Remembering World War II’s first victim

gleiwitz radio station

Historians estimate that as many as 70 million people were killed in World War II. The first, it would seem, was a 43-year-old Catholic farmer selected by the Nazis as part of a ruse intended to create the appearance of Polish aggression against Germany in order to justify the subsequent invasion of Poland.

Franciszek Honiok, a Silesian known for sympathizing with the Poles, was arrested by the notorious SS on Aug. 30, 1939, in the Silesian village of Polomia.

Early the following evening, seven SS officers posing as Polish partisans seized a radio station in the city of Gleiwitz, then just over the border from Poland in eastern Germany, and broadcast a short anti-German message in Polish.

Before the SS team left, they shot Honiok – who had been drugged prior to the raid – and left his body, dressed in a Polish army uniform draped across the entrance steps, according to The Telegraph.

The raid was part of Operation Himmler, a series of operations undertaken as propaganda measures to pave the way for Germany’s invasion of Poland.

Almost immediately after the “Gleiwitz incident,” every German radio station, in a carefully coordinated move, broadcast the words used by the “invaders,” and claimed that bodies of Polish regular soldiers who were killed in the incident remained at the scene, according to The Telegraph.

The next morning, Sept. 1, 1939, an enraged Adolf Hitler used the Gleiwitz ruse as his excuse to declare war on Poland, initiating World War II. Addressing the Reichstag, he claimed that the violation of German territory by “Polish Army hooligans had finally exhausted our patience.”

British, French and other European governments were informed that Poland had started the war, and Hitler’s duplicity would ensure that the German army gained vital hours as ministers dithered, the publication added.

The events surrounding the Gleiwitz raid didn’t emerge until after the war, first during the Nuremberg trials and later when a British writer tracked down the Nazi officer who had led the mission.

SS-Sturmbannfuhrer (Major) Alfred Naujocks explained to writer Comer Clarke in 1958 that in the summer of 1939 he was summoned to the Berlin office of Reinhard Heydrich, head of the German secret police.

Franciszek Honiok, the Silesian killed by the Nazis on Aug. 31, 1939, and the first victim of World War II.

Franciszek Honiok, the Silesian killed by the Nazis on Aug. 31, 1939, and the first victim of World War II.

The Telegraph described Naujocks’ meeting with Heydrich:

‘Heydrich told me ‘Within a month we shall be at war with Poland. The Führer 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.’’

Naujocks described how Heydrich strode over to a wall map of Eastern Europe and stabbed a finger at Gleiwitz. ‘This is where you come in. The idea is that six men and yourself will burst into Gleiwitz radio station, knock out the staff and broadcast a speech in Polish and German, attacking Germany and the Führer and announcing Poland’s intention of taking the disputed territories by force.’

Heydrich told how a body, dressed in Polish uniform, was to be left on the radio station steps to ‘prove’ the Polish connection. The top secret operation was given a code word: Grossmutter gestorben, (‘Grandmother died’).

Franciszek Honiok had been knocked out with drugs before the raid. He was dragged unconscious into the radio station, where he was shot. Naujocks added that Honiok had been referred to as a piece of ‘Konserve’ or ‘canned meat’ which could be prepared in advance and used to suggest Polish involvement. He appears to have been selected because of his involvement in a number of local revolts against German rule in Silesia, a border region spanning present day Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic. According to his surviving family in Poland, Honiok identified strongly with Silesia and Poland.

Perhaps surprisingly given the six years of horror that followed, the Gleiwitz incident has largely been overlooked or even forgotten.

Even relatives of the dead man only spoke of the incident in hushed, private family gatherings, preferring not to ask questions of either Polish or German authorities, according to The Telegraph.

However, this past Monday, a low-key commemoration on the grounds of the radio station, now a museum and in Polish territory, took place. Also, for the first time, German and Polish historians met to discuss the event.

Still, Honiok’s death has never been marked with any sort of remembrance in Poland and his burial site is unknown.

Pawel Honiok, his nephew and only remaining relative, said: “Nobody has ever wanted to talk about what happened, it’s always been secret. The Germans were in control of us until 1945 and then the Russians took over and they had no interest in digging up the truth about what had happened back at the start of the war.

“Even my own family were too afraid to talk about it when I was a child, and it was many, many years before we started to hear anything at all about what happened to him.”

It’s only now, nearly three-quarters of a century after Franciszek Honiok became the unwilling patsy of a murderous regime, that his death is recognized for what it was.

“They never even accepted he was a victim of the war because he was killed on the evening of August 31 and, officially, the war did not begin until September 1,” Pawel Honiok said. “But now, people accept he was the first person killed in that war.”

(Top: The Gleiwitz radio station, which today is a museum.)

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4 thoughts on “Remembering World War II’s first victim

  1. Wow. I still get the shivers when I read anything about that time. I know many people overuse the term “evil” and as many people don’t believe that true evil exists, only that there are evil acts, but I think all could agree that the Nazis and SS were the embodiment of it. (Well, wait, we actually DO have people who wouldn’t agree or even admit anything happened.)

    I read Erik Larsen’s In the Garden of Beasts. It was an interesting additional view of the rise of Hitler and the madness that accompanied it. Thanks for sharing.

    • I’ve read several of Larsen’s books but not Garden of Beasts – sounds like I need to pick it up.

      I, too, am dumbfounded by the horrors that were perpetrated during World War II. The more I study the period, the more I learn, though, that there were willing accomplices in many other countries besides those formally bound together in the Axis. I suppose human nature being what it is, one shouldn’t expect evil to be confined to a certain specific group or nationality, but one tends to think of the Nazis as distinct entity, when in fact they had many willing collaborators in the Baltics, France, the Netherlands, etc. And, yes, anyone who doubts that evil exists need only delve into accounts of the Nuremburg trials to discover otherwise.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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