Operation Tannenberg
Unternehmen Tannenberg
Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1968-034-19A, Exekution von polnischen Geiseln.jpg
Operation Tannenberg, 20 October 1939. The mass murder of Polish townsmen in western Poland
LocationGerman-occupied Poland
DateSeptember 1939 – January 1940
Attack type
Genocidal massacre, mass shooting
Deaths20,000 deaths in 760 mass executions by SS Einsatzgruppen
PerpetratorsNazi Germany Nazi Germany

Operation Tannenberg (German: Unternehmen Tannenberg) was a codename for one of the anti-Polish extermination actions by Nazi Germany that were directed at the Poles during the opening stages of World War II in Europe, as part of the Generalplan Ost for the German colonization of the East. The shootings were conducted with the use of a proscription list (Sonderfahndungsbuch Polen), compiled by the Gestapo in the span of two years before the 1939 invasion.[1]

The top secret lists identified more than 61,000 members of the Polish elite: activists, intelligentsia, scholars, clergy, actors, former officers and others, who were to be interned or shot. Members of the German minority living in Poland assisted in preparing the lists.[1] It is estimated that up to 20,000 Germans living in Poland belonged to organizations involved in various forms of subversion.[2]

Operation Tannenberg was followed by the Intelligenzaktion, a second phase of the Unternehmen Tannenberg directed by Heydrich's Sonderreferat from Berlin, which lasted until January 1940. In Pomerania alone, 36,000–42,000 Poles, including children, were killed before the end of 1939.[3]


Polish teachers from Bydgoszcz guarded by members of Volksdeutscher Selbstschutz before execution
Polish teachers from Bydgoszcz guarded by members of Volksdeutscher Selbstschutz before execution

The plan was finalized in May 1939 by the Central Office II P (Poland). Following the orders of Adolf Hitler, a special unit dubbed Tannenberg was created within the Reich Security Main Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt). It commanded a number of Einsatzgruppen units formed with Gestapo, Kripo and Sicherheitsdienst (SD) officers and men who were theoretically to follow the Wehrmacht (armed forces) into occupied territories. Their task was to track down and arrest all the people listed on the proscription lists exactly as it had been compiled before the outbreak of war.[4]

The first phase of the action occurred in August 1939 when about 2,000 activists of Polish minority organisations in Germany were arrested and murdered. The second phase of the action began on September 1, 1939, and ended in October, resulting in at least 20,000 deaths in 760 mass executions by Einsatzgruppen special task units with help from regular Wehrmacht units. A special formation was created from the German minority living in Poland called Selbstschutz, whose members had trained in Germany before the war in diversion and guerilla fighting (see: Deutscher Volksverband, the German People's Union in Poland). The formation was responsible for many massacres and due to its bad reputation was dissolved by Nazi authorities after the September Campaign with transfer to regular formations.[5]

Massacres of hospital patients

Remaining building of former SS at Soldau concentration camp in Iłowo-Osada, location of first gas van experiments by SS-Sonderkommando Lange using Polish hospital patients
Remaining building of former SS at Soldau concentration camp in Iłowo-Osada, location of first gas van experiments by SS-Sonderkommando Lange using Polish hospital patients

During Operation Tannenberg patients from Polish hospitals were murdered in Wartheland (Wielkopolska) by Einsatzgruppe VI under Herbert Lange. He was appointed commandant of the first Chełmno extermination camp soon thereafter.[6] By mid-1940, Lange and his men were responsible for the murder of about 1,100 patients in Owińska, 2,750 patients at Kościan, 1,558 patients and 300 Poles at Działdowo who were shot in the back of the neck; and hundreds of Poles at Fort VII where the mobile gas-chamber (Einsatzwagen) was first developed along with the first gassing bunker.[7]

According to the historian Peter Longerich, the hospital massacres were conducted on the initiative of Einsatzgruppen, because they were not ordered by Himmler.[8] Lange's experience in the mass killing of Poles during Operation Tannenberg was the reason why Ernst Damzog, the Commander of Sicherheitspolizei (Security Police) and SD stationed in occupied Poznań (Posen) placed him in charge of the SS-Sonderkommando Lange (special detachment) for the purpose of mass gassing operations which led to the eventual annihilation of the Łódź Ghetto.[9]

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ a b Unternehmen Tannenberg - August 1939: Wie der SD den Überfall auf Polen vorbereitete (III) bei wissen.spiegel.de (PDF file, direct download). Archived 2009-07-06 at the Wayback Machine (in German)
  2. ^ Tomasz Chinciński (November 4, 2009). "Prowokacje SD (Sicherheitsdienst)". Piąta kolumna (The 5th Column) (in Polish). S.P. Polityka. Retrieved August 13, 2012.
  3. ^ Piotr Semków, IPN Gdańsk (September 2006). "Kolebka (Cradle)" (PDF). IPN Bulletin No. 8–9 (67–68), 152 Pages. Warsaw: Institute of National Remembrance. 42–50 (44–51/152 in PDF). ISSN 1641-9561. Retrieved 8 November 2015 – via direct download: 3.44 MB.
  4. ^ Peter Longerich (2012), War and Settlement in Poland. Heinrich Himmler: A Life. OUP Oxford, pp. 425–429. ISBN 0199592322.
  5. ^ Encyklopedia PWN, Intelligenzaktion. September–November 1939. Archived 2011-06-07 at the Wayback Machine (in Polish)
  6. ^ Artur Hojan, Cameron Munro (2015). "Nazi Euthanasia Programme in Occupied Poland 1939-1945". Overview of the liquidation of the mentally ill during actions on the Polish territory (1939-1945). The Tiergartenstrasse 4 Association, international centre for the documentation, study and interpretation of Nazi crimes. Nazi Euthanasia in European Perspective conference, Berlin, Kleisthaus, Feb. 28-30, 2013. Retrieved 2 July 2015.((cite web)): CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  7. ^ Holocaust Research Project.org (2007). "Lange, Herbert; SS-Hauptsturmführer". Chelmno Death Camp Dramatis Personae. Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team. Retrieved 2013-05-13.
  8. ^ Longerich 2012, p. 430.
  9. ^ Epstein, Catherine (2010). "A Blonde Province: Resettlement, Deportation, Murder". Model Nazi: Arthur Greiser and the Occupation of Western Poland. Oxford University Press. p. 182. ISBN 978-0191613845. Retrieved 8 November 2015.