The persuasive power of maps – the Danzig Crisis & Nazi propaganda map postcards, 1933-1939

The Danzig Crisis and Nazi propaganda map postcards, 1933-1939

Following the Munich Conference & Agreement in late September 1938, the Free City of Danzig became the focal point of frenetic diplomatic activity as efforts were made to address Germany’s increasingly trenchant demands for the annexation of the former Prussian City and for the establishment of new rail and road links with East Prussia across the adjacent Polish Corridor.

The “Free City of Danzig”, strategically situated on the Vistula River and the principal port of former German West-Preussen, had, under the terms of Article 100 of the 1919 Treat of Versailles, been transformed into a quasi-independent City state, which though governed by a local Senate (itself elected by the local Parliament (Volkstag)), was ultimately overseen by a High commissioner specially appointed by the League of Nations. Ethnically it was strongly pro-German with a small Polish minority.

The establishment of the “Free City” was accompanied by the creation of an adjacent “Polish Corridor”, which gave Poland access to the Baltic Sea either via Danzig or, as increasingly happened in the interwar years, via the new port of Gdynia, built by the Poles after 1920. More importantly from an ethnographic, administrative & geopolitical perspective, the creation of the Corridor served to divide the rump of Germany (Brandenburg, Pommern and parts of Posen-Westpreussen) from the now entirely isolated German enclave of Ost-Preussen.

Th creation of the Polish Corridor was deeply resented by successive Weimar governments in post-war Germany but it was perhaps not until the Nazi Party’s rise to power in Germany in 1933 that these resentments became ever more clearly manifest, especially in Danzig itself. By that year, the Nazi Party gained some 50% of the vote in the local Volkstag elections and rapidly took control of both the Danzig Parliament and Senate.  The Nazi swastika became ever more apparent and a growing number of the local (ethnically German) populace endorsed calls that the City be re-incorporated into the German Reich.

Danzig is Deutsch - German propaganda postcard c.1939
         Danzig ist Deutsch – German propaganda postcard c.1939

The Nazification of the political and administrative landscape of Danzig was accompanied by an ever-growing (covert) German military presence, which by June 1939 included 1000 men from the SS who, in that month, visited the City under the pretext of a sporting competition and, of course, remained in situ afterwards. Alongside this, Nazi propaganda planted a growing litany of stories of rising anti-German prejudice and antagonism within local regions and communities, as the Polish minority, Jews and political opponents were increasingly persecuted, excluded and marginalized.

Diplomatically, by early 1939, Germany began to ratchet up the pressure on Poland over Danzig and the Corridor, demanding her signature of the Anti-Comintern Pact as a pre-requisite of continued friendship and non-aggression. In response to these rising tensions, by early April 1939, the British, French and Polish governments formalized an agreement in London which mutually guaranteed each others’ borders.

A pair of propaganda map postcards originating in Danzig and probably dating from the early Nazi period, 1933-35, focus on both the Danzig and Polish Corridor questions and reveal the manner by which German arguments were very cleverly and emotively framed and constructed in this compact cartographic form. The use of cut-out overlays offer the viewer “pre-Versailles” & “post-Versailles” maps of the Polish Corridor & adjacent territories, which, by highlighting the destruction of Germany’s administrative (Verwaltungsraum) and transport (Verkehrsnetz) infrastructures in the region, served to reinforce and reiterate the perceived sense of injustice resulting from the Allied dismemberment of Germany after 1919.

Das ostdeutsche Verkehrsnetz vor Versailles – German postcard c1933-5 – with cut-out overlay

Der Korridor als Verkehrzerstörer - German Propaganda postcard c1933-5 - situation post Versailles
       Der Korridor als Verkehrzerstörer – German postcard c1933-5 – the impact of Versailles
Der Korridor als Verwaltungszerstörer - German Propaganda postcard c1933-5 - situation post-Versailles
Der Korridor als Verwaltungszerstörer – German postcard c1933-5 –  the impact of Versailles

Initially such cards appear to have been largely directed at German-speaking audiences in Europe, however, by the late summer of 1939, in the final weeks and days prior to the outbreak of war, as diplomatic efforts reached a new levels of urgency & intensity, the Nazi authorities in Danzig appear to have gone to increasingly ambitious lengths to try and garner far wider international support and sympathy.

On August 4th, Polish customs officials on the Danzig border were reported to have begun carrying arms, which further raised tensions with authorities in Danzig. On August 9th, Germany sent a message to Poland stating that its refusal to work cooperatively and accept German demands for the annexation of Danzig, might lead to war, a war for which Germany could not be held responsible for starting. On the 10th of August, Poland responded by stating that should war break out between the two countries, it would be a clear case of German aggression, and that Poland could by no means be held to blame for the conflict. As tensions rose, German signed the non-aggression Molotov-von Ribbentrop Pact with Russia on August 23rd and two days later, the Polish-British Common Defence Pact was signed, an unexpected development which resulted in Hitler’s sudden last-minute postponment of the invasion of Poland planned for the following day.

The aged German training ship, SMS Schleswig-Holstein, which had recently docked in Danzig harbour under the guise of a ceremonial visit in fact concealed a crack force of storm troopers and marines, who were under orders to initiate the hostilities against Poland in the immediate environs of Danzig.

On August 26th, Albert Forster, the former Nazi gauleiter of Danzig was appointed State President of the Free City.

As events moved almost inexorably towards War, even as late as August 31st, Hitler presented a new peace plan to the British ambassador in Berlin, Nevile Henderson, counter-balancing demands for the German annexation of Danzig and new rail and road connections with the offer of a plebiscite for the Polish Corridor (heavily weighted in favour of a pro-German outcome), in what appears to have been an uncompromising game of diplomatic bluff and political & military brinkmanship.

The bluff could no longer be sustained when on September 1st 1939, the first shots of World War II were fired. The Schleswig-Holstein opened up an intense artillery bombardment which was followed by a fierce ground assault upon the Polish-occupied ammunition & transport depot of Westerplatte in the harbour area adjacent to the Free City of Danzig. It would take a further seven days before this small Polish force at Westerplatte was finally forced to surrender.

Amid these ever-increasing diplomatic tensions in August 1939, it is perhaps not surprising to uncover Nazi attempts to influence public opinion abroad, particularly in the United States and Great Britain.

However what is perhaps surprising is the particular method that appears to have used to try and achieve this: not films, posters, newspaper articles or the radio, the usual vehicles of National Socialist propaganda, but a very closely targeted and personalized postcard campaign directed at vast numbers of individual Americans and Britons by the Nazi regime in Danzig. This was perhaps the first time that postcards had been used in such a well-organized & systematic campaign of overseas propaganda.

A US news report of August 27th 1939 highlighted an unprecedented influx of overseas mail arriving from the Free City of Danzig in the United States, batches of identically-sized typed envelopes seemingly dispatched from the city in mid-August and addressed to large numbers of professional American men. These innocuous-looking manila envelopes, it transpired, contained just a single folding postcard, illustrated by a pair of brightly coloured  maps.

“Propagandists’ Map makes a Free State of Boston!”

As in the earlier examples, the principal aim of these map postcards appears to have been to evoke an overriding sense of sympathy for the perceived ill-treatment & injustice done to Germany over her territorial dismemberment & the creation of the Polish Corridor after World War One.

Alongside a contemporary map of the Polish Corridor &  adjacent territories, a second comparative map illustrates the American Eastern seaboard and depicts Boston as the US’s own “Free City of Danzig”. A New Hampshire Corridor entirely separates & divides southern New England from Maine and provides northern neighbour Canada with direct access to the sea.

Polish Corridor Propaganda Postcard sent to US - Aug 1939 - Full card

The identical colour coding of both maps (green, white and shaded grey) and the heavy red border lines further reinforce the intended parallels:

“What would you say if the United States of America were to be treated in this way and made to look like Germany does as shown in the accompanying map? Would the United States be willing to agree to such frontiers?”

…inquires the accompanying text.

Opinions on the Corridor are added beside the European map from three specially selected (& suitably “unbiased”!) sources, notably South African General Smuts (…“the exaggerated enlargement of Poland…menaces future peace in Europe”…) Adolf Hitler himself (…“all Germany asks for is a road and a railway”) and the Poles whom, we are told, “Besides the Corridor (we) want East Prussia and the whole Baltic coast up to Stettin!”

An almost identical card, clearly targeted at a British audience and presumably dating from this same August 1939 period, postulates the same argument, this time using a map of the British Isles and Ireland and with the “Free City of Hull” taking the place of Danzig (and Boston). Just like the “New Hampshire Corrdior”, an extended Irish territorial Corridor (with canal) cuts through Lancashire and Yorkshire, entirely separating Northern England from the South, but thereby providing Ireland with direct access to the North Sea.

Polish Corridor Propaganda Postcard sent to GB - Aug 1939 - Full card

What would you say if Great Britain were to be treated in this way and a corridor and canal after the model of the Polish Corridor forced upon her territory in order to give Ireland a direct connection with the North Sea? Would Great Britain agree to such a frontier?

asks the Nazi propagandist provocatively…..

It is not at all clear what sources were used by the Nazi authorities in Danzig to select the intended recipients of these cards, how many individuals were in fact targeted, or whether it was a completely random selection or a more sophisticated, highly focused & closely targeted mailshot. One presumes that the information for these mailing lists must have been supplied and collated (perhaps by Nazi sympathisers in the US & UK) from American and British trade & telephone directories of the time.

It seems strange indeed that such labour intensive efforts were made by these unusual means to try and influence and sway public opinion in Britain and the United States over the Danzig and Polish Corridor questions and particularly at such a late stage of proceedings, in mid August 1939, when events appeared to be moving so quickly, relentlessly and  inexorably towards War.

It was reported that the first of these postcards arrived in the United States on August 26th, the date on which Hitler has originally intended to initiate hostilities against Poland (but which he hastily postponed (until September 1st) following the signing of the Polish-British Common Defence Pact on August 25th).

Could that just be coincidence or could this vast carpet of postcards, dispatched to the USA from Danzig on August 15th, in fact have been part of a carefully planned propaganda campaign, timed to arrive in the United States (and Great Britain) as close as possible to August 26th, the date on which Hitler had originally anticipated the first hostilities of World War Two to commence…

We will probably never know….

But we can still reflect on the persuasive power of maps in this most unusual of Nazi propaganda campaigns.