The German Invasion of Poland in 3D: The 80th Anniversary of WW2

EXTREME RAUMBILD WARNING: This post contains stereographic images from Raumbild-Verlag Otto Schönstein. The images in the book portray the Wehrmacht during WW2, Adolf Hitler, swastikas, Hitlergruße, etc. These images are offensive – but they are still of historic importance. If you do not wish to see them, please click away now. In no way do I personally, nor this blog as a forum, support Nazism, and any comments which appear to do so will be removed and their posters blocked.

WW2: An Anniversary Sans Celebration

On Brooklyn Stereography, we celebrated a war anniversary last November – on the 100th anniversary of Armistice in the Great War. The outbreak of the Second World War is not cause for celebration, however. It is important to recognize this anniversary, as well as to understand what happened. But a happy day it was not. Rather, it was the beginning of one of the most horrific wars in human history – one which was characterized by extreme brutality, genocide, and the worst aspects of human nature.

You would not know this from the images posted today, of course; they’re Nazi propaganda, split between two posts. This post concerns the German invasion of Poland in general. The post immediately previous concerns the occupation of the Free City of Danzig. Between them, there are 80 images for 80 years. They have a celebratory tone. And had the Third Reich triumphed in WW2, these would be celebrated collector’s items. As it stands, they’re the only 3D images I know of pertaining to the invasion and brutal occupation of Poland. And thus, they’re an important historical record of both the invasion, and of the contemporary Nazi mindset. But make no mistake – we’re going to be looking at some ugly stuff today.

War is always ugly…

The Great War was ugly. The first industrialized war, it introduced gas warfare, the stalemate of the trenches, and terrible machines to the vocabulary of combat. But it was not unique in its ugliness. From the Byzantine invention of Greek Fire to the use of war elephants, ancient battles were ugly. During the Great War, the Armenian Genocide wiped out over a million people – and like the Great War itself, it can be viewed as a precursor to WW2. And of course, modern wars such as Vietnam and the ensuing Cambodian genocide, the Rwandan civil war and its ensuing genocide, etc – these carry the torch of the Nazi atrocities during the Second World War, and are themselves ugly.

War is ugly because, intrinsically, it forces humans to depersonalize each other. In the Great War, we did it – to the French, the Germans became the “Boche”. To the British, they were “Huns” or “Jerries” (the latter carrying over to WW2). In America, we renamed the Frankfurter the “Hot Dog”. Battling another nation, killing the people on the other side – it requires this, and this is ugly. But it is also necessary. You have to objectify the person to create scenes such as this, and the conditions leading to them:

A stereo pair depicting a mass pile of bodies during the Great War.
From this blog’s first Remembrance Day post, courtesy of the Jordan/Ference Collection.

…but this one was orders of magnitude uglier…

The mass burial pits of the Great War were very, very ugly – and yet they are important documentary records of the time. And depersonalization was neither as widespread or as complete during this war as it was during the Second World War. Adolf Hitler, Josef Goebbels, and their entire ensemble had embedded depersonalization into the consciousness of the Nazi party. Jewish people were the scum of the earth, and those that opposed the Aryan agenda were only a step above. Take this simple “trophy” stereoview from the folio featured in today’s post:

The German Invasion of Poland: The 80th Anniversary of WW2 - An image depicting a proud German soldier standing guard over a pile of burning beds.
Bild nr. 95: “Verwanzte und verlauste Judenbetten werden auf dem Marktplatz in Myslenice verbrannt” (“Buggy and lousy Jews’ beds are burned on the square in Myslenice”).

A soldier stands guard next to a pile of burning beds. A child walks by nonchalantly, glancing at the camera. In the background, people go about their business. This is as good an expression of Hannah Arendt’s much-bandied-about “banality of evil” as any I can think of. The overt message here is “The Jews are dealt with”. Presumably, as was the case throughout the German invasion of Poland during WW2, the owners of the bed had simply been killed – an act as natural as buttering a slice of bread to the soldier. He might have been a Nazi diehard; he might have been a soldier doing his job. But nobody cares or reacts to the scene. It’s merely part of the course of things to come in Großdeutschland.

…and would get uglier still before the end of the war.

Most readers of this blog probably know at least a little bit about WW2, and what was to follow its outbreak. Poland was fully occupied in less than 40 days; within a couple of years, The Final Solution would be decided at the Wannsee Conference. The Holocaust – already underway, arguably, as early as this stereoview – would claim the lives of over 6,000,000 Jewish people (including 90% of Poland’s Jews), other undesirables (including Romani, homosexuals, general Poles, political opponents, et cetera), and be forever burned into the mind of conscientious humans as the single biggest mass-murder in history.

But these events are outside of the purview of this blog post. In this post, we take a look at the events leading up to the German invasion of Poland, as well as of the occupation. In the companion post, we examine the “capture” of the Free City of Danzig (now Gdańsk) – which was already effectively a Nazi puppet state. But, for the interest of brevity (and our own sanity), our focus must remain steadfastly on the early days of the Second World War. We’ll focus exclusively on the first few months of the war, and in future posts look at the development of the Third Reich as it cemented its claim on Poland, captured France, and so on.

The German Invasion of Poland & Start of WW2

Precursors to Invasion

The Treaty of Versailles and the rise of Hitler

While a formal treaty with Germany was necessary to properly end the Great War – hostilities having ceased on Armistice Day – the Treaty of Versailles was exceptionally harsh; the hardships imposed not just on the German government and military, but on the people of Germany, were quite brutal. The French policy of revanchism – especially after lingering resentment over ceding Alsace-Lorraine during the Franco-Prussian war – took a great deal of territory from the conquered Germans. The nation was forced to make economic reparations that left it economically crippled. Unable to maintain a proper military, the German people felt unable to defend themselves. If a WW2 were to be started by a rival nation, Germany would be unable to fight back.

Dictators like Hitler can’t exist in a vacuum. But what Hitler offered the German people – initially rejected during the Beer Hall Putsch – became increasingly attractive after the consequences of the Versailles Treaty. Nationalism and a national identity; a strong set of (very nasty) beliefs to unite the country – the timing was perfect. Add in a backlash against some of the social excesses of the Weimar years, and you have a powder keg. And Hitler was there to light the fuse.

Hitler’s obsession with Danzig and the Polish Corridor

Since this is the primary topic of the companion essay on Danzig, I won’t cover it heavily here. However, I will mention that Hitler was obsessed with its “liberation”. So much so, in fact, that he cancelled the Nazi Party’s premier annual event to launch WW2. The 1939 Nuremberg Rally – Reichsparteitag des Friedens – was scheduled to begin on 2 September. But the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had been signed, and the timer was ticking. Battleships were positioned near Westerplatte. No time for “Reich’s Party Day of Peace” when there’s land to be gained! After all, the previous rally had centered around the Greater German Reich – and what would make it greater than adding the best bits of Poland?

The annexation of the Sudetenland

When Germany annexed the Sudetenland, they set a clock ticking down. While the region, taken from Czechoslovakia without force, was heavily pro-Nazi, Hitler had tipped his hand. He wasn’t going to play by the rules, and world leaders were growing wary. It was becoming apparent that Germany was strong, was growing, and was looking to grow yet more. It was a dual question of where and when. So in backrooms, leaders and their surrogates were making deals, inking the preambles to mutual defense pacts, and so on. Hitler knew this. Better to strike while one’s future foes are disorganized than to wait for their plans to solidify.

And in a very real sense, this made sense. Neville Chamberlain was weak. He just wanted to keep Britain out of any more conflict. France, an immediate neighbor, was more concerned. Poland acted as if they were terrified, and tried to project a tougher exterior than they could manage. Russia had secretly formed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The stage was set, and further delay might actually have hindered the Führer’s plans. And so WW2 began – supposedly as a defensive maneuver, after a false flag attack – at 4:45 AM, eighty years ago today.

The Second World War Begins

The first shots in Westerplatte

In the early morning hours, the Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on Westerplatte, a Polish military base on Danzig land. Danzig itself welcomed invasion with open arms, and the Polish did not send appreciable defense. This initial broadside is generally considered to be the start of WW2. At the time, the battle station was fully manned, since Poland was on high alert against a German incursion. However, they had not anticipated that it would happen so soon. They also hadn’t quite grasped the strength of the Reich’s military. The Polish soldiers held the fort for seven days – which is quite commendable. But they were forced to retreat.

The aid that never came

The Second Polish Republic was a new country. Basically created after the Treaty of Versailles, it built on the legacy of Polish nations past, while lacking a distinctive identity of its own. Like many youths, Poland was struggling with its identity – hence its absolute hard stance on Danzig. And like many youths, Poland was naïve. There were agreements in place that caused Britain and France to declare war on Germany on 3 September. Poland, thinking that this meant aid was imminent, retreated to Warsaw and other seeming strongholds. But the aid did not arrive. In what has come to be known as the “Western Betrayal”, both France and the UK were technically involved in WW2, but did a whole lot of nothing to aid Poland.

Enter the Soviets

The Soviets had fixed their eyes on Eastern Poland for quite awhile, as well as other places such as Finland. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact had delineated how the land would be partitioned if, you know, both Germany and the CCCP entered the war. And so, on 17 September, the Polish found themselves low on places to retreat to – a day after signing peace accords in Asia, Stalin was eyeing westward expansion. And this pretty much signaled the end for Poland during WW2.

The Hela Peninsula proved the last holdout of the Polish Army. Facing Soviets at one turn, and Germans at the next, the brave men who were left tried to hold Hela for as long as possible. The Germans finally beat them into submission on 2 October. Four days later, Poland surrendered, and the partitioning began. The Second World War was underway, and Poland was now occupied. And to make matters worse, Poles were seen as Untermenschen in Nazi ideology – less than men. There were mass executions of both soldiers and civilians. At no point were the Poles treated according to the regular rules of civil warfare, if such a thing exists.

Raumbild’s “Die Soldaten des Führers im Felde”

“Der Feldzug in Polen” – a total misnomer

Raumbild-Verlag Otto Schönstein produced two volumes under the header of “Die Soldaten des Führers im Felde”. This translates to “The Soldiers of the Führer in the Field” – which makes sense considering that these are putatively volumes about the Wehrmacht. And it’s a suitable heading for “Band II: Der Kampf in Westen” (“Volume II: The Struggle in the West”). However, “Band I: Der Feldzug in Polen” (“Volume I: The Campaign in Poland”) does not in any way describe the 3D photos contained within. “The Occupation of Poland” seems a more fitting title.

While there is every possibility that the text of the folio is about the campaign, the stereoviews are all about the aftermath. The very first image portrays the victory at Hela. By bild nr. 50, we’re seeing Hitler speaking at Danzig and holding a parade in Warsaw. This set was taken as a propaganda piece after Germany’s remarkably fast victory, in order to bolster support for further expansion. Lebensraum, the concept of creating more living space for a greater Reich, was central to Hitler’s planning. And as history shows us, his ambitions did not stop at Poland. In any case, we won’t know more about what the text contains until I hear back from my friend / translator on how long it will take to make a faithful translation.

The Minor Successes of “Der Feldzug in Polen”

The stereoviews and their photographers

While there are a number of ways in which this volume succeeds, I think there are more failures than successes here. So let’s start with the successes. As individual images, most of these stereoviews are pleasing to the eye, and there’s a very good reason for that. The two photographers responsible for the volume were Heinrich Hoffmann and Hugo Jäger. Hoffmann, of course, was Hitler’s best friend, responsible for introducing him to both Eva Braun and to Theodor Morell. While everybody knows who Braun was, Morell is less of a household name – he was Hitler’s personal physician. Morell was responsible for Hitler’s addictions to cocaine, oxycodone, and barbiturates.

Jäger is less well-known, but was an amazing photographer in his own right. He specialized in color photography, unlike Hoffmann, and was quite skilled at composition. After the war, he smuggled his archives away in a suitcase and buried them for decades, eventually selling them to Time Magazine. This led Time to giving him the undeserved title “Hitler’s Personal Photographer” – which obviously better applies to Hoffmann. Still, the images these two created together for “Der Feldzug in Polen” are, on the whole, really excellent examples of stereography. They certainly didn’t take the lazy approach of Stanley Long from VistaScreen!

A morale boost for the dedicated Nazi reader

For those committed to National Socialism, these WW2 images must have been a serious boost. It was not uncommon knowledge that the Third Reich had built up an impressive military, Versailles Treaty be damned! But this military had not stood up to any rigorous trials. The German invasion of Poland was this trial, and it was by all accounts a success. Poland was entirely conquered – in well under the six weeks Hitler had demanded.

And here was the evidence, in well-done 3D. Wreckage at Hela. The sunken Polish ships in the waters off Westerplatte. Jovial Germans and Soviets building the demarcation line (which will be covered in another post). Hitler, speaking in Danzig, and parading in Warsaw. To those who already believed in the glory of the Reich, a first glance through this folio must have been an instant morale boost.

The Significant Failings of “Der Feldzug in Polen”

For all intents and purposes, false advertising

For those hoping to see the Soldiers of the Führer in the Field, there’s sore disappointment in this book. The soldiers are done being in the field – here, the Wehrmacht are burning Jewish beds, building a partition line alongside Soviet troops, or marching in columns. The second volume, Der Kampf im Westen, does a much better job of showing soldiering. Furthermore, many of the images here do not feature a single soldier. At 30 Reichsmarks, this was among the more expensive Raumbild offerings – that was the majority of a month’s salary for the average German worker.

It’s especially poor propaganda

While I’d argue that stereography is useless as a propaganda tool in general, the single frames from these stereoviews don’t succeed at all. Hitler himself suggested (in Mein Kampf) that for propaganda to be successful, it had to meet two criteria. It had to be widespread and available. And it had to speak to the masses, including converting those on the fence. At 30 RM for the volume, it was hardly available to the average German.

But in terms of speaking to the unconverted, this book does a terrible job. Sure, to the diehard Nazi who already subscribes to Hitler’s Racial Hygiene program, it’s sure to warm the cockles of the shriveled raisin of a heart. But consider an average German who agrees with the notion that Germany was short-shrifted by the Treaty of Versailles, and who agrees that Germany is great and ought to include peoples that want to become German – like Danzig and the Sudetenland. But here, we have a stereoview showing a miserable group being forced to push a cart with the title “Polish Jews doing unfamiliar work”. Even to a loyal German, this must have struck a chord of empathy – not everybody in Germany was evil. And outside of Germany, these sorts of dehumanizing images do nothing to garner support for German efforts during WW2.

Repetition, repetition, repetition

Whether it is just padding or whether it was truly supposed to be the focus of significant chunks of this volume, there is a lot of repetition here. There are about 10 images (to be seen in a later post) of construction of the partition. There are two very similar images of people disembarking from an airplane. Three shots in a row feature hospital ships at Westerplatte. This seems unnecessary, especially in a volume supposedly about the Second World War. Okay, so the images don’t show the campaign in Poland, as advertised. But do we need so many similar images?

Far fewer of these volumes seem to exist than Band II, and they tend to universally sell for a higher price, indicating their scarcity. It’s hard not to see why. While “Der Kampf im Westen” delivers exciting action shots of soldiers jumping, driving tanks, using field binoculars, etc, this one shows us images of the military basically taking charge of an already-occupied nation. And while the other volume is almost inspiring, this one inspires little besides anger in me. Perhaps it’s something to do with the state of the world today. But I don’t see the point in dehumanizing people through stereography. Then again, I’m not a Nazi.

Final WW2 Thoughts

Today is the 80th anniversary of the first shots fired in WW2 – just a few hours ago, we passed 4:45 in Germany. And most of us probably have a good idea what came next, after what’s pictured here, and in the companion post. The horrors of the Holocaust, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. America, as with the Great War, was late to the party, and early to the “pat me on the back” line. My grandfather fought in this war – he was a member of the 367th Fighter Squadron. (And if anyone can find one of the 367th FS yearbooks, I’ll pay a handsome penny for it.)

But my grandfather, Corporal Joseph Litwin at the time, and Pop-Pop by the time I was born, was my greatest inspiration. He always tried to be a good man, and to do right by other people. I collected his war stories, both hilarious and horrifying, and I hold on to them. To be honest, though, I don’t find WW2 quite as interesting as the Great War. Perhaps this is just an aspect of growing up with media bombarded by WW2 specials, movies, and so on. Regardless, this represents a pretty large chunk of the extant WW2 stereography that I know of, so I’ll keep posting it. I hope you get something out of it, besides an uneasy stomach.


One last reminder – if you have not already done so, please have a look at the companion post on the German occupation of the Free City of Danzig after you look at these. And note my use of “look at” instead of “enjoy”. It somehow seems more fitting.


4 Replies to “The German Invasion of Poland in 3D: The 80th Anniversary of WW2”

  1. Thank you for posting these. The Polish prisoner in #41 may be a woman. The people of Poland suffered terribly in that war, only to have it end with the Soviet occupation.

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