Bloody Sunday (1939)
Bloody Sunday (German: Bromberger Blutsonntag; Polish: Krwawa niedziela) was a sequence of violent events that took place in Bydgoszcz (German: Bromberg), a Polish city with a sizable German minority, between 3 and 4 September 1939, during the German invasion of Poland.
After German Selbstschutz snipers fired on retreating Polish troops, there was a Polish reaction against the German minority and then the retaliatory execution of Polish hostages by the Wehrmacht and Selbstschutz, after the fall of the city. All these events resulted in the deaths of both German and Polish civilians. The Polish Institute of National Remembrance found and confirmed 254 Lutheran victims, assumed to be German civilians, and 86 Catholic victims, assumed to be Polish civilians, as well as 20 Polish soldiers. Approximately 600–800 Polish hostages were shot in a mass execution in the aftermath of the fall of the city.
After the Germans took over the city, they killed 1,200–3,000 Polish civilians in retaliation, as part of Operation Tannenberg. The event and place of execution became known as the Valley of Death. The murdered included the president of Bydgoszcz, Leon Barciszewski. Fifty Polish prisoners of war from Bydgoszcz were later accused by Nazi Sondergericht Bromberg summary courts for taking part in "Bloody Sunday" and shot.
The term "Bloody Sunday" was created and supported by Nazi propaganda officials. An instruction issued to the press said, "... must show news on the barbarism of Poles against Germans 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."
Bydgoszcz (Bromberg) was part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth until 1772, when it was annexed by the Kingdom of Prussia during the First Partition of Poland. As a part of Prussia, the city was affected by the unification of Germany in 1871 and became part of the German Empire. It would remain a part of the German Empire until the end of World War I. In February 1920, the Treaty of Versailles awarded the city and the surrounding region to the Second Polish Republic (the administrative region of Pomeranian Voivodeship). This resulted in a number of ethnic Germans leaving the region for Germany. Over the interwar period, the German population decreased even further.
The emergence of the Nazi Party in Germany had an important impact on the city. Adolf Hitler revitalized the Völkisch movement, making an appeal to the German minority living outside of Germany's post-World War I borders and recruiting its members for Nazi intelligence. It was Hitler's explicit goal to create a Greater German State by annexing territories of other countries inhabited by German minorities. By March 1939, these ambitions, charges of atrocities on both sides of the German-Polish border, distrust, and rising nationalist sentiment in Nazi Germany led to the complete deterioration of Polish-German relations. Hitler's demands for the Polish inhabited Polish Corridor and Polish resistance to Nazi annexation fueled ethnic tensions. For months prior to the 1939 German invasion of Poland, 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.
After armed conflict erupted on 1 September 1939, statements that persecutions of ethnic Germans had occurred in Poland, especially in Bydgoszcz, continued to appear in the Nazi press.
Beginning in early September, the Nazi intelligence organization Abwehr reported in documents prepared by general Erwin von Lahousen that German armed saboteurs conducting operations behind the front line in Bydgoszcz suffered heavy losses. Their operations coordinated by Abwehr residents in Bydgoszcz-Grischner are documented in operational reports and plans in Abwehr archives. Among the tasks allocated to armed saboteur groups documented in German archives were: blowing up the main office of the German organization Deutsche Vereinigung, the passport office Deutsche Paßstelle, the German private school, and setting fire to the German theater and offices of the Jungdeutsche Partei. These operations are documented as coordinated and organized by Schutzstaffel SS. Additionally a special Abwehr sabotage group was located in Bydgoszcz according to German records from Abwehr Breslau department, called Sabotage-Organisationen Gruppe 12 whose task was to disable a local power-plant and cut phone communications between Inowrocław and Toruń.
Besides these sabotage groups in Bydgoszcz, the Abwehr also recorded in its documents paramilitary groups that were formed in the city. According to German records stored in Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv in Freiburg they counted 150 members in Kampf-Organisation under leadership of a local German named Kleiss and were part of a larger military formation coordinated from Poznan which altogether had 2077 members. In addition to this group a 10-member combat unit under command of a German named Otto Meister was also formed in Bydgoszcz and received orders from Wroclaw local office of Abwehr. By the end of August just before the invasion took place Polish police conducted several arrests during which they found explosives, armbands and guns.
During the night between 2 and 3 September a number of German saboteurs dressed up in Polish uniforms woke up inhabitants of two districts in Bydgoszcz telling them to run as Poland has been defeated, and as a result a significant number of civilians panicked and started fleeing the city. The chaotic flight disrupted and restricted movements of the Polish military on the roads.
By the morning of 3 September a certain few Germans who were in good relationship with their Polish neighbors started warning them to hide as "something bad will happen in the city", offering them shelter under the condition that they must hide by 10 AM, but stated they could not disclose details on what would take place.
As a contingent of the Polish Army (Army Pomorze's 9th, 15th, and 27th Infantry Division) was withdrawing through Bydgoszcz it was attacked by German irregulars from within the city. According to a British witness, a retreating Polish artillery unit was shot at by Germans from within a house; the Poles returned fire and were subsequently shot at from a Jesuit church. In the ensuing fight both sides suffered some casualties; captured German nonuniformed armed insurgents were executed on the spot and some mob lynching was also reported. A Polish investigation concluded in 2004 that Polish troops had been shot at by members of the German minority and German military intelligence (Abwehr) agents; around 40–50 Poles and between 100 and 300 Germans were killed.
Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry heavily exploited the events to try to gain support in Germany for the invasion. As British historian Ian Kershaw wrote:
For German propaganda, the attacks on ethnic Germans were exploited as an apparent justification for a policy of 'ethnic cleansing' that had surpassed in its first days anything that could be regarded as retaliation. The Germans claimed in November 1939 5,400 had been killed in the 'September Murders' (including what they dubbed the 'Bromberg Bloody Sunday'). Then, in February 1940, on Hitler's own instructions (it was later claimed) this was simply multiplied by around ten-fold and a figure of 58,000 German dead invented. The most reliable estimates put the total number of ethnic Germans killed in outrages, forced marches, bombing and shelling at around 4,000. Terrible though these atrocities were, they were more or less spontaneous outbursts of hatred that took place in the context of panic and fear following the German invasion. They did not remotely compare with, let alone provide any justification for, the calculated savagery of the treatment meted out by the German masters, directed at wiping out anything other than a slave existence for the Polish people.
Hitler's secret decree of 4 October 1939 stated that all crimes committed by the Germans between 1 September 1939 and 4 October 1939 were not to be prosecuted.
The Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau investigation in 1939–1940 claimed that the events were a result of panic and confusion among the Polish troops. The Wehrmacht investigation included the interrogation of captive Polish soldiers, ethnic Germans from Bydgoszcz and surrounding villages, and Polish civilians. The bodies of the victims were exhumed and the cause of death and the possible involvement of military rifles was assessed.
German reprisals and atrocities
The events were followed by German reprisals and mass executions of Polish civilians. In an act of retaliation for Bloody Sunday, a number of Polish civilians were executed by German military units of the Einsatzgruppen, Waffen SS, and Wehrmacht. According to German historian Christian Raitz von Frentz, 876 Poles were tried by German tribunal for involvement in the events of Bloody Sunday before the end of 1939. 87 men and 13 women were sentenced without the right to appeal. Polish historian Czesław Madajczyk notes 120 executions in relation to Bloody Sunday, and the execution of 20 hostages after a German soldier was allegedly attacked by a Polish sniper.
According to a German version, Polish snipers attacked German troops in Bydgoszcz for several days (Polish sources and witnesses do not confirm this). The German governor, General Walter Braemer, (the commander of the rear army area), ordered the execution of 80 Polish hostages over the next few days. By September 8, between 200 and 400 Polish civilians had been killed. According to Richard Rhodes, a number of Boy Scouts were set up in the marketplace against a wall and shot; a devoted priest who rushed to administer the last sacrament was shot too, receiving five wounds. Murders continued all week; 34 of the leading tradespeople and merchants of the town were shot, as well as many other leading citizens.
Many Poles, particularly members of the intelligentsia and the Jews, were singled out for deportation, or killed outright. More than 20,000 Polish citizens of Bydgoszcz (14% of the population) were either shot or died in concentration camps during the occupation.
The debate in scholarship
The exact number of victims of Bloody Sunday is disputed. Peter Aurich (a pseudonym of the German journalist Peter Nasarski) put the number of German civilian deaths in Bydgoszcz at 366, while Hugo Rasmus estimates it as at least 415. Two Polish historians, Włodzimierz Jastrzębski and Czesław Madajczyk, estimate ethnic German deaths at 103 (Jastrzębski), and about 300 (150 on September 3, the rest in the days after). The Polish historians point out that since these losses occurred during actual combat, most of the civilian losses should be attributed to accidents common in urban combat conditions; they argue that civilian losses might have occurred when the town was attacked by the German air force (Luftwaffe). Strafing of civilians in the town by the Luftwaffe is confirmed by German witnesses. Nazi propaganda reinforced Polish perceptions of the German minority as hostile, and during the invasion reported that the German minority was aiding the forces. This contributed to Polish misconceptions, as the Poles were expecting the German minority to be actively hostile.
An even bigger debate in the scholarship concerned the question whether—as the Polish historiography suggests—there were indeed any members of a German fifth column in the city who opened fire on the Polish troops (and if so, whether they were composed of members of the Bydgoszcz German minority or not), or whether—as critics among the German historiography argue—Polish troops (or panicking civilians) overreacted in the confusion and targeted innocent German civilians. This debate has been resolved by investigation of German archives, which confirmed existence of several diversion and saboteur groups in Bydgoszcz overseen by intelligence organizations by Nazi Germany. Among the Germans killed in the fighting historians identified Otto Niefeldt who was an Abwehr agent from Szczecin. The account of Peter Nasarski alias Aurich has been called by Harry Gordon one of the most thorough German accounts; his work is however generally rejected in Poland, perhaps because he indiscriminately used witness statements collected by Nazi officials. According to Nasarski, after police forces retreated from Bydgoszcz, agitated Polish civilians accused many Germans of assaulting Polish soldiers and executed them and any Poles who stood up in their defence. Rasmus attributes the situation to confusion and the disorganised state of the Polish forces in the city.
Von Frentz wrote that "In Bydgoszcz, the event was probably caused by confusion among the rapidly retreating soldiers, a general breakdown in public order and panic among the Polish majority after two German air raids and the discovery of a small reconnaissance group of the German Army on the previous day." He quotes Nazi German reports about the civilian victims and atrocities, later corroborated by a Red Cross commission that the Nazis invited to the scene. Von Frentz also noted that eyewitness accounts of atrocities committed against the German population are as unreliable as Polish accounts of the fifth columnists. While authors like Blanke write that no ethnic Germans are known to have spoken of participation in that event, by 2007 Nazi documents were uncovered confirming that assistance, supplies and aid were given to both German saboteurs and their families. In the post-war collaboration trials, no ethnic German was charged in relation to Bloody Sunday. Another counterargument that was made to the fifth column theory is that Polish troops were being targeted by advance units of the German regular army (Heer), or that the shots were fired by Polish soldiers in the confusion of the mass withdrawal. Von Frentz claims that Polish troops and civilians massacred German civilians due to confusion. Polish historians feel the German historiography is based on Nazi German sources, ignoring numerous Polish sources.
Polish historians, such as Madajczyk, Jastrzębski, Karol Marian Pospieszalski, Ryszard Wojan, and others claim that the killings were triggered when the ethnic Germans, dressed as civilians, opened fire on the Polish troops (Jastrzebski later changed his views after starting to work with German expelee organizations). The Poles retaliated, killing many and executing prisoners afterwards. Polish historians like Pospieszalski and Janusz Kutta point to a Nazi top secret false flag Operation Himmler (which took place on August 31 – September 1) and was designed to create an illusion of Polish aggression against Germany. Thus it is argued that actions like the Gleiwitz incident and events in Bydgoszcz were all part of a larger Nazi plan to discredit the Poles. Polish historians such as Pospieszalski and Wojan argue that the German fifth column agents (or their higher-ups) might have been deliberately aiming to produce a situation likely to result in German civilian casualties as a way to fuel Nazi propaganda. This argument has been criticized: Harry Gordon questions whether the Germans were willing to sacrifice their citizens for propaganda gains.
The modern consensus among Polish historians is that the events constituted an attack on the Polish population and military by German militia.
In 2004, historian Tomasz Chinciński in a publication of Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) summarized recent research related to Bloody Sunday, confirming that the majority of historians agree that an "insurrection" by agents who had arrived from the Third Reich as well as some German inhabitants of Bydgoszcz took place. He has published a work detailing new evidence of German diversionary activity in September 1939 in Poland. There are numerous Polish eyewitness accounts of action of a German fifth column which included members of local minority; Pospieszalski cited multiple witnesses for at least 46 cases of German civilians opening fire on Polish troops. There are numerous Polish Army reports and German documents confirming the saboteur actions of armed German Poles in other cities. According to German historians, any members of the fifth column, if present in the city, were infiltrators from Germany, not natives of Bydgoszcz. Eyewitness accounts have been criticised by Richard Blanke. In 2004, Chinciński discussed previously unpublished reports of Polish Army Pomorze, which reported "a large scale diversion" in Bydgoszcz on September 3 and numerous smaller incidents in surrounding area around that time.
A number of Polish and German historians discussed the problem September 4, 2006, at the German Historical Institute in Warsaw. Chinciński discussed newly discovered documents of the Abwehr that show that there were indeed plans for fifth column and diversion activities in Bydgoszcz; several paramilitary groups were organized by Germany in the city, he discussed the bias of the Polish communist era historiography, which minimized cases of Polish mob lynching of ethnic Germans, which did occur in Bydgoszcz. German historian Hans-Erich Volkmann noted problems with German historiography, outlining some of the unreliability inherent in early post-war studies, which were still significantly affected by the Nazi era, and that the Bydgoszcz events were and still are used for political purposes. By 2007 after several years of studying German archives, documents were uncovered in which General Erwin Lahousen praised action of German saboteurs in Bydgoszcz and organized delivery of supplies and medical help to them. German historian Jochen Böhler, in his publication about the invasion of Poland, published in 2006, wrote that new documents uncovered from the German archives proved that Polish soldiers were attacked by Abwehr Agents and members of the German minority.
- Bundesarchiv description: German: Polen.- Deutsche Soldaten und internationale Journalisten vor Leichen getöteter Volksdeutscher (Opfer des "Bromberger Blutsonntag"
English: Poland.- German soldiers and international journalists in front of the bodies of killed Volksdeutsche (victims of the "Bromberg Bloody Sunday").
- Bundesarchiv (image source) also cites the original caption, which is written in a propagandistic style: German: Herr Chamberlein! Sie haben Polen die Blanko-Vollmacht für diese Schandtaten erteilt! Auf Ihr Haupt kommt das Blut dieser Opfer! Wenn Sie noch einen Funken Gefühl für Menschlichkeit, Wahrheitsliebe und Fairneß im Leibe hätten, müßte Sie das Grausen packen beim Anblick der Bilddokumente über die Bromberger Blutopfer. UBz: Ausländische Journalisten überzeugen sich an Ort und Stelle von den furchtbaren Mordtaten der Polen in Bromberg.
English: Bromberg, corpses of slain ethnic Germans. Mr. Chamberlain! You gave Poland a blank cheque for this atrocity! On your head the blood of these victims comes! If you had any spark of feeling left, for humanity, truthfulness and fairness, you would have been filled with horror at the sight of the visual evidence of the Bromberg blood victims. For example: foreign journalists bear witness at the scene of Poland's terrible acts of murder in Bromberg. 9.9.39 photo Weltbild Fremke 212-39
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- (in German) A documentary about Bromberg/Bydgoszcz from a Polish/German cooperation
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- (in Polish) Wydarzenia 3 i 4 września 1939 r. w Bydgoszczy – "Blutsonntag" Archived 2011-07-21 at the Wayback Machine, reproduction of text from Historia Bydgoszczy, Tom II, część druga 1939–1945, Marian Biskup (ed.), Bydgoszcz 2004
- (in Polish) Katarzyna Staszak, Bogusław Kunach, Krwawa niedziela poprawia Niemcom samopoczucie. Romowa z Guenterem Schubertem
- (in Polish) Selection of Polish articles (regional press) on Bloody Sunday: Express Bydgoski, Ofiaromwojny.republika.pl Archived 2016-03-03 at the Wayback Machine, Gazeta Pomorska 22, Ofiaromwojny.republika.pl Archived 2008-05-16 at the Wayback Machine