GLIWICE Poland (Reuters) - Joachim Fulczyk still remembers the fateful radio broadcast 75 years ago this weekend that provided Adolf Hitler with a pretext to launch his invasion of Poland that sparked World War Two.
Now 83, Fulczyk listened with his mother and aunt to a brief address supposedly given by Polish saboteurs who had seized the local radio station in Gleiwitz, then located inside Nazi Germany, a few km from the Polish border.
“My mother, hearing the news (that Poles had taken the radio station), told her sister ‘this can’t be true’,” said Fulczyk, who still lives in Gleiwitz, now known by its Polish name Gliwice. The town became part of Poland after border changes following the 1945 defeat of Hitler’s Third Reich.
As Poles and Germans prepare to mark the 75th anniversary on Monday of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, historians and residents of Gliwice recalled the seizure of the radio station - still today Europe’s tallest wooden structure - and drew parallels with the role of media in modern conflicts such as Ukraine.
Andrzej Jarczewski, director of the museum now at the site of the radio station, recounted how Germans posing as Poles staged the attack on the evening of August 31, 1939, with the aim of providing justification for a German invasion of Poland.
The seven-strong band, led by SS officer Alfred Helmut Naujocks, broadcast a short anti-German message in Polish.
Hitler made a speech in Berlin the next day citing the Gliwice attack and other similarly orchestrated incidents to justify his decision to storm Poland. World War Two began two days later when Britain and France declared war on Germany.
“The provocations in Gliwice and in some other places too were necessary to allow Hitler to make his speech, to say ‘we are innocent, the Poles started this war’,” said Jarczewski.
“It is in fact the first case in the world of using a civil radio station to wage war,” he said, noting that radio at that time was the most powerful form of media.
“Today I can say, concerning the current situation in Ukraine, that the Russian authorities are using a cyber army to relay their own propaganda over the Internet,” Jarczewski said.
In the Ukraine crisis, where Western-backed Kiev’s forces are fighting pro-Russian separatists, the Internet has become a key battleground, with both sides using blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other social media to blacken their opponents.
Supporters of President Vladimir Putin, both in cyberspace and in Russian state media, depict the Ukrainian government as a “fascist junta” bent on oppressing Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine. Their critics say such distortions of reality are worthy of Hitler’s own propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels.
Some Poles see other parallels between the Gliwice incident of 1939 and the current Ukraine crisis. Just as the Germans pretended to be Poles, Russian forces used subterfuge to seize Crimea in March, initially denying any link to the “little green men” with no insignia who led the capture of the peninsula, but later acknowledging they were taking orders from Moscow.
This week, residents of a village in eastern Ukraine said they had spoken with “green men” they said were clearly Russian but were trying to conceal their true identity.
The Kremlin continues to deny Ukrainian accusations that it is sending weapons and soldiers to fight alongside the rebels.
“I fear now what is going on in the east of the continent,” said Anna Kowalska, 73, a Gliwice resident.
Ukraine looms large in other ways. Many people in this part of Poland originally come from the Lviv region of what is now western Ukraine but was part of Poland before World War Two. They were resettled further west in towns such as Gliwice after the post-war border changes, which saw both Poland and then-Soviet Ukraine shift sharply westwards, at Germany’s expense.
Edwin Jadzwa, 82, is one of those whose family had to move from Lviv to the Gliwice area after the war, and he still feels the weight of history as he sees current events unfold.
“Despite the flow of time, for me relations between Poland and Ukraine are still a problem which has not been finally resolved. That is why it is also hard for me to evaluate Russian-Ukrainian relations,” Jadzwa said.
On a brighter note, relations between Poland and Germany - which are now economic partners within the European Union and military allies in NATO - have never been better.
On Saturday evening, at exactly the same time as the German band disguised as Poles attacked their own radio station 75 years ago, clergy from both Germany and Poland will hold prayers for peace and reconciliation at the Gliwice radio station.
On Monday, German President Joachim Gauck will join his Polish counterpart Bronislaw Komorowski in the Baltic port of Gdansk - once Danzig in Germany - to commemorate the battle of Westerplatte, the opening military clash of World War Two.
“There is no hostility towards Germans here (in Gliwice) now,” said Jan Wolakowski, 63. “That is all history. So much has changed in our relations, mostly for the better.”
Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Mark Heinrich