On the evening of August 31, 1939, as the last rays of the setting sun lingered on the top of the giant wooden mast towering over the then German city of Gliwice, a few miles from the border with Poland, two cars passed through the gates of the Gliwice radio station and stopped outside the three-story transmission building. A small unit of SS officers posing as Polish partisans got out of the car. Along with them was Franciszek Honiok, a 43-year-old unmarried German Catholic, who had been arrested the previous day for his involvement in a number of local revolts against German rule in Silesia, a border region spanning present day Poland. Honiok was dressed in a stolen Polish army uniform. The Gestapo had chosen to sacrifice him in order to make the attack, that was about to take place, look like the work of Polish anti-German saboteurs. Honiok didn’t resist for he was drugged and barely knew what was happening.
The Gliwice Radio Tower is locally known as “the Silesian Eiffel Tower”. Photo credit: www.muzeum.gliwice.pl
Ever since Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, he wanted to invade and partition Poland. But the German–Polish Non-Aggression Pact signed in 1934, as well as the Treaty of Versailles, prevented him from mobilizing his forces against the predominantly Jewish country. What the Führer needed was a single act of aggression from the Polish side to justify the German invasion of Poland. But when none was coming forth, Hitler decided to invent one, and Operation Himmler was born.
Masterminded by the feared Heinrich Himmler and supervised by Reinhard Heydrich, Operation Himmler’s objective was to plant several false flags in multiple locations along the border to create the appearance of Polish aggression against Germany. In the days preceding the invasion of Poland, German troops, dressed in Polish uniforms, would storm various German sites along the border and carry out acts of vandalism, and then retreat leaving behind dead bodies in Polish uniforms. The bodies were procured from concentration camps that the Nazis ran. These expendable men were referred to as “Konserve”, or “canned goods”.
One of the locations chosen, and arguably the most important target of Operation Himmler, was the German radio station in Gliwice.
The Gliwice Radio Station now houses a museum. Photo credit: www.muzeum.gliwice.pl
About three weeks before the attack, Reinhard Heydrich summoned SS Sturmbannführer Alfred Naujocks to Berline, and laid out the details of the intended attack.
“Within a month we shall be at war with Poland,” Heydrich told Naujocks. “The Fuhrer is determined. But first we have to have something to go to war about. We’ve organized incidents in Danzig, along the East Prussian border with Poland, and along the German frontier. But there has to be something big and obvious’.”
Heydrich then strode over to a wall map of Eastern Europe and jabbed a finger at Gliwice. “This is where you come in. The idea is that six men and yourself will burst into Gliwice radio station, knock out the staff and broadcast a speech in Polish and German, attacking Germany and the Fuhrer and announcing Poland’s intention of taking the disputed territories by force.”
On the scheduled day—August 31—a day before German tanks rolled across the border and into Polish territory, marking the beginning of a painfully long global conflict, Alfred Naujocks led a group of seven SS soldiers, including himself, into the radio station. The Nazis quickly overpowered the guards and intimated the three engineers on duty to transmit an anti-German message. One of the SS men, Karl Hornack, who spoke Polish, grabbed the microphone and shouted: “Uwage! Tu Gliwice. Rozglosnia znajduje sie w rekach Polskich.” ‘(Attention! This is Gliwice. The broadcasting station is in Polish hands.)
Hornack continued to speak against the Germans, but one of the engineers stealthily turned off the switch and the transmission was cut short. However, the first nine words that went through the airwaves was enough to trigger a cataclysmic chain of events.
Gliwice Radio Tower. Photo credit: Andrzej Rostek/Shutterstock.com
The following morning, in a speech to Reichstag, Hitler accused Poland of inciting violence, citing as many as twenty-one acts of aggression against the Germans, all of which were staged by the SS. “I can no longer find any willingness on the part of the Polish Government to conduct serious negotiations with us,” Hitler spoke to the Germans. “I have, therefore, resolved to speak to Poland in the same language that Poland for months past has used toward us,” he declared.
Before the SS men left the radio station the previous night, they shot Franciszek Honiok through the forehead and left his body. For decades nobody talked about this man, and there has been no commemoration in Poland honoring his death. His own family was reluctant to bring up the subject, and was too afraid to ask questions. Poland was under German occupation until the end the Second World War, and then under the Communists until their dissolution in 1989. Nobody was interested in digging up the truth, accused Pawel Honiok, the nephew and only remaining relative of Franciszek Honiok. They don’t even know where is body was buried.
Details of the Gliwice incident first came to light during the Nuremberg trials, immediately following the war, but it was not until 1958 that the full facts were revealed after the British writer Comer Clarke tracked down Alfred Naujocks in Hamburg. Naujocks died two years later. He never faced a war-crimes tribunal.
The Gliwice Radio Tower—the tallest wooden structure in Europe (at 387 feet)—still stands, although the station has long ceased to exist. Its building now houses a museum dedicated to the incident. The massive wooden tower now carries aerials for mobile phone services and FM broadcasting. The site itself now belongs to Poland.
Gliwice Radio Tower at night. Photo credit: Tomasz Klimas/Shutterstock.com