Poland: War and Independence, 1914–1918 Part II

Józef Piłsudski and members of the Polish legion in Kielce, in front of the Governor’s Palace on August 12, 1914.


Below is a list of prominent Polish battles against the Imperial Russian Army in 1914–16, leading to victories in most cases, with notable exceptions especially during the Brusilov Offensive of 1916.

Polish and German views of the November 5th manifesto, however, were diametrically different. For Berlin, the principal goal was to create a mechanism to recruit Polish manpower while ensuring German strategic domination of the east. Serious work to establish a functioning Polish administration was ignored after initial ceremonial flourishes, but Berlin eagerly strove for recruits. Germany made elaborate plans to attach eastern Poland to Prussia and to subordinate Poland to Germany economically.

Piłsudski entered the new kingdom’s Provisional State Council— supposedly the nucleus of a Polish government, it was essentially a powerless agency under German control—in charge of military affairs, but he was anything but a loyal ally of the Central Powers. Regarded contemptuously by the Germans as a “military dilettante and demagogue,” Piłsudski strove for maximum concessions for Polish autonomy, arguing that a “real” Polish army would require the prior establishment of a “real” Polish government, which the Germans would not grant. Convinced that possibilities for collaboration with the Central Powers were limited, Piłsudski bided his time and increasingly relied on his recently formed Polish Military Organization (Polska Organizacja Wojskowa [POW]), a secret network composed of his most devoted followers. To a close collaborator, he predicted an imminent revolution in Russia and mused: “Now let Roman Dmowski play his hand. I gave him an ace to use [i.e., the Legions]; let him make a play; let him demand more from the other side.”

Piłsudski did not have to wait long; 1917 was crowded with events crucial to the reemergence of Poland. On January 22, in a speech to the U.S. Senate, President Wilson cited “a united, independent, and autonomous Poland” as exemplifying the better world to emerge from a just conclusion to the war. This was a significant development because the United States was the first major power to adopt a Polish policy before belligerency, and it was one not obviously calculated for any military advantage.

Several months of complicated maneuvering followed to determine the center of gravity of Polish politics. Essentially there were three foci, each with distinctive advantages and disadvantages. In Western Europe was Dmowski and his pro-Entente nationalists. Having abandoned Russia in 1915, Dmowski had concentrated his attentions on London and Paris, but he was frustrated by the Western powers’ willingness to concede to the Russians all initiative regarding Polish matters. However, by 1917, Russia’s collapse and the prospect of the Poles being railed behind the Central Powers finally opened possibilities for movement. After many preparatory steps, Dmowski created the Polish National Committee (Komitet Narodowy Polski [KNP]) in Paris to coordinate action in the west in August 1917. The KNP, composed exclusively of Dmowski’s political allies on the Right, was little more than an extension of his will, despite its impressive membership list. The KNP’s access to Paris and London was an émigré organization, a political general staff without an army hoping to be taken seriously by the Western governments. Ultimately the KNP’s success would depend on matters beyond its control: the Western countries had to regard Poland as sufficiently weighty in the war to need someone, indeed anyone plausible, to represent Poland. Since the West would need the KNP almost as much as the KNP needed the West, both could overlook the fact that the KNP was a self-appointed factional group quite out of touch with Poland. Second, the KNP would be as influential as Paris and London were decisive in determining allied Polish policy. Dmowski had staked everything on the wager that the Polish Question would be decided in Western Europe. He had guessed wrong earlier when he lingered in Russia and almost guessed wrong again.

For a while it looked as though the decisive locus in Polish affairs would move across the Atlantic to the United States with Paderewski as the chief spokesperson. Various Polish organizations in the United States gave him the right to do virtually anything at any time in their name. Moreover, Paderewski had consolidated his status as the unofficial ambassador of Poland in Washington, D.C. The Wilson administration regarded the maestro as the preemptive authority regarding Polish affairs. But, in fact, the maestro had little influence on American policy toward Poland. Washington’s sympathy for the cause of Polish independence was rather vague, circumscribed, and uninformed. It did not envision a large role for Poland in postwar Europe.

As America moved toward entering the war in 1917, Paderewski planned to stage a virtual coup in international Polish politics. He would try to convince Washington to let him create an army of 100,000 or more from among the Poles living in North America. An intimate of Wilson, the leader of millions of American Poles, with a military force to throw into the war, Paderewski would be transformed from the spiritual inspiration of his countrymen to their political leader.

The final locus in the determination of Polish affairs was the occupied homeland. Here, both the advantages and the problems were considerable. Obviously, Polish politics in the homeland would be significant to all Poles. If the Poles of Warsaw spoke freely, those in Chicago or Paris would fall silent. However, Warsaw was under German domination, and Polish efforts there seemed crushed by the sheer weight of German military power. Piłsudski, as was so often the case, was prescient when he anticipated that for much of 1917 the tempo in Polish matters would be set outside the country.

In March 1917 the Russian Revolution overthrew the tsarist government, and power passed to a fragile dual authority of radical socialists in the so-called Soviet and moderate parliamentarians of the Provisional Government—which shared power unevenly and jealously in Russia. One of the first acts of each of the authorities was to announce the freedom of Poland. The Provisional Government called for an independent Polish state, reuniting its three historic parts, and denounced tsarist policy regarding the Poles as “hypocritical.” This reborn Poland, however, was to be “united with Russia by a free military alliance,” a condition wisely not defined. The Soviets outbid their rivals in magnanimity by calling for Poland’s “complete independence.” Polish political activity exploded in Russia after the revolution; emphasis was placed on the creation of a separate Polish army. Previous efforts along these lines had produced virtually nothing, but with 600,000 Poles serving in Russian ranks, the possibility of a major, distinctly Polish, force on the eastern front was a tremendous attraction to Polish leaders in Russia and abroad. Piłsudski even mused over the idea of leaving German-controlled Warsaw and somehow taking control of Polish soldiers in Russia. Not only were the Poles aware of this military potential. Buoyed by the change in Russian policy, Paris and London now hoped to engage the Central Powers in competition for Polish military and political support.

On April 2, 1917, the United States entered the war against Germany. Two days later, Paderewski addressed a huge Polish throng in Pittsburgh and called for the immediate creation of a Polish military force in America, before general mobilization caused Polonia’s manpower to be “lost imperceptibly in an enormous American sea.” The Kos ´ciuszko’s Army, of at least 100,000, was to be offered to the Americans as a distinct unit of its national forces.

Rather than embrace Kos ´ciuszko’s Army, Washington dithered and delayed. The Wilson administration viewed a separate Polish force as, at least, a distraction and at worst a contradiction to the unity of its armed forces. Paderewski watched helplessly as his dreams of leading Polish affairs from America aborted, dispersed in a sea of bureaucratic confusion. He broke down under stress and frustration.

The KNP suffered almost the same fate. In June 1917 the French government suddenly announced the creation of an autonomous Polish army to be recruited from Poles worldwide. The KNP, though headquartered in Paris, was stunned by a development not of its own design, but it quickly maneuvered to endorse it. Paderewski and the American Poles tried desperately to oppose the effort.

This struggle between European and American Polonia for leadership in émigré politics was coupled with a larger struggle over which great power would be the principal patron of the Polish national movement. Ultimately France, and hence the KNP, won, because the Americans showed themselves to be too unconcerned, and the British decided to support the French in face of American procrastination.

By the end of summer, a Polish army was being recruited—the fitful and clumsy product of Allied compromise and confusion— mostly in the United States. Paderewski reluctantly endorsed the project, which had supplanted his own, and accepted membership in Dmowski’s KNP as well as functional subordination. Dmowski made efforts to salve the maestro’s gargantuan vanity by giving him limitless authority in America, which he would have exercised anyway. The army was raised largely by the paramilitary Polish Falcons organization in America, trained in Canada, and financed by the French on loans largely from Americans. It recruited about 25,000, a quarter the number anticipated. The KNP became the “political directing authority” for the army and began pressing for recognition as a virtual Polish government-in-exile. It never reached its goal, but by late 1917 all the Allies, including the United States, had agreed on some formulation that designated the KNP as the representative of Polish interests.

The KNP also gained the right to name the commander of its growing army, more than 100,000 by war’s end, and chose Colonel Józef Haller. Haller, an Austrian Pole, who had served in the Habsburg army and commanded a brigade in the Polish Legions, was brave, patriotic, and melodramatic. Politically unlettered and already promoted beyond his military competence, Haller was no threat to the political leadership of the KNP.

At the same time Dmowski’s KNP also effectively consolidated the Poles of Russia, thus rendering the KNP, and really Dmowski, the principal Polish leader outside the occupied homeland. The task of the KNP was to crowd the Allied governments into clear declarations of support for the restoration of Poland at war’s end. This proved a formidable task as the belligerent governments were reluctant to tie their hands regarding European reconstruction while the war still raged. After much lobbying by the Poles, the Allies issued a series of pronouncements which included an independent Poland as a component of a worthy peace. None, however, included specifics or elevated Poland to a fundamental war aim.

In January 1918 Wilson included Poland as the thirteenth of his famous “Fourteen Points”:

An independent Polish state should be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations, which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea, and whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant.

Despite elation over the fact of Wilson’s pronouncement, most Poles were disquieted after a careful reading of the text. The thirteenth point was a compromise between Wilson’s sincere but uninformed championing of the cause of Polish independence and the extremely cautious recommendations of his principal advisory body, the so-called Inquiry. Fundamentally, Wilson’s Poland ignored Poland’s historic borders. It was to be designed within problematical so-called ethnographic boundaries. Without a specific coastline, it was to have, somehow, “access to the sea.” Even more threatening, the Sixth of the Fourteen Points speaks of the liberation of “Russian territory” without any indication of what constitutes that territory: would it, too, be ethnographically determined? Or, by implication, would the historic multinational Russian Empire be reconstructed? Poland’s national security was so tenuous that its survival would depend on the workings of some “international covenant.” Moreover, the whole project was only a good idea—something that “should” eventuate—not a necessity. Thus, Wilson’s Poland was far from that envisaged by the Poles. What Wilson was trying to do was maintain a conservative retention of traditional European geopolitics under the gaudy distraction of grand pronouncements. With no word about a free Ukraine, Lithuania, or Belarus, and Poland confined to ahistorical ethnography, the historic rapacity of Russian aggression was being enshrined. It was, as Piłsudski ruefully snorted, “American palavering.”

Piłsudski appeared to be in political eclipse as Polish events accelerated in the west. Continued frustration in working with the Germans helped convince him that cooperation with the Central Powers was rapidly ending. The Bolshevik Revolution—which overthrew the short-lived Provisional Government and brought Communism to power in November 1917—plunged Russia into chaos and civil war, the Polish Question shifted dramatically. The eastern front was ending. When the new Communist authorities of Russia began conducting armistice negotiations with the Central Powers in December, Piłsudski had to reorient himself to a new reality in which, as noted by historian Piotr Wandycz, the Central Powers, resurgent after Russia’s collapse, had become “the main obstacle to the realization of Poland’s independence.”

Piłsudski and his associates resigned from the German-created Provisional Council of State. Most of the legionnaires refused to take an oath of loyalty to the Central Powers and were arrested, as were Piłsudski and his chief of staff, Kazimierz Sosnkowski, both of whom were sent to Germany and imprisoned at the fortress of Magdeburg in late July 1917. The Legions were effectively dead, and Polish relations with the Central Powers had been reversed from careful cooperation to hostility. The POW began to plan a coup d’état. The German hopes of using the November 5th proclamation to create a major Polish army had proven a fiasco; only a handful had been recruited. However, with the war victoriously concluded in the east, the Germans no longer needed the Poles.

In fact, the Polish position in the east deteriorated rapidly after late 1917. At the peace negotiations between the new Bolshevik government of Russia and the Central Powers which opened at Brest-Litovsk in December 1917, Polish interests were dealt with complete cynicism. The supposed government in Warsaw —little more than a puppet administration—was not allowed to attend the negotiations. A separate treaty with the Ukrainians gave them a slice of eastern Poland, and Austria made a secret promise to divide Galicia into Polish and Ukrainian administrations, destroying the historic unity of Austrian Poland. The Central Powers had decided at the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, concluded in March 1918, to jettison the Poles for new clients in the east. Berlin was busily fostering Lithuanian, Ukrainian, and even Belarusian schemes of independence to hem in the Poles geographically and render them politically docile. Outraging the Poles was a minor inconvenience if the war could be won rapidly in the west, and new, weaker, and more pliable clients could be found in the east. The Austrians had long toyed with the idea of playing the Poles off against the Ukrainians in another chapter of traditional Habsburg divide and conquer tactics. Vienna was virtually a spent force, and its capacity to influence Polish affairs was minimal. Berlin had assumed the dominant voice here as well.

Polish reaction to the Brest-Litovsk Treaty was massive and immediate. The pro-Austria camp disintegrated, the Council of State resigned, Polish units in Austrian service mutinied, Piłsudski’s POW redoubled its activities, and armed clashes with the German occupation authorities broke out. The pro–Central Powers orientation in Polish politics had collapsed in the last months of the war.

Fortunately for the Poles, the brief German window of opportunity, created by victory in the east, did not stay open long enough for them to reposition in the west in sufficient time and force to achieve victory there as well. By November 11, 1918, the Germans had been defeated in the west and signed the armistice. The Habsburgs had not lasted that long. In the capital of their zone of occupation, Lublin, a prominent Polish socialist, Ignacy Daszyński, declared a People’s Government. In Galicia itself the Austrian administration collapsed, and the Poles simply took over. From the ruins Austria sued for peace. Similarly, German authority had collapsed in Warsaw where, on November 10, 1918, Piłsudski arrived by train after his release from German imprisonment. He had only one uniform and had worn it in confinement for sixteen months; he was exhausted, sick, and ragged. He was also the chief of state of reborn Poland.

Poland’s reemergence in November 1918 occurred under conditions of almost indescribable confusion. Piłsudski, regarded as a national hero, quickly dominated the scene in Warsaw, but how far his writ ran was problematical at best. To the Western powers he was either an unknown with a revolutionary past or, worse, a German hireling who had fallen out with his masters. In the west the KNP represented Poland, albeit with ambiguous authority. Paderewski was in many ways an independent contractor, officially merely the KNP’s Washington representative, but still harboring huge ambitions to play, with American support, the dominant role in Polish affairs. By war’s end, Dmowski did not trust the maestro, whom he suspected, quite correctly, of poor judgment. Reciprocally, Paderewski resented Dmowski’s ruthless insistence on maintaining all real power in his own hands, trying to be both philosopher and architect of Poland’s future.

In Poland the situation was chaotic and threatening. The only uniformity was ruination. The majority of economic assets in Poland had been destroyed; more than three-fourths of the factories were idle; less than half, and in many areas only a quarter, of the arable land was under cultivation; much of the livestock of the country had been lost. German (and to a lesser extent Austrian) requisitioning had carried off stocks of raw materials, industrial equipment, and spare parts; their systematic deforestation had caused incalculable harm. Human losses were staggering: there were more than 500,000 Polish soldiers killed in World War I, and another million casualties: Polish soldiers in foreign uniforms. Civilian deaths are uncountable.

The Poland that reemerged in 1918 was a ruined county with an impoverished and hungry population. Currency confusion and inflation led to black markets, speculation, and disorder. That such a country avoided revolution, became integrated, and survived large-scale struggles that lasted until 1920 was little short of miraculous.

But what Poland had emerged? Had the events of 1914–1918 overturned the partitions and returned Europe to 1795, or was this to be a new state, part of the architecture of a new continent? If so, what principles would be used to reconstruct Poland, and what would be the result for the Poles and for the world?