Poland: War and Independence, 1914–1918 Part I

Józef Piłsudski

A group of officers of the III Battalion of the 2nd Infantry Regiment of the Austro-Hungarian Polish Legions. Most of the officers are wearing the Maciejówka-cap, popular in late 19th & early 20th century Poland.

Poland is the only major state in European history to have disappeared from the map and later reappeared, and then after the lapse of more than a century. The essential dilemma of Poland’s reappearance is that it reentered Europe less consequentially than it had left. Poland was not restored, but reinvented, and, as a result, fit ill into the role it had previously played in the European structure. The results for Poland, and for Europe, were considerable, and they are still plainly in evidence.

Poland was not supposed to be an issue in World War I, and it became one only by necessity and to the annoyance and distraction of the war’s chief actors. As a result, they addressed Poland, about which they knew virtually nothing, only when it intruded itself into more important matters or could be used as a convenient example for vast schemes of international reconstruction. None of the powers ever really had a Polish policy, although, as the war progressed, Poland often featured prominently in various peace programs. The key here is to realize that Poland was always a derivative concern, never an important feature of any of the Great Powers’ vision of the future. The result was compromise and confusion.

Poland reemerged because of two factors. The first was the development of the war itself, unfolding quite beyond the anticipations and control of its participants. The war essentially made Poland, or, more accurately, the war unmade the partitioning empires, and their dissolution allowed Poland to resurface. Of even greater importance was the existence of a large concentration of Poles who exhibited a high degree of national consciousness. The powers could not have re-created Poland—even if it had suited them—had the Poles not been available for that project.

There had been no serious developments in the Polish Question in international politics for generations because the three partitioning states shared a common interest in avoiding the issue. As for the other powers, Poland was insufficiently important to risk complications in the east of Europe for returns problematical at best. If that proposition held, Poland would never resurface as an international issue. However, in 1914, the partitioning powers were ranged in opposite camps, and the western states, over the course of the war, determined that Poland was a question worth raising.

The war began when Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia, with the encouragement of Berlin. To forestall Russian action in defense of Serbia, the Germans threatened St. Petersburg and thus indirectly Russia’s ally, France. This provoked hostilities between Germany and Russia, which Berlin sought to win by first disposing of France in a rapid offensive (the so-called Schlieffen Plan), which, by necessity, violated the neutrality of Belgium. After some hesitation, stung by the action against pathetic Belgium, and fearing a destabilizing German victory over the Franco-Russian allies, Great Britain entered the war against Germany. Hence, the initial battle lines of the war pitted Germany and Austria against Russia in the east, where hostilities would necessarily be joined on the lands of the former Polish Commonwealth. In the west, Germany would face France and Great Britain, later joined by Italy and, in 1917, the United States to name the major actors.

The creation of two hostile camps in the years preceding hostilities and the rising frictions between them had raised the specter of war long before its actual outbreak. The Poles in all three partitions, and the numerous émigré community—Polonia—exhibited enormous and expanding activity in anticipation of a war which, for the first time, would place the partitioners on opposite sides. Logically, at least one of them had to lose; extraordinarily, all of them did.

The Poles were divided between those who wished the Entente— France, England, and Russia—to be victorious and those favoring a victory for the Central Powers, or Germany and Austria-Hungary. The pro-Entente alignment favored the defeat of Germany, which they regarded as Poland’s principal antagonist. There was considerable sympathy for the French and English, and not inconsiderable hope that both could be won to favor the cause of Polish restoration. Russia was, however, a problem. Even the most devoted Polish champion of the Entente realized that Russia enjoyed an odious reputation among the Poles. Only a handful of Poles entertained vague pan-Slavic hopes about collaboration with the ancient eastern antagonist. Rather more naively hoped that an enlightened Russian perception of the danger of German expansion would create the grounds for a Polish-Russian reconciliation. Neither anticipation lasted past 1915. Thereafter, the pro-Entente Poles were held together by fear of German victory and hope of western support. The most influential representatives of this orientation were the flamboyant pianist, composer, and politician Ignacy Jan Paderewski and the acerbic and domineering Roman Dmowski, the father of modern Polish nationalism. His war strategy was to win allied support for the Polish cause by endless dunning, ceaseless propaganda, and a soupçon of historic shaming.

Similarly, the pro–Central Powers camp among the Poles was motivated by hostility toward Russia. These Poles were so convinced that Russia was the central nightmare of Polish history that cooperation even with the Germans was acceptable to exorcise it. Austria played a special role here. Whereas virtually no Poles had any positive feelings toward Berlin, many were well inclined toward Vienna. Indeed, the pro–Central Powers camp contained two quite distinct strains: a sincere “Austrophile” element, which hoped for Austrian victory, and the so-called independence faction. The Austrophiles envisioned a triumphant Habsburg state enlarged and transformed by acquiring the historic Polish lands then under Russian control. Thus two-thirds reunited, the Poles would become, at the very least, equal partners in a new state with Austria. The Achilles’ heel was the relative weakness of Austria within the Central Powers. As Germany rapidly came to dominate the alliance, Austria’s ability to pursue a Polish policy to the liking of its Polish allies faded, leaving them linked to Germany, a fate distasteful to virtually all Poles.

The other strain among the pro–Central Powers Polish camp, the independence faction, was dominated by the charismatic Józef Piłsudski (1867–1935), who regarded cooperation with Vienna as a temporary tactical necessity rather than a strategic alignment. Austria was useful “as a sword against Russia; a shield against Berlin,” he said—a temporary expedient to be jettisoned should the unpredictable fortunes of war allow the Poles an opportunity to pursue a truly independent course. The independence devotees stressed preparation of a separate Polish military component, to be ready for action should a propitious moment arrive. At the beginning of the war, this policy appeared quixotic, a reckless reappearance of the romantic fascination with bold military fancies.

The first weeks of the war confounded the anticipations of all the countries involved. The German offensive against France in the west, designed to win the war there in several weeks, crested and stalled at the Marne and was settled into a virtual stalemate. Meanwhile, in the east, the commander in chief of the Russian army, the tsar’s uncle, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolayevich, issued a proclamation on August 14, 1914, insincerely promising the Poles unity and broad autonomy. Russia had decided to beat the other partitioning powers to the punch and consolidate Polish support at the very outset. However, the bold Russian gambit proved still-born: the Germans won smashing victories over Russia at Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes, and the tsarist military position was damaged, never to recover fully.

With the Russian bid to capture the initiative regarding Poland misfiring, the field was left open to the Central Powers. Here the chief actor was Austria. As early as 1908, Piłsudski’s political allies began preparing the cadres for a future Polish army in close cooperation with Vienna. In exchange for promises of Polish support in the case of war with Russia, Vienna turned a blind eye to extensive Polish efforts at drilling and performing large-scale maneuvers and even supplied the Poles with surplus equipment. When hostilities commenced, a miniscule Polish force, under Piłsudski’s personal command, took the field at once. Elements of these “Legions”—the name purposely recalling the Napoleonic age—crossed the Russian border and tried to raise a revolution in the Congress Kingdom. Though the precocious effort proved a fiasco, it demonstrated both the audacity of Piłsudski and the possibilities of Austrian-Polish cooperation. The Legions, which grew to a considerable force by 1916, served under Austrian operational orders, but wore distinctive uniforms, and used Polish as the language of command. Although small, the Legions constituted the first identifiably Polish army since the collapse of the November Rising in 1831. Their military exploits and reckless courage captured the imagination of Poles everywhere, making Piłsudski a national hero early in the war.

Piłsudski’s Legions reflected a rapidly developing consolidation of Polish political activity in Galicia. By 1914 many factions had combined to form a loose Supreme National Committee (Naczelny Komitet Narodowy [NKN]) which provided political leadership, though riven by factional disputes. The NKN established a feeble but ambitious network of propaganda agencies abroad, collected money for the legions, and tried to consolidate Polish opinion, including the considerable immigrant population in North America, behind a pro-Austrian, or at least anti-Russian, position in the war.

Though Austria seemed well poised to control or at least exploit the Polish issue to maximum advantage, Vienna’s role in Polish affairs proved relatively insignificant. Pro-Austria Poles were unable to convince the imperial government to take bold initiatives regarding Poland, for example an equivalent to the manifesto of the Russian grand duke Nikolai. Internal opposition from the powerful Hungarian and German factions in the empire blocked any action that might have led to a three-part—Austrian-Hungarian-Polish—empire, with the Poles holding a dominant position. Even more important, any fundamental rearrangement of the partitions to consolidate Polish territory under the Habsburgs would require the active cooperation of Berlin. However, from early in the war, it became obvious that Germany, not Austria, would be the senior military partner. As Vienna’s military position deteriorated steadily, Berlin effectively prevented any major Austrian initiative regarding Polish matters, an arena that the Germans gradually came to dominate. By 1916 only the true Habsburg loyalists among the Poles remained adherents. For the independence faction of Piłsudski, Austria had rapidly worn out its usefulness.

In the other Polish camp, by 1915, Dmowski had concluded that Russia could not be a vehicle for Polish hopes. The grand duke’s manifesto had briefly encouraged many Poles in Russia that Slavic reconciliation was possible and that, by cooperating with the tsar, Polish lands could be reunited after being wrested from German and Austrian control. Although this would have been a partial victory, Dmowski was content to think in stages.

By 1915 it was obvious that those hopes were false. Despite the manifesto, no active policy regarding the Poles was adopted by Russia. The Russians resented Polish efforts to form military units alongside their forces and the project collapsed, leaving the Polish Legions of Piłsudski without rivals. More important than the recalcitrance of tsarist officials to work with the Poles was the continuing decline of Russian military fortunes. By late 1915 the Central Powers had broken the eastern front and had thrown the Russians back hundreds of kilometers. By the year’s end most of historic Poland was in the hands of Germany and Austria. Moreover, the Russians adopted a ruthless “scorched earth” policy, of wholesale destruction in the face of the enemy advance, causing massive dislocation and suffering for the Polish population: villages were burned, livestock slaughtered, food destroyed. As a result, starvation, disease, and economic ruin were the last Russian “contributions” to the territory.

Dmowski concluded that the basis for his program had disintegrated, and he left Russia for Western Europe where he strove to build an anti-German Polish faction in exile. He hoped to convince the Europeans that a restored Poland was in their strategic interests, now that Russia’s ability to determine Entente policy regarding Poland had visibly been weakened by defeat and withdrawal. The West, however, was scarcely disposed to attach any significance to Polish issues. Dmowski and his colleagues realized that their first efforts would have to be devoted to reacquainting the world with the existence of Poland and the aspirations of its people.

Russia’s military eclipse, the lack of Western interest in things Polish, and the rapid decline of Austria left the stage open for new forces to assume the initiative regarding the Polish Question. For a brief time, Polish emigration became the chief focus of national activity.

Early in the war, Paderewski and novelist Henryk Sienkiewicz decided to create a relief agency in neutral Switzerland to collect funds to aid Poles devastated by the war. Ostensibly nonpartisan and dedicated to alleviating Polish suffering regardless of the cause and location, the agency, the Polish Victims Relief Fund (known as the Vevey Committee from the site of its headquarters), reflected the pro-Entente, anti-German orientation of its founders. By 1915 the Russian scorched-earth withdrawal had turned Poland into the largest humanitarian problem of the war. Paderewski left Switzerland for London and Paris to organize branches of the Vevey Committee and expand its resources and prestige. In April he traveled to America, where a large Polish community in a huge neutral country promised a major expansion of the committee’s efforts. Paderewski, however, had more than relief in mind. He wanted to organize the perhaps three to four million American Poles into a powerful political lobby and win both American public opinion and the administration of President Woodrow Wilson in support of his vision of the Polish cause.

Paderewski was uniquely situated for his task. Already world famous as a pianist and composer, he had also embarked on a career as a national sage, delivering himself of patriotic orations at auspicious occasions. The maestro knew everyone useful to know, and he was the favorite celebrity of the exalted. Vain, haughty, and erratic, Paderewski’s bizarre appearance, midway between leonine and Chaplinesque, made him a unique public personality. His belief in Poland, an exalted Poland of his imagination, was so consuming that it made his patriotism an ennobling creed that charmed foreigners and inspired his countrymen. For many in Western Europe and in the United States at the time of World War I, Paderewski was Poland, which was advantageous for both.

Under Paderewski’s autocratic and capricious direction, the large Polish community in the United States became a significant lobby for the national cause. Meanwhile the maestro cultivated the rich and powerful, winning by 1916 the devotion of President Wilson’s most intimate advisor, Colonel Edward M. House, and, through him, Paderewski gained access to the White House.

Paderewski’s arrival in the United States coincided with the American “discovery” of Poland. The reason for this is quite simple, though most indirect. Poland had become a battlefield from the very start of the war, but the Russian collapse of 1915 and the precipitate withdrawal had led to massive civilian suffering, which was beyond the capacity of the Central Powers to alleviate. Hence, they encouraged outside agencies, like the Rockefeller Foundation and the American Red Cross, to investigate. This served a double purpose, and German cynicism is rather apparent. First, Polish suffering was largely the fault of Russian ruthlessness and ineptitude, and publicizing it would embarrass the Entente in the eyes of world opinion. This was a peculiarly useful development because London and Paris had been branding Germany since 1914 as barbaric in its occupation of Belgium. Poland was thus the Central Powers’ Belgium. The Germans were quite sincere in wishing to cooperate in any effort to feed starving Poles because they knew that relief could only come by abridging the British blockade of Europe, the principal Allied means for the strategic strangulation of Germany. Feeding the Poles would thus weaken the blockade. Hence, London opposed the Polish relief effort with a passion, and the Germans supported it with convenient humanitarianism.

The chief battleground for Polish relief became the United States. Polish efforts gained much publicity. Moreover, the context was sympathetic: an innocent people made wretched by a war not their own. British opposition and German maneuvering dragged on for months while the Poles starved, and the Americans became exasperated. Gradually a clamor to intervene led to congressional resolutions, and even presidential action, when Wilson offered his services as a mediator in 1916. The result was victory masquerading as defeat. The contradictory strategic goals of the belligerents prevented any serious relief for Poland. However, the arduous and frustrating campaign eventually brought Poland before the eyes of the public, gave Paderewski an emotional platform on which to appeal to the American public, and made Poland a serious cause in America. Relief issues ultimately engaged public figures, including Nevada’s senator Francis Newlands, to inquire, rhetorically, why the Poles, who were suffering so egregiously, should not thereby earn the independence so long denied them. Relief was the bridge that connected the ignorance and apathy that had so long characterized the West’s attitudes toward Poland with the sympathy characteristic of the war’s final stages.

Sympathy is immensely useful, but only if the political forces of the world allow it to be brought to bear. By 1916 this was happening. The Central Powers had decided to seize the initiative regarding Poland and gamble on a new departure regarding the east. On November 5, 1916, Berlin and Vienna jointly proclaimed, in the Two Emperors’ Manifesto, the re-creation of the Polish kingdom. Motivated by everything except concern for the Poles, the manifesto designated no specific territory as constituting the state and made clear its political dependence on the Germanic powers. The initiative regarding the Poles was more prompted by the 1916 battles of Verdun and the Somme, where Germany had sustained gigantic casualties, than by any specific developments in Poland.

By late 1916 the Central Powers were beginning to reach the limits of their manpower potential. Russia, whose military performance had been poor in 1914 and disastrous in 1915, had found new lows in 1916. The east beckoned with strategic opportunity, while the west devoured the dwindling reserves. Poland might be the means of winning the war for the Central Powers if Polish manpower—estimated by the Germans at 1.5 million possible soldiers—could be tapped and the active support of the country could be inspired. These would require major concessions. Only the promise of independence would have the galvanic effect necessary to rally active Polish support. Suddenly, in 1916, the demands of the war had given Poland a leverage it had not had since the partitions. The Central Powers were willing to reverse a century of policy and resurrect the very country they had done so much to destroy. To be sure, they attempted to win the Poles without conceding anything of real significance by ringing the November 5th declaration with vagaries and conditions which, it was hoped, would keep a restored Poland as a small and manageable client state (its borders were not defined, and it was to be closely associated with the Central Powers). After November 5, 1916, the Polish Question in international affairs was fundamentally altered. By proclaiming the restoration of Polish independence, howsoever circumscribed, the Central Powers had loosed a process beyond their ability to control.

The Central Powers’ initiative was quickly echoed. Within a few weeks, the Russians announced that Poland would be autonomous after the war and endorsed the notion of a “free Poland composed of all three now divided parts.” For Paris and London, the Russian announcement, grudging and tardy though they knew it to be, freed them to pursue a more active Polish policy. Their fear was that the Germans, who already controlled the bulk of Polish territory, would, by their November 5th act, capture Polish support as well and in so doing win the military balance in the west. With the Russians finally crowded into concessions, the west could now attempt to enter a bidding war for Polish support, if only to neutralize the Central Powers. Suddenly, everyone was interested in the “Polish Question.”