considered necessary. Studnicki, during the same meeting, vehemently protested against Nazi atrocities in occupied Poland, for which he was later imprisoned in the infamous Pawiak jail in Warsaw.
There were also thousands of pre-war citizens of the Second Polish Republic who served in German forces during the war. Most of them were people who accepted so-called Volksliste ("German People's List"). In several areas, mainly Upper Silesia, Zaolzie, Pomerania, and Masuria, Poles were forced to sign these documents. Rejection of Volksliste often led to deportation to a concentration camp. Many people were compelled by force and many took Volksliste fearing the consequences. Some of those who took Volksliste were later drafted into the German forces. It was significant that the Polish government-in-exile knew about it, and Prime Minister general Władysław Sikorski approved. One-fourth of Silesian and Kashubian men of that time served in Wermacht.
SS-Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner wrote in his book Die Freiwilligen der Waffen-SS. Idee und Opfergang that he based his organization on the Legionnaires of Józef Piłsudski. According to him, the young Polish patriots and their leader were the ideal form of "Kameradschaft" (camaraderie) - a specific union between soldiers and their officers, based on mutual understanding.
It is not known what Hitler thought about Poles as soldiers, but one fact is certain - he distrusted them. His opinion of Polish soldiers was based on the notions of Erich Ludendorff, who reminded Hitler that during World War I the majority of Poles did not want to fight for Germany.
On March 30, 1943, SS Headquarters refused to create Polish units, citing the following reasons:
- thousands of Poles fled both the German and Austrian armies in 1917–1918;
- propaganda reasons - the creation of Polish units would mean that Poles and Germans should be officially treated as equal;
- the unsupportive stance of the SD; and
- the fact that the Poles themselves were not willing to fight for Germany.
Volunteers and non-volunteers
Among the citizens of interwar Poland who served in the Wehrmacht, the Secretary of State of the British government reported in parliament that a total of 68,693 were captured by 1945.
When on June 22, 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa), Studnicki renewed his proposal. However, Berlin again refused and Studnicki was imprisoned. In the summer of 1941 the Nazis placed huge screens in Warsaw, showing newsreels from the front. The speaker said that "all European nations were fighting the Bolsheviks but [the] Poles". This propaganda gesture would have meant that some efforts had been taken, but the Germans must have changed their minds, deciding to create Belarussian and Ukrainian units only.
In May 1943, after the discovery of Polish Officers graves in Katyn (see: Katyn Massacre), German propaganda started indicating that Polish volunteers would be needed. There was a rumor that the Nazis offered leadership of the Division to General Władysław Bortnowski, but he refused. Finally, on June 19, 1943 both Heinrich Himmler and Hans Frank suggested to Hitler that he should give permission for the creation of Polish units. Frank explained that the discovery of Katyn made the Poles angry and willing to take revenge on the Soviets, but Hitler bluntly refused.
The Polnische Wehrmacht
From the spring of 1944, when the Germans realized that the war was lost, they started to look for ways of getting in touch with Polish politicians. According to reports sent to the Polish government-in-exile in London, Gestapo officials in several Polish cities were trying to talk about creating a common, anti-Communist front with the Poles, a thing that had been unheard of before. The Nazis also tried again to talk Wincenty Witos into issuing an appeal, but he refused.
Heinrich Himmler again came to Hitler asking for permission for the organization of Polish units, but Hitler stated that only Belarusians and Ukrainians, citizens of the Polish Second Republic, were allowed to serve as auxiliaries. In the fall of 1944, after the collapse of the Warsaw Uprising, Hitler finally allowed Poles to create their units.
The Polnische Wehrmacht originated in operations Weiser Adler and Berta, supported by Hans Frank, confirmed October 23, 1944 by the Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH) and next day by Adolf Hitler. Around 700 soldiers were recruited, carrying German uniforms with tabs reading Im Dienst der Deutschen Wehrmacht ("In service of German Wehrmacht") and tabs in the form of a hussar wing or Polish white-red flag.
On October 24, 1944, Wehrmacht Headquarters officially announced this decision. A propaganda poster was printed in Krakau (Kraków, Cracow), in which a Polish worker puts aside a shovel and takes a gun handed to him by a German soldier. News of this idea generated confusion, as people were afraid of conscription. However, German officials placated the Poles, stating that they did not treat it seriously.
On November 4, 1944, Heeresgruppe Mitte (Headquarters of the Central Group of the German Army) announced basic principles. The Germans were hoping that some 12,000 Poles would volunteer. They were promised the same treatment as German soldiers, including salaries, death insurance and health service.
In the late fall of 1944, in several Polish towns, offices for volunteers were created, some of them decorated with Polish flags. However, only 471 people signed up, in spite of German fabrications stating that the Home Army announced its alliance with the Nazis. Desperate, the occupiers tried to use prisoners, but also with no success. Out of those who volunteered, most went AWOL after some time. In January 1945, in the course of the Vistula-Oder Offensive, the Red Army overran the remaining Polish territory still in German hands, thus rendering this attempt to enlist Poles into German service largely moot.
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- Wojciech Zmyślony, W znienawidzonym mundurze. Wcielenia w liczbach
- (Polish) Barbara Szczepuła , Józef Tusk i inni, Dziennik Bałtycki, 2006-08-04