In August of 1939, German forces were amassing along the Polish border in preparation to invade. Europe was still haunted by memories of the brutality of the first World War, and consequently the governments in the region were loath to challenge the aggressive Nazis with military force. Most of Europe had looked the other way as the Nazis annexed portions of neighboring countries, but the leaders of France and Britain knew that an outright invasion of Poland must not be ignored. They pledged to rise to Poland’s defense if necessary, placing the world a breath away from its second World War.

On the evening of 31 August 1939, as tensions in Europe approached the breaking point, there was an unusual broadcast from a radio station in Gleiwitz, Germany. Its broadcasts were momentarily silenced, followed by a hate-filled diatribe by a Polish-speaking man. He urged all Poles to take up arms, and to strike down any Germans who resist. When Gestapo officers arrived at the transmitter to investigate, they found the bullet-riddled body one of the alleged Polish attackers. In the morning there were reports of numerous other incidents of Polish aggression along the border. In response, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler issued his “final directive” to attack Poland, compelling the United Kingdom and France to declare war on Germany. Thus began World War 2. But it turns out that this incident at Gleiwitz⁠— blamed as the final provocation for the terrible war that followed⁠— was not quite what it seemed.

Hitler had long held the untermensch (“inferior people”) of Poland in contempt, and in the preceding months he had delivered ferocious speeches making claims that Germans living in Poland were the subjects of terrible persecution. The Nazis were also bitter regarding a slice of land known as the “Polish Corridor,” a narrow parcel which physically divided Germany into two parts. The League of Nations had given the land to Poland following World War 1 in order to grant them access to the sea. Hitler intended to invade this area as well as the rest of Poland, but he knew that attacking without clear justification would upset the citizens of his country and amplify the repercussions from other nations.

In August 1939, Nazi forces were already concentrating their soldiers and war-making machines along the Polish border in preparation for an all-out attack. In order to establish a pretense for invasion, Hitler had enlisted the assistance of Commander Heinrich Himmler of the Nazi SS. The commander conceptualized and set in motion a collection of deceptions designed to make war appear inevitable, an undertaking code-named Operation Himmler. But the task of executing the initial subterfuge ultimately fell to another SS officer named Alfred Naujocks.

On 31 August, in the hours before the attack on Gleiwitz radio station, Alfred Naujocks lingered in the shadow of its 380-foot broadcasting tower with a group of Nazi storm troopers. The men were awaiting the arrival of canned goods⁠— a Nazi codeword for expendable convicts. When the “goods” were delivered by SS agents, the unconscious man was hastily changed into Polish clothing and dumped outside the entrance. A doctor had administered a lethal injection before the prisoner was transported to the site, but it had yet to take full effect when he was riddled with pistol rounds on the ground outside the radio station.

With the more gruesome portion of their task behind them, Naujocks and his operatives entered the Gleiwitz radio station at about 8:00pm outfitted in Polish uniforms. The gaggle of men seized control of the equipment, shut down the regular signal, and powered up the emergency transmitter. The microphone was given to a Polish-speaking operative, who read a prepared speech about three minutes long, urging Poles to rise up and help in the invasion of Germany. At the end of the transmission, the officers fired their pistols repeatedly for the benefit of anyone who might be listening, and departed.

Image from TIME magazine, 25 September 1939
Image from TIME magazine, 25 September 1939

During the night a handful of other such incidents were executed elsewhere along the border, using other “canned goods” from German prisons to create the illusion that Polish soldiers were attacking German troops. The following day the bodies of the dead prisoners were presented to the press and to police as evidence of the Poles’ organized aggression against the Nazis. Hitler addressed the German Army with artificial outrage:

“The Polish State has refused the peaceful settlement of relations which I desired, and has appealed to arms. Germans in Poland are persecuted with bloody terror and driven from their houses. A series of violations of the frontier, intolerable to a great Power, prove that Poland is no longer willing to respect the frontier of the Reich.”In order to put an end to this lunacy, I have no other choice than to meet force with force from now on. The German Army will fight the battle for the honour and the vital rights of reborn Germany with hard determination. I expect that every soldier, mindful of the great traditions of eternal German soldiery, will ever remain conscious that he is a representative of the National-Socialist Greater Germany. Long live our people and our Reich!”

The German military attacked on that very morning, marking the official start of World War 2. The Russians also attacked Poland from the east, playing their part in a secret joint plot to conquer and divide Poland between the two Axis powers countries. Within a week of the attack Germany claimed victory over the Polish Corridor, and the Polish capital of Warsaw was captured in just over a month.

In November 1944 Alfred Naujocks deserted his post and surrendered himself to Allied forces. He was held as a suspected war criminal, and he spent the remaining few months of the war in detention. Six years after playing his part in the deceit at Gleiwitz he testified at the Nuremberg trials, where he retold the events of that world-changing evening in 1939:

“On or about 10 August 1939 the Chief of the Sipo and SD, Heydrich, personally ordered me to simulate an attack on the radio station near Gleiwitz, near the Polish border, and to make it appear that the attacking force consisted of Poles. Heydrich said: ‘Actual proof of these attacks of the Poles is needed for the foreign press, as well as for German propaganda purposes.'””Heydrich said, ‘In order to carry out this attack, report to Muller for “Canned Goods.”‘ I did this and gave Muller instructions to deliver the man near the radio station. I received this man and had him laid down at the entrance to the station. He was alive, but he was completely unconscious. I tried to open his eyes. I could not recognize by his eyes that he was alive, only by his breathing.”

“We seized the radio station as ordered, broadcast a speech of 3 to 4 minutes over an emergency transmitter, fired some pistol shots, and left.”

Alfred Naujocks testifying at Nuremberg
Alfred Naujocks testifying at Nuremberg

After the Nuremberg trials were closed, Alfred Naujocks sold his story to the media and became a businessman in Hamburg. He was later suspected of participating in ODESSA⁠— an organized effort to smuggle SS officers out of the country to avoid prosecution⁠— but his guilt was never determined. He died in the 1960s, though there is some debate regarding the exact year of his death.

The secret history that he exposed to the world was disquieting indeed; his testimony revealed that the attack on Gleiwitz⁠— long thought to have triggered the largest armed conflict in history⁠— was a complete fabrication. In hindsight the deception is not very surprising, but in 1939 Germany, it was unthinkable that one’s government might be capable of such a massive and misguided conspiracy. Because it was by his own hand that this deception was ultimately carried out, Alfred Naujocks has received a particularly grim moniker amongst many historians: he was The Man Who Started the War.