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The Gleiwitz Incident: The False Flag That Sparked World War II

On the evening of August 31, 1939, a group of Nazi SS operatives staged a fake attack on a German radio station in the border town of Gleiwitz (now Gliwice, Poland). Disguised as Polish soldiers, they broadcast an anti-German message in Polish before shooting dead a German farmer who had been brought there under false pretenses. This "attack," known as the Gleiwitz incident, was the most prominent of several false flag operations along the Polish-German border staged by the Nazis as a pretext for Germany‘s invasion of Poland the following day – the act of aggression that triggered World War II.

The Road to War

By August 1939, war between Nazi Germany and Poland appeared inevitable. Under Adolf Hitler‘s leadership, Germany had been pursuing an increasingly aggressive foreign policy aimed at overturning the world order established by the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I. The Nazis sought to unite ethnic Germans outside of Germany proper, acquire new lebensraum ("living space") for the German people, overthrow the restrictions placed on their military, and ultimately establish German hegemony over Europe.

Poland was a prime target for German expansionism. The Versailles Treaty had granted Poland territory that had previously been part of Germany, as well as establishing the Free City of Danzig (now Gdańsk) which was majority ethnic German but under the protection of the League of Nations. Hitler aimed to reclaim these lost lands, but the Poles refused to make concessions, signing a military alliance with Britain and France.

Throughout mid-1939, German and Polish forces engaged in a series of skirmishes and standoffs. On August 23, Germany and the Soviet Union shocked the world by signing the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact – a 10-year non-aggression agreement that included secret protocols dividing Eastern Europe into Nazi and Soviet "spheres of influence." With his eastern flank secure, Hitler escalated tensions by issuing an ultimatum to Poland on August 29 demanding unilateral concessions. The Poles refused, anticipating support from their Western allies.

Operation Himmler

By this point, Hitler had already resolved to invade Poland and the Germans had covertly mobilized their forces along the border. The Nazis now sought to justify their impending attack with a casus belli that would portray Germany as the victim of Polish aggression. On August 10, Hitler outlined this concept to his military leadership:

"I will provide a propagandistic casus belli. Its credibility doesn‘t matter. The victor will not be asked whether he told the truth."

The task of staging this propaganda event fell to Heinrich Himmler, the head of the notorious Nazi SS paramilitary organization. The plan, codenamed Operation Himmler, called for SS operatives (under the supervision of Himmler‘s deputy Reinhard Heydrich) to stage a series of "Polish" attacks on German installations along the border. Besides Gleiwitz, two other prominent incidents included:

  • An attack on the German customs house at Hochlinden, where SS men in Polish uniforms exchanged fire with other Germans dressed as border guards.
  • An assault on the German forestry station in Pitschen, where the SS shot several concentration camp prisoners who had been brought there and dressed in Polish army uniforms.

In each case, the "attackers" left behind murdered corpses in Polish uniforms to sell the ruse. To add to the deception, the Germans also released criminals from jails, dressed them in Polish uniforms, and ordered them to attack ethnic Germans in border towns.

The Gleiwitz "Attack"

The most elaborate and historically significant of these false flag incidents was the staged assault on the Gleiwitz radio station. A small team of SS operatives led by Alfred Naujocks, a key figure in the SS intelligence service, was tasked with seizing the station and broadcasting a message in Polish urging Poles in Germany to take up arms.

To complete the deception, the day before the attack the Gestapo arrested Franciszek Honiok, a 43-year-old unmarried German farmer known to be sympathetic to the Polish cause. Honiok was dressed in a Polish military uniform, then killed by lethal injection and brought to the radio station.

On the evening of August 31, Naujocks and his six SS men, all dressed in Polish uniforms, stormed the Gleiwitz station. After unsuccessfully attempting to broadcast a prepared speech, they demolished the interior and shot off rounds of ammunition. On their way out, they left behind Honiok‘s body and the corpse of another unidentified man, also in a Polish uniform, to serve as "casualties" of the attack.

The Invasion

Within hours, German radio and print outlets were reporting on the Gleiwitz "attack" by Polish forces. Nazi propaganda presented the incident as just the latest example of Polish border provocations. At the same time, German diplomats sent a carefully crafted set of "Sixteen Points" to the British, detailing Poland‘s purported violations of German rights and effectively serving as a declaration of war.

Early on September 1, Nazi forces numbering over 1.5 million men backed by thousands of tanks and aircraft launched their invasion of Poland on multiple fronts. In a speech to the Reichstag that morning justifying the attack, Hitler proclaimed:

"This night for the first time Polish regular soldiers fired on our territory. Since 5:45 a. m. we have been returning the fire…I will continue this struggle, no matter against whom, until the safety of the Reich and its rights are secured."

The invasion overwhelmed the outnumbered and outgunned Polish defenders. Britain and France declared war on Germany in response, but offered little direct military aid to the Poles. Meanwhile, on September 17, the Soviets invaded Poland from the east, sealing the country‘s defeat. By early October, the Germans and Soviets had conquered and divided Poland in accordance with the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact.

Unraveling Deception

While the Gleiwitz incident successfully served as the Nazis‘ casus belli, its true nature as a "false flag" was suspected by outside observers almost immediately. By mid-September, the British press was already describing the "Polish" attack on the radio station as "a faked allegation of Polish aggression." Intercepted German police communications discussing the "staging" of border incidents were further evidence that Gleiwitz had been a set-up.

As the war turned against Germany, the truth about Gleiwitz and Operation Himmler emerged more fully. At the Nuremberg trials after the war, Alfred Naujocks testified about his leading role in planning and carrying out the Gleiwitz deception. Another key participant, SS general Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, also revealed the truth about the Gleiwitz incident before the postwar courts.

The Legacy of a Lie

The Gleiwitz incident occupies a unique place in the history of World War II. It was the most prominent of the false flags used by the Nazis to justify their invasion of Poland – the act of aggression that started the largest and deadliest conflict in human history, a war that claimed tens of millions of lives.

Gleiwitz has endured as perhaps the most brazen and notorious example of a "false flag" operation used to engineer a pretext for war. While certainly not the first or last time that a country would fabricate an attack on itself to justify military action, it showed the depths to which the Nazis were willing to sink in their pursuit of conquest and aggressive expansionism.

The incident also demonstrates the power of propaganda and disinformation to sway public opinion and enable aggression, at least in the short term. Nazi propaganda, assisted by the Gleiwitz deception, was initially quite successful at portraying Germany as a victim and justifying the invasion as an act of self-defense.

Yet Gleiwitz‘s legacy is one that should serve as a cautionary tale about the need for skepticism and critical thinking in the face of narratives used to rationalize war. The fact that the Gleiwitz deception was orchestrated by one of history‘s most brutal and murderous regimes makes it a particularly stark lesson about the potential for lies and "fake news" to be weaponized in the service of even the most destructive ideologies and agendas.

Today, a memorial stands on the site of the radio station attack bearing Franciszek Honiok‘s name – a small but poignant tribute to a victim whose unwitting sacrifice helped set in motion the most devastating war in history. His story, and the story of the Gleiwitz incident, remains a powerful reminder about the importance of truth in the face of aggression and deception.