Thursday, November 11, 2010


The 11th of November is a special day for Poles, celebrated as the Independence Day meaning the return to the map of sovereign European states after 123 years of foreign rule. Naturally, regaining independence is not an event that could be discussed in terms of one specific date in calendar but rather a long and complex process. This special date, however, marks a series of important events that gave the day a symbolic meaning: the Compiegne armistice is signed, ending long and bloody World War I. Most of German troops deployed in Warsaw since August 5, 1915, have been disarmed; Jozef Pilsudski, the architect and leader of Legions, the most esteemed politician at that time, holds talks on taking over power and re-creating the Polish state 'from the scrap'.

The Polish State was wiped out of Europe's map after the Third Partition in 1795. The Partitions of Poland (1772, 1793, and 1795) divided the Polish Kingdom among its three powerful neighbours, Russia, Austria, and Prussia. The opportunities for regaining independence emerged only in the end of the World War I when the three conquerors were defeated. The first to collapse was Russia, unprepared to conducting a prolonged war. The abdication of Emperor Nicholas II in February 1917 and the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in November of the same year lead to the ultimate disintegration of that country's war-machine followed by signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 1918) with Germany. Also the second conqueror, Austria, turned out to be incapable of carrying on the war and, with defeats becoming increasingly severe, its former satellite countries started to get independence. The third neighbour, Germany, fought longest.

When independence finally came in 1918, it was not only the result of external circumstances, i.e. dissolution of the Russian, German, and Austrian empires at the end of World War I. An equally important factor was an independence movement both within the divided country and abroad. The dominant political figure in this movement became Jozef Pilsudski. On August 6, 1914, several days after breakout of the World War I, his legionnaires set out from Krakow and crossed the Austrian-Russian border. Pilsudski planned to incite an uprising in the Russian sector of Poland. The plan drew from the traditions of the 1863 January Uprising. Unfortunately, the realities of 1914 were different and the plan was a failure. However, Pilsudski's effort was not completely in vain since the company became the core of Legions (initially allied with Austria), a foundation of the future Polish Armed Forces.

On January 22, 1917, U.S. President Thomas Woodrow Wilson acknowledged as a matter of fact 'the emergence of Poland united, independent, and sovereign'.

The Poland's right to independence was also acknowledged after the February revolution in Russia in the proclamation by Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies and the Provisional Government. In December 1916, the German and Austrian authorities established a Provisional Council of State. It was expected to co-operate with occupying forces in 'developing further state administration facilities'. However, the conquerors did not hurry with rebuilding an independent Polish state and establishing a Polish army under Polish commanders. In these circumstances, Pilsudski banned the legionnaires from giving an oath of allegiance while recruitment to the so-called 'Polnische Wermaht'. For this reason he and other legionnaires were interned in Magdeburg prison on July 22, 1917.

A major support for the re-born Polish State was Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points, a peace program announced by the U.S. President before a joint session of Congress on Jan. 8, 1918. The entire point 13 was devoted to Poland, proposing establishment of an independent Polish state that incorporates Polish native land inhabited by indisputably Polish population, enjoys free and secure access to the sea, the political and territorial integrity of which should be guaranteed under an international treaty.

On November 10, Pilsudski, the only man at that time able to take over the government, returned to Warsaw by a special train. He was coming back from Magdeburg prison where he had spent 16 months. On November 11, the Regency Council turned the military power to Pilsudski. Three days later, the Council dissolved and Pilsudski were left with all prerogatives. On November 16, the Allied states received a message signed by Pilsudski: "As the Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Armed Forces, I wish to notify the belligerent and neutral governments and nations of the existence of an Independent Polish State incorporating all territories of the united Poland". The 11th of November marked a beginning of a difficult phase of re-establishing the state from the three separate pieces with their unique characteristics.

In January 1919, elections to the Legislative Parliament were held and on February 10, the Head of State, Jozef Pilsudski, opened the first session with the words: "The Polish Parliament will again be the sole sovereign and governor in its home".

The 11th of November was celebrated in the inter-war Poland as a national holiday. After the World War II, under communist regime, the holiday was repudiated. In line with the doctrine, the communist governments put an emphasis on the impact of the Russian Revolution of 1917 as the decisive factor in regaining independence by Poland. The first serious historical publications on Jozef Pilsudski and his contribution to the re-emergence of the Polish state started to appear only in the 1970-ties. In the end of the 1980-ties, people opposed to the communist system started to lay flowers on the Unknown Soldier Tomb on the 11th of November 11. In 1989, the 11th of November was re-established as the Independence Day. (quoted from Polish Embassy in Washington, DC website)

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