Earth: Gleiwitz Radio Tower, Gliwice, Poland, where World War II began.

This radio tower–at 387 feet, the tallest wooden structure on planet Earth–is located on the outskirts of the large city of Gliwice, Poland. In addition to being useful as a cell phone tower and FM radio transmitter, this tower is a pretty significant historic landmark. World War II began in its shadow on August 31, 1939, 76 years ago yesterday. The town was then known by its German name, Gleiwitz (and in fact was part of Germany), which has given the tower its name.

Adolf Hitler had been planning to attack Poland for some time, and in fact the pact that he concluded on August 23, 1939 with the Soviet Union was done for the military-strategic reason of preventing Russian interference with his proposed conquest of Poland. The invasion, known in military circles as Case White, was ready to roll early on the morning of September 1. But the night before, a German SS commando named Alfred Naujocks, acting on Hitler’s orders, came to this tower and its associated radio station which was then on the German-Polish border. He brought with him a number of condemned criminals from the concentration camp of Dachau, forcibly dressed in Polish military uniforms. The criminals were killed with lethal injection, then shot and their bodies arranged around the station. A brief anti-German message was broadcast from the station. The whole thing was supposed to look like Poles attacked the station, thus giving Hitler a pretext to launch his invasion, which was already in progress and which the world learned about on September 1.

Nobody was fooled by the fake Gleiwitz attack. Though Hitler mentioned and stressed it in his speech at the Reichstag declaring war later on September 1, the German aggression against Poland was pretty transparent. World War II had begun, and over the next six years would claim, by some accounts, as many as 80 million lives.

The Gleiwitz Tower had an interesting history aside from the famous incident of 1939. It was constructed five years earlier by the German state broadcasting company. After Germany lost World War II, Gleiwitz found itself in Polish territory and its name became Gliwice. The tower continued in use and when Poland became a Communist satellite of the USSR it was used to try to jam Radio Free Europe broadcasts from the West. As you can see from this picture, it is now a monument and tourist attraction.

Years ago I fantasized that if I had the money and a long time to travel, I might go around the world and visit significant World War II-related sites, in order. My imaginary trip would begin here, at the Gleiwitz Radio Tower, and end at Nagasaki, Japan. The Second World War was fought in thousands of places all over the globe, but this one is at the top of the list.

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