Święto Niepodległości (Independence Day) – Celebrates the restoration of Poland’s independence in 1918 after 123 years of partitions by Austro-Hungary, Prussia & Russia.
With a significant amount of summarising. WWI saw all the three powers that had been occupying Poland gradually defeated at the same time as a rise in Polish independence movements (primary figure being Jozef Pilsudski) and support from overseas for an independent Polish state, primarily Woodrow Wilson in the USA. The combination of these events gave rise to Poland’s Second Republic.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire went into the war quite seriously under-prepared and without anything like a good enough fighting force for what was to unfold. They essentially fell out big-time with Serbia after a Serb militant group murdered the heir to their throne, Franz Ferdinand, in July 1914. Wishing to try and head off a Serbian revolt at the pass, the Empire, bolstered by a friendship with more powerful Germany, gave the Serbs an ultimatum. The Serbs agreed to 9.5 of the 10 points but the Empire declared war anyway. Bad move, because the Russians waded in on the side of Serbia and went on over the coming years to kick the stuffing out of the Empire to the point that it all went tits-up in about 1916. In fact, the losses on both sides in that year contributed not only to the end of the A-H Empire but also gave fuel to the Russian Revolution the following year and the distancing of Germany from A-H, feeling by then that it was “shackled to a corpse”. Anyway, this whole mess took the A-H Empire well and truly out of the way of Polish Independence.
Russia gave up any claims it had to parts of Poland during the great war, thanks to the 1917 revolution. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk signed on 3rd March 1918, between Bolshevik Russia on the one side and the German Empire, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Ottoman Empire (collectively the Central Powers) on the other, marked Russia’s final withdrawal from World War I as an enemy of her co-signatories, fulfilling, on unexpectedly humiliating terms, a major goal of the Bolshevik revolution of November 7, 1917. Russia’s new Bolshevik (communist) government renounced all claim to Finland (which it had already acknowledged), the future Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), Poland, Belarus, Ukraine. Most of these territories were in effect ceded to the German Empire, intended to become economically dependent on and politically closely tied to that empire under various German kings and dukes.
Fortunately, despite the Germans being the only ones not to give up until the fat lady sang, everything they had gained through this treaty had to be given up only a few months later when they eventually lost the war.
Meanwhile, in the USA, in January 1918, president Woodrow Wilson was making a speech to congress about his concerns over recent events, particularly the Brest-Litovsk “parlays”. He laid out 14 points that he saw as being “the program of the world’s peace”. Point 13 of those read as follows:
XIII. 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.
For this, Woodrow gets a part of Warsaw named after him, Plac Wilsona, about 15 minutes walk from where I live. Here’s a snap of his metro station:
And so it was by a series of amazing consequences that a rather funky looking Poland, by today’s standards, was born again on November 11th, 1918. You will see on the map below that Poland between the wars was further right (east) than it is today. It took in parts of what is now Lithuania (Vilnius) and also Ukraine (Lviv) but did not have major cities in the west such as Szczecin (Stettin) or Wroclaw (Breslau), most of the Baltic coast was still German and Gdansk (Danzig) remained a free-town, also essentially German. But it did exist and all the other territorial adjustments happened at the end of WWII. Communism of course prevented them (Poles) from enjoying their new westerly shifted but smaller Polish state until 1990.
I have asked the question of Poles many times, “Why do you celebrate the end of the first world war as Independence day and not the date of the end of communism?”. It seems a reasonable question for naive fools like me to ask. The answer, I think, is that they do not wish to consider that communism ever took away the independence of the Polish state, it just put it under new management for a few decades. I suppose this is true, in which case November 11th is the right date.
I’ll leave you with a picture of Polish flags flying to celebrate independence.