195: Versailles Pt. 12 - Between Two Giants


Between Bolshevik Russia and a defeated Germany the Poles were trying to create a new country, and they it would be a long road.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 195: Between two Giants. Thank you to Ralph, this months premium episode is all about Fortress Premsyl. This episode we continue our series on the countries of Eastern Europe after the war, and this time we are going to focus on Poland. The history of Poland is one of foreign invasions, partitions, and destruction. Over the centuries the lack of natural barriers, along with other reasons we will not dive into here, has prevented the country, be it as just Poland or as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, from adequately protecting itself. During the First World War the area that would eventually become Poland was split between three different Empires, the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Russian Empire. During the early years of the war there was almost constant fighting on Polish territory with first the Russians marching West and then the Germans and Austrians marching east. Eventually the fighting would mostly move to the East, but that then left all of Poland under German and Austro-Hungarian control. Throughout all of these events the strong and persistent Polish Nationalism continued to grow. Both sides in the war would try to use this movement to their advantage, especially after the Russian revolutions in 1917. By 1918 the Polish independence movement would be split in two. There were leaders in Paris who were working with the Allies to try and create the new country through political means. This effort was led by Ignacy Paderewski and Roman Dmowski. While they were working with the leaders in Paris back in Poland, under the leadership of Jozef Pilsudski, the new Polish nation was attempting to assert itself in the region, and resist Russian incursions from the east. The leadership of these men would help bring Poland out of the post-war turmoil and into the future, even if they had vastly different ideas about how to create the new country and its best path into that future.

Paderewski had been born in a small village in eastern Poland in 1860. Even as a child he had been drawn towards the piano, and over the course of his life he would become a world renowned composer. In the decades before the war he would tour the world, making stops in many major cities. This made him one of th emost recognizable Poles in the world. When the war started Paderewski had spent most of his time in America where he would champion the cause of Polish independence with American politicians, eventually becoming good friends with Wilson and his close advisor Edward House. This was important because America was a very critical piece of the Polish national cause, there were more Poles in America than anywhere in the world outside of Poland and this made the Polish vote important in the United States. After making his case to the President, in January 1917 Wilson added the creation of a ‘united, independent, and autonomous Poland” as one of the Fourteen Points. In December 1918 Paderewski would leave the United States on his way to Paris, at the Conference he would be favored by the Americans as the future leader of Poland.

While Paderewski and Dmowski were in Paris, back in Warsaw the Polish military was led by Jozef Pilsudski. Pilsudski could not have been more different than Paderewski. He had been a Polish revolutionary for most of his life, he had previously spent time in Siberia for some of his revolutionary activity, but this punishment just hardened his resolve. When the war started he would lead a group of Polish units that fought for the Central Powers against Russia. He goal was to defeat Russia before turning his men and his efforts to breaking free of Germany and Austria-Hungary. When the Germans found out about this plan he was arrested and he would spend the rest of the war in the fortress of Magdeburg. While this put his plans on hold, it probably ended up helping him obtain his future leadership position. His stint in the German fortress made him something of a legend among Polish nationalists, and when he was released in November 1918 he would become the natural leader of the independence movement at a time where it absolutely needed military leadership if it hoped to survive.

The third leader that would play a critical role in forming the future Poland was Roman Dmowski. Dmowski had ben the leader of the Polish National Committee. This was the official group that had been formed during the war to work with the Allies in Paris to get official recoginition for a future Poland. This fulfilled much the same role as the Czechoslovak National Committee that we discussed last episode. These leaders had very different views on the best path forward for the new country. Paderewski and Dmowski looked ot Paris and the leaders at the Conference to gain legitimacy and assistance in the creation of Poland. Pilsudski did not really trust these foreign politicians and instead put his efforts into making the Polish military and central government as strong as possible so that it could weather any storm tht the country’s neighbors could throw at it. This difference in opinion led to very divergent goals for the Polish leaders. At times there would be agreements worked out in Paris, agreements that then PIlsudski would just ignore. The relationship between the leaders would never really come together, and eventually Paderewski would remove himself from his position and Pilsudski would gain full control of Poland.

The differences between Paderewski and Pilsudski were nothing compared to the gulf between Dmowski and Pilsudski. They had vastly different views on what the country should look like, and it was only after concerted effort by Paderewski that he was able to convince the two other leaders to work together. This spirit of common purpose would only last so long though. In late 1919 Dmowski supporters in Poland would attempt a coup against Pilsudski, it was unsuccessful. Part of the tension between the two leaders was the fact that they both had their own armies. The Polish military in Paris was made up of Polish exiles and others who had made their way to Paris during the war. Back in Poland the military was primarily made up of veterans of the wartime armies.

A key supporter of Polish independence was the Americans. In January 1917 Wilson had publically promised to make a united and independent Poland. This was important to Wilson from a principles perspective, and also as a way to get those Polish votes. Even though he supported their independence, and in that support he would have very little real resistance from the other leaders, he did not really have any specifics on what he wanted. This put Poland in a similar position to Czechoslovakia where their was support for the concept of creating a new country, but the people of the country would be responsible for setting up its territory. The French and British both supported Polish independence, but they had different views on how important it was. The British took the same view that they had on many of the Eastern European questions, they were fine with what the Poles were trying to do, but the British did not want to have to anything to help. They certainly did not want to spend any money or send any troops. The French saw Poland as an important piece of their Eastern European plans, and so they pushed for a stronger Poland at every opportunity. As with other complicated topics, the Supreme Council would create a commission, in this case named the Commission on Polish Affairs. It would be in charge of determining the borders of the new country, which would be no easy knot to untie. Poland had very few geographical features to anchor a border on, and just like in other areas without these features trying to draw borders was incredibly difficult and was always forced to be a compromise of some kind. There were four major borders that had to be determined by the Committee, and these were the Polish borders with Germany in the north and south, with Czechoslovakia in the south, and with Russia to the East. The most contentious of these borders would be in the north on the border with Germany because the Polish leaders wanted access to the sea, specifically they wanted access to the Baltic sea. There was just one problem, there was German territory in the way.

The only way to provide this access to the Baltic would be to cut through Germany, specifically through East Prussia. This area was heavily populated by Germans, and even though there were some historic claims that could be made by the Poles to this region, it had been Prussian for centuries. The Polish leaders were of course far more concerned with the future than the past, and so they favored a route to the Baltic and led to the city of Danzig. The population of the city itself was over 90 percent German, although there were a good number of Poles in the surrounding areas. This was probably the best option that the Conference had, but they still hesitated to give the area to teh Poles. It would place millions of Germans inside the new Polish country, which was believed to be a recipe for future problems. There were also administrative problems, like who would own the previously German railways, and who would have access to those railways since many connected East Prussia with the rest of Germany through what would be Polish territory. When the Polish delegates heared that the Allies were perhaps reconsidering the creation of the Danzig Corridor, Paderewski would say that “Danzig is indispensable to Poland, which cannot breathe without its window to the sea.” Eventually the area would be given to Poland and it would end up causing many problems.

Providing Poland with access to the sea wa sjust one facet of a much larger conversation about the Polish border with germany. This was an important topic, of course, but also really the only one that the Supreme Council and the Conference could really control, for reasons that we will discuss later. The real sticking point with the German Polish border was Upper Silesia. This was the area in the southwest of Poland where it it met with Germany. It was an area desired by both the Polish and the Germans due to the coal and industrial output of the region. This area accounted for a quarter of Germany’s coal output, over 80 percent of its zinc, and a third of its lead. It also contained industrial infrastructure that could turn those raw materials into manufactured goods. The Poles wanted the region, pointing to the large Polish population in the southern areas of Silesia. The Germans wanted to hold onto it due to the large German population in the north, and they also claimed that it would be impossible for the country to meet its economic obligations that were being put into the peace treaty without this critical industrial region. The Supreme Council was split, Clemenceau wanted to give the region to Poland with no strings attached, a policy perfectly in line with his objective of making Germany as weak as possible. Wilson and the Americans wanted to hold a plebiscite in the area to let the people decide. Eventually Wilson would get his way and all of the leaders would agree to hold a plebiscite. It would not occur until march 1921, and it really did not end up helping very much. The north and west, heavily German, voted to join with Germany. The south, heavily Polish, voted to join Poland. However the area in the middle was very confused and very divided, this was a problem because it was in the middle that most of the really important areas were located, like those mines and factories. Eventually the decision on what to do would be handed over to the League of Nations, which would decide to give most of the area over to Poland. To Germany this loss was just as bad as what happened in the north around Danzig, not only did many Germans end up in Poland, but also a good amount of economic power.

While the northern and western Polish borders were with Germany, in the south the new country bordered another new state, Czechoslovakia. The two countries got along decently in Paris at the Conference, and there were leaders within both countries that would push for even closer relations between the new nations. both Masaryk and Paderewski wanted the countries to be even closer, with both hoping to create a large eastern alliance to protect their countries from their larger neighbors. However, others within both governments were obsessed with the territory between the two countries, and how there were disagreements about who would be given what, and precisely where the borders would be drawn. During 1919 there would even be some small armed clashes between military units of the two countries. During the summer a Polish-Czechoslovak commission would meet in the city of Krakow to try and solve the differences between the two countries with varying degrees of success. The specific border questions would eventually be resolved with the assistance of the League of Nations, but the larger discussion fo an alliance between the two countries would not come to a successful conclusion. This was mostly due to the fact that Pilsudski favored alliances with countries in the east, so he put his efforts into trying to build relations with Lithuania and Ukraine instead of looking south and west to Czechoslovakia.

The primary point of contention between Czechoslovakia and Poland was in Galicia. Galicia was the border area of the former Empire, and it was also where most of the early fighting on the Eastern Front happened during the war. Much like other border regions the area was a mix of different ethnicities with Poles, Ruthenians, and Ukrainians to name just a few. When the war eneded Galicia actually declared its independence, although this independence would not last very long. There was fighting in the area as both local militia and outside armies fought over pieces of territory. Some groups wanted to remain independent others wanted to join neighboring countries, like Poland. Support for joining Poland was strongest in the north, which had a huge majority of Poles within the cities, alhtough the countryside was more heavily populated by the Ruthenians. Further south the majority was heavily in favor of the Ruthenians in the cities and countryside, but nobody really cared what the Ruthenians wanted. They actually sent delegates to Paris, but that did not help them to get any rulings in their favor. One of the problems was that for almost the entire duration of the conference the Supreme Council did not have any set policy toward Russia and Ukraine, which this area bordered. Wilson would claim that one of the primary reasons that the Supreme Council, and the Conference as a whole could not solve the Galicia problem was that there were other questions to be answered as well “It is very difficult for us to intervene without having a better understanding of our position vis-à-vis the Ukrainians or the Bolsheviks who are besieging Lemberg [Lvov].” While Paris was indecisive, Poland was the exact opposite, they moved in with military units and firmly established control. For the next four years they would maintain this control, until eventually in 1923 their possession was recognized by other countries.

Speaking of those countries in the east, the borders for Poland to the east basically did not exist in 1919. The area was in chaos due to a number of reasons, the war had passed back and forth over this territory, then both of the Russian revolutions in 1917, then the Germans and Austrians had given up the territory in late 1918, then the Russian Civil War really heated up. The Conference was absolutely powerless to really help the Poles when it came to their eastern borders, they had no power in the region, and they barely knew who was in control at any given time. The Supreme Council would try to intervene, they drew some borders that they tried to get the Polish armies to stick to, and they would later try to work with the Bolsheviks as well. However, both sides were unwilling to work with the leaders that were a thousand miles away in Paris. This area would be in turmoil for far longer than just the duration of the Paris Peace Conference, and would involve a full scale war between Poland and Soviet Russia, a topic that we will cover in greater detail in episodes later this year.

One topic related to Poland’s eastern border that did get some discussion among the Polish political leaders was a union with Lithuania. During the last period of Polish independence, before the partitions, Poland had been a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and there were some in Poland that wanted to recreate this union. While the union would have found support within Poland, among the Lithuanians it enjoyed almost no support. The Lithuanian delegates in Paris would speak out strongly against any kind of union with Poland and there would be fighting between the two countries in 1920. The Bolsheviks were the third party in this fighting, and it would not be until after they were removed from the picture that a truce could finally be signed between Poland and Lithuania. Crucially this truce would leave the city of Vilnius, the historic capital of Lithuania, in Polish hands, a situation that would cause continued tensions between the two countries until the entire region was reorganized after the Second World War.

One of the featrues of the the discussions around the future of Poland involved the rights and status of minorities both within Poland also all around Eastern Europe. These discussions were prompted by the activities of many groups within these areas, groups that took advantage of the disorder in the region after the war to perpetrate atrocities against various minority groups. Jewisk civilians were a frequent target, with some of the worst act done against hem by Polish units. However these atrocities were not in any way limited to targeting Jewish peoples, and they were not all done by Polish units. When news of the events reached Paris the idea of some kind of minority bill of rights would begin to gain some serious traction. The first discussions would occur during the create of the League of Nations covenant. Wilson would be the first to propose the wording for what would be included, he wanted to bind all League members to a pledge of equal treatment of all peoples. This equality would be given to “all racial and national minorities.” This idea would not receive much support during the League of Nations discussions, and so Wilson would not include it in the original covenant. In May the topic would come up again in the Supreme Council meetings, and Wilsin tried again to bring back basically exactly the same idea. During these discussions Wilson would also declare that he wanted these rights to specifically bre applied to Poland. He was so adamant about Poland due to the personal support he had given to the Polish independence movement, and also due to the various decisions that were being made in Paris. It was clear that the Poland that would be created by the conference wuold have a huge number of minorities within it. This, combined with news of new atrocities arriving in Paris seemingly every other week, push the Supreme Council to agree. This push eventually got an agreement completed within the Supreme Council, and it would later be added to the agreements made with several other Eastern European countries.

The agreement attempted to deal with three primary topics. The most important were contained in the first eight articles, which were the core of the vision that Wilson had presented during the League of Nations conversatios months before. It prevented governments from putting in place any law that discriminated against minorities. It also ensured “full and complete protection of life and liberty to all inhabitants . . . without distinction of birth, nationality, language, race, or religion.” A good chunk of the agreement would also deal with citizenship. Basically, the countries were not allowed to just kick people out of their countries in mass due to their ethnicity or religion. Poland would eventually agree to all of this, but only after some resistance. This agreement was probably one of the better things, in my opinion, to come out of the conference, but it would not end up mattering as much as its authors hoped. The enforcement procedures were not very robust, and so many of the signatories of hte agreement, while not totally ignoring it, would at the very least take the broadest possible interpretation of its clauses. Also, the leader of the Conference, those on the Supreme Council, were not exactly leading countries that were paragons of minority rights. Racism was rampant in all of the countries on the Supreme Council, and I am not convinced that any of their countries would have been in full compliance with the Minorities rights outlined in the agreements with other countries.

The one event that we have not really discussed at all is that while Poland was negotiating and talking with the politicians in Paris it was laso fighting for its life. During most of 1919 and 1920 the country would be in open conflict with the Russian Bolsheviks. The fighting would move back and forth over Polish and Russian territory, and the fighting front would swing wildly both east and west. At one point the POles were in control of Kiev, just a few months later the Russians would be within the city limits of Warsaw. In this fight the Poles often felt that they were completely alone, with plenty of encouragement and some supplies from the leaders in Paris, but very few men to help with the fight. They were fighting against the international revolution that occupied such a critical part of the Bolshevik agenda, and it would almost destroy their country. They would survive, and that wild story will have to wait a few months, at which point we will tell it in full.