World War II’s First Telegram Will Be Auctioned Off Later This Month

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bruev/iStock via Getty Images / bruev/iStock via Getty Images

Many historians consider September 1, 1939, the official start date of World War II, as that was the day when Germany invaded Poland, causing the UK and France to declare war on Germany. But plans for the invasion were in the works before then, as shown by a German telegram that will hit the auction block later this month, Atlas Obscura reports.

The telegram, dated August 26, 1939, reads “2 Company crossed frontier about 0100 hours without incident. Herzner.” Hans-Albrecht Herzner was the leader of about 30 Nazi men whom Hitler tasked with seizing part of the border between Germany and Poland. It was one of many similar covert missions that were supposed to happen that day in preparation for the impending full invasion of Poland. However, upon finding out that the United Kingdom had just signed a treaty promising aide to Poland in the event of invasion, Hitler postponed them for a week.

Alexander Historical Auctions

Herzner’s simple status update shows how complicated things were before more advanced communication technologies existed, because Hitler’s rain-check message didn’t get through to him. So Herzner and his men marched on the border town of Jabłonków. Neal Pease, a historian at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, told Atlas Obscura that the force intended “to capture a strategic rail tunnel,” but they were thwarted by local railroad workers. In an oral history compiled by the Imperial War Museum, war survivor Adolf Pilch recalled how the workers alerted the Polish army immediately and the small German contingent retreated.

During that week, The New York Times reported that Hitler had likely planned the border attacks to provoke Polish retaliation, which they could later use as propaganda to demonstrate Poland’s belligerence. That’s why, Pilch posits, it was so hard for Hitler to reach Herzner with the memo to halt operations. “The Germans didn’t want to put [the instructions] through radio because they’d make it clear that they actually started the war!” he said.

The full invasion did end up happening on September 1. To own a piece of the story, you can bid on the telegram from Alexander Historical Auctions on July 30 at 10 a.m. EDT.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]