Interwar Poland in East European Context

By Anna M. Cienciala††† (Map.: John Bartholomew, 1935)





These problems and policies should be viewed within

(a) the context of the beliefs/perceptions of historians today, and

(b) the realities of E.Europe at this time.


(a) Current western beliefs/perceptions.

1 Under the impact of the internecine ethnic/religious wars of the 1990s  in the lands of former Yugoslavia, some western historians condemn  the ďethnic nationalismĒ of interwar East Central and South Eastern Europe. This view  reinforces the older condemnations of East European nationalism by interwar Austrian and Hungarian historians (1919-39), also by American historian Hans Kohn  (an Austrian subject raised in Prague), and finally by contemporary western Marxists like the British historian Eric Hobsbawm (with family roots in E.Europe), who sees nationalism as an obstacle to modernisation.

2. In this context,  some contemporary western historians condemn President Woodrow Wilson for his insistence on the principle of self-determination in 1919. At the same time, these historians condemn  the peace makers in Paris, 1919-20 for following the principle in some cases, and violating it in others.

3. Finally,  some western historians view federalization as the best solution for East Central European Danubian states in 1919-20, and thus condemn  its rejection  when offered by Emperor Charles for Austria and Michael Karolyi for Hungary in Nov-Dec. 1918, also later rejections of similar projects.

(b) These views may seem attractive but they are out of touch with East European realities of the time and therefore unrealistic. To start with the last view :

1. The majority of non- German/Austrian and non-Magyar  peoples rejected the federal solution in either Austria or Hungary, or in a revamped Austria-Hungary, because they did not want to live any longer under foreign rule. That is also why later Hungarian projects for a ďDanubian FederationĒ remained on paper, though Hungarian historians like to point out its advantages over  non-Magyar nationalism. However, the fact that such a federation would have been run from Vienna or Budapest made it totally unacceptable to the non- German/Austrians and non-Magyars of the Danube basin, who remembered only too well the repression or discrimination of their nationals in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

 2. Ethnic-national states were not created by Woodrow Wilson or the peace settlement of 1919; nor were they an  East European aberration. This process was, in fact,  the continuation of the national unification movements that had already taken place in Western Europe, especially in Italy and Germany, during the 19th century. Note also the forced assimilation policies followed by the Hungarian government toward its nationalities, by the German imperial government toward the Poles of Prussian Poland and the Russian imperial government  in the Baltic States, Finland and Russian Poland, as well as toward the Ukrainians, Belorussians and Tatars, and Russian colonial policies imposed on the peoples of the Caucasus (e.g. Chechens, Georgians) and Central Asia (Kazakhs and Uzbeks), inherited from Imperial Russia . Such policies either helped create or strengthened the existing national identities of the subject peoples.

3. Contrary to conventional wisdom, most of the new borders of East European countries were not fixed by western statesmen drawing maps in Paris in 1919. Most were  fixed on the ground in late 1918 - early 1919, or a bit later, even despite the decisions of the statesmen at the Paris Peace Conference. The borders fully determined at the Paris Peace Conference were the Polish-German and Czechoslovak-German-Austrian borders.

4. Of course,  it was impossible to establish borders satisfactory to every ethnic nationality because of the inter-mixing of peoples in the past, and esp. because of long foreign rule. The natural outcome of this state of affairs in 1919 was that the nations which had opposed the Central Powers in the war: the Poles, Czechs, Serbs, Romanians, who  also had sufficient armed forces at their disposal, were able to include territories with significant minorities within their borders. The Poles were able to do this in the east because of their victory over the Red Army.

Keeping the above realities in mind, let us look at the East European States of the interwar period.


General Characteristics and Problems.

The interwar period was short, lasting just over 20 years if we start in Jan .1919, or a few months longer if the starting point is November 1918. However, this short period had enormous significance for these countries because: (a) they could develop their own politics, administration,  economies, education, and culture; (b) their very existence legitimized them in the eyes of the world. After this period, they could not be obliterated either by Nazi Germany or the Stalinist USSR.

Joseph Rothschild (d. Dec.1999) , an American political scientist and author of books on Eastern Europe, wrote that even communist historians joined "bourgeois" emigre scholars "in valuing highly the sheer fact of interwar state-independence, and judging it to be a historic advance over the areaís pre-World War I political status." He also gave a balanced judgment on these countries' performance in the interwar period:

Thus, despite major and avoidable failings (too little area-wide solidarity, too much over-politicization of human relations, too little strategic government intervention in the economy, too much petty government interference with the society), thanks to the political performance of the interwar era it is impossible today to conceive of East Central Europe without its at least formally independent states. In retrospect, one must assign greater responsibility for the catastrophes of 1939-41 to the malevolence, indifference, or incompetence of the Great Powers than to the admittedly costly mistakes of these states. *

*[Joseph Rotschild, East Central Europe Between the Wars, Seattle, WA. 1974, and reprints, pp. 24-25; bold italics, AMC].

We must bear in mind that the interwar East European states faced enormous problems, most of which could not be solved in twenty years, especially in view of the paucity of foreign capital investment before the Great Depression struck in 1930, and virtually none after that. Furthermore, they faced the growing threat of Nazi Germany from 1935 onward.

Many  problems of East European states were inherited from the former empires, a fact acknowledged by the British historian Hugh Seton-Watson, whose negative evaluation of interwar Eastern Europe was to influence several generations of British and American historians. In the preface to the last edition of his book on interwar Eastern Europe, the author recognized the problems of corruption, inefficiency and injustice as inherited from the past.*

*[Hugh Seton-Watson, Eastern Europe between the Wars, 1918-1941, Preface to 3rd edition revised, Harper Torchbooks, New York, 1967.].

Unfortunately, few people bother to read prefaces, and this is a case in point.

 In fact, the problems were much more numerous than those listed by Rothschild. There were 10 key problems:

(1).economic backwardness; (2). agrarian, unmechanized economies; (3). overpopulation on the land; (4).peasant poverty; (5).bad roads and insufficient railway track; (6).lack of a middle class; (7). lack of adequate numbers of trained bureaucrats; (8). widesrpread illiteracy; (9). lack of experience, or restricted experience with parliamentary politics and participation in any kind of government; (10). lack of investment capital.

The exception to all these problems was Czechoslovakia, where the western Czech lands of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia had a highly developed industry, a prosperous agriculture, an excellent road and rail network, a highly literate population, a numerous and well trained bureaucracy, experience in parliamentary government and considerable capital resources. However, of the other two constituent parts of the country, Slovakia was poor and underdeveloped, while Subcarpathian Ruthenia (or Carpathian Rus) was one of the poorest regions in all of E.Europe.

Two other problems which most E.European countries had in common were either multi-ethnic/national populations or/and significant ethnic/national minorities whose loyalties belonged to, or leaned toward neighboring national states. In Poland, ethnic Poles made up some 65-69% and minorities some 30-35% of the total population (The last interward census was in 1931). Romania had a sizable Hungarian minority in Transylvania. Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia were multinational states, each made up of several nationalities subordinated to the ruling nationality: Czechs (51%)and Serbs (33%) of the total population respectively.

This state of affairs, though inevitable at the time, deepened the general feeling of insecurity. Indeed, the discrimination against the constituent or  so-called ruling nationalities in Czechoslovakia (Slovaks and Rusyns), Yugoslavia (non-Serbs), and the discrimination or oppression of national minorities in most East European countries, stemmed primarily from fear that constituent nationalities as well as minorities, could, and probably would given the chance, undermine the sovereignty of the countries in which they were resentful citizens, and lead to the reduction of their territory or even their destruction. We must bear this insecurity in mind when we look at minority policies in the interwar East European states.

The above fears were intensified by the general, international insecurity in the 1930s, which made territorial disputes more threatening than they would have been otherwise. Thus, the states allied with France: Poland and Czechoslovakia, feared Germany, especially Poland whose frontiers no German government officially recognized. Poland and Romania also feared the USSR, which did not recognize their eastern frontiers; Romania feared Hungary - which claimed all of Transylvania, as did Czechoslovakia - whose Slovak and Rusyn lands were lost by Hungary. Yugoslavia feared Hungary and Bulgaria, which lost territory to her, but above all, Italy, which lost its eastern Adriatic coast to Yugoslavia. Greece feared Bulgaria and Italy, because it held some of their former territory. In each case, except Greece, which was ethnically homogenous, dissatisfied constituent nationalities and national minorities could be used to further the aims of neighboring enemy states which aimed to regain territory lost in 1918-21.

 The largest state in the region,Poland, had two potential enemies: Germany and the USSR. Polish fears that the German, Ukrainian and Belorussian minorities could be used against the Polish state by Germany and the Soviet Union, were compounded by Britainís conciliatory attitude toward Weimar Germany in the 1920s, and her disapproval of Polandís acquisition of territories east of the Curzon Line. British appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s was joined, albeit reluctantly by France, the ally of Poland and Czechoslovakia. It should be noted that in the period 1920-38 most British statesmen and politicians viewed East Central and South Eastern Europe as the natural sphere of German influence. This  paved the way to their appeasement policy toward Nazi Germany after Hitler came to power.

Political systems.

The general trend of East Central European  political development was from parliamentary democracy, including strong Socialist parties at the outset, to various kinds of authoritarian government. But it should be noted that while fascist parties or groups existed in each country, no interwar East European state had a fascist party in power as was the case in Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal, while a totalitarian communist. system existed in the USSR. The exception to the authoritarian regimes in E. Europe was again Czechoslovakia, whose democratic governments were based on a the voluntary cooperation of the key political parties, with occasional governments of experts. However, the Germans, Slovaks, and Rusyns felt they were second class citizens after the ruling Czechs.

Click on the map for better resolution:



Interwar Poland.

(i) Politics.

Polish political life was dominated in 1918-23 and 1926-35 by Jozef Pilsudski (1867-1935), but he was bitterly opposed by his rival, Roman Dmowski (1864-1939), leader of the National Democratic movment. This was a right wing, Roman Catholic and anti-semitic movement supported by a significant part of the Polish intelligentsia [educated people of gentry descent, mostly in the civil and military service but also in the liberal professions] and the growing middle class [business people, entrepreneurs].

Pilsudski was "Head of State" until December 1922, when the Seym [Parliament] elected the first President, Gabriel Narutowicz (1865-1922)  after Pilsudski had declined the post because it had no power. Narutowicz, an engineer and former minister, was supported by Pilsudski. His election was bitterly resented by the National Democrats because he had won the presidency in a Seym[parliament] election with the votes of deputies representing the national minorities, including the Jews who made up 10% of the whole population. Therefore, the N. Democrats claimed that Narutowicz was not a Polish President and incited the Warsaw mob to pelt his carriage with mud as he drove to his inauguration. He was assassinated shortly thereafter at an art exhibition that Pilsudski was to open (he could not come), by a young N.Dem. fanatic, a painter and historian of Polish art, Eligiusz Niewiadomski. The country was horrified and he was duly condemned to death, but some N.Dem. papers presented him as a national hero. Pilsudski was appalled by such tactics, and they had much to do with his growing disgust at the excesses and corruption of political parties, which he identified with parliamentary democracy in general.

[Pictures from Richard M.Watt, Bitter Glory, New York, 1974].

The Polish political system, as it existed in 1921-26, was modeled on France. Thus, it was a multi party system based on proportional representation,  a strong parliament and a weak president. Indeed, the Polish parliament adopted this type of constitution in  March 1921 just in case Pilsudski ran for president. He did not, because he did not want to be a figurehead. Polish coalition cabinets never lasted long because of the fragile multi-party combinations on which they were based. There were many parties, at one time as many as 94, though most of them were so-called "sofa parties," meaning the members of each party could fit on a sofa. The parties that counted were the National Democrats, the Socialists, and the right-wing peasant party PIAST (named after the first Polish dynasty, whose first ruler legend proclaimed to have been a peasant).

The multi-party system was the source of political instability because, unlike the French model which included a professional bureaucracy unaffected by changes of power (except for ministerial positions), in Poland most of the civil service jobs changed hands with each new government, which distributed them as political patronage. (As in most East European countries, the civil service employed most of the country's Intelligentsia, or educated people). In 1923, a National Democrat-Peasant Party coalition politicised  military appointments, which Pilsudski protested by resigning from all his positions in July of that year and going into retirement. He distributed his marshal's pension to charities and lived from his writings and lectures.

The years 1923-24 witnessed great economic- financial instability in Poland. The country was significantly affected by the German inflation of 1923. (When French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr  in January 1923 to secure deliveries of repartions, the German government printed money to pay the workers not to work for the occupiers. The resulting inflation ruined most of the German middle class which lost its savings).

Recovery seemed in the offing with the establishment of a new Polish currency, the zloty (meaning golden), in 1924, but a year later Germany launched a tariff war against Poland. Up until that time, Germany was Polandís no. 1 trading partner, but now the German government applied economic pressure to force Polish consent to the return  most of the territories Poland had gained from Germany. Thus, the Germans stopped buying Polish coal and agricultural products. However, Poland recovered by capturing the formerly British coal markets in Scandinavia during the British General Strike of 1926, and by exporting some of its processed food products to Britain.


Poland in International Relations, 1920s.

The situation was bad for Poland. In the Locarno Treaties of October 16, 1925, signed by France, Britain, Germany and Italy in the Swiss town of Locarno, the Rhine Pact guaranteed French and Belgian frontiers with Germany, and the latter recognized them, but no such guarantees applied to Germanyís frontiers with Poland and Czechoslovakia. It is true that France signed separate treaties of mutual assistance with those two countries, but their implementation was tied to League of Nations procedures, that is, a majority of  LN. members had to recognize a country as the victim of unprovoked aggression before it could receive help, by which time it might be too late.

France did retain the option that if a majority of LN members failed to accept the Councilís report on unprovoked aggression, then she could come to the help her allies - but they feared that by that time the victim of aggression would be overrun by the aggressor (Germany or Hungary).

In fact, these treaties of mutual assistance weakened the existing French alliances with Poland and Czechoslovakia.. Pilsudski was especially worried that France would leave Poland in the lurch if she were attacked by Germany, while in case of Soviet attack the Franco-Polish alliance treaty of 1921 only provided for French military supplies. (For more on these treaties and European international relations, see Lecture Notes no.15 on Appeasement).


Pilsudski's Coup d'Etat, May 12, 1926.

Against the background of this insecurity, in spring 1926 Prime Minister Wincenty Witos (1874-1945), the leader of the right wing Peasant Party "Piast", entered into a coalition with the National Democrats, and publicly dared Pilsudski to take power. Witos even threatened to establish a right-wing dictatorship of the N.Dem. and Peasant Parties, while the N.D. leader Roman Dmowski was thinking of a dictatorship along Italian lines (Mussolini).

had the support of the Socialists and the Left-wing Peasant Party in opposing a right wing dictatorship. He demanded that the President dismiss the government and appoint a new one, and he threatened to use military force to this end if necessary. On 12 May 1926, when he marched on Warsaw with troops loyal to him, he intended to make only a military demonstration to force the government to resign and for the President to form a new one. However, his old socialist colleague, now a member of the Peasant "Piast" Party, President Stanislaw Wojciechowski (1869-1953), refused to dismiss the government. Shots were exchanged between Pilsudskiís supporters and units of the regular army in the capital who were loyal to the government. Sme 300 persons were killed, mostly civilians who happened to get in the line of fire. Pilsudski was devastated, for he had not intended this to happen. The President now asked the government to resign, which it did.

It should be noted that Pilsudskiís action was not a classic military coup because he had the support of Polish socialists and even the communists, who feared a right wing coup. Indeed, except for the Poznan region, the main N.Dem. stronghold, Pilsudski was welcomed as the "Dziadek" (Granpa) who would restore order and security.*


*[Pictures from Watt, Bitter Glory. For a detailed Eng. lang. study of the coup, see: Joseph Rothschild, Pilsudskiís Coup díEtat, New York, 1966].

Pilsudski denied that he wanted to be a dictator, and said his goal was to bring the country back to health. This was the origin of the name given to his political group: "Sanacja" (pron. Saanatsiiaa, from the French assainir = to heal). His main objective was to give the Presidency strong executive power. He managed to expand presidential power with parliamentary support in 1926-27, but when parliament opposed him, he appointed governments of "experts" which issued decrees on the assumption that parliament would approve them. When parliament resisted, tensions grew. Pilsudski was twice Prime Minister, but devoted most of his attention to defense and foreign affairs. He was the Inspector General of the Armed Forces and Minister of War from 1926 until his death in May 1935.

In 1927 a pro-government bloc was created, the" Bezpartyjny Blok Wspolpracy z Rzadem." (The Non-Party Bloc of Cooperation with the Government, known by its acronym: BBWR. In fact, it was created to balance the N.Dem. "Oboz Wielkiej Polski" (Camp of Great Poland -OWP), created by Dmowski in 1926 as an umbrella organization for various right wing parties affiliated with the N.Democrats.

Political tensions worsened under the impact of the Great Depression which hit Europe in 1930. Tariffs went up all over Europe, so Polish agricultural exports to Western Europe declined while unemployment hit industrial enterprises. (The same situation prevailed all over E. and much of W.Europe). In June 1930, a "Center - Left" Congress (center and left- wing parties) was held in Krakow , which demanded that the government resign. Pilsudski feared civil war and had the leaders imprisoned. They were imprisoned and very badly treated, but at least no one died. There was an open trial of opposition leaders in which the government prosecutors tried but failed to prove the existence of a plot to overthrow the government by force. The defendants were condemned to prison terms, but  some chose to go into exile (Witos moved to Czechoslovakia), and the government lost a great deal of face.

The imprisonment and trial of political opponents was a black mark for Poland, but it should be noted that no genuinely open trials of political opponents such as the one in Poland took place elsewhere in Central Europe. The exception was the 1933 Berlin trial of the Bulgarian communist Georgy M. Dimitrov (1882-1949) and his companions, accused of setting the German Reichstag fire. Some observers speculated that Dimitrovís courageous defense and release to the USSR was made possible by a secret German-Soviet agreement, or/and Hitlerís desire not to envenom German-Soviet relations. The Nazis subverted the law and the public trials of Stalinís purge victims in 1936-38 were rigged. Many defendants were tortured beforehand, while others agreed to "confess" to crimes they could not possibly comit in order to save their families. (In most cases family members were deported to labor camps or penal settlements).

In April 1935, Pilsudskiís supporters used a trick to pass a new constitution. The opposition deputies were not told when the vote would be taken and most were absent. (Pilsudski expressed his disapproval of this trick). The "April Constitution" gave very extensive powers to the president. (Some historians compare Pilsudski with Charles De Gaulle, who obtained extensive presidential powers in France in 1958-59. He served in the Polish-Soviet War 1920, and was known to have many books on Pilsudski in his library). Pilsudski, for whom the new constitution was tailored, was by now a very sick man (cancer), though this was known only to a few. He died on May 12, 1935 and the people mourned him as a great leader. He was given a magnificent funeral attended by many foreign dignitaries and wasburied in Wawel Castle, Krakow, alongside Polandís Kings. His heart was, according to his wish, placed in his motherís grave in Vilnius (then Polish Wilno).

Pilsudskiís successors continued the political system established by the April constitution. They controlled parliament and passed a new electoral law (July 1935), which allowed the government party to hand pick deputies to run for parliament. In reply, opposition parties boycotted the next elections.

The post- Pilsudski governments are sometimes called "the governments of colonels," but they were not military juntas in the Latin American style. They consisted mostly of politicians who had served in Pilsudskiís Legions in WW I and held the rank of colonel, though the vast majority were colonels in the reserve. Their program was the same as Pilsudskiís: to make Poland as secure as possible against her traditional enemies: Germany and Russia, now USSR. Moreover, opposition parties continued to exist and had their own influential newspapers. There was no pre-emptive censorship of the press, but editors were subject to libel laws which were sometimes stretched rather far. This often resulted in blank spaces in second editions of newspapers published later the same day.

In 1937, the BBWR was dissolved and replaced by the "Oboz Zjednoczenia Narodowego" (OZON = Camp of National Unity), led by Col. Adam Koc. OZON made anti-semitic gestures to gain the National Democratsí support for the government. However, it did not go far enough for the N. Democrats, for unlike Romania and Hungary, no anti-Jewish legislation was ever passed in Poland, except for the prohibition of Jewish ritual slaughter of animals (which continued anyway because Polish butchers would have gone broke without Jewish purchase of beef). The restriction on Jewish student enrollment called the "numerus clausus" or closed number, was not sanctioned by law (see under minorities below). Nor was OZON effective in building up popular support for the government. In fact, the Municipal Elections of December 1938 returned many oppositionists. President Ignacy Moscicki (1867-1946, pron: Eegnaatsy Moshtseetskee, President 1926-39) promised electoral reform, but it was not implemented because the government party did not want to share power with the opposition..

The second most important person in the state after the President was the Inspector General of the Army, Marshal Edward Rydz-Smigly (or  Smigly- Rydz, 1886-1941, Marshal November 1936), but he was  not a politician. However, he did support the modernization of the Polish Army, which began in earnest after Pilsudski's death. Poland began to build modern planes and organize a motorized unit in the army. However, progress was slow because of inadequate industrial infrastructure while the French loan, granted in 1936, lost buying power by 1939. The Polish Army imported small Renault tanks from France. Polish military intelligence was considered among the best in Europe.

The key foreign policy maker was Foreign Minister Jozef Beck (1894-1944, For. Minister 1932-39), hand picked for the position by Pilsudski. He had been a Pilsudski legionnaire in World War I, and served in Military Intelligence, 1920. In the early 1920s he was Military Attache in France. Contrary to the claim of some history books, he was not expelled from France for espionage in 1923. On the contrary, he was awarded the Legion of Honor, hardly an award given to spies. Later, he completed War Academy studies in Warsaw and obtained the rank of Colonel. He served as Pilsudski's head of cabinet in 1926.

As Foreign Minsiter, Beck followed Pilsudskiís policy of maintaining the alliance with France while balancing between Germany and the USSR. He was  unpopular with Polish National Demcorats and with the French for his alleged pro-German policy. However, he became quite popular in Poland (though not in the West) after the annexation of Zaolzie ( part of Western Teschen)  from Czechoslovakia in early October 1938. He became even more popular both in Poland and in the West after his speech of May 5, 1939, in which he rejected Hitlerís demands on Poland. (For Polish policy in 1938, see Lec. Notes 15, for 1939, Lec. Notes 16).

The National Democrats, the Socialists, and both the left and right wing Peasant Parties were in the opposition after 1928, and boycotted the elections held under the electoral law of July 1935. Nevertheless, they retained and even gained followers.

There was a small fascist group, the "Falanga." that split off from the N. Democrats, It was led by Boleslaw Piasecki who admired Mussolini and was strongly anti-semitic. But this group was insignificant in Polish political life. (Piasecki served Polish communist governments after WW II).The majority of Pilsudskiites successfully resisted the idea, advanced by a few of their number, of establishing a dictatorship along fascist lines and Pilsudski never envisaged it.

(ii)Interwar Poland: Economics, Education, Social Services, Women, the Arts.

Like most countries of E. Europe, Poland was still an economically underdeveloped country in 1939. This was not surprising in view of the fact that (a) the country had been a battlefield in WW I, which inflicted great destruction, and wiped out savings, and

(b) in the 1920s Gt. Britain and the United States, invested far more in Germany than in E.European countries. France did invest a great deal in Poland, but its investors nearly always took the profits home without reinvesting in the country.

Nevertheless, the Poles managed in just a few years to integrate the economies of Russian, Austrian and Prussian Poland and to create a uniform legal system, which was no mean achievement. Furthermore, Poland could boast two significant economic developments.

(1)  Gdynia (pron. Gedynya) situated in the Polish Corridor some 20 miles west of Danzig/Gdansk, grew from a fishing village in 1923 to a city of 150,000 in 1939. Part of the investment capital was provided by western countries, especially France - which also helped finance the construction of a major railway line from Polish Upper Silesia to the port cities of Gdansk (Danzig) and Gdynia - but the Polish government itself did a great deal to facilitate the growth of this port city.

In 1939, Gdynia had the largest trade tonnage turnover of all Baltic ports. Indeed, by 1938, 78% of Polandís foreign trade went by sea through Gdynia and Danzig, with Gdynia having the edge.

The city of Gdynia was full of young, ambitious and enterprizing people, so it was known as "The Little America of Poland." Andrzej M. Cienciala (1901-1973, father of Anna M. Cienciala) was typical of these businessmen.  Born into a large farming family in Polish Teschen Silesia, he borrowed money from his married sister to study in the Polish Naval Academy, but gave up a sea career to become the director of the Polska Agencja Morska (PAM = Polish Maritime Agency), a ship brokerage firm. He spoke very good German, having graduated fromt the Austrian High School in Teschen in 1918, and learned English at the Polish Naval Academy, where he studied in 1921-25. Thus, he was well equipped for work in foreign trade.

[ Many foreigners, mostly English and German, were guests in our home, and I remember seeing father off at the airport on some of his business trips. I also remember being taken by him to visit an English merchant ship, which had a Chinese cook with a pigtail, and  the new Polish ocean liners of the Gdynia-America Line, which sailed regularly on the Gdynia-New York route with stops in between My uncle sailed on the "Pilsudski" as an immigrant to the U.S. in 1935.  One of my aunts lived in New York and worked as executive secretary for the director of  that line].

[Poland's Progress, London, 1944]

(2). The other great economic development of interwar Poland was the Central Industrial Region ("Centralny Okreg Przemyslowy" - COP, pron. Tsop). Construction got underway in 1936 in the fork of the Vistula and San rivers with the goal of creating Polandís second industrial base after Upper Silesia, expected to fall to Germany in case of war. COP was meant to produce modern military weapons and armaments, especially planes, and was to be completed in 1942. It was also designed to absorb much of the unemployed rural population of former Galicia. It should be noted that this project, which was largely financed internally, was the only example of state economic planning in interwar East Central Europe. Although COPís development was interrupted by the war, it provided the base for the industrial region developed there by Polish communist governments after WW II.

[Poland's Progress, London, 1944].

Land Reform.

In 1919, 35% of the arable land in Poland was held in great estates, but this shrank to18% in 1939. Large estates still existed, though mainly in eastern Poland. Outside of former Prussian Poland (Poznania), the peasants were generally poor, especially in the eastern provinces. This was partly due to the practice of dividing the land among all the heirs, the great majority of peasant holdings were very small so many could barely feed their owners, and thus due to lack of funds for modern agricultural machines. The most productive land was therefore in large estates.
The Great Depression, which hit Europe  in 1930, lowered the price of agricultural goods while at the same time the rural overpopulation could not be absorbed by Polandís industry, which also suffered greatly. Finally, emigration to the U.S. was slowed to a trickle by the 1924 immigration laws which discriminated against Eastern and Southern Europe. This increased the numbers of poverty stricken peasants all over E.Europe.


There was great progress in this field due to free and compulsory education at the primary/ elementary and middle school levels, so tha tilliteracy was almost wiped out by 1939. There were 28,000 primary schools and 770 secondary schools, but only one High School was free of charge. By 1939, Poland had 28 institutions of higher education, including 6 universities. Tuition was low, but most young people could not afford high school, while the completion of rigorous studies there with a "matura" [maturation] based on passing strict exams, was the only way to enter university. The same situation prevailed all over Europe at this time.

[Poland's Progress, London, 1944].

Social Services

These were very good in the towns. Workers paid a little toward medical care while employers paid the rest. There was also government subsidized housing for the workers. However, with the onset of the depression, unemployment grew, as it did elsewhere in Europe and the U.S.

[Poland's Progress, London, 1944]


A few educated Polish women had begun to go into other professions than school teaching before 1914. In the interwar period, there were Polish women doctors and dentists, also engineers and architects, but they were still a small minority compared to men.  There were some Polish policewomen, mainly directing traffic. There was also voluntary paramilitary training for women.  Women had the right to vote since the rebirth of the Polish state in November 1918.

[Poland's Progress, London, 1944].

The Arts.


The interwar period saw a great flourishing of art, literature and theater in Poland

While only the composer and musician Karol M. Szymanowski (1882-1937) and the great pianist and composer Ignacy Paderewski (1860-1941, Prime Minister, then Foreign Minister January -November 1919), managed to attain world fame, there were many other great artists and writers who are still recognized and admired by Poles today.*

*[For literature and theater, see: Czeslaw Milosz, The History of Polish Literature London, 1969, and reprints, chapter X, Independent Poland. On the arts, see: Janina Hoskins, Visual Arts in Poland. An Annotated Bibliography of Selected Holdings in the Library of Congress, Library of Congress, Washington, 1993;  the vast majority of the  works listed here are in Polish].

(iii) Minorities

As mentioned earlier, national or ethnic minorities amounted to some 30% of the total population. This was one of the problems faced by the Polish state, but it was not a major problem, and was certainly less serious than that faced by the multinational states of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.

According to the last prewar census, held in 1931, the nationalities inhabiting Poland were as follows,:

by mother tongue




In millions


21,993,400..... ....68.9%


  4, 442,000.*.13.9%


     2, 732,600*...... 8.6%


          990,000......... 3.1%















             [*disputed figures;  ** locals]

adjusted by religion




20,644,000.........64.7 %


5,114,000 ........ 16 .%












38,000............... 0.1%


- -



Not given



For the official figures according to mother tongue. see the Concise Statistical Yearbook of Poland, 1938, Warsaw, 1938,Table 13, p. 23, where Ukrainians are listed in two separate categories as Ukrainians and Ruthenians; for the figures according to religion, see ibid. Table 15, p. 24.
For the figures given in the second table, as adjusted by Professor Janusz Tomaszewski in his book about the multinational Polish Republic, see Tadeusz Piotrowski, POLANDíS HOLOCAUST. Ethnic Strife, Collaboration wit the Occupying Forces and Genocide in the Second Republic, 1918-1947, Jefferson N.C. and London, 1998, p.294. The book deals mainly with the peoples of former Poland in World War II.

* Local (tutejsi) was declared mostly by people living in Belorussia and Volhynia; it seems that Tomaszewski omitted them in his adjustment by adding them to the Belorussians and Ukrainians. We should bear in mind that while census officials did pressure non-Poles in eastern Poland to declare themselves Polish by mother tongue, some non-Poles felt themselves to be Polish, especially assimilated Jews. Furthermore, some Poles belonged to the Uniate Church, whose members were mostly Ukrainian. Thus absolutely precise figures for mother tongue and religion are beyond the realm of possibility].

The total population of Poland is estimated to have reached about 35,000,000 by 1939, of whom 24,000,000 are estimated to have been ethnic Poles. Most of the population (70%) was agrarian and had a high birthrate.

The Germans lived mostly in western Poland, but some also lived in the eastern territories. Many left in the 1920s as "optants," that is those who opted to sell their property and leave. However, all German governments tried to make Germans stay in Poland in order to retain the ethnic justification (self-determination) for the return of Polish western territories to Germany. These territories were the Polish Corridor and Upper Silesia, also part of Poznania. After 1933, the Nazi party dominated most German communities and organizations in Poland. Young people were trained in Hitler Youth camps in Germany, especially on how to collect information for German military intelligence. The Germans in Poland had their own schools, newspapers, and elected deputies to both houses of parliament.

The Ukrainians lived in former Eastern Galicia and Volhynia. If the principle of self-determination had been implemented here, these people would have had their own, small, indepednent state, or at least autonomy (self-government) in Poland. However, both were unfeasible in the interwar period because neither the Polish minority of East Galicia nor Polish public opinio as a whole would tolerate it. Thus, the Poles continued to monopolize the administration and education, much to the discontent of Ukrainians, while Ukrainian peasants resented Polish landlords.

Some west Ukrainians had fought the Poles for an independent Ukrainian state with its capital in Lviv (P. Lwow) in 1918-19 and lost, leaving bitter feelings on both sides. Some Ukrainian intellectuals emigrated to Soviet Ukraine and participated in the cultural renaissance there in the early 1920s, but most were later imprisoned or killed in Stalin's crackdown on "nationalism" which began in 1926. Later, millions of Ukrainians died in Stalin's man-made famine of 1930, which he used to break Ukrainian peasant opposition to his collectivization of agriculture. Some Ukrainian exiles  lived in Czechoslovakia, where they had their own organiztions and publishing firms.

The official leader of Ukrainians in Poland was (Count) Roman Andrei M. Szeptycki (1865-1944) the Uniate Metropolitan of  Lwow (now  Líviv, Ukraine). He had chosen a career in the Uniate church, while his brother, Count Stanislaw M.Szeptycki (1867-1950) chose a military career, first in the Austrian and then the Polish army, where he rose to the rank of general. (He resigned after Pilsudskiís coup of May 1926). Such different national choices were not unusual in Polish families, while some members of Ukrainians families chose to be Polish.

The Ukrainians  had many elementary and middle Ukr. lang. schools, and developed a network of highly prosperous cooperative shops selling agricultural produce. They had legal political parties whose deputies were elected to the Polish parliament.

However, there was an extreme nationalist organization, the OUN  (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalist), established in Vienna in 1929. It had its headquarters in Berlin and was financed by Germany, though there is no evidence that assassinations of Polish officials were approved by the Germans.

In September 1930, the OUN launched organized attacks on Poles in East Galicia with the aim of causing a mass Ukrainian uprising. They burned Polish manor houses and villages. Pilsudski sent in the army which carried out a brutal "pacification." The number of  Ukrainians killed was small, maybe 50, but Polish police mistreated the population and destroyed Ukrainian property and libraries. This, of course, increased Ukrainian resentment of Polish rule. Ukrainian  discontent and even resentment of Polish rule is understandable, but we should bear in mind that the Ukrainians living in the Soviet Ukrainian Republic suffered terrible hardships, including a Stalin-made famine in 1930, estimated to have cost 7 mln lives. Also, cultural life in Soviet Ukraine was greatly restricted after 1926 and any sign of  cultural nationalism was ruthlessly eliminated.

The Belorussians   were divided between  Roman Catholic, Uniate, and Greek Orthodox, and did not have a strongly developed national identity. However, grinding poverty lent appeal to communist propaganda, so the Belorussian peasant party "Hromada," established in 1925, cooperated with the Belorussian Communist Party, an affiliate of the Polish Communist Party. Therefore, the Hromada was delegalized in 1927; its leaders were tried in Vilnius in 1928 and most of them received long prison sentences. It should be noted that the language of instruction in Polish Belorussia was largely in Polish.

The Jews of Poland were the descendants of settlers welcomed there in the Middle Ages and early modern times for their financial and commercial skills. They were joined by immigrants from Russian Lithuania in the late 19th century, and some 600,000 were admitted by Pilsudski as refugees from the Russian Civil War in 1918-21. Polish Jews formed about 10% of the country's total population, which was the highest percentage of Jews in any country at the time, which was the largest percentage of Jews in any country in the world at this time. They were a significant percentage in the towns of central and southern Poland, and majorities in many of the small market towns of eastern Poland, which they called "shtetls."

Most Polish Jews were orthodox, that is, Hasidic Jews. Most were poor and worked in crafts and retail trade. Some were money lenders in small towns and villages, mainly in the central and eastern areas which had been former Russian Poland and the southern areas which had been Galicia or Austrian Poland. Jews made up about 30% of the population in Warsaw and in many Galician towns.

Jews and Poles had lived alongside each other for centuries, but in separate communities. Thus, they lived together but apart. The Jews preserved their identity through their religion, customs, and languages (Yiddish and Hebrew), but this obviously differentiated them from the Poles, as well as Ukrainians, Belorussians, and Russians. Modern anti-semitism developed along with modern nationalism and appeared in Polish territories in the last quarter of the 19th century, as it did elsewhere in Europe. In the interwar period, it took different forms in different parts of Poland, but was generally passive except in times of economic crisis. The only overtly anti-semitic party were the National Democrats, but anti-semitism was also manifested by Peasant Party organizations in former Russian and Austrian Poland.

Assimilated Jews made up some 5 % of the whole Jewish population of about 3,500,000 (1939), but they gave Poland many outstanding writers, poets, lawyers, doctors, and scientists. Indeed, these assimilated Jews constituted some 25% of the Polish intelligentsia as a whole. Those educated before 1918, dominated the legal and medical professions and this incited right-wing government coalitions in 1923-26 to attempt passing legislation restricting the intake of Jewish students of law and medicine to 10%, roughly equivalent to the percentage of Jews in the total population. This was called the "numerus clausus" or closed number. However, attempts to make this into law failed, so its application depended on university administrations. Nevertheless, Jewish students were generally not admitted to study medicine and law.

[Note: At this time, a 10% admission ceiling for Jewish students was the unwritten rule at Harvard, and probably other Ivy League Universities as well]. N.Democratic students frequently attacked their Jewish colleagues, or restricted them to back benches, but the extent to which this was practiced depended on the university administration.

Quite a few members of the assimilated Polish-Jewish  Intelligentsia was politically left-wing  and sympathized with Communism or joined the Polish Communist Party, whose visible leadership was preponderantly Jewish. This added fuel to the N.Democratic brand of anti-semitism.

Finally, there were very few Jews in the Polish civil and foreign service, except for a few totally assimilated Polish Jews. There was one general (Mond) of Jewish origin in the army, but most Jewish officers - 10% of the officer corps - were in the medical branch of the service.

It is worth noting that the Jews of Poland had their own political parties, newspapers, hospitals, and charities. They had complete freedom to practice their religion, also their own secular and religious schools.  Most of the children attended Polish public schools, which were free, while those better off went to licensed Jewish private schools, which followed state -approved curricula and where the use of the Polish language increased with time. There was a lively, high quality, Jewish theater using the Yiddish language.*

*[For a  photographic record of Jewish life in Poland, see: Lucjan Dobroszycki and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Image Before My Eyes. A Photographic Record of Jewish Life in Poland Before the Holocaust, New York, 1977. For recent studies by Polish and Jewish scholars on the Jews of interwar Poland, see: Antony Polonsky, Ezra Mendelsohn & Jerzy Tomaszewski, eds., Jews in Independent Poland 1918-1939, POLIN, vol. 8, London, Washington, D.C. 1994).

After the Depression hit, the Polish government sought to reduce the number of Jews in Poland by emigration. However, emigration to the U.S. was restricted to a trickle after 1924, while the British almost stopped Jewish immigration to Palestine in 1936 in order to prevent Arab unrest. When the Polish government failed to persuade the British to change this policy, Warsaw supported the New Zionist movement which fought the British to make Palestine a home for the Jews. The New Znionists, led by Zhabotinsky, were the only Jewish party which supported mass Jewish emigration from Poland to Palestine. Polish authorities even secretly trained New Zionist military cadres in Poland. These officers proceeded to harass the British in Palestine and - together with former Jewish officers of the Polish army stationed in Palestine in 1942 - fought for the independent state of Israel which was born in 1948.*
*[See Laurence Weinbaum, A MARRIAGE OF CONVENIENCE. The New Zionist Organization and the Polish Government, 1936-1939, East European Monographs No. CCCLXIX (369), Boulder Co. and Columbia University Press, New York, 1993].

The Polish government tried to find areas of settlement for Polish Jews in French colonies, especially Madagascar, which received some serious study, but nothing came of it because of French objections. In any case, it was not a healthy place for white people to live. The German Nazis also considered deporting European Jews to Madagascar, but gave this up in favor of the "Final Solution," that is, extermination.



The treatment of minorities in interwar Poland left much to be desired, but they enjoyed far more freedom than their countrymen in Hitler's Germany or Stalin's USSR. As one prominent Polish American scholar put it:

But despite the injustices, despite the terrorism by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the counter-terror resorted to by the Polish State, despite the systematic Polonization of the school system and conversion of Orthodox churches into Roman Catholic ones under phony pretexts, despite numerus clausus and the exclusion of Jews from the professions - despite all this and more, the material, spiritual, and political life of the national minorities in interwar Poland was richer and more complex than ever before or after.

In support of this claim, the author cites the following statistics: in 1931, there were in Poland 920 Jewish non-periodical publications, mainly in Yiddish,but 211 in Hebrew; 342 Ukrainian non-periodical publications, of which 264 appeared in the Lwow (Líviv) voevodship; and 33 Belorussian non-periodical publications in the Wilno (Vilnius) voevodship. Wilno was the second most lively Jewish publishing center after Warsaw. *

*[Jan Gross, Revolution from Abroad. The Soviet Conquest of Polandís Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia, Princeton, N.J., 1988, pp..6-7. Here, the author also cites 1939 Ukrainian, Jewish and Belorussian publication figures for the territories annexed by the USSR]


††††††††††† Originally published at††





Anna M. Cienciala

Professor Emerita / The University of Kansas

B.A. Liverpool, 1952, M.A. McGill, 1955; Ph.D. Indiana, 1962

20th century Polish, European, Soviet, and American diplomacy 1919-1945.


Born in the Free City of Danzig (Gdańsk, in Poland after WWII); she attended middle and high school in England; university studies in England, Canada, and U.S. (B.A. Liverpool, 1952, M.A. McGill, 1955; Ph.D. Indiana, 1962). She taught at the University of Ottawa and the University of Toronto before coming to the University of Kansas in 1965. More info