11th of November: The story of a re-emerging nation
This year, Poland will be celebrating the one-hundredth anniversary of its independence. Consequently, it would be hard to find a more appropriate date on which to discuss the events that led to its independence. This article, therefore, is an attempt to examine these events in their historical context, and their influence on contemporary politics and society.
In order to understand the chain of events that directly resulted in independence, the nonexistence of a Polish state itself first needs a short explanation. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as opposed to other European powers, Poland operated in a unique political system. The Sejm, a representative body made up of nobles, was responsible for the election of kings and provided checks on the monarch’s power. This considerable leverage over the monarch, might be romanticised as a noble democracy but, in reality, it significantly weakened the state. Therefore, this weak state was powerless to halt the three partitions of Poland, in 1772, 1793 and 1795. The three powers that took part in these partitions were Russia, Prussia, and the Habsburg Empire.
The last attempt to save the state from dying was an unsuccessful uprising in 1794, led by Tadeusz Kościuszko, a general who had just arrived from the United States after helping them win their independence from Britain. After this, unsuccessful uprisings and wars became a sad theme of Polish history, where almost every generation tried in some way to regain independence. The second and third row of the Polish hymn, written in the Napoleonic wars, perfectly underlines the rebellious ethos of the Polish nation: “What the alien force has taken from us, We shall retrieve with a sabre”. As a consequence of the Napoleonic wars, which saw a short-lived Polish Kingdom, the Holy Alliance was created by the previously mentioned partitioning powers, with the specific aim of helping each other in case of rebellions. It is therefore not at all surprising that the Polish uprisings that followed in 1830, 1848, and 1863 were unsuccessful.
Routes to autonomy
It is with this background that the territories populated with Poles were thrown into the chaos of the First World War. While the old partitioners jumped at each other’s throats, they provided a unique opportunity for the Polish nation. This opportunity was widely recognised by Poles who strived to achieve some degree of autonomy, or even independence. The only problem was determining the route that should be taken. As the outbreak of a war became increasingly apparent, two mutually exclusive ideas emerged out of this aim for independence.
The first advocated for a tighter cooperation with Russia, so that a quick victory over Germany could be achieved, and then the usage of Western leverage to pressure the Tsarist government to an agreement over autonomy, or self-government. The second approach aimed at aligning the Polish question with Austro-Hungary in an attempt to widen the dual monarchy into a triple one. Both sides of the debate recognised the need for unification, the question remained under whose flag should that take place. However, both possessed inherent weaknesses that were made apparent as the war dragged on. On the one hand, the first approach overestimated the perceived importance of the Polish question amongst western powers and the real possibility of reconciliation with Russia. The second plan underestimated the position of Germany within the Central Powers and overestimated Vienna’s willingness to cooperate on the creation of a triple monarchy. Needless to say, the split over which route to take, resulted in Poles fighting against Poles on Polish soil, an incredibly tragic outcome for the nation’s patriots.
The Revolution in Russia and the entrance of the United States in to the war thoroughly changed the picture. First of all, the new Russian government showed a willingness to create an independent Poland. At the same time, the Central Powers recognised the potential of aligning the Poles on their side, and thus, under pressure from Polish conservatives, on the 12th October 1917 created a Regency Government. The construction of this government was fairly simple. At the top, three regents ruled, with a cabinet of ministers chosen by Berlin in support. Although this administration had only real jurisdiction over education and judicial questions, it marked a significant step towards autonomy. As the war was coming to an end, war exhaustion was on the rise, therefore the opposing parties were desperate for new alliances. In an irony of history, they were effectively out betting each other in order to get the favour of Poles, which resulted in the concessions described above.
The chaotic events that ensued after the collapse of the eastern front and the revolution in Russia can be described as a power struggle between the Bolsheviks and the Germans. The aim of Berlin was to spread its influence and stabilise the eastern borders by creating various puppets that could act as a buffer zone. To that aim they were attempting to influence the creation of “independent” Lithuania, Belarus, Poland and Ukraine, all the while supporting “white” troops in Russia. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, were keen on a peaceful resolution so that they could focus on finishing the civil war, but ultimately their aim was to spread the revolution to the whole of Europe. But despite their official Policy of guaranteeing the right of self-determination, the actions of their government were expensive in nature. They forcibly dissolved the Belarusian Congress in Minsk and invaded Ukrainian territory right after the Ukrainian Central Council declared independence on 17th January 1918.
As a counter move in March 1918, Germany installed a conservative puppet in Kiev. This opened up a possibility for Austrian Foreign Minister Czernin, who was willing to risk antagonisation from Poles to guarantee contested eastern Galicia to this new Ukrainian puppet state. The assurance was made in secret, but it soon reached Polish ears, which resulted in huge opposition, some even calling the deal “the fourth partition of Poland”. The signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which ended World War I in the east provided more opportunities for Germans and Austrians to widen their influence.
Returning to the original pre-war plans of the Poles, it becomes apparent that both of them were no longer viable, since Russia effectively lost the war and was now engaged in a domestic struggle, and the Central powers antagonised the Poles by attempting to check their influence with the creation of additional puppet states that could carve out territory desired by Poles. In consequence, it became ever more apparent that a new approach was needed. This is how, in the light of the approaching German defeat, the pursuit of independence advocated for by radicals emerged as increasingly realistic. Therefore, with the approach of the summer of 1918, confusion prevailed in Congress Poland, Galicia, and the eastern borderlands. These semi-autonomous regions under the rule of the Central Powers started using their prerogative to achieve independence.
There were attempts to calm the situation, for example the proposition of the Regency Council to create an independent state aligned with the central powers, or the attempts of Stephan Burián von Rajecz (or Burián István in Hungarian) the new Austrian Foreign Minister, to reverse the policy of his predecessor. However, these moves were out of touch, since the political elites and the national mood had already shifted towards independence.
In Prussian Poland, an anti-German sentiment took over the Polish Circle, an unofficial institution of the local Polish elites. In September, the Regents in Warsaw dismissed the cabinet of ministers proposed by Berlin and declared an independent Poland. They dismantled the State Council, promised a representative cabinet, and the preparations of an electoral law. In order to appease the left, which at this point was demanding sweeping social reforms, they made Józef Piłsudski, who at this time was still imprisoned by Austrians, the minister of War. Meanwhile, a Liquidation Commission was set up in Cracow, which proceeded to create a Polish Administration that would be later incorporated into independent Poland. However, this move brought about the first challenge of the new nation, namely a war with Ukraine over the majority Ukrainian eastern Galicia, that had a Polish city in the middle of it: Lemberg/Lwów (shown in map).
The birth of a republic
Meanwhile tensions between the now extremely unpopular Regency Council, and the newly created Cabinet resulted in the latter’s resignation. This forced the Left to take the initiative, and in an attempt to create a broad Right-Left coalition, they declared the creation of a Provisional Government in Lublin on 7th November. This new government abolished the Regency Council, which was still tied to Berlin, and declared an independent republic. They released a manifesto which stipulated their aims, the most important of which was the introduction of universal, secret, proportional and equal suffrage. It also proposed a wide range of social reforms. It is important to note that at the time these developments were legally dubious, and were regarded by the right as a quasi-Communist statement, or by the extreme left as a sabotage of a proletariat revolution.
On 10th of November, Piłsudski, after being released from prison, arrived in Warsaw. Since during his long career he fought against all the partitioning powers, he was the most acceptable national leader for a coalition government. In consequence on 11th November, the day of the armistice in the West, the Regents handed over the army to Piłsudski, and the commanders in Warsaw, Cracow and Lublin recognised his authority. Three days later the Regency Council transferred to him all its powers, and after a recognition from the Lublin Government, Piłsudski held practically dictatorial powers. Although the exact date is not clear, the 11th of November is the day that came to mark the rebirth of an independent Poland after 123 years of nonexistence.
The end of World War 1 is widely celebrated in the West on the 11th of November, but this date hardly signaled the end of hostilities for the new Poland. Piłsudski was once recorded saying that, “All that we can gain in the west depends on the Entente — on the extent to which it may wish to squeeze Germany, [while in the east] there are doors that open and close, and it depends on who forces them open and how far”. Here he touched upon a very important problem of the contemporary Polish state. The borders of the new republic were largely undefined, and no external authority had the power to regulate them, therefore he arrived at the conclusion that Poland has to establish them herself. In consequence, as the new state was just about to build itself, it had to fight numerous enemies, the Bolsheviks being the biggest, right until the end of 1921.
The memory of the First World War in the West is that of trench warfare and needless death. But for Poland, it provided a unique opportunity where, out of the three partitioning powers, two seized to exist, and the third lost a War.
11th of November Today
Today, this date, and how it is remembered, is a really useful mirror of Polish society and its identity. The resistance to occupying forces and the fight for a free country exemplifies ‘Polishness’. This creates a paradoxical situation where a free Polish state causes a partial crisis in that identity. If ‘Polishness’, among other things, means a fight for freedom and resistance, what does it mean in absence of occupation and repression? Next, to the incredibly homogenous nature of the Polish society, this might be another factor that could explain the increasing right-wing orientation of the majority of the young population. To close the loop, the demonstrations of the 11th of November provide a good example of this shift. In the past years these have been overtaken by radical right-wing activists, which peaked in last year’s demonstration of around 60,000 people many of whom called for a white Europe. These demonstrations were widely discussed in the western media. The most terrifying thing about this protest, however, was the lack of strong condemnation of these slogans on the part of the current Polish Government.
Written by Jan Sztanka-Toth
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