When Germany discriminated against Jews in the 1930s, there was one place where the Nazi edicts were rendered null and void. After World War I, the victorious Allies divided Upper Silesia between German and Poland. Because the entire region was inhabited by Germans and Poles, the two sides signed the “German-Polish
Accord on East Silesia” to guarantee the rights of all minorities in the split territory. This accord came in handy in 1933 when Franz Bernheim, a 33-year-old Jewish resident of Gleiwitz, Upper Silesia, was fired from his job as warehouse worker for the Deutsches Familien-Kaufhaus department store.
The Franz Bernheim Petition
Bernheim’s job loss occurred just after the failure of the international boycott of German trade — Joseph Goebbels had quashed it by instating a retaliatory boycott against Jewish businesses in Germany. Now, a new strategy was suggested – to invoke the minorities protection laws of Upper Silesia to help Bernheim and other Jews get back to work. Two public petitions and a private petition of Bernheim were submitted to the League of Nations.
Bernheim’s petition began by citing relevant parts of the law protecting the rights of Upper Silesia’s minorities.
“To the President and the Members of the Council of The League of Nations: Petition of Franz Bernheim, resident of German origin of Gleiwitz in German Upper Silesia, based on Article 147 of the German-Polish Convention regarding Upper Silesia of May 15 1922, and referring to provisions of Part III of the said Convention [where in] Article 66, the German Government undertakes to assure full and complete protection of life and liberty to all inhabitants of Germany without distinction of life and liberty to inhabitants of Germany without distinction of birth, nationality, language, race or religion, [and] Article 67, Paragraph 1 [which states that] all German nationals shall be equal before the law and enjoy the same civic and political rights without distinction of race, language or religion, etc.”
Calling attention to Nazi laws that fired officials of non-Aryan descent and discriminated against Jewish lawyers and notaries, school pupils, and doctors, the petition said that since these laws “were promulgated for the whole territory of the German Reich,” they therefore “also apply to that part of Upper Silesia which remained German as a consequence of the decision of the Conference of Ambassadors and is subject to the provisions of the Convention of May 15, 1922.”
Because of the contradiction between German law and international law, the petition, continued, “Franz Bernheim… a German national ofJewish, hence non-Aryan descent. discharged for the reason that all Jewish employees had to be dismissed., hereby submits this petition to the Council of the League of Nations, signed with his own hand, requesting the Council to take such action. to declare null and void for Upper Silesia the law, decrees and administrative measures in contradiction to the aforementioned fundamental principles. and that Jews injured by these measures shall be reinstated in their rights and shall be given compensation.”
The petition asked the League of Nations to act urgently because “if the tendencies at present prevailing in Germany continue to hold sway in a very short time, every Jew in Germany will have suffered permanent injury so that any restoration or reparation will become impossible and tens of thousands will have completely lost their livelihood.”
Germany Backs Down
On May 26th, the President of the Council, M. Castillo Najero, reported that the German government had backed down and admitted error in legislating against international law:
“M. von Keller [German representative at the League of Nations] said that he had immediately communicated to the Government the Bernheim petition submitted a few days previously. The German Government had authorized him to make the following declaration: ‘It is obvious that the international Conventions concluded by Germany cannot be effected by internal German legislation. Should the provisions of the Geneva Convention have been violated in German Upper Silesia, this can only be due to mistakes on the part of subordinate organs acting under a mistaken interpretation of the laws.’”
The German government subsequently compensated Bernheim and reinstated a number of Upper Silesia Jews who had been fired from their jobs. Of 47 Jewish complainants including Bernheim, 16 were returned to their jobs while the cases of 23 others were resolved by compromise. Ironically, Bernheim was of the latter category. The League of Nations Commission decided that he had been fired not because of his racial creed but due to inferior work performance and Communist leanings and he was compensated with 1,600 Marks.
After this minor victory against Germany, the League of Nations made feeble attempts to try and extend the scope of the Upper Silesia minority protection bill to the whole of Germany. Unfortunately, every formula for such an agreement was torpedoed by Germany thanks to a League of Nations rule that new decisions required unanimous agreement of all member states. The final resolution, a goodwill statement with no legal teeth stated as follows:
“The Assembly… expressed the hope that the States which are not bound by legal obligations to the League with respect to minorities will nevertheless observe in the treatment of their own racial, religious or linguistic minorities at least as high a standard of justice and toleration as is required by any of the treaties and by the regular action of the Council.”
At the end of the day, the League achieved nothing for Germany’s Jews beyond enforcing Germany to keep the narrow agreement regarding Upper Silesia’s minorities. And since all the Nazis were interested in was keeping the letter of the law, on July 15, 1937, when the German-Polish Accord expired, all 10,000 Jews of Upper Silesia were subjected to the full fury of Nazi discrimination.
The Canned Goods Plot
Gleiwitz, the town where Franz Bernheim was fired from his job, was sited near the location of another example of German barbarism, the famous “Canned Goods” plot. This was one of a number of fake Polish hostilities invented by the Germans to make it seem as if Poland started World War II. Implementer of the Canned Goods plot, SS commander Alfred Helmut Naujoks, gave the following sworn testimony of the incident at Nuremberg in December 1945 (Nuremberg Trial Proceedings Volume 4; Thursday, 20 December 1945).
“On or about 10 August 1939 the Chief of the Sipo (security police) and SD (security service), [Reinhard] Heydrich, personally ordered me to simulate an attack on the radio station near Gleiwitz, near the Polish border, and to make it appear that the attacking force consisted of Poles. Heydrich said: ‘Actual proof of these attacks of the Poles is needed for the foreign press, as well as for German propaganda purposes.’ I was directed to go to Gleiwitz with five or six SD men and wait there until I received a code word from Heydrich indicating that the attack should take place.
“My instructions were to seize the radio station and to hold it long enough to permit a Polish-speaking German, who would be put at my disposal, to broadcast a speech in Polish. Heydrich told me that this speech should state that the time had come for the conflict between the Germans and the Poles and that the Poles should get together and strike down any Germans from whom they met resistance. Heydrich also told me at this time that he expected an attack on Poland by Germany in a few days.”
Naujocks related further details of the plan:
“I went to Gleiwitz and waited there a fortnight,” he said. “Then I requested permission of Heydrich to return to Berlin but was told to stay in Gleiwitz. Between the 25th and 31st of August I went to see Heinrich Muller, head of the Gestapo, who was then nearby at Oppeln. In my presence Muller discussed with a man named Mehlhorn plans for another border incident, in which it should be made to appear that Polish soldiers were attacking German troops…. Muller stated that he had 12 or 13 condemned criminals who were to be dressed in Polish uniforms and left dead on the ground at the scene of the incident to show that they had been killed while attacking… After the assault members of the press and other persons were to be taken to the spot of the incident. A police report was subsequently to be prepared. Muller told me that he had an order from Heydrich to make one of those criminals available to me for the action at Gleiwitz. The code name by which he referred to these criminals was ‘Canned Goods.’”
The Nuremberg tribunal then heard exactly how the fake attack was carried out.
“The incident at Gleiwitz in which I participated was carried out on the evening preceding the German attack on Poland,” Naujoks said. “As I recall war broke out on the 1st of September 1939. At noon on the 31st of August I received by telephone from Heydrich the code word for the attack which was to take place at 8 o’clock that evening. Heydrich said, ‘In order to carry out this attack, report to Muller for “Canned Goods.’” I did this and gave Muller instructions to deliver the man near the radio station. I received this man and had him laid down at the entrance to the station. He was alive, but he was completely unconscious… We seized the radio station as ordered, broadcast a speech of 3 to 4 minutes over an emergency transmitter, fired some pistol shots, and left.”
Some days before the war, Hitler had hinted of such fake schemes to his generals, saying, “I will provide a propagandistic casus belli [justification of the war]. Its credibility doesn’t matter. The victor will not be asked whether he told the truth.” Seven years later, Naujoks testimony at the Nuremberg Trial proved him wrong.