Franciszek Honiok was killed during the Gleiwitz Incident on August 31, 1939. A fake operation was one used by the Nazis as a justification for invading Poland on September 1, starting the deadliest war in modern history.
The numbers are not precise, but it is estimated that 70 million to 85 million people died in the deadliest war in modern history, World War II, which began exactly 80 years ago, when the Germans invaded Poland on the 1st of September 1939.
The first victim of that war, however, died the day before. Franciszek Honiok, a 43-year-old Pole, was murdered by soldiers in the German town of Gleiwitz as part of an action aimed – along with several other fake operations along the border – to justify the invasion of the neighboring country the next day.
Honiok, who was arrested by German police on Aug. 30, had fought for Polish resistance in the so-called Silesian Uprisings after World War I and, even though he lived in Germany, was known for his loyalty to Poland. He, therefore, had the ideal profile to be used in the scheme that became known as the Gleiwitz Incident.
For months, Hitler had been planning to invade Poland. But to gain support, he needed a solid reason to justify the action. He then started to spread false propaganda about violent aggressions against Germans in Polish cities and, under the coordination of Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS (a kind of shock troops of the Nazi Party) implemented Operation Himmler: a series of false attacks on border points between the two countries, in which German installations would be targeted.
The Gleiwitz Incident
One of the chosen points was the Gleiwitz radio transmission tower, as historian Kamil Kartasinski, from the Gliwice Museum (current name of the city) explains: “To make these actions public throughout the world, one of the attacks was on the radio station on the German border, which during the day covered the entire area of Upper Silesia (the then German region, now occupied by cities in Poland and the Czech Republic), and which at night reached much more distant areas. It was the most important of Operation Himmler because it targeted a radio, which at the time was the mass media”.
To make the attack look real, officials were taken by surprise by seven “Silesian” rebels during the invasion – actually, Germans wearing uniforms from the neighboring country. And one of these, who could speak the language, announced on the air: “Uwage! You Gliwice. Rozglosnia znajduje sie w rekach Polskich” (Attention! This is Gliwice. The broadcast station is in Polish hands). The original, much longer message cannot be conveyed because, due to a planning error, they entered the building where only the radio’s technical section was located, not its microphones and studios.
In their homes, Germans and Poles did not quite understand what was going on and, according to Kartasinski, did not pay the attention their authors thought they had managed to attract.
“No one could believe that the attack was carried out by the Poles. Most Gliwice residents treated the provocations with disbelief (not knowing what to think about it) and didn’t pay much attention to it,” explains the historian.
Still, believing the coup had been successful, the soldiers added a dramatic finishing touch to the scene: a Polish body. This one, however, for real. Franciszek Honiok, drugged in prison and dragged unconscious to the scene, was shot in the head and left in the building, wearing a Polish uniform. He would be the “proof” of the attempted invasion that no one cared about.
Poorly executed or not, the operation was reported to Berlin, which announced it, along with other false border invasions and attacks, as a series of unacceptable provocations by the Poles, who would be starting a war against the Third Reich – presented as a “victim ”.
On September 1, hours after Honiok’s death in the Gleiwitz Incident, Germany invaded and began its military actions in Poland. Subsequently, France and the United Kingdom officially declared war on the Reich and the radio case was virtually forgotten until 1946, when the commander of the action, Alfred Naujocks, revealed the details during his testimony at the Nuremberg court.
Gleiwitz x Gliwice
According to Kartasinski, before the war, about 15% of the inhabitants of Gleiwitz were Poles. “In fact, until 1933, relations between them and the Germans in the city were good. It was only when the Nazis came to power, and especially with the beginning of World War II, that the Nazi machine of repression, which was very harmful to the local Poles, came into action”, he says.
Between 1944 and 1945, the city served as the headquarters for four sub-camps of Auschwitz concentration, where Jews and members of other minorities held by the Nazis were confined before being sent to the main camps. The historian does not specify how many people were trapped there in total, but he recalls that “in mid-January 1945, there were about 3,000 people in all four subcamps.”
After the end of the war, with the redrawing of borders and the loss of German territory, Gleiwtiz became part of Poland and was renamed Gliwice. This does not mean that life has become easier, according to the historian. At least for a while.
“The post-war residents of Gliwice came from parts that belonged to eastern Poland before the war. The so-called Eastern Border Regions, as a result of World War II, were irretrievably lost by Poland to the Soviet Union. The post-war inhabitants of Gliwice are over 99% Polish. Adapting to the new city encountered numerous difficulties”, he says.
“Upper Silesia, where the city of Gliwice is located, had its own specificity. Differences in language, cultural identity, conviction about the injustice of resettlement. Many new Polish residents of Gliwice often did not understand the historical and cultural identity of the region. In the early years after the war, many Gliwice residents dreamed of returning to their homes in the Eastern Border Regions. The more years after the war, the more new residents began to integrate”, he adds.
The Museum and History
Partly for the long 80 years, partly because of the postwar change in the local population, Gliwice residents themselves don’t have many memories of what happened there that August 31, 1939. But the local museum, which has a functioning section in the site of Honiok’s fake invasion and death – the Gliwice radio transmission tower, plays its part in preserving history.
“Every year in Gliwice (as in all of Poland) ceremonies are organized in schools, cemeteries, and monuments linked to World War II. This year, the Museum in Gliwice prepared a special ceremony dedicated to the first victim of that war, Franciszek Honiok”, informs Kartasinski.
The Gliwice Radio Station has housed a sector of the museum since 2005. “There you can see the original equipment used in the transmission from 80 years ago. In one of the rooms, there is a film about the case, which is only available in our museum, which is visited by around 10,000 people a year. We organize classes, guided tours, and meetings about the Gleiwitz Incident”, says the historian, about ways to keep alive the memory of what happened there.
The station’s wooden antenna is one of the city’s main attractions and one of its most striking images. It is the tallest of its kind in Europe to this day, at 110.7 meters, and is still in operation with its original structure.
“The tower was built with Siberian larch resistant to pests and weather conditions. The entire building was connected with 16,000 bronze screws. The use of wood and bronze allowed to eliminate the interference of the signal that came from the transmitting antenna suspended inside. During the day, broadcasts from the radio station Gliwice were heard in Europe, while at night, in favorable weather conditions, even in New Zealand and the United States,” says Kartasinski.
He adds that although several similar structures have been built in Germany, with heights of 100 to 190 meters, the radio station Gliwice is the only survivor of this type of object. The historic broadcast tower is still used for communication purposes – there are several different transmitters and antennas from cellular networks, local radio stations, or emergency services attached to it.