Poland: Revolution and Rebirth

By Mieczyslaw Kasprzyk

Maps:    Andrew Andersen




PART I                                                                   See also: “The Struggle for Independence 1795-1864” by Anna M. Cienciala   


Napoleonic Poland; The Duchy of Warsaw




The Poles felt that one way of restoring independence was to fight for Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1791 Dabrowski organised two legions to fight the Austrians in Lombardy and, later, for the French in the Iberian Peninsula.


Kniaziewicz organised the Polish Danube Legion to fight against the Germans in 1799.


Napoleon used the Polish Legions in all his campaigns; against Russia, Austria and Prussia, in Egypt, in the West Indies (Santo Domingo), and in Spain (where they fought the British and inspired the formation of the English lancers equipped with Polish-style uniforms and weapons). Some of the Poles became very disillusioned with Bonaparte, realising that they were being manipulated.


POLAND 1809-1812


Later, in 1806, the French armies defeated the Prussians at Jena and entered Posen (Poznan) led by the Poles under Dabrowski. A year later Napoleon and the Tzar, Alexander, met at Tilsit and agreed to set up a Polish State made up of the lands the Prussians had taken in the second partition. This was the Duchy of Warsaw. Napoleon used the Duchy as a pawn in his political game and in 1812 called upon the Lithuanians to rebel as an excuse to attack Russia. The Poles, flocking to his standard in the hope of resurrecting the Commonwealth, formed the largest non-French contingent, 98,000 men. Polish Lancers were the first to cross the Niemen into Russia, the first to enter Moscow, played a crucial part in the battle of Borodino and, under Poniatowski, covered the disastrous French retreat, being the last out of Russia; 72,000 never returned.


Despite the cynical way that Napoleon treated the Poles they remained loyal to him and, when he went into exile on Elba the only guards that Napoleon was allowed were Polish Lancers.




The "Congress Kingdom"


In 1815 at the Congress of Vienna the Duchy was partitioned and a large part went to Russia. In Austria and Prussia there was repression of all Polish attempts to maintain the national culture, but in Russia, fortunately, the Tzar, Alexander I, was a liberal ruler who agreed to the setting up of a semi-autonomous "Congress Kingdom" with its own parliament and constitution. This became a time of peace and economic recovery. In 1817 the University of Warsaw was founded. But the accession of Tzar Nicholas I to the throne in 1825 saw the establishment of a more repressive regime.


In 1830, after the revolution in France and unrest in Holland, Nicholas decided to intervene and suppress the move towards democracy in the West. He intended to use the Polish Army as an advanced force but instead propelled the Polish patriots into action. On the night of November 29th the cadets of the Warsaw Military College launched an insurrection. The Poles fought bravely against heavy odds in former Polish territories around Wilno, Volhynia and the borders of Austria and Prussia. The insurrection spread to Lithuania where it was led by a woman, Emilia Plater. For a while victory actually lay in their grasp but indecision on the part of the Polish leaders led to defeat. Warsaw was taken in September 1831, followed by terrible persecution; over 25,000 prisoners were sent to Siberia with their families and the Constitution of the "Congress Kingdom" was suspended.


The 1830 Revolution inspired the work of two great Poles living in exile; Chopin, the composer, and Mickiewicz, the poet.







The "Great Emigration"


The failure of the Insurrection forced thousands of Poles to flee to the West; Paris became the spiritual capital. Many of these exiles contributed greatly to Polish and European culture. Joachim Lelewel became Poland's greatest historian, Chopin her greatest composer, and Mickiewicz, Slowacki, Krasinski and Norwid among her greatest poets. Adam Czartoryski set up court at the Hotel Lambert, in Paris, which played an important part in keeping the Polish question alive in European politics.



"For Your Freedom and Ours"




The insurrection in the semi-independent City of Krakow in 1846 was doomed from the start. The insurrectionists had hoped to gain the support of the local peasantry (recalling the victory at Raclawice) but the peasants, having never benefited from the liberal ideals proposed by the intelligensia, used the insurrection as an excuse to rid themselves of their landlords; it was the last "jacquerie" (or peasants' uprising) in European history. The insurrectionist forces were defeated by a combination of Austrian and peasant forces at the battle of Gdow and the insurrection was put down with great brutality by the Austrians, resulting in the abolition of the Commonwealth of Krakow.


In 1848 "the Springtime of Nations" (a revolutionary movement towards greater democracy in much of Europe) saw large-scale contributions by the Poles; in Italy, Mickiewicz organised a small legion to fight for Italian independence from Austria, whilst in Hungary, Generals Dembinski and Bem led 3,000 Poles in the Hungarian Revolution against Austria. There were also unsuccessful uprisings in Poznan (Posen), against the Prussians, and in Eastern Galicia, against the Austrians.

Starting in 1863, the "January Uprising" against the Russians lasted for more than a year and a half. A Provisional government was established and more than 1,200 skirmishes were fought, mostly in the deep forests under the command of Romuald Traugutt. Italian help came from the "Garibaldi Legion" led by Colonel Francesco Nullo. In 1864 Traugutt and four other members of the Provisional government were captured in Warsaw and publicly executed.


The Uprising was finally put down in 1865, and the Kingdom of Poland was abolished and a severe policy of persecution and "Russification" established. The University of Warsaw and all schools were closed down, use of the Polish language was forbidden in most public places and the Catholic Church was persecuted. The Kingdom of Poland became known as the "Vistula Province".

In the Prussian occupied zone the aim was to totally destroy the Polish language and culture; from 1872 German became compulsory in all schools and it was a crime to be caught speaking in Polish. There was a systematic attempt to uproot Polish Peasants from their land. A special permit was needed to rebuild any farm buildings damaged or destroyed by fire or flood, but none were ever granted to Poles. One peasant, Wojciech Drzumala, challenged this law by living in a converted wagon.

In Austrian Poland, Galicia, conditions were different. After 1868 the Poles had a degree of self-government, the Polish language was kept as the official language and the Universities of Krakow and Lwow were allowed to function. As a result this area witnessed a splendid revival of Polish culture, including the works of the painter Jan Matejko, and the writers Kraszewski, Prus and Sienkiewicz.


All three powers kept Poland economically weak in this period of technological progress. Despite this the Poles managed to make some progress; the textile industry began to flourish in Lodz (the "Polish Manchester") and coal-mining developed rapidly. In Prussian Poland, despite ruthless oppression, the Poles concentrated on light industry and agriculture (and before long Poznan became the chief source of food for the whole of Germany). In Silesia, under German rule since 1742, the development of mining and heavy industry made her a chief industrial centre and thus the Prussian attempt to exterminate all traces of Polish language and culture was at its most ruthless, yet they survived.


Despite its abolition by Kosciuszko in 1794 the partitioning powers restored serfdom. It was not abolished in Prussia until 1823, in Austria until 1848 and in Russia until 1861 (but not in her "Polish" territories).


In 1905 the Russo-Japanese War saw a series of humiliating defeats for the Russians and civil unrest in Russia. In Poland there was a wave of strikes and demonstrations demanding civil rights. Polish pupils went on strike, walking out of Russian schools and a private organisation, the "Polska Macierz Szkolna" ("Polish Education Society"), was set up under the patronage of the great novelist, Henryk Sienkiewicz.


Then, in 1906, Jozef Pilsudski, a founder-member of the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), began to set up a number of paramilitary organisations which attacked Tzarist officials and carried out raids on post offices, tax-offices and mail-trains. In Galicia the Austrian authorities turned a blind eye to the setting up of a number of "sporting" clubs, followed by a Riflemen's Union. In 1912, Pilsudski reorganised these on military lines and by 1914 had nearly 12,000 men under arms.




PART II                                                                  See also: “The Rebirth of Poland” by Anna M. Cienciala


The First World War: 1914-1918




On the outbreak of war the Poles found themselves conscripted into the armies of Germany, Austria and Russia, and forced to fight each other in a war that was not theirs. Although many Poles sympathised with France and Britain they found it hard to fight with them on the Russian side. They also had little sympathy with the Germans. Pilsudski considered Russia as the greater enemy and formed Polish Legions to fight for Austria but independently. Other Galician Poles went to fight against the Italians when they entered the war in 1915, thus preventing any clash of conscience.


Almost all the fighting on the Eastern Front took place on Polish soil.


On the collapse of the Tzarist regime in Russia in 1917, the main purpose for fighting alongside the Central Powers, Germany and Austria, disappeared. They had made many promises of setting up an independent Poland but had proved to be very slow in carrying these promises out. When Pilsudski's Legions were required to swear allegiance to Germany they refused and Pilsudski was imprisoned. In 1918 when, at Brest Litovsk, the Central Powers signed a peace treaty with Russia, which was detrimental to Poland, the Second Brigade under General Haller revolted and marched into the Ukraine where they joined other Polish forces already formed there and fought against the Germans, eventually being surrounded and defeated.


At the outbreak of the revolution in Russia Polish army units had joined together to form the First Polish Corps under General Jozef Dowbor Munsnicki and tried to reach Poland but were disarmed by the Germans. Escapees and volunteers reorganised themselves into a new army at Murmansk in the Arctic and fought alongside the British on the shores of the Whits Sea and beside the French at Odessa, as well as in the Far East at Siberia. Later they managed to reach Poland.


Roman Dmowski, founder of the right-wing Nationalist League, had foreseen that Germany was the real enemy and gone to France where the "Bayonne Legion" was already fighting alongside the French Army. He and Paderewski formed a Polish Army which consisted of volunteers from the United States, Canada and Brazil together with Poles who had been conscripted into the German and Austrian armies and had become POWs. This Army became known as "Haller's Army" after its commander who had escaped from Russia to France.



Rebirth: 1918-1922




All sides, from Tzar Nicholas of Russia to President Wilson (in his Fourteen Points) had promised the restoration of Poland yet in the end the Poles regained independence through their own actions when, first Russia, and then the Central Powers collapsed as a result of the War.


In 1918, on the 11th November, Pilsudski, having been released by the Germans, proclaimed Polish Independence and Became Head of State and Commander-in-Chief, with Paderewski as Prime Minister. An uprising liberated Poznan and, shortly after, Pomerania (which gave access to the Baltic).






In the chaos that followed the collapse of the Powers new states had arisen; Lithuania, Czechoslovakia and the Ukrainian Republic. All these states laid claims on territory occupied by Poles.


The Poles liberated Wilno from the Lithuanians in 1919, reoccupied the area around Cieszyn (which had been invaded by the Czechs) and annexed the Western Ukraine when the Ukrainian Republic, which had been supported by Poland, collapsed under attack from Soviet forces.


The Red Army, having crushed all counter-revolutionary forces inside Russia, now turned its attention on Poland. By August 1920 they were at the gates of Warsaw. On August 15th the Polish Army under Pilsudski, Haller and Sikorski fought the Battle of Warsaw (the "Miracle on the Vistula"), routed the Red Army and saved a weakened Europe from Soviet conquest. An Armistice was signed at Riga in October, followed by a Peace Treaty in March 1921 which determined and secured Poland's eastern frontiers.


In 1922 part of Upper Silesia was awarded to Poland by a Geneva Convention following three uprisings by the Polish population who had been handed over to Germany at the Peace Treaty of Versailles.



The Second Republic: 1921-1939




On March 17th, 1921, a modern, democratic constitution was voted in. The task that lay ahead was difficult; the country was ruined economically and, after a hundred and twenty years of foreign rule, there was no tradition of civil service.


Marshal Pilsudski resigned from office in 1922, and the newly-elected President, Gabriel Narutowicz, took office only to be assassinated a week later.


Seeing that the government lacked power because of party strife, Pilsudski took control by a coup d'etat in 1926 and established the Sanacja regime intended to clean-up ("sanitise") political life. By 1930 this had become a virtual dictatorship.


Despite all her problems Poland was able to rebuild her economy; by 1939 she was the 8th largest steel producer in the world and had developed her mining, textiles and chemical industries. Poland had been awarded limited access to the sea by the Peace of Versailles (the "Polish Corridor") but her chief port, Gdansk (Danzig) was made a free city (put under Polish protection) and so, in 1924, a new port, Gdynia, was built which, by 1938, became the busiest port in the Baltic.


There were continual disputes with the Germans because access to the sea had split Germany into two and because they wanted Danzig under their control. There problems increased when Adolf Hitler took power in Germany.


In 1939, under constant threat from Germany, Poland entered into a full military alliance with Britain and France


In August, Germany and Russia signed a secret agreement concerning the future of Poland.




Originally published at