The year 1914 is undoubtedly a watershed date in the history of Europe and Poland, for it marked the beginning of the Great War, which was to shake foundations of the white civilisation, set the history of the Old Continent and of the world on a new course, and give the Poles a chance to rebuild their independent state after 123 years of subjugation. However, we should remember that when the cannons spoke in Europe that summer and when the Kaiser [Emperor] Wilhelm II promised German soldiers: “You will return home victorious before the leaves fall from the trees”, the “Polish question” had been buried in oblivion for two generations. At that time, we would have looked in vain in the West for “lobbyists” for Polish independence in the classic sense of the term, or even for politicians publicly hinting at the need to rebuild the Polish state.
Napoleon III, the French Emperor, used to say that Poland was a country for which everyone (except, of course, the partitioners) wanted to do something, but no one was doing anything. This state of affairs changed when Prussia’s victory in the war with France (1870–71) led to German unification and changed the balance of power in Europe. France, the only superpower showing any sympathy and understanding for the Poles‘ independence aspirations, eager for a revenge for the defeat and humiliation suffered, and at the same time fearing the growing military and economic power of the German Empire, sought a rapprochement with St Petersburg. This necessarily entailed abandoning the “Polish question”, which the Tsar regarded as an internal Russian affair.
Among the French, however, a good deal of sympathy pour la pauvre PologneFrench.: for poor Poland. survived as it was a former ally from the Napoleonic era. Stephen Bonsal, an American diplomat, writer and war correspondent, described his meeting with Georges Clemenceau in 1920. In the course of their conversation, this eminent French politician, known for his iron consistency in pursuing political plans and his ruthlessness towards his opponents, which earned him the nickname of “The Tiger”, an admirer of Impressionism and a staunch enemy of Kaiser’s Germany, explained to the American the reasons for his friendliness towards the Poles. He said that Polish insurgents living in exile in France had a great influence on his choice of life path. As a child, he listened to their stories “with devotion”. “They opened up to me the world of romanticism – the only real thing in life,” – Clemenceau said. He admired the Poles for their unflagging love of freedom and independence”. He could do this in private, as many Frenchmen did, counting the Poles among their personal friends. By contrast, in the public sphere, for the four decades preceding the outbreak of the Great War, the question of the resurrection of the Polish state was not allowed to be written about or discussed on the Seine.
Britain, since the fall of Napoleon, looked down to Europe from the heights of its insular policy of “splendid isolation” and the interests of a global power. The Polish question was a minor element of its imperial policy; if London touched it in the 19th century, it did so only instrumentally. The signing of diplomatic notes with France in defence of the Poles during the January Uprising of 1863–64 did not stem from any interest in the fate of a nation torn apart by partitions. It was dictated by purely political considerations: the intention to thwart the Franco-Russian rapprochement that was already looming and could have upset the delicate balance on the Continent. This imbalance opened the way for Europe to be dominated by a single power or an alliance of powers. And this was something the British – after the lessons of the Napoleonic wars – wanted to avoid. It was only Germany’s rapidly growing power, especially its naval armament and economic competitiveness, at first disregarded, then a matter of concern, that allowed Downing Street decision-makers to take a sympathetic view to the rapprochement and then a Franco-Russian alliance. For the reasons mentioned above, after 1871 there was a silence on the Polish question on the international scene for more than 40 years.
Faced with the power of the partitioners at the time, with millions of soldiers at their disposal, the vast majority of Poles abandoned hopes of regaining independence by force of arms after the defeat of the January Uprising. The concepts of organic work and the idea of uniting all the Polish lands under the rule of one of the partitioner’s monarchs were gaining popularity. Many pointed to Austria, where Poles enjoyed the greatest freedoms under Franz Joseph, while others – mainly supporters of the National Democracy – favoured Russia, seeing the Germans as the greatest threat to Polishness.
In the summer of 1914, Poland’s partitioners were pitted against each other in two hostile camps. Thus, logically, whether powers or the Central Powers would have prevailed, Poland’s fate would still have rested in the hands of one or two of the partitioners. A poor prospect for the cause of independence! On 14 August 1914, Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaevich, then Commander-in-Chief of the Russian army, issued a proclamation to the Poles announcing the rebirth of a Poland free in faith, language and self-government under the Tsar’s sceptre. The proclamation was not signed by Tsar Nicholas II and therefore had no legal significance. It could be retracted or read in such a way that it fully corresponded only to the Russian raison d’état. On a Russian propaganda poster from 1914, we see a cheerful, strong tsarist soldier smilingly shaking hands with a Polish nobleman in a traditional costume. A nice gesture that was not followed by anything concrete. Even more vague were the proclamations of the German and Austrian commands appealing to Poles to support their troops and trust in the magnanimity of Wilhelm II and Franz Joseph.
This was all that the Polish nation could hope for at the dawn of the Great War. It took great faith and determination to take up arms, believing that military action could bring us closer to independence. Students, writers, journalists, lawyers, labourers, highlanders, representatives of various social classes, professions and political groups, who joined the Polish Legions in Galicia to fight against Russia, and – on the call of the writer Wacław Gąsiorowski and the Committee of Polish Volunteers – volunteered in distant France to join the units that were to fight alongside the French army against the Germans. They all put their lives on the line, making a sacrifice of their own blood and suffering in the name of a very uncertain vision of an independent homeland.
Volunteers marching in the streets of Paris singing the Dąbrowski’s Mazurka, greeted by passers-by with shouts of “Vive la Pologne!”, they did not expect that, at the demand of Tsarist Russia, the French authorities would forbid the formation of Polish troops. They were conscripted into the 1st Foreign Regiment of the Foreign Legion and went down in history under the name of the “Bayonne Company”, paying for their love of freedom with blood, shed in abundance, especially during the Battle of Arras in May 1915. The decimated Bayonne unit was disbanded after the battle and its soldiers, in recognition of their extraordinary bravery, were given the right to choose to serve in any unit of the French army.
The legions formed in Galicia endured various vicissitudes of fate and their excellent attitude distinguished them against the background of the multinational Austrian army. The last stanza of the poem Ta, co nie zginęła [The one who is not lost], the most beautiful Polish work of the Great War period, by a legionnaire, poet and writer Edward Słoński, succinctly captures the glue that unites the ranks of legionaries who put “their lives on the stake”:
In the realities of the time, an armed act could not restore our independence, but it did become a trigger for decisions that pulled the Polish question out of political oblivion. In 1916, the Central Powers were already buckling under the weight of the continental blockade, and were beginning to run out of recruits to make up for the heavy losses suffered on the fronts. The attitude of the Legionnaires gave some German politicians and military men the idea of creating a Polish army which, by taking over part of the front in the east, would make it possible to move large German forces westwards and defeat France before the United States decided to join the war on the side of . Among those advocating such a solution was General Erich Ludendorff, the General Quartermaster of the German Army. After much wrangling, and despite the opposition of many politicians, it was decided, under pressure of military needs, to reach for the Polish card. The result was the Act of 5 November, which promised little to the Poles, but elevated the Polish question to the international arena. In the West, where the 19th-century uprisings had given us a not entirely true reputation as “organically anti-Russian” radicals, romantics always ready to fight the Tsarist Empire, the prospect of a million-strong Polish army fighting alongside Germany was seen as a real threat. powers suggested to Nicholas II that Russia should offer something to the Poles.
What came as a surprise to most observers of the political scene at the time was the overwhelming support for the Polish cause by US President Woodrow Wilson, who, in an address to Congress on 22 January 1917, declared that one of the aims of the war was the creation of a united, independent, self-governing Poland. Why did the president of the world’s leading economic power, which had for many years maintained good relations with Russia, make such a favourable statement to the Poles? Although the USA was home to a Polish community of several million people, it lacked a Polish elite as influential as in France. There was no tradition in American politics of supporting our national uprisings or speaking out on the Polish question.
At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Polish elite in the United States, admittedly small in number but dedicated and able to take advantage of the broad rights of American democracy, did a tremendous job of activating local communities of Polish diaspora, awakening the national spirit. Tremendous credit for this work went to the “Sokół” [“Falcon”] Gymnastic Society, which was preparing Polish youth to fight for an independent homeland, and in November 1912 publicly declared its support, by all means, for the insurrectionary movement against Russia. Two years earlier, at the National Polish Congress – convened in Washington on the 500th anniversary of the victory at the Battle of Grunwald – a resolution was passed proclaiming: “We, Poles, have the right to an independent, national existence and consider it our duty to strive for the political independence of our homeland”Czyn zbrojny Wychodźstwa Polskiego w Ameryce – zbiór dokumentów i materiałów historycznych, compiled by Jerzy Walter, New York-Chicago 1957, p. 58.. This is how the American Polish community built its strength, this is how the idea of the “Kosciuszko Army” was born, which, it was hoped, would be able to arrive at the Old Continent after the outbreak of the European war and help its compatriots to deliver their homeland from the slavery of partitions.
However, the Polish community was unable to influence the attitudes of American politicians and society to any discernible degree. In the early years of the Great War, pacifist sentiment prevailed among Americans with a predominance of sympathy for Germany – thanks in part to the influence of a thriving, numerically and economically strong German emigration, as well as the perception of Britain and France – colonial powers – as countries blocking free trade and investment in the areas they controlled.
The Polish cause, on the other hand, received powerful support on American soil from a man who owed his extraordinary career to his extraordinary abilities and personal qualities. His name was Ignacy Jan Paderewski. The most outstanding pianist of his era, a virtuoso and composer endowed with immense talent and extraordinary looks, he was a stunning success wherever he gave concerts. He quickly became perhaps the most popular, most recognisable figure in the United States, while remaining a fervent Polish patriot. For Americans, he was simply “Paddy” with a huge mane of blond hair on his head, the hero of the front pages of the most widely read newspapers, the object of friendly jokes, jokes and, above all, undying admiration and adoration. Entire families could travel hundreds of kilometres to hear the Maestro perform. Journalists wrote about the “” that swept the country already after Paderewski’s first tour in 1891–92. He became the richest artist at the turn of the 19th/20th century, the first celebrity of the coming era.
He used his extraordinary popularity, his special gift of words, his ability to make contacts and – one should add – his natural self-promotion skills, flowing from all his extraordinary character, for the national cause. From the huge fortune he had amassed, he abundantly drew funds to support Polish initiatives in the oppressed country and abroad. He was the initiator of the largest patriotic celebrations in the Polish lands during the partition period – the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald, and the founder of the monument to King Jagiełło in Cracow. Proud of his Polishness, he always emphasised it. To the Tsar, who congratulated him on his fame, expressing his satisfaction that the world’s greatest virtuoso was a Russian, he replied: “Your Majesty, I am a Pole”, infuriating the entourage of Russia’s absolute monarch.
After the outbreak of the World War, the fight for the rebirth of the homeland became for him an absolute priority, the whole meaning of life. Thus, if one can speak of visible, vociferous lobbying for the Polish cause in the West in 1914, it was lobbying conducted by Paderewski. Over the next three years, he gave more than 340 speeches about his homeland, its fight for freedom, and its right to independence. Paderewski’s words, uttered in 1915 during a meeting with the American Polish community, spread widely and were quoted many times: “I am your brother. To all of you who are here, I have the same fraternal feeling, a warm, cordial love. I am a Pole, a faithful son of my Homeland. The thought of a great and strong, free and independent Poland has always been the essence of my existence; the realisation of it has always been the sole aim of my life. Although I spent most of my years among strangers, I did not betray it even for a moment, and never will” “Kurjer Poznański” No. 140 of 23 June 1915, p. 1. Ignacy Jan Paderewski’s patriotic activities and his actions in the Polish cause are richly illustrated in Mariusz Olczak’s album, Ignacy Jan Paderewski 1860-1941, Warsaw 2018..
Every great idea, a thought that breaks through powerlessness and stereotypes needs its leaders. People who can focus the efforts of millions to make it a reality. Ignacy Jan Paderewski undoubtedly became such an unquestionable leader for the Polish cause in the West in the years 1914–18, supported in his work by Polish communities. Thanks to his friendships and acquaintanceships with eminent figures from the world of politics (including Edward Mandell House, President Woodrow Wilson’s most trusted advisor, President Wilson himself and Herbert Hoover), finance and the media, Paderewski was able to build – especially in the United States – an intellectual, political and financial base for popularising the cause of Poland’s independence, –making it a prerequisite in the minds of Western politicians for a lasting and just peace.
He was Poland’s most effective “lobbyist” at a time when knowledge of our nation and its fate was particularly needed in the political circles of the world’s greatest powers. With his words, talent and personality, he not only spread this knowledge, but also won friends to Poland among the most influential persons.
At the beginning of the 20th century, most Europeans and Americans who knew anything about Poland associated our country with the Congress Kingdom of Poland. The Polish cause, without constant publicity and growing clout, might have lost its chance during the superpowers’ bargaining over the post-war shape of the Old Continent. The victorious could have offered the Poles a small state, absolutely unsuited to the nation’s ambitions and needs. Although independent, with an existence guaranteed by international treaties, it would have been incapable of surviving in the Central and Eastern Europe engulfed in chaos, divided and threatened by the expansion of Bolshevism.
In the person of Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Poles in the states had a figure as popular and influential as no other oppressed nation in Europe. A man who had done more in the West for the rebirth of the Polish state during the years of the Great War than any other Polish politician. Paderewski’s name repeatedly appears in the testimonies of Western “lobbyists”, always in an extremely positive light, with words of admiration for the Maestro’s talent, his whole personality and his ardent patriotism.
The United States entered the war as an ally of the on 6 April 1917. As early as 28 June of that year, the first American troops arrived in Europe. General John Pershing, Commander of the American Expeditionary Force, descending from his ship on French soil, uttered the words:
“La Fayette, we are here”. In doing so, he paid tribute to the hero of the Great French Revolution and the American War for Independence.
The army was followed in increasing numbers by politicians, President Wilson’s envoys, civil servants, economists, industrialists and representatives of charitable organisations. Information was collected that would be useful in improving the system of material aid to the population affected by the war effort. Data was collected that could be useful to the US authorities in preparing proposals for plans for the post-war reconstruction of Europe, as well as for the political reconstruction of the continent, including in the context of offering the right to freedom to oppressed peoples and a new delimitation of national borders.
Having briefly outlined the state of the “Polish question” in the West on the eve of World War I and the mechanisms which made the issue of the Republic’s rebirth an important topic on the international arena, we now come to the question of the role played by the lobbyists for Polish independence from the Anglo-Saxon powers at a crucial time in the shaping of the new Europe. Their views, discussions, disputes, actions taken, the extent of their knowledge of Poland and the problems of Central and Eastern Europe are illustrated by extensive excerpts from diaries, journals, correspondence, documents, and texts of speeches they left behind, published for the first time in Polish in the pages of Lobbyists.
After the defeat of Kaiser’s Germany, the post-war shape of Europe was to be decided by : the United Kingdom, the United States, France and Italy. Generations of Polish patriots at the time of the partitions of Poland pinned their hopes for the rebirth of the Polish statehood on the support from France. This hope shines through in the works of the national bards, in the pages of the abundant Romantic literature, in painting, in memoirs and even in folk art. When, in 1837, on Długa Street in Warsaw, the Russian invaders converted the church dedicated to Our Lady of Victory, which had been taken away from the Piarists, into an Orthodox cathedral, the Warsaw street responded with a poem:
France, a superpower that was viewed through the prism of the Napoleonic era, the joint fighting with the French under the banners of the “god of war” and the hopes of the time for the resurrection of the fatherland – it was to be an ally in the battle against the three partitioners. The idea of rebuilding the Polish statehood could count on the goodwill of France. The French were linked to Poland by the memory of their common fighting in the Napoleonic era, and by echoes of old political contacts. A large group of Polish émigrés lived on the Seine, fed by refugees from the country after successive unsuccessful uprisings. Some of them made careers in the world of politics, the arts, many belonged to the elite of Polish society, had a good education, and were fluent in French. Jules Verne, one of the most popular writers of the 19th century, put the words into the mouth of one of the characters in his novels: “every Pole is almost a Frenchman”. It would be hard to find a greater praise of our nation coming from a Frenchman!
Although in the early years of the Great War Paris regarded the Polish question as an internal affair of its Russian ally, the French government gave palpable proof of its friendliness towards the Poles. In 1915, it acceded to the request of the French Polish community to separate Poles from among the German prisoners of war and establish a separate camp for them at Le Puy, near Saint-Étienne. In 1916, a second camp for Poles was established at Montluçon. Polish prisoners of war were granted a wide range of freedoms, and extensive educational work was carried out with the help of the Polish community. The time of captivity unexpectedly became an opportunity to strengthen the national consciousness, as well as to win the sympathy of the local population while the captives worked in agriculture and French industry. The knowledge of Polish affairs was much higher among both the general population and the elites of France than in Anglo-Saxon countries.
However, during the years of the World War I, France, although among the great powers, no longer played a central role among them. In the autumn of 1918, victorious but hugely bloodied and indebted, it was not a state that could, like Napoleon’s France, dictate the terms of a peace treaty. This made it all the more important to have influential lobbyists for the Polish cause in the United States and the United Kingdom.
In the aftermath of the victory over Germany, differences in the views of powers on the arrangement of post-war Europe soon became apparent. There was a revival of the echoes of historical legacies, of mutual mistrust, of prejudices, removed into the shadows during the war, when Britain, France and Italy were united in fighting a common enemy. Now the enemy was defeated. Political haggling over conquests was beginning. A subtle yet visible trace of the old rivalry between Britain and France was returning. Paris sought to build French influence in Central and Eastern Europe, which would strengthen France’s position on the Continent. London, in accordance with the principle of maintaining a balance of power, looked upon these activities with a reluctant eye and did not wish to strengthen countries which, like Poland, could become potential allies of France. Britain did not intend to allow Germany to be unduly weakened as a counterbalancing force to France’s power on the continent, nor to allow the creation of a large Polish state which would have to seek rapprochement with France on account of its political interests, strengthening Paris’s influence in Central and Eastern Europe. The Italians saw France as a future competitor in the Mediterranean, so Rome was not keen on a settlement that strengthened France’s position in Europe, either.
Somewhere in the shadows remained Russia torn with a civil war. Bloodied by war and revolution, and not allowed to come to the bargaining table – because it had made a separatist peace with the Central Powers on 3 March 1918 after the Bolsheviks took power – it was for the time being a great unknown. powers unanimously supported the “whites” and counted on their victory. They were ready to support the new democratic Russia, its political interests and territorial claims. The question of not only Poland’s eastern border, but also the sovereignty of the reborn Republic, would then be on the agenda. The White generals saw Poland closely linked to Russia, or at least left in the Russian sphere of influence. The Bolshevik authorities were not recognised in the West, but nevertheless represented a real force to be reckoned with.
The rebirth of the Polish state proved to be one of the most difficult, and according to some Western politicians, the most difficult problem facing powers. Conducting it in a spirit consistent with President Wilson’s address, which spoke of an independent Poland to be formed from all lands undoubtedly inhabited by Poles and with access to the sea, raised a whole spectrum of questions, including those concerning the ethnic, military and economic principles to be followed in the demarcation of the Republic’s borders, the extent to which historical rationales were to be taken into account, and how they could be reconciled with the reality of the early 20th century. The fulfilment of the dreams of Polish independence activists about a great homeland, reminiscent of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, was impossible in the realities of 1918. Satisfying the territorial claims of Germany, the Czech Republic, Lithuania and Ukraine would have left in the hands of Poles an area not much larger than the Congress Kingdom. Fulfilling the expectations of ‘white’ Russia, which was being supported in its fight against the Bolsheviks, would have to entail abandoning plans for an independent Poland.
Almost exactly one hundred years earlier, after the fall of Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna faced similar challenges. This gathering of representatives of the superpowers, to which the representatives of defeated France had been invited, also had lofty aims: to conclude a just peace, to secure the continent from another great paroxysm of wars…. As in 1918, the final deliberations were preceded by the setting up of a series of committees to study the issues entrusted to them and make proposals for their solution. One of the most controversial problems proved to be the Polish question.
Two principles clashed at the Congress of Vienna: the self-determination of nations and legitimism. The principle of legitimism dictated that everything that had belonged to the monarchs before the Napoleonic wars should now revert to them. The influence of his tutor, the Swiss republican Frédéric-César de la Harpe, his close friendship with Polish Prince Adam Czartoryski, his youthful interest in the West and the events of the Great Revolution made Tsar Alexander I dubbed the only ‘democratic tsar’ in Russian history and a defender of the principle of the self-determination of nations. And his greatest opponent, alongside the cunning diplomat Prince Klemens von Metternich of Austria, turned out to be Talleyrand, the French representative and long-time policy-maker of Napoleonic France.
The Tsar referred to the right of self-determination of peoples first and foremost in the context of Poland, wishing to unite under his rule most of the lands of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It was thus the principle of self-determination seen through the prism of Russia’s imperial interests. Alexander’s plans failed in the face of fierce Austrian opposition and British concern about the Tsar’s growing power. Nevertheless, it was to the Russian Tsar that we owed the creation of the Congress Kingdom and 15 years of relative freedom. Historians have spilled a sea of ink in discussing the motives of the Tsar’s behaviour and his unfulfilled promises to the Poles. The decisions of the Congress of Vienna regarding the Polish question were put succinctly and probably accurately by Prince Adam Czartoryski in a letter to his father: “Mixture of bad and good news, but we will be better off than we were” Quoted from: Władysław Zajewski, Sprawa polska na Kongresie Wiedeńskim, “Czasy Nowożytne”, vol. 21, 2008, p. 41..
In the autumn of 1918, the victorious powers were unanimous that an independent Polish Republic should be reborn. They appealed to the governments of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, emerging from the ruins of the Habsburg monarchy and on the outskirts of Tsarist Russia, to cease their disputes and fights, and recognise the decisions of the peace conference that was to define their borders, guided primarily by ethnic considerations. Materials were prepared, information was gathered, seemingly without fully realising the scale of the threat posed to the entire region by Bolshevik Russia. How great and real was it for Poland at the end of 1918?
Let us recall some facts:
- On 11 November 1918, the Poles freed their capital from German occupation and an armistice was signed at Compiègne, ending hostilities on the fronts of the First World War. Under its terms, German troops were to withdraw to the 1914 borders.
- On 12 November, the activists of the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL), gathered at a conference in Moscow, passed a resolution to direct all the party’s forces to Poland in order to foment revolution there. The Central Executive Committee of the SDKPiL party issued a proclamation to Poles staying in Russia, encouraging them to join the ranks of the Western Rifle Division, where Polish regiments would be formed.
- On 13 November, the All-Russian Central Executive Committee cancelled the Treaty of Brest and all Russia’s commitments contained therein to give up the territories belonging to the former state of the tsars. It called on the ‘working people‘ living in these lands to form councils [soviets] and entrust them with power while building a fraternal union with the workers and peasants of Russia. If, on the other hand, the forces of the ‘working people’ proved too weak for this task, the Red Army was ready to rush to their aid.
- On 16 November, the Red Army command formed the Western Army, setting as its first objective the occupation of the lands of Lithuania and Belarus. The Red formations began a slow march westwards, following the retreating German troops.
- On 18 November in Voronezh, Lev Trotsky, People’s Commissar of Military Affairs and Chairman of the Revolutionary War Council of the Republic, announced the creation of council republics [soviet republics] in Poland and Ukraine. He threw out the slogan of an offensive to the west: “Through Kiev there is a straight road to unite with the Austrian and Hungarian revolutions, just as through Pskov and Vilnius there is a road to unite with the German revolution. Offensive on all fronts! Offensive on the western front, offensive on the southern front, on all revolutionary fronts!” Lev Trotsky, Kak vooruzhalas’ rievoluciya, Moscow 1923, vol. 1, p. 398.. The Red Army proceeded to form regiments with Polish names: Warsaw Red Hussars Regiment, Lublin Rifle Regiment, Siedlce Rifle Regiment….
In December 1918, when the first delegations to the were just arriving in Paris and, together with the numerous specialists who accompanied the politicians, were deploying in the flats assigned to them, Lenin approved the plan for Operation Vistula. It called for the Western Army to reach the western border of the former tsarist empire of 1914. The assumptions of Operation Vistula proved that there was no place for a free Poland in the Europe arranged by the Bolsheviks. The leader of the Bolshevik revolution explained that the right to self-determination of peoples, which the Red rulers of the Kremlin had put on their banners to present Bolshevik Russia to the world as a country which is peaceful and friendly to its neighbours, ceased to be valid where it conflicted with the interests of the world revolution. An independent Poland obstructed the merging of the Bolshevik revolution with the German revolution. It therefore had to disappear from the map of Europe.
- On 22 and 29 December, the Polish government, concerned about the approach of the Red Army and the formation of “Polish” regiments within its ranks, sent notes accusing the Bolsheviks of pursuing an aggressive policy that denied nations the right to determine their own fate. Moscow, in a note sent as a reply to the two Polish notes (7 January 1919), summarised them by stating that the Red Army was only fulfilling the will of the Lithuanian and Belorussian peoples, who wished to unite with Bolshevik Russia. There is therefore no question of aggression.
- On 25 December, the “Izvestia” periodical magazine, an organ of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee, published an article whose author indicated that, following the expected imminent capture of Vilnius, the Red Army’s next opponent would be the Polish Army. Polish military intelligence, on the basis of information obtained from Bolshevik Russia, presented an analysis which concluded that a war with the Soviet Russia “is inevitable, has been decided upon by it and is being prepared by it and it is only a matter of time” Andrzej Pepłoński, Wywiad w wojnie polsko-bolszewickiej 1919–1920, Warsaw 1999, p. 42..
- On 27 December, the Greater Poland Uprising [Wielkopolska Uprising] broke out.
- On 8 January 1919, Józef Unszlicht announced the formation of the Polrievvoyensoviet (Revolutionary War Council of Poland), which was to prepare the ground for the establishment of a council [soviet] republic in Poland.
- On 11 January, the Supreme Command of the Polish Army issued Instruction for the operation of the Polish Army in Lithuania and Belorussia “in order to stop the Bolshevik tide” Central Military Archives, Zbiór rękopisów, ref. I.400.347.. Commander-in-Chief and Chief of State Józef Piłsudski faced an extremely difficult dilemma. He had at his disposal some 5,000 soldiers of the Podlasie Group and the Lithuanian-Belorussian Division equipped with dozens of heavy machine guns and 6 cannons to guard the border of the Kingdom from Białystok region to Volhynia. Both Polish units were at the organisational stage; they represented an assemblage of battalions, squadrons and nucleated regiments. All the remaining forces of the Polish Army were engaged in the war against the Ukrainians, which had engulfed Volhynia and Galicia. Three divisions of the Red Army were advancing from the east, with regiments bearing ‘Polish’ names. In total, there were some 19,000 soldiers in combat, several dozen cannons, nearly three hundred heavy machine guns, armoured trains and aviation. Piłsudski was convinced that the defence of 200 km of the border with such weak forces was an illusion. The enemy would be able to break it at any point and advance on Warsaw. The entry of the Red Army into the Kingdom with revolutionary slogans and the appointment by the Bolsheviks of a puppet government made up of Polish communists could have disastrous consequences. Being too weak to defend, Piłsudski decided to strike back. He would attack the frontlines of the Bolshevik divisions stretched over a vast area, surprise them, impose the terms of battle on them and inflict defeat before the main Western Army forces arrived.
- On 15 January, the insurgents won almost all of Greater Poland[Wielkopolska], confronting powers with an accomplished fact.
- On 18 January, the peace conference was officially opened in Paris.
- On 12 February, the Supreme Council of the set up a Commission for Polish Affairs to present proposals for the western and eastern borders of the Polish state.
- On the night of 13/14 February, the first battle between Polish troops and the Red Army took place, ending in a decisive victory for Poles. This date was taken as the beginning of the never officially declared war between the Republic of Poland and Bolshevik Russia.
We collate the above facts not to criticise tardiness. The powers could not convene a peace conference overnight, without preparation. We only wish to recall the truth which, in those days, kept many Polish politicians and military officers awake at night. A deadly danger hung over the country, which the general public, preoccupied with the war with the Ukrainians and fascinated by reports of the defence of Lwów, underestimated. Marching of the Red Army with revolutionary slogans into the territory of the Kingdom, and the appointment by the Bolsheviks of a puppet government made up of Polish communists, threatened chaos and incalculable consequences.
Poland fought to win the time necessary to receive the first supplies of arms and ammunition from the West, without which it would be impossible in the long run to defend the country against the Bolshevik invasion (we had no arms industry in the country at that time). The time necessary for food shipments to arrive for the starving country, devastated by war and looting by the occupying forces. The time necessary for medical aid to arrive for the society plagued by epidemics. Above all, it was hoped that a rapid decision by would make it possible to reunite the lands of the Prussian partition with the motherland. The impatience and bitterness of the people of Greater Poland [Wielkopolska] and the Polish population of Pomerania, caused by the incomprehensible delay in handing over to the Republic the lands that were, after all, the cradle of the Polish state, is reflected in the words of one of the soldiers’ songs:
Greater Poland and Pomerania were the only lands of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that were not affected by the destructive flames of the World War. Life here became harder, poorer, as in the whole of Germany crushed by the burdens of war and the continental blockade, but industry, agriculture and the organisation of life remained intact. The people of Greater Poland, with their economic potential, patriotism, high national awareness, organisational skills, and multitudes of soldiers excellently trained in the former German army, would have been an extremely valuable reinforcement of the Republic’s defensive capabilities. The rapid annexation of the Prussian partition to Poland was in the best interest of our country.
As long as Greater Poland was not a treaty-recognised part of the Republic, it was not possible to unite the Polish Army with the Greater Poland Army. Nevertheless, taking advantage of the Truce in Trier, signed by the Germans on 16 February 1919 under pressure from , which, among other things, obliged Berlin to cease hostilities with Poles and set the demarcation line, ending military operations on the fronts of the Greater Poland Uprising, the Greater Poland unit under General Daniel Konarzewski arrived near Lwów as early as March 1919 and made a major contribution to breaking the ring of encirclement of the city by Ukrainian troops.
The newcomers from overseas, proud of the virtues of American democracy, trusted that, drawing on their experience, they would be able to settle European disputes quickly and fairly, and bring about changes on the Old Continent that would minimise the danger of another great war. This trace of pride and faith shines through in the words of President Wilson, expressing his conviction that, for the first time in history, the great powers would formulate the terms of peace treaties not for their own benefit, but for the common good, taking into account the interests and expectations of smaller nations.
Surprise, sometimes disappointment or discouragement quickly set in, when it was discovered that, using the democratic models of their own homeland and the American way of thinking, no effective antidote could be found to resolve the intricate European feuds burdened by historical legacies, prejudices and stereotypes. That the victorious European powers remain resolute, pragmatic and stubborn in defending what they consider to be their own raison d’etre.