Independence Won and Lost, 1914-45
Beginning in 1914, the newly invigorated Polish political scene combined with cataclysmic events on the European continent to offer both new hope and grave threats to the Polish people. By the end of World War II, Poland had seen the defeat or retreat of all three occupying powers, establishment of a shaky independent government, world economic crisis, then occupation and total domination by the resurgent Germans and Russians.
World War I
The first general European conflict since the Napoleonic Wars exerted a huge impact on the Poles, although their position in Europe was not an issue among the combatants. Again, however, Poland's geographical position between Germany and Russia meant much fighting and terrific human and material losses for the Poles between 1914 and 1918.
War and the Polish Lands
The war split the ranks of the three partitioning empires, pitting Russia as defender of Serbia and ally of Britain and France against the leading members of the Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary. This circumstance afforded the Poles political leverage as both sides offered pledges of concessions and future autonomy in exchange for Polish loyalty and recruits. The Austrians wanted to incorporate Congress Poland into their territory of Galicia, so they allowed nationalist organizations to form there. The Russians recognized the Polish right to autonomy and allowed formation of the Polish National Committee, which supported the Russian side. In 1916, attempting to increase Polish support for the Central Powers, the German and Austrian emperors declared a new kingdom of Poland. The new kingdom included only a small part of the old commonwealth, however.
As the war settled into a long stalemate, the issue of Polish self-rule gained greater urgency. Roman Dmowski spent the war years in Western Europe, hoping to persuade the Allies to unify the Polish lands under Russian rule as an initial step toward liberation. In the meantime, Pilsudski had correctly predicted that the war would ruin all three of the partitioners, a conclusion most people thought highly unlikely before 1918. Pilsudski therefore formed Polish legions to assist the Central Powers in defeating Russia as the first step toward full independence for Poland.
Much of the heavy fighting on the war's Eastern Front took place on the territory of the former Polish state. In 1914 Russian forces advanced very close to Kraków before being beaten back. The next spring, heavy fighting occurred around Gorlice and Przemysl, to the east of Kraków in Galicia. By the end of 1915, the Germans had occupied the entire Russian sector, including Warsaw. In 1916 another Russian offensive in Galicia exacerbated the already desperate situation of civilians in the war zone; about 1 million Polish refugees fled eastward behind Russian lines during the war. Although the Russian offensive of 1916 caught the Germans and Austrians by surprise, poor communications and logistics prevented the Russians from taking full advantage of their situation.
A total of 2 million Polish troops fought with the armies of the three occupying powers, and 450,000 died. Several hundred thousand Polish civilians were moved to labor camps in Germany. The scorched-earth retreat strategies of both sides left much of the war zone uninhabitable.
Recovery of Statehood
In 1917 two separate events decisively changed the character of the war and set it on a course toward the rebirth of Poland. The United States entered the conflict on the Allied side, while a process of revolutionary upheaval in Russia weakened and then removed the Russians from the Eastern Front, finally bringing the Bolsheviks to power in that country. After the last Russian advance into Galicia failed in mid-1917, the Germans went on the offensive again, the army of revolutionary Russia ceased to be a factor, and the Russian presence in Polish territory ended for the next twenty-seven years.
The defection of Russia from the Allied coalition gave free rein to the calls of Woodrow Wilson, the American president, to transform the war into a crusade to spread democracy and liberate the Poles and other peoples from the suzerainty of the Central Powers. Polish opinion crystallized in support of the Allied cause. Pilsudski became a popular hero when Berlin jailed him for insubordination. The Allies broke the resistance of the Central Powers by autumn 1918, as the Habsburg monarchy disintegrated and the German imperial government collapsed. In November 1918, Pilsudski was released from internment in Germany, returned to Warsaw, and took control as provisional president of an independent Poland that had been absent from the map of Europe for 123 years.
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