Breaking the Enigma

Amanda O Poland .egg_dc07cDr. Thomas Boghardt, Historian

The Enigma looked like a typewriter and was the Germans’ most prized cipher machine. Germany’s air force, army, navy, and secret services used it from 1928 to encipher and decipher sensitive communication. If Germany’s foes succeeded in breaking the Enigma cipher, they would have unprecedented insight into German thinking and strategy.

The Allies did break the Enigma cipher, and it is commonly assumed that most of the cryptanalytic work was done at Bletchley Park in England during World War II. But in fact, Marian Rejewski of the Polish cipher bureau succeeded in breaking the Enigma long before the war, and it was the Poles’ decision to hand over their knowledge to their French and British Allies in 1939 that subsequently enabled Bletchley Park to decipher increasing amounts of German Enigma traffic.

Director of Adult Education, Amanda Ohlke, outside of the building in Poland’s Pyry Forest where the Enigma code was first broken.

I just returned from a week-long conference held in Warsaw and Bydgoszcz on this very subject. Many of the presenters emphasized the critical—and typically underappreciated—contribution of Polish cryptanalysts to the breaking of the Enigma machine. One Polish participant argued persuasively that for much of the war, the Poles’ groundwork was absolutely essential to Bletchley Park. In fact, he suggested, mathematic principles created by Rejewski were still being used for cryptanalytic purposes during the Cold War.

It seems to me that the arguments brought forth by the Polish conference participants cannot be dismissed lightly. While not ignoring Bletchley Park’s accomplishments in attacking German ciphers, Poland’s role in breaking the Enigma machine can hardly be overestimated. Remarkable as it is—even though Poland succumbed to the combined onslaught of Nazi and Soviet forces in 1939, the wit of Warsaw’s cryptographers provided an important element to Allied victory in 1945.


Nothing is What It Seems.

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