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Shown from left to right in this 1939 photograph are: Franz Josef Huber, Arthur Nebe, and the three men responsible for planning of most of Operation Himmler: Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich and Heinrich Müller.

Operation Himmler (less often known as Operation Konserve or Operation Canned Goods) was a false flag project planned by Nazi Germany to create the appearance of Polish aggression against Germany, which was subsequently used by Nazi propaganda to justify the invasion of Poland. Operation Himmler was arguably the first act of the Second World War in Europe.[1]

The plan

For months prior to the 1939 invasion, German newspapers and politicians like Adolf Hitler had carried out a national and international propaganda campaign accusing Polish authorities of organizing or tolerating violent ethnic cleansing of ethnic Germans living in Poland.[2][3] On 22 August, Adolf Hitler told his generals:

"I will provide a propagandistic casus belli. Its credibility doesn't matter. The victor will not be asked whether he told the truth."[4][5]

The plan, named after its originator, Heinrich Himmler,[1] was supervised by Reinhard Heydrich[6] and (primarily[7]) by Heinrich Müller.[1][6] The goal of this false flag project was to create the appearance of Polish aggression against Germany, which was subsequently used to justify the invasion of Poland. Hitler also might have hoped to confuse the Polish allies (the United Kingdom and France) to delay or prevent their declaration of war on Germany.[8]

The execution

The operations were mostly carried out on 31 August 1939.[4] The operation - as well as the main German offensive - was originally scheduled for 26 August; the shifting diplomatic situation resulted in delay until 31 August/1 September - but one of the German undercover units was not informed and carried out its attack on a German customs post; several Germans were killed before the incident ended.[9] The operations were carried by agents of the SS[4] and the SD.[10] The German troops, dressed in Polish uniforms, would storm various border buildings, scare the locals with inaccurate shots, carry out acts of vandalism, and retreat, leaving behind dead bodies in Polish uniforms.[10] The bodies were in fact prisoners from concentration camps; they were dressed in Polish uniforms, killed (often by a lethal injection of a poison, then shot for appearance) and left behind. They were described as "Konserve" i.e., canned goods, in planning documents (which also led to the more informal name of the operation, Operation Konserve).[1][4][11][12]

There were several separate operations, including staged attacks on:

  • the German radio station Sender Gleiwitz (Gliwice) (this was arguably the most notable of Operation Himmler operations; see Gleiwitz incident for details)[11]
  • the German customs station at Hochlinden (today part of Rybnik-Stodoły)[10][11]
  • the forest service station in Pitschen (Byczyna)[10]

The Gleiwitz incident

Gliwice Radio Tower today. It is the highest wooden structure in Europe.

On the night of 31 August 1939 a small group of German operatives, dressed in Polish uniforms and led by Alfred Naujocks, seized the Gleiwitz station and broadcast a short anti-German message in Polish (sources vary on the content of the message). Several prisoners (most likely from the Dachau concentration camp) and a local Polish-Silesian activist (arrested a day before) were left dead on the scene in Polish uniforms.[11][13]


On 1 September, in a speech in the Reichstag, Adolf Hitler cited the 21 border incidents as justification for Germany's "defensive" action against Poland:

"I can no longer find any willingness on the part of the Polish Government to conduct serious negotiations with us. These proposals for mediation have failed because in the meanwhile there, first of all, came as an answer the sudden Polish general mobilization, followed by more Polish atrocities. These were again repeated last night. Recently in one night there were as many as twenty-one frontier incidents: last night there were fourteen, of which three were quite serious. I have, therefore, resolved to speak to Poland in the same language that Poland for months past has used toward us...

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"[2]

By mid-1939, thousands of Polish Volksdeutsche had been secretly prepared for sabotage and guerrilla warfare by the Breslau (Wrocław) office of the Abwehr; the purpose of their activities was to provoke anti-German reprisals that could be claimed as provocations by the Germans.[14] Those German agents indeed cooperated with the German forces during the invasion of Poland, leading to some reprisals, which were highly exaggerated by the German Nazi propaganda.[14][15][16] One of the most notable cases of such a scenario was reportedly carried out during Bydgoszcz Bloody Sunday. An instruction issued by the Ministry of Propaganda for the press said:

(...)must show news on the barbarism of Poles in Bromberg. The expression "bloody sunday" must enter as a permanent term in the dictionary and circumnavigate the globe. For that reason, this term must be continuously underlined..[17]

The operation failed to convince international public opinion of the German claims.[8]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Roger Manvell, Heinrich Fraenkel, Heinrich Himmler: The SS, Gestapo, His Life and Career, Skyhorse Publishing Inc., 2007, ISBN 1-60239-178-5, Google Print, p.76
  2. 2.0 2.1 Address by Adolf Hitler - September 1, 1939; retrieved from the archives of the Avalon Project at the Yale Law School.
  3. Nazi Conspiracy And Aggression, Volume VI. Office of United States Chief of Counsel For Prosecution of Axis Criminality. United States Government Printing Office: Washington, 1946, p.188
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 James J. Wirtz, Roy Godson, Strategic Denial and Deception: The Twenty-First Century Challenge, Transaction Publishers, 2002, ISBN 0-7658-0898-6, Google Print, p.100
  5. Bradley Lightbody, The Second World War: Ambitions to Nemesis, Routledge, 2004, ISBN 0-415-22405-5, Google Print, p.39
  6. 6.0 6.1 20 Nuremberg Trial Proceedings Volume 4; Thursday, 20 December 1945. The Avalon Project. Retrieved 4 August 2007.
  7. Gerald Reitlinger, The SS, Alibi of a Nation, 1922-1945, Da Capo Press, 1989, ISBN 0-306-80351-8, Print, p.122
  8. 8.0 8.1 Steven J. Zaloga, Poland 1939: The Birth of Blitzkrieg, Osprey Publishing, 2002, ISBN 1-84176-408-6, Google Print, p.39
  9. Jack Weidner, A Question of Honor, Buy Books on the web, 2002, ISBN 0-7414-0953-4, Google Print, p.61
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 Martin Allen, Himmler's Secret War: The Covert Peace Negotiations of Heinrich Himmler, Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2005, ISBN 0-7867-1708-4, Google Print, p.51
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 Christopher J. Ailsby, The Third Reich Day by Day, Zenith Imprint, 2001, ISBN 0-7603-1167-6, Google Print, p.112
  12. John S. Craig, Peculiar Liaisons in War, Espionage, and Terrorism of the Twentieth Century, Algora Publishing, 2005, ISBN 0-87586-331-0, Google Print, p.180
  13. Museum in Gliwice: WHAT HAPPENED HERE?
  14. 14.0 14.1 Perry Biddiscombe, Alexander Perry, Werwolf!: The History of the National Socialist Guerrilla Movement, 1944-1946, University of TorontoPress, 1998, ISBN 0-8020-0862-3, Google Print, p.207
  15. For an example of Nazi propaganda document discussing "Polish atrocities against the German people", see The Polish Atrocities Against the German Minority in Poland Compiled by Hans Schadewaldt (Berlin: German Foreign Office, 1940) pp. 35-54, cases 1 - 15. signed testimony of Herbert Matthes, Bromberg furniture maker
  16. Richard Blanke, The American Historical Review, Vol. 97, No. 2. Apr. 1992, pp. 580-582. Review of: Włodzimierz Jastrzębski,Der Bromberger Blutsonntag: Legende und Wirklichkeit. and Andrzej Brożek, Niemcy zagraniczni w polityce kolonizacji pruskich prowincji wschodnich (1886-1918) JSTOR
  17. A. K. Kunert, Z. Walkowski, Kronika kampanii wrześniowej 1939, Wydawnictwo Edipresse Polska, Warszawa 2005, ISBN 83-60160-99-6, s. 35.

Further reading

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