Enduring Ideas of Independence: How Poles balanced nationalist aspirations with the realities of occupation

By Dylan Vorbach

Polish officers in front of monument to poet and national icon, Adam Mickiewicz, on the occasion of the proclamation of the Kingdom of Poland (November 5, 1916)

(1) Polish officers in front of monument to poet and national icon, Adam Mickiewicz, on the occasion of the proclamation of the Kingdom of Poland (November 5, 1916)

For over a hundred years preceding the First World War, Poland was not Poland in name.  In fact, as the territory formerly known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth succumbed to imperial expansions on all sides during the 19th century, the prospect of regaining an autonomous state remained an unattainable dream for its proud inhabitants.  Despite this, the jockeying of Europe’s powers at the onset of World War I presented what was in some ways a promising opportunity for Polish national movements.  As its longtime imperial parents competed for influence throughout the “borderlands” of Poland between Germany and Russia, pledges of increased Polish autonomy were made and broken.  As this story will reveal, reconciling lifelong hopes of an (entirely) independent Polish state with the ever-changing terms and conditions of foreign occupation was a very real challenge during the Great War, and one for which there was no single clear solution.  In short, this narrative grapples with questions of Polish autonomy under occupation, and of the struggle to claim an identity that didn’t need to be defined in relation to its neighbors.  It is a story of aspirations deferred and kept alive in the face of violent conflict.  It is framed by choices, at times as grave as that between sovereignty and survival.


Pre-War Foundations


The former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, as divided by the Third Partition, 1795

(2) The former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, as divided by the Third Partition, 1795

My approach to this story began in the late-19th century heyday of Polish nationalist sentiments.  Here, nearly a full century after the final partition of Poland, the preservation of hopes for independence and cultivation of nationalist literature throughout the divided territory imbue its nationalist claims with a timeless – almost divine – authenticity.  I’ve found that this sentiment is reiterated by 20th century critics of the period’s literature and propaganda, effectively setting the stage for its resilience during the severe geopolitical struggles of the war years, 1914-1918.  Perhaps the most emphatic recognition of the fervor of Polish nationalism in the pre-war period comes from Heinrich Stammler, who focuses on the individuals who chronicled the circumstances of the Polish quest for a state in “Stanisław Przybyszewski and Antoni Chołoniewski: Two Interpreters of the Meaning of Polish History.”[i]

Stammler’s narrative speaks directly to the monumental challenge of occupied Poles in juggling cooperation and resistance.  Citing Alexander von Guttry, a prominent Polish publicist and essayist, Stammler illustrates the tension between serving as the easternmost bastion of Western European intellectualism and industry and preserving a uniquely Polish identity, distinct from German occupiers.  He associates the delicate circumstance of Poland with its position “in between three great powers in the midst of an armed conflict of unprecedented fury, and therefore forced to pursue policies which had to be carefully balanced between commitment and accommodation” (62).  The aforementioned notion of national purpose will become a central indicator of changing sentiments in Poland throughout the impending conflict.  Specifically, should Poland stand against the industrial imperialism of the West or the pre-Soviet backwardness of the eastern “Asiatics”?

At the heart of Stammler’s story is the idea of voices.  For all the collective nationalist sentiment shared by Poles across the partition, he recognizes that just as important as determining the “what” of their case for independence was answering the question of “how”: How must Polish nationalist aspirations be advocated abroad?

Stanisław Przybyszewski (7 May 1868 – 23 November 1927), Polish novelist, dramatist, and poet

(3) Stanisław Przybyszewski (7 May 1868 – 23 November 1927), Polish novelist, dramatist, and poet

The answer to this question comes in the form of Przybyszewski and Chołoniewski, both accomplished writers during the early 20th century.  In the author’s view, each played a key role in laying the foundation for further nationalist advocacy (and the ultimate restoration of the Polish state).

Stanisław Przybyszewski maintained a strong intellectual rapport with German elites, enabling him to tailor appeals for Polish independence to resonate in the West.  According to Stammler “he perceived with an uncanny sense of purpose that the best way to impress them would be an emotional appeal combined with a quasi metaphysical approach to the elucidation of the deeper meaning of the historical existence of the Polish nation and its glories.”  For Przybyszewski’s outward channeling of the Polish case, Antoni Chołoniewski provides the simultaneous domestic complement, solidifying his generation’s narrative of Poland as the age-old wall holding back the “Asiatic” influences of the east.

The brief taste Stammler provides of pre-war Polish nationalism centers on the strategic cultivation and dissemination of ideas of independence.  The importance of this approach will become clear as the story moves into the repressive war years, during which the mere preservation of these ideas was a far more realistic goal than acting upon them.


Empty Promises: Discussing independence within a war prize and buffer zone


Before World War I, the idea of Polish independence involved the complete severance of allegiance and subservience to neighboring great powers, and the creation of a state with the exclusive right to maintain its own borders and govern its nation.  When I mentioned earlier the deferral of an aspiration, this is precisely the one to which I was referring.  The onset of the war marked a fundamental shift in the relations of Poland’s neighbors, and therefore, driven by practical necessity, a revision of this aspiration.  By 1914, more than ever before, the exercise of German and Russian influence on their respective Polish territories carried broad consequences for their own military success.  This presents an interesting dilemma: as the attention given to claims for Polish independence from each side increased, the likelihood of securing this end, in more than name, decreased.  But life in war is about survival, not sovereignty, right?  It would seem at first glance that Poles’ day-to-day concerns must trump their timeless goals when presented with a less-than-absolute concession of autonomy from an occupying neighbor.

To uncover the truth about exactly what promises were made by the great powers, and how Poles assessed and responded to them, I turned to Oleg Pidhaini, whose book The Ukrainian-Polish Problem in the Dissolution of the Russian Empire, 1914-1917[ii], despite its misleading title, addresses the courtship of Poland by Austria and Germany as well.  Pidhaini points out that the strategic placement of the Polish territory made it the immediate target of propaganda campaigns on all fronts.  Most aggressive in its early pursuit of influence in Poland was Germany, he goes on, citing a leaflet produced by the German High Command in the early months of the war:

“Poles, the hour of liberation from the Muscovite yoke is approaching… We bring you the freedom and independence for which your forefathers have suffered so much.  Join the Allied forces, and… we shall throw off the Asiatic hordes beyond the borders of Poland.” (9)

Pidhaini’s broader analysis of wartime propaganda puts a few aspects of the above excerpt in valuable context.  First, the illustrative use of the term “Asiatic hordes” points to the deliberate targeting of affluent Poles in Galicia, which held significant strategic importance from a military perspective.  By creating not only an ethnic distinction, but an implied class distinction, the text further demonstrates the sharp increase in attention toward issues of Polish allegiance and sovereignty at the onset of the conflict.  Second, and most important, is the direct reference to the “borders of Poland,” implying German willingness to grant increased post-war autonomy in exchange for Polish allegiance.

As the author goes on to point out, the true intentions of German strategists in the unification of parts of Poland was for a significant portion of it to serve as a buffer territory, not an independent state.  Nevertheless, early German appeals to Poland were at least superficially successful on account of their fear-mongering about the incursion of the uncivilized East.

It is worth noting that this use of inflammatory anti-Eastern rhetoric pervaded a variety of propagandist publications, often targeting specific audiences within Poland.  Most significantly, as illustrated in Zosa Szajkowski’s analysis of “The German Appeal to the Jews of Poland, 1914,”[iii] is Germany’s attempt to exploit longstanding ethnic tensions to carve out areas of support.  Despite the shift in audience from the original German High Command text, it is clear that core themes of Eastern oppression and barbarism remain constant.  The leaflet, An die Juden in Polen, reminds Polish Jews that “for too long [they] have suffered under the iron Muscovite yoke.” (317) Here, Szajkowski brings up an important aspect of German strategy regarding Poland.  As early Russian military gains were gradually pushed backward beginning in 1915, plans were made to completely shift the Polish population eastward to create a two-layered buffer from Russia, one entirely populated by Germans, and the other to embody the semi-autonomous Polish state that had been promised.  The tailoring of propaganda to Jewish audiences represented the German assumption that Jews could be relocated with the least resistance.

Oleg Pidhaini goes on to address similar rhetoric put forth by Russian Armies commander Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolaievich, which calls on Poles to “let the borders cutting the Polish nation to pieces vanish, let her re-unite into one under the scepter of the Russian Tsar!  Under that scepter Poland shall be reborn, free in her faith, language and self-government.” (13)

"A Proclamation from the Commander-in-Chief to the Poles," August 14, 1914

(4) “A Proclamation from the Commander-in-Chief to the Poles,” August 14, 1914

Here, it is important to point out the growing political factionalism within Poland that stemmed from increasingly varied levels of nationalist fervor.  Particularly in regard to Russian courtship, Josef Pilsudski’s Polish Socialist Party rejected the establishment of further ties with the Tsarist empire, citing a slippery slope toward the ultimate demise of hopes for an independent Polish state.  On the other side of the debate, National Democrats argued that allowing Russia to unite Polish territories was a safe step toward the nation’s end goal of autonomy, as the combined entity would be too large to be completely subsumed.

Laurence Alma Tadema’s Poland, Russia and the War [iv] is an excellent collection of original translations of wartime propaganda, including the joint response of the Polish political parties to the Grand Duke’s leaflet, which sums up the tense state of the nation’s allegiances.  Its careful wording indicates both a pervading wariness of Russian intentions and a desperate need to secure a long-term expansion of Polish autonomy, expressing the hope that “upon the termination of the war, the promises uttered in the proclamation will be formally fulfilled, that the dreams of their fathers and forefathers will be realised, that Poland’s flesh, torn asunder a century and a half ago, will once again be made whole, that the frontiers severing the Polish nation will vanish.”

The most important concrete development of the mid- to late war years with respect to Polish independence was the joint creation of the Kingdom of Poland by Germany and Austria from Russian territories, representing the partial fulfillment of early propagandist promises of sovereignty.  As Pidhaini illustrates, on one hand, the official formation of the Kingdom by joint decree on November 5th, 1916 marked the closest to complete independence Poland had come for over a century.  On the other, there was hardly agreement among German and Austrian authorities, let alone Poles, as to what exactly it would mean for the future of the region.

Following the creation of the state, Germany effectively continued to maintain military and economic control of Poland, pushing for full expansion into the Russian partition as Tsarist forces lost further footing throughout 1917.  However, as pressure from Austria, which had been willing to grant a Polish state greater autonomy in the realms of defense and governance, increased, Germany conceded the establishment of a hereditary Polish throne.

The entire development was met with mixed and cautious responses from Poles, many of whom unsurprisingly saw the Kingdom’s incomplete autonomy as harmful to their broader cause.  The same National Democrats who argued for the combination of Polish territories under Russian colors during the early war years claimed that “the proposed confirmation of the Polish state, as created exclusively of the territories occupied by a single part of the Polish people, does not correspond to the wishes of the Poles, but, on the contrary, confirms the partition of their homeland.  In confirming the tendency towards the division of the national forces of Poland, Germany and Austria-Hungary condemn the new State to powerlessness and make it an instrument of their policy.” (32-3)

If only one thing is drawn from this (brief) overview of politics and propaganda, it must certainly be the importance of cultivating autonomy within constraints – living to fight another day.  The concept of Polish independence was never as simple as a unified mass struggling to overthrow a tyrant.  The nuances of political posturing on the part of the great powers and their propaganda created a difficult environment for Polish nationalists to navigate, in which the consequence of a wrong decision regarding allegiance could be the complete demise of the possibility for future autonomy.


Returning to Timeless Themes 


The value of the analyses of politics and propaganda I encountered cannot be overstated.  However, a full appreciation of the sentiments that drove the wartime actions discussed above recognizes that Polish independence was an idea driven by individuals, seeking to connect to something greater – something timeless.

Personal accounts that capture dynamic views of independence during this period are few and far between.  However, as I’ve come to find, it only takes one perfect source to paint this picture, and in this case, it comes from Laura de Turczynowicz, an American.

Laura de Gozdawa Turczynowicz (August 28, 1878 - October 25, 1953), American eyewitness to WWI in Poland

(5) Laura de Gozdawa Turczynowicz (August 28, 1878 – October 25, 1953), American eyewitness to WWI in Poland

Living in the Russian partition of Poland at the outbreak of World War I by virtue of her marriage to a Polish aristocrat, Turczynowicz chronicled the 1915 advance of German forces eastward in her book, When the Prussians Came to Poland.[v]  It becomes clear very early in her account of the German occupation that the moralistic appeals reflected in high-level propaganda had their roots in the crusader-like mentality of soldiers on each side of the conflict.  The way both Germany and Russia painted Poland’s choice as being between the moral high ground and an unthinkable, barbarous alternative reinforced the reality that independence from the influence of each was the only amenable endgame.  As Turczynowicz describes her encounters with retreating Russian troops, she says “all the men I ever spoke to had the same desire, – vengeance for desecration…they would burn, destroy; more innocent people would suffer for the sins of others.” (74-5).

As she continues to expand her web of interactions with Poles, Germans, and Russians throughout the narrative, the author touches on the notion of Poland be unequivocally unique, and inevitably destined for the state it deserved, quoting a note from a Polish acquaintance: “God knew the weight of sorrow and misery that laid upon Poland, and would forgive her.” (253)  Among other encounters the author had, this speaks to a strong, assured sense of resilience that pervaded the Polish perspective throughout the wartime occupation.

In his thorough “Culture in Poland During World War I,”[vi] Harold Segel has a great deal to say about Polish motivations during World War I, and advances a nuanced account of the internal divisions and difficult decisions of allegiance laid out by Pidhaini above.  He begins by illustrating the earlier idea that the pursuit of independence took a distinctly different form with the onset of the war, and points out the emergence of a variety of Polish political organizations almost immediately, in anticipation of the opportunity to side with the eventual victors and ride their coattails to expanded sovereignty.  However, most significantly, his account of the early war years in Poland offers the important reminder that Poland was far from homogenous, and was home to a variety of complex ethnic and opportunistic allegiances.  The ultimate result of this reality was the development of the Great War as a Polish civil conflict, with “brother opposing brother.”  As Segel acknowledges, this very internal strife proved to be a source of enhanced national identity.  Appropriately, he quotes the iconic Polish poet, Edward Słoński, who captures this sentiment in “Ta, co nie zginęła” (63):

“And if you spot me from afar,

take me right into your sights,

and fire a Muscovite bullet

Right into a Polish heart.

For I see it now quite clearly,

and dream of it each night,

that That Which Has Not Perished

will grow from out our hearts.”

In the clearest of terms, Słonski encapsulates the motivation of the ultimately unifying force for Polish independence.  He touches on the reality of distinct individual experiences dividing Poles on the battlefield, but implicitly points to the choice of individuals on both sides to connect with a century-old movement toward increased autonomy in what was once (completely) Poland.


Works Cited

[i] Stammler, Heinrich. “Stanisław Przybyszewski and Antoni Chołoniewski: Two Interpreters of the Meaning of Polish History,” (1972): 60-76.

[ii] Pidhaini, Oleg. The Ukrainian-Polish Problem in the Dissolution of the Russian Empire, 1914-1917. Toronto: Kiev Printers, 1962.

[iii] Szajkowski, Zosa. “The German Appeal to the Jews of Poland, August 1914.” (1969): 311-20.

[iv] Tadema, Laurence Alma. Poland, Russia and the War. London: St. Catherine Press, 1915.

[v] Turczynowicz, Laura Blackwell de Gozdawa.  When the Prussians Came to Poland: The experiences of an American woman during the German invasion. New York: Putnam, 1916.

[vi] Segel, Harold. “Culture in Poland during World War I.” In European Culture In The Great War, edited by Aviel Roshwald and Richard Stites, 58-88. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.


Image Credits


(1) Imperial War Museums. http://media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib/297/media-297234/large.jpg. Accessed 12/2/14

(2) Warsaw Stock Journal. http://www.warsawstockjournal.com/warsaw/images/poland_partition.gif. Accessed 11/30/14.

(3) Polskie Radio. http://www.polskieradio.pl/cc68fd7e-b36e-4677-8bdd-c38102308934.file. Accessed 12/1/14.

(4) Tadema, Laurence Alma. Poland, Russia and the War. https://archive.org/details/polandrussiawar00almarich. Accessed 12/3/14.

(5) The Great War Primary Document Archive. http://www.gwpda.org/memoir/Poland/images/Poland03.jpg. Accessed 12/1/14.