How a False Flag Sparked World War Two: The Gleiwitz Incident Explained

Cassie Pope

2 mins

31 Aug 2018

In the days prior to the German invasion of Poland in 1939, the Nazis initiated a campaign designed to persuade the international community that Germany was the victim of Polish aggression. Adolf Hitler intended to use this aggression to justify the invasion.

In the German press, reports appeared claiming that German nationals living in Poland had been subjected to torture. But something more eye-catching was needed to convince the world of Poland’s provocation.

In early August, Schutzstaffel (SS) leader Reinhard Heydrich had gathered together a select number of SS officers at a hotel in Gleiwitz. He informed them of a plan to stage a series of border incidents – so called “false flag” operations.

By 31 August, German tanks were massed on the Polish border and the SS – with assistance from the Abwehr (German intelligence) – put its plan into action.

German intentions were becoming increasingly clear in the days before the invasion of Poland. On 29 August, war correspondent Claire Hollingworth wrote in The Daily Telegraph of 10 mobile divisions massed on the border.

This plan included an attack on the customs house at the then German border village of Hochlinden, in which six inmates from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp were dressed up in Polish uniforms and shot. A second similar operation was carried out against the Pitschen forestry lodge. But perhaps the most famous incident took place in Gleiwitz.

The Gleiwitz Incident

Today, Gleiwitz is known as Gliwice and lies within the borders of Poland. But in 1939 it was a German border town.

In 1933, the Gleiwitz Radio Station was identified as an important hub for the dissemination of propaganda and the Germans constructed a new transmission tower and antenna there. The wooden tower, measuring 111 metres, is still standing today.

On the evening of 31 August 1939, a seven-man SS team stormed the transmitter station disguised as Polish insurgents. They pushed past the German staff, seized a microphone, and announced in Polish:

“Attention! This is Gliwice. The broadcasting station is in Polish hands.”

The day before, the SS team had arrested a 43-year-old unmarried German farmer named Franciszek Honiok. To complete their deception at Gleiwitz, the SS officers dressed Honiok in a Polish uniform, murdered him, and left his body at the entrance of the transmitter station.

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The aftermath

Within hours, German radio stations were reporting on the incident at Gleiwitz. The station had been hijacked by Polish soldiers, they said, with a body left on the steps.

News of the incident spread abroad, with the BBC broadcasting the following:

There have been reports of an attack on a radio station in Gliwice, which is just across the Polish border in Germany.

The German News Agency reports the attack came at about 8pm this evening when the Poles forced their way into the studio and began broadcasting a statement in Polish. Within a quarter of an hour, say reports, the Poles were overpowered by German police who opened fire on them. Several of the Poles were reported killed but the numbers are not yet known.

The following day, 1 September, German forces invaded Poland. World War Two had begun.