** Hitler and Warsaw

Hitler and Warsaw (1939-45)

NAZI terror raids Warsaw
Figure 1.--Julien Bryan was an American photographer and filmmaker and virtually the only foreign journalist who remained in Warsaw after the outbreak of the War. He recorded what the Germans did to Warsaw. Both Bryan and the Polish boy seen here survived the War. After the War, Bryan captioned this image in 1958. "A BOY'S WEARINESS: Ryszard Pajewski was a study in dejection when I saw him sitting on a pile of rubble. Only nine, he had suddenly been made the family breadwinner - and there was no bread to be had. Now a truck driver, he remembers that when he saw me last, I was carrying two 'boxes'-my cameras." Bryan later added, "The spot where nine-year-old Ryszard Pajewski sat atop a pile of rubble in 1939 is now a smooth lawn. But a friend saw my picture of this scene and told Pajewski. He came to see me. The rubble pile had been near his home, and he had taken time out from a search for food, for his mother and brother, to rest. His father was later taken away by the Nazis, and he never returned. Pajewski, who is divorced, now lives alone outside Warsaw." None of the triumphal German troops that paradd through Warsaw could have imagined that this would be the fate of German cities. A reader writes, "What a moving image. It still carries a message all these years later. You certainly feel for the boy and want to help him."

Warsaw was the most damaged city of World War II. The NAZIs killed many more people in Warsaw than even in Hiroshima and Nagasaki which suffered atomic bomb attacks. And the landscape of Warsaw when the Germans finally were forced out looked just like Hiroshima and Nagasaki. THe deaths and destruction in Warsaw resulted from a long history of anti-Polish sentiment in Germany, intensified by Hitler's antipathy toward Poland and the Polish people. Hitler saw the Jews and Slavs as the orimary threat to Germany. And Poland was the most important Slavic state nordering Germany, but hada large Jewish ninority. And nothing exemplified Poland more than Warsaw, one of the major European cities. It was not only the largest Polish city, but it had the largest Jewish population in the world. Even befote the War, NAZI acolytes knowing how to obtain Hitler's favor began preparing plans for destoying Warsaw. What happened in Waesaw defines understanding as to what a modern civilized state is capable of doing. Trgically similar events occurred to an only slighly lesser degree throughout the western Soviet Union occupied by the NAZIs. And as the War deteriorated for Hitler and his armies, plans were developed for destroying cities in the Wet as well, including London and Paris.

Anti-Polish Sentiment

Germany has a long history of anti-Plish/Slavic history beginning with the historic medieval Drang nach Osten. Germans attitudes became increasingly hostile with the Polish Prtiios and rise of nationalist identity (late-18th and early-19th century). And this only grew as demographic changes in Germany led to the gradual Polonization of areas of eastern Germay, especially East Prussia and the surrounding areas. Hitler and the NAZIs intensified this anti-Polish sentimnt in the ad\ftermath of Wotld ar I and the Versailles Peace Treaty wgich transferred areas of eastern Germany to the new Polish Republic. As aresult, theWotld War II NAAZI occupation was one of the most horrendous in the history of European warfare. And no city exemplified POland and all that the NAZIs hated than the city of Warsaw with its large Jewish population. Warsaw is the best known of the NAZI assaults on entire cities. It was perhaps the most extrme NAZI action, but it was not unusual. The NAZI Generalplan Ost entailed the destruction of major Soviet cities including Lenningrad, Moscpw, and Stalingrd. Here the Red Army prevented NAZI victories, but other major cities such as Kiev, Krakov, Minsk, Pinsk, Smolensk, and many others occupied by the Whermacht were largely depopulated and damaged. The story of these cities has been less well documented in the West.


Germans during the Middle Ages pushed east into lands occupied by the Slavs and Blts. Historians now use the term "Der Drang nach Osten". This term was not used in the Middle Ages. Rather the Germans at the time used the term "Ostsiedlung" or "east colonization". It was the German effort to expand their culture, language, and settlement east. The Germans had been push west by the Huns, Avars, and other nomadic warriors from Central Asia. These pressure from Central Asia subsided and Eastern Europe was settled by Slavs and Balts. In modern times, much of the anti-Slavic sentiment was directed at the Poles. The Poles and Czechs were the Slavs cloest to the Germans. THe Czechs largely reached an accomodation with the German world and becamne a constitutional compoment of the Hapsburg Empire. The Poles on the other hand reained an independent state which rivaled the Germans in the medieval era. The Polish kingdom continued into the 18th century until eliminated by the a href="/essay/war/swc/18/swc18-pp.html">Polish Partitions (1772-95). Most of Poland was absorbed by the Russians, but Prussia obtined wesrtern Poland which was inherited by the German Empire (1871). As Prussia annexed western Poland, we also begin to see anti-Polish rhetoric combined with the increasing denegration of Polish culturre. This of course was the same era that brought the French Revolution and the rise of European nationalism. German nationalist Johann Georg Forster is a good example of the anti-Polish thread in German national thought. Forster writes with considerable fervor about Poland's 'backwardness' rather like the 'ignorance and barbarism' Europeans were encountering in their expanding Asian empires. [Blackbourn, p. 8.] German academics began describing a dichotomny between civilized Germany and the uncivilized Poles/Slavs. One German describes a "boundary between civilization and barbarism; high German Kultur and primitive Slavdom". [Schultz] Prussian officials pushing for Polish partition promoted the view that the Poles were culturally inferior and need of Prussian tutelage. [Blackbourn, p. 8.] And it was not just PrUssIan academics. King Fredick the Great had astrong antipathy toward the Poles. In adddition to the nationalist thought, religion was also afctor. Prussiawas aleading Protestant state whilethe Poles were largely Catholic. Nationalist concerns about the Poles grew in the 19th century after the Napoleonic Wars. The German peasantry jin the the East migrated west seeking good paying jobs available in the expanding industrial cities of the west. This meant that agricultural areas of eastern Germany, especially East Prussia was becoming increasinly Policized. This just added to the nationlis, racial, and religious sentiment.

Hitler and the NAZIs

Hitler thus drew on the a long history of German anti-Polish sentiment. He tended to acentuate, but did not oiginate the racist aspect of conflict with th the Slavs/Poles. He wrote at length about the Untermenschen, racially inferior people. The Jews were depicted as the most dangerous, but followed by the Poles. Here it shold be emphasized tha the Slavs were not seen as the most inferior people, but the most dangerous. Thus there were a range of racial targets besides the Jews. The Slavs were simply the next to be dealt with after the Jews because they occupied the East which Hitler coveted. Countless people in the Third World, especially the Arabs with their anti-Semetic biases do not understand the NAZI racial mindset. Hitler describes the NAZI philosophy which he says "... by no means believes in an equality of races, but along with their difference it recognizes their higher or lesser value and feels itself obligated to promote the victory of the better and stronger, and demand the subordination of the inferior and weaker in accordance with the eternal will that dominates this universe." Poland thus became the country hated beyond all others. Not only were Poles Slavs, but the country had a huge Jewish minority--the largest in the world. And the Poles had obtained areas of eastern Germnany under the terms of the World War I Versailles Treaty. Hitler saw POland as an ilegitimate state created by the Versailles Treaty. And while many Germans sid not fully endirse this setiment, there was widespread objection to the Versailles Trearty among most Germans, including non-NAZIs. The Polish Corridor in particular separating East Prissia from the rest of Germany was an abomination to Hitler. And if all thatwas not bad enough, it was Poland that was the first country that dared defy Hitler. And after the War began to go bad for Hitler, the Poles began to be blamed for brining on the disaster of the War. You still see absured nternet postings suggestin that the War could have been prevented if only the Poles had agreed to minor border modifications. And for Hitler nothing more tipified al he hated about Pland than Warsaw with its large Jewih population.

The City

Warsaw is located along both banks of the Vistula River in central Poland, primarily on the western bank. Warsaw along with Krakow are the two cities most associated historically with Poland. Both have served as capitals of Poland. Jews appeared in the city (15th century), but the population was relatively small for several centuries. Warsaw became the capital of Poland (1596). Poland disappeared in the Polish Partitions (1772-95). Warsaw along with most of eastern and central Poland were absorbed into the Tsarist Empire, although the constitutional arrangements varied over time. The population of Warsaw and especially the Jewish population grew substantially as Poland began to industrialize (19th century). The Germans after heavy fighting occupied Warsaw during World War I (1915). The German administered the area of Poland captured from the Russians as the Government General which included Warsaw. Warsaw became the capital of Poland when the country emerged as an independent state following World War I (1919). It was a major European city with a population of 1.3 million people. Warsaw was the cultural center of Jewish life in Poland. About 30 percent of the city's population or 350,000 people was Jewish. It was the largest Jewish community in Europe, second only to New York City in the world. Jews lived throughout Warsaw. The heaviest concentration was in the north of the city. Here mamy Jews lived in apartments and there were streets which were almost ebtirely populated by Jews.

NAZI Plans for Warsaw

Hitler even before launching the War had plans to destroy Warsaw as a Polish city. NAZI think tanks were busy working out plans for administering occupied areas. And by this tiimer NAZI acolytes knew how to win influence appointments, and funding--give Hitkler want he wanted. Hitler visiting an architectural bureau in W�rzburg am Main shortly before the War (June 20, 1939). He noted a project for a future German town � Neue deutsche Stadt Warschau. The Pabst Plan planned to turn Warsaw into a provincial German city of some 130,000 Germans and no Poles. NAZI officials drafted precise plans including detailed drawings for an entirely new city with a historic Germanic core. A select few landmarks would be saved such as the Royal Castle which would become Hitler's state residence. The Plan which consisted of 15 drawings and an architectural model, was named for German army architect Friedrich Pabst who saw the destruction of Warsaw as part of the overall effort of destroying the Polish nation's morale and culture by destroying its physical and architectural heritage. Hubert Gross created the design for the new German city ro be errected over the ruins of Warsaw. It was incorporated into the larger Generalplan Ost developed by Himmler's SS.

Hitler and War

Hitler finally had the war he had long craved. INcredibly he was disappointed when British Primeminister Neville Chamberlain caved in to his demands at the Munis Conference (September 1938). The result was exceeding advantageous to the German war economy because a few months later he seized the rest of Czechosolovakia and its izeabkle armanents industyry in tact. Bu Hitler wanted a war. Through the MUnich Conferene he had demonstrated considerable political skill, both domestically and internationally. But political skill is not what he prised. He hated having to liste to and compromise with he people he despised. War and war leadership and the reworking of the Europen political and demographic map war would make possible is what he aspired to as his legacy. He was determined to be Germany'great war leader. He did not believe that Britain and France would declare war and come to Poland's defense. He was half right. But he was prepared for war no matter what the Allies did.

The Polish Campaign (September 1939)

Hitler finally had the war he had long craved. He unleased Blitzkrieg on Poland (September 1). Britain and France equivocated, but Prieminister Chamberlain did honor the commitments to Poland and the Allies declared war (September 3). Hitler traveled extensively durng the campaign visiting fast advancing German units. For the final assault on Warsaw, he flew from Zoppot to the Warsaw area (September 25). He visited the 8th and 10th Army and the Headquarters at Grodjisk Mazowieki. He then returned to Godentow-Lanz by plane. The next day in the morning at 9:30 AM, he went back to Berlin in his Sonderzug (special train), arriving in Berlin at 5:05 PM. After the conclusion of the Polish Campaign, he returned to Warsaw to view a miltary parade through the devestated city (October 5). The least damaged section of the city was embassy row, which is where the Germans held their first victory parade of the War. After the martial music and mandatory goose-stepping, Hitler returned to the airfield for the flight back to Berlin. He makes no secret of his intentions. He tells assembled foreign journalists, �Take a good look around Warsaw. That is how I can deal with any European city.� The foreign correspondents who were largely excluded from the combat areas were allowed to see the destruction. They took back with them shocking photographs of bomb and shell blasted Warsaw. What they saw, however, was just the beginning of the desruction Hitler planned to visit on Warsaw.

German Terror Bombing of Warsaw (September 24-26, 1939)

The Germans from the very beginning of World War II in Poland, adopted the tactic of terror. The Luftwaffe was employed to bring terror to Polish civilians. The primary target was Warsaw, but other defenseless Polish cities were attacked by German bombers (September 1939). One historian writes, "The bombing of Warsaw early in the war made it clear to the Allies how Hitler intended to fight his war. What he threatened the Czechs with he carried out on the Poles. It was to be Schrecklichkeit ('frightfulness') with no regard for the civilian population." [Snyder] We certainly think it should have been clear, but in fact Poland was isolated between NAZI Germany and the Soviet Union. Thus it was difficult for press reports, especially images to reach the West. And this became even more so after the German occupation began. The avowed purpose of the attacks on cities was to cause civilian casualties. The out gunned Polish Air Force was unable to protect their cities, but it bloodied the Luftwaffe. Luftwaffe raids began early in the campaign, but massive raids began as the Wehrmacht Panzers approached the unprotected Polish capital. The Luftwaffe attacks continued day and night with no pretense of targeting military or industrial targets. The Luftwaffe bombings of Guernica and Rotterdam are more complicated affairs. The Luftwaffe's attacks on Poland are not complicated and are not clouded by any moral ambiguity. The Luftwaffe's attacks on Warsaw were a clear example of the terror bombing of a largely defended civilian population. The Luftwaffe launched a ruthless air assault on Warsaw's civilian population beginning September 24. We have noted different estimates of the number of bombers used, varying from 420-1,150 bombers. The different estimates probably reflect differences as to daily raids or the overall campaign. The Polish Air Force had been destroyed and there were no shelters for the beseiged civilians. At the same time approaching Wehrmacht forces prepared to assault the capital. The Luftwaffe on September 25 struck again with 400 German bombers dropping both incendiary and high explosive bombs. The city's water pipes were ruptured by the bombing. Fire-fighters were evacuated. Fires spread throughout the city. Warsaw surrendered to the Germans (September 27). Estimates vary but 25,000-40,000 people are believed to have been killed in air attacks, most in Warsaw. The terror raids were not limited to Warsaw, but Warsaw received the most intensive Luftwaffe bombing. Hitler visiting the destruction, remarked to journalists, "That is how I can deal with any European city." Some German authors claim that it was the British that began attacks on civilians. [Rumpf, p. 24-25.] Of course this ignores the German raids on Warsaw as well as smaller raids on other Polish cities. It is well to remember what Hitler and the Luftwaffe did to Warsaw at the very beginning of the War. What Hitler did not realize at the time was that Germany did not have a strategic bombing force or the industrial capacity to build one. The British and Americans, however, were both building just such a force and in numbers Reichmarshsall G�ring and the Luftwaffe could scarcely imagine.

NAZI Occupation of Poland (1939-45)

After returning from the Warsaw victory parade (October 5). He ordered the western areas of Poland were annexed to the Reich (October 8). Four days later he organized central Poland as the General Government (Gubernia) (October 12). The capital of the Gubernia was located Krak�w (Cracow) for security reasons. The Germans assigned to admiister the (Gubernia) were concerned by what the saw as a still unsubdued Warsaw with its large Polish and Jewish population, calling the Polish capital the 'City of Bandits' (Banditenstadt Warschau). The organized killing in Warsaw becan with the A-B Aktion. Much larger numbers of Poles including residents of Warsaw fell victim to the NAZI Hunger Plan. This was a particularly effective tactic of destroying a great city.

General Government

Hitler was insistent that Poland should be wiped off the map. After seizing Poland (September 1939), the Nazis created the so-called Generalgouvernement (Gubernia--General Government). This was NAZI occupied Poland. The term Generalgouvernement was selected as it was the term the Germans used for the administration they set up in the Polish territory seized from the Russians during World War I (1915). The General Government was divided into four districts: Krakow, Warsaw, Radom, and Lublin. The Governor-General, Frank, was located in Krakow. It was an autonomous part of "Greater Germany", similar to the status of occupied Czechoslovakia (Bohemia and Moravia). The NAZI General Government was central Poland. Western Poland (the Polish Corridor, Lodz and Polish Silesia were annexed into the German Reich. Warsaw became the center of the General Government where the Germans deported Jews and Poles as they proceeded to Germanize and etnically cleanse occupied western Poland. The cleansing process was slowed, at least for the Poles, because it was disrupting preparations for Barbarossa. Eastern Poland was seized by the Soviets. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler by decree ordered the Polish voivodeships of Eastern Galicia (with a largely Ukrainian population) were added to the Government General as Galicia District. The NAZIs administed the Government General differently than other areas, in part because they could not find any suitable Polish Quislings. It was not administered as a pupper state like Slovakia and Bohemia-Moravia. The NAZIs were not really interested in finding Poles to collaborate with. The NAZIs avoided even using the term Poland. The purpose of the occupation was to destroy Poland and much of the population that could not be aranized. There were no Polish puppet offucials. The Government was administered by Germans. Hitler appointed Hans Frank Governor-General (October 26, 1939). Frank set up his capital in Krakow and served in that post until the Red Army approached Krakow in early 1945. He was known for his brutality. As Govenor General he oversaw one of the most brutal occupation regimes in history. An estimated 6.5 million Poles perished during the War, about a quarter of the population.

War-time Administration of the Pabst Plan

Warsaw Ghetto (1940-43)

Warsaw was the cultural center of Jewish life in Poland. About 30 percent of the city's population was Jewish. It was the largest Jewish community in Europe.Frank ordered all Warsaw Jews on October 3 to move to the predominately Jewish part of the city which was now called the Warsaw Ghetto (Otober 3). He then ordered it to walled off. The entarnces were then sealed off from the rest of the city and closely guarded by the NAZIs. Jews had previously moved throughout the city without restruction. There had been about 0.25 million Jews in the Jewish section. Now 0.15 million more had to find acommodation there as well as for those arriving in future transports. Many within the Ghetto had to move. Jews had to abandon their property except what they could carry on bring in a hand cart. The Germans administering the Ghetto delighted in humilitaing the Jews in the initial phase of the Ghetto. Jews would be ordered to kiss the pavement or search for bits of paper in mud, all the time being beaten. [Gilbert, p. 345.] Much worse was to come. Some 500,000 Polish Jews were are forced into the Warsaw ghetto. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the single most important Jewish act of defiance against the NAZIs (April 1943).

Warsaw Uprising (August 1944)

The most dramatic resistance effort by the Polish Home Army was the uprising against the NAZIs in Warsaw when the Soviets neared the Vistula (July 1944). After Operation Bagration (June-July 1944), Warsaw on the Vistula was the principle barrier standing between thev Red Army and Berlin. The Poles did not greet the Red Army in the same way that populations in the West cheered the Americans and British. They had no illusions about what would follow in the wake of the Red Army, a Stalinist dictatorship. The Home Army (loyal to the London goverment-in-exile) decided on a desperate gambit at the Red army apprpached the Vistula. They would stage an insurrection and free Warsaw. The Home Army rebelled (August 1) anticipating the support of the Red army. Instead Stalin ordered the Soviet troopds to stop on the far side if the Vidtula. The German reaction was savage. On one day alone the SS rounded up and shot 25,000 Polish men women and children. The Americans offered to drop supplies, but Stalin refused permission for the flights to use needed Soviet air bases to refuel for the return trip. Thev Poles fought valiantly on, finally capitulating (October 2). The Germans at Hitler's orders virtualy razed the city. The Soviets finally took Warsaw with little resistance from the Germans (January 1945). [Davies]

Razing Warsaw

The failure of the Warsaw Uprising (August 1944) gave Hitler the opportunity to complete the destruction of Warsaw. [Gutschow and Klain] Hitler's final presription for Warsaw was, "Warsaw has to be pacified, that is, razed to the ground." Hitler was intent on doing the same to London and Paris, but failed. In Warsaw he suceedd.Hitler did not just take out his vengence on the people of Warsaw. He wanted the city absolutelt obliterated. Warsaw had already been heavily damaged during the German invasion (September 1939). Most of thdamage was from Luftwaffe bombardment,but the city was also shelled by artillery. Little of the damage was repaired. There was also damage during the NAZI suppresion of the Warsaw Ghetto, but here the damage was alnost entirely within the Ghetto. The fighting during the Warsaw uprising in 1944 covered a wide area of the city. And even after the Germans suppressed the uprising, they set about destroying what ever remained stnding. The NAZIs succeeded in destroyng about 80 percent of Warsaw buildings west of the Vistula. After the Germans clear out the AK fighters and civilans. The Germans then on Hitler's personal orders razed whatever building that were still standing. Hitler had plans to totaly destroy other cities, including Leningrad, Moscow, and Stalingrad. It is difficuklt to imagine how a great city could be actually razed. Hitler showed in Warsaw just what he and the Whermacht was capable of accomplishing. What they did to Warsaw is what they would have done in these as well as other cities had they won the War. He also ordered the destruction of Paris, but the German commander their refused to comply and unlike the Red Army outside Warsaw, the Allied armies outside Paris came to the city'd defense.


Blackbourn, David. "Conquests from Barbarism: Interpreting Land Reclamation in 18th Century Prussia". International Congress of Historical Sciences, Oslo, Norway, (Harvard University, 2000).

Davies, Norman. Rising '44: The Battle for Warsaw (Viking, 2004). Davies is critical of The allies, President Roosevelt in particular for allowing Stalin to swallow up Poland. Like other authors making similar charges, Davies does not explain just what could have been done to have prevented it. Davies is, however, on firmer ground when he criticised Churchill and Roosevelt for not making a personal appeal to Stalin for permission to deliver supplies to the Home Army fighting in warsaw.

Gutschow, Niels and Barbarta Klain. Vernichtung und Utopie. Stadtplanung Warschau 1939 � 1945 (Hamburg 1994).

Rumpf, Hans. The Bombing of Germany (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962), 256p.

Schulz. J.C. (1793). Schultz was a precursors to the NAZIs who republished his work. Wolff, Larry. "Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment," (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1994), 419p.


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Created: 4:56 AM 4/23/2013
Last updated: 6:57 AM 3/18/2019