November 11 is Independence Day in Poland. More than a national holiday, it is a day sacred to the hearts and souls of all Poles in Poland and around the world. It marks the day in which the Polish nation was finally reborn after having been virtually obliterated from the map for 123 years. History is a testament to the courage and steadfastness of the Polish people in the face of terror and subjugation. Their fierce determination and most especially their faith has carried them through many a Tribulation.
Poland's resurgence as a nation-state came at the end of World War I - the result of US President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points. On January 8, 1918, just ten months before the armistice with Germany, Wilson had delivered his speech before US Congress setting the terms for peace negotiations.
|US President Woodrow Wilson|
"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."
Within this context, Wilson introduced the idea of the League of Nations as the means with which to preserve international peace and security, for large and small nations alike. (It was the forerunner to the United Nations). He hoped that this international organization would be able to prevent another global conflagration from ever occurring again.
|US President Woodrow Wilson addresses Congress|
|Regency Council: L-R Ostrowski, Kakowski, Lubomirski|
Initially, Western governments regarded Pilsudski with suspicion because of his cooperation with the Central Entente during the war, and because of the socialist governments of Daszynski and Jedrzej Moraczewski. However his image, and that of Poland drastically improved months later when world-renowned pianist Ignacy Paderewski became Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Poland.
The fledging nation was in danger of teetering on the precipice of civil war - what with the co-existence of two Polish governments each claiming to be the legitimate power - that of Pilsudski`s in Warsaw, and that of Dmowski`s in Paris. But Paderewski succeeded in convincing them, both fierce rivals, to join forces: Pilsudski would act as Provisional Chief of State and Commander-in-Chief, while Dmorski and Paderewski represented Poland at the Paris Peace Conference.
On February 20 Pilsudski declared that he would return his powers to the newly elected Sejm, (the Polish Parliament) but the Sejm reinstated Pilsudski's office in the Little Constitution of 1919, by striking the word "Provisional" from his title. Thus, Pilsudski held his position until December 9, 1922.
Pilsudski envisaged the creation of a Polish federation stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and comprising the independent Baltic states, Belarus and the Ukraine. The plan was referred to as "Intermarum" and emulated somewhat the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth before Poland was partitioned. However his plans were met with fervent opposition by neighbouring countries, and lead to the outbreak of several border wars: the Polish-Czechoslovakian conflict erupted in 1918 followed by the Polish-Ukrainian War (1918-19), the Polish-Lithuanian War (1920), and most notably the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1921.
|L-R Jozef Piłsudski and Edward Rydz-Śmigły- 1920 during Polish-Soviet War|
Before the outbreak of the Polish-Soviet war, the Bolsheviks had launched a propaganda campaign alerting Europe that Poland's capital city Warsaw would soon fall, and that it would be the signal for the beginning of the communist revolutions in Poland and throughout Europe.
On August 12, 1920 the Red Army, commanded by Mikhail Tukhachevsky advanced toward Warsaw, and the Modlin Fortress but were forced to withdraw by Polish counterattacks from the south. International political experts were convinced that Polish troops would be utterly defeated. Instead the Polish troops, led by Marshal Jozef Pilsudski, achieved a stunning victory, in what has been called the "Miracle at the Vistula". Russian casualties amounted to 10,000 KIA, 500 MIA, 30,000 WIA and 66,000 taken prisoner. Even Lenin commented that the Bolsheviks "suffered an enormous defeat" at the hands of the Poles. In the ensuing months, Poland had several more victories which helped the nation to secure it's independence and which led to the signing of peace treaties with Soviet Russia and the Soviet Ukraine. It ensured the sovereignty of Poland's eastern frontiers - at least for the next twenty years.
|1920 Polish-Soviet War |
Polish soldiers display captured Soviet battle flags after the Battle of Warsaw.
Despite his membership in the Polish Socialist Party, Pilsudski was an ardent Polish nationalist. His political beliefs were formed in his youth, when in 1894 he was editor of an underground socialist newspaper called the "Robotnik", meaning "the worker". His was the position that doctrinal matters had only minimal importance, and that socialist ideology had to meld with that of nationalist ideology to ensure the restoration of Polish independence.
Pilsudski was born in the village of Zalavas, which is today Lithuania. He came from a Polish noble family, and was brought up with Polish traditions despite efforts of "russification" by the Russian government. Polish history and literature were vigorously suppressed by the regime but served only to fan the flames of rebellion. His father, also named Jozef fought in the January 1863 Uprising against the Russian occupation in Poland.
In 1885, while studying medicine at Kharkov University (in the Ukraine) Pilsudski became involved in the revolutionary movement, Narodniki. A year later he was suspended for having participated in political demonstrations, and was barred from entry to University Dorpat (in Tartu, Estonia). On March 22, 1887, Jozef Pilsudski was arrested on suspicion of plotting to assassinate Tsar Alexander III and was exiled to Siberia for five years. In fact it was his elder brother, Bronislaw who was actually embroiled in the conspiracy. He was arrested and sentenced to fifteen years of hard labour in eastern Siberia.
In the aftermath of World War I, Pilsudski encountered colleagues of his early revolutionary days. They addressed him as "Comrade" and attempted to solicit his support for their revolutionary agenda but he refused to reply in kind. Instead he stated,
"Comrades, I took the red streetcar of socialism to the stop called Independence, and that's where I got off."
"...and I must close with a wish for the next eleventh of November. Even if the month brings storms which roar in the chimney and shriek of death and terror, I know that restoration of the body and the soul’s rebirth give strength and beauty. In them we find an inward warmth which baffles the damp and poison. And may you smile then as on the magic eleventh of November in 1918! May the autumn sun burn your cheeks and a gentle breeze cool them, and may we laugh together from happiness at being great-souled and reborn! This, men and women and dear children, I wish you all."