World War Two’s first death

World War Two began with a single death; a death that Hitler would use as the justification for going to war and invading Poland. The victim’s name, largely forgotten to history, was Franciszek (or Franz) Honiok.

Eastward ambition

The signing of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact on August 24, 1939, had been the penultimate piece of Hitler’s grand jigsaw. With the Soviet Union safely out of the way, Hitler was now free to pursue his ambitions in the East; ambitions he first espoused in print fourteen years earlier with the publication of his autobiographical rant, Mein Kampf.

Four days later, on August 28th, Hitler revoked the German-Polish Non-Aggression Treaty of 1934. The Poles knew what was coming.

But Hitler still needed a pretext for invading Poland. In the event he made one up. On the nights leading up to August 31st / September 1st there were no less than 21 incidences faked by the Germans which, to a gullible world, would seem like acts of aggression for which retaliation was perfectly justifiable.

Operation Himmler

These acts of farce, codenamed Operation Himmler, were organised by Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich. The most notorious was the Gleiwitz Incident, the faked attack on the radio transmitting station near the border town of Gleiwitz in the Silesia region. German soldiers, dressed up as Polish partisans, attacked the German transmitter, and broadcast in Polish a brief anti-German message.

To make the attack look more authentic, the Germans took an inmate from the Dachau Concentration Camp, the 43-year-old Franciszek Honiok, arrested by the Gestapo just the day before. The unfortunate Honiok was, what the Germans called, ‘canned goods’, kept alive until the Gestapo had need for a dead but still warm body.

Having dressed Honiok as a Polish bandit, they drugged him unconscious, shot him at the scene and then left his body there as evidence of the supposed attack. Local police and press found the body and the news spread across Europe. “There have been reports of an attack on a radio station in Gleiwitz,” reported the BBC, “Several of the Poles were reported killed, but the numbers are not yet known.”

Hitler knew that the falsehood of Operation Himmler was highly transparent but, as he lectured his staff the week before, “The victor will not be asked whether he told the truth.”

4.45 a.m. World War Two starts

The following morning, September 1st, at 4.45 German troops attacked Poland. Hours later Hitler spoke to the nation, referring to the “Polish atrocities”. He continued, “This night for the first time Polish regular soldiers fired on our own 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.” Whether by accident or design, Hitler was an hour out.

Technically, Franciszek Honiok had been killed during peacetime but his death can be considered the first in a conflict that would, over the ensuing six years and a day, claim over 50 million victims.

The Second World War had begun.

 Rupert Colley

Read more in Nazi Germany: History In An Hour and World War Two: History In An Hour both published by Harper Press and available in various various digital formats and audio.