A difficult road to Poland’s freedom

ON 11 November POLAND commemorates its 100th independence anniversary, regained in 1918 after 123 years of non-existence of the state.

In the 17th-18th centuries, Poland was frequently invaded and weakened by inner conflicts, dramatically rolling down from the position of the European superpower to situation of a helpless “giant with feet of clay”.

Still, in 1683 Polish heavy cavalry was capable of defeating many times bigger Turkish army at Vienna which is the capital city of Austria, but only 30 years later Poland was so weak that the Russian emperor dictated its army’s size. Finally, Polish territory was partitioned among Russia, Prussia (Germany) and Austria.

Poland was partitioned three times and lost its independence completely before regaining it in 1918. The first partition of the country was done by Russia, Prussia and Austria in the year 1772. The second one took place in 1792 by Russia and Prussia.

Even desperate attempts to reform the state including very modern and progressive Constitution of 1791, the very first one in Europe and second in the world, could not stop its complete breakdown.

As time went on, in 1795 the country was partitioned for the third time by the Russians who took the north-eastern part of the country, while Prussians and Austrian-Hungary took north-western and southern parts of its territory respectively.

From there, Poland ceased to exist as the state and was removed from the map of the world for 123 years from 1795 to 1918. During the years of the First World War (1914–1918), friendly conditions emerged for the Poles in the European political arena.

It was then that the Poland’s partitioners stood against each other and broke their former cooperation on the Polish issue. Struggle for independence Despite over one hundred years of subjection, bloody suppression of national uprisings, political dominance and increasing Russification and germanization policies at the turn of the century, the Poles did not give up their dreams of regaining independence.

As struggle for independence was tense, the Polish elites tried to instill the national awareness among Polish peasants and workers. In order to achieve it, various forms of citizen self-education were developed and efforts were made to maintain the Polish language in the school system.

In addition, all major Polish political parties placed an agenda of reconstructing the Polish state in their manifesto. For example, the Galicia region which enjoyed broad political autonomy since the 1860s became the centre of Polish national activity.

The activists who were hunted down by Russia were taking refuge in that region, governed by the Austro- Hungarian authorities. Other activities which took place in the region included free operation of Polish political parties, the common use of Polish language in education, administration and the judiciary.

All these circumstances increased the Polish people hopes for regaining their independence at the turn of the century. Their hopes were empowered by the spread of disputes and conflicts that arose between the invaders namely Russia on one hand and Germany and Austria- Hungary on the other.

It was that time when active struggle for Polish independence emerged like the formation of the Union of Active Struggle by Józef Piłsudski and his associates in 1908. Later, paramilitary organisations including the Polish Rifflemen’s Association started to be active all over Galicia.

They aimed at providing military training for Polish youth and preparing them for the fight for independence. However, during the World War I in 1914-1918, the Poles took up arms to fight for their country, but later they witnessed massive property damage and, in hundreds of thousands, were forced to flee their homes.

In 1915, the Germans captured Warsaw. In November 1916, the emperors of Germany and Austria declared the rebirth of the Polish state on the lands taken from Russia in the Act of November 5th. The Act, however, was a disappointment to the Polish people as the Emperors Wilhelm II and Franz Joseph I of Austria did not define the borders of Poland.

In February 1918, Germany and Austria-Hungary signed a treaty with Ukraine which transferred part of the Polish land to the Ukrainians. The move angered the Poles who decided to hold violent rallies and strikes because they considered the treaty as another partition of Poland.

Due to that move, in January 1918, Woodrow Wilson, when addressing Congress, announced the reconstruction of an independent Poland with access to sea, stating it as one of the conditions for permanent peace in Europe.

With determination to fight for their independence, the Poles developed a radical, republican attitude, the underground press flourished and secret organisations like the Polish Military Organisation, established by Józef Piłsudski in 1914 were thriving.

Following the end of the war in the West and the falling apart of the Austro- Hungarian Empire, the Poles began to disarm the occupiers and to create the institutions of an independent state. After being freed from his German captivity, Piłsudski took over full civil and military authority from the Regency Council as Chief of State upon his arrival in Warsaw on November 11, 1918.

This was the beginning of a new era in Polish history. The documentary sources state that before the independence day of November 11, it was at the end of October, when members of the Polish Military Organisation supported by students, young factory workers, scouts, firefighters and railroad workers, started to disarm the occupiers.

The disarmament, made local authorities all over the country filling the power vacuum left by the occupation authorities and local Austrian authorities in Galicia. However, in the Prussian partition prior to December 1918, the Germans firmly held onto power.

World War II and Warsaw Uprising During the World War II (1939-1945), the Poland fall under the occupation of German III Reich and the Soviet Union as the two countries cooperated during the first phase of the war. The German Nazi administration locatedseveral of their concentration and death camps in the occupied Poland.

It also limited food supplies for the society, prohibited any school education, and captured many Polish professors and scientists who were then locked up in prisons and camps or murdered. Due to increasing torture, harassment and deaths imposed by Nazi’s administration, the Poles organised underground army to fight for their country’s freedom counting as many as 400,000 soldiers at its peak.

In 1941 the Nazi Germany attacked the Communist Russia which led to the reshuffle of the alliances. After 3 years of fighting, the Soviet army including the Polish divisions overcame the Germans and reached the Vistula River in the heart of Poland.

As the Poles hoped to encourage Soviets to launch a new offensive, a massive uprising was started in the capital of Poland, Warsaw, on August 1st, 1944. The uprising posed a threat to the Germans at their frontline with the Soviets so they quickly mobilised their army and responded heavily against it.

During the Warsaw Uprising, 6,000 officers, intelligence and police officers as well as 200,000 civilians were killed in the fighting and executions. Before World War II, Warsaw had 1.3 million people, but after the uprising the population was decimated.

The communism and the road to freedom In 1945, after the Second World War even though Poland was formally proclaimed as a sovereign and independent country, it was in fact subordinated to Soviet communist system that persecuted any political dissent and thwarted human rights and freedoms.

After the fall of the communism in 1989 and a peaceful transition to democratic system of government, the Poles finally became free to commemorate November 11 as their Day of Independence.

Author: MATEN KAYERA, recently in POLAND

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