On November 11, 1918, Marshal Józef Piłsudski became Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Army and de facto head of what was about to become the Republic of Poland, effectively restoring Polish independence after 123 years of Prussian, Austrian and Russian occupation.
The Third Partition of Poland in 1795 between the Russian Empire in the east, the Kingdom of Prussia in the west and the Habsburg Monarchy in the south ended the existence of an independent Polish state for more than a century.
Although the idea of Polish independence was kept alive throughout the 19th century, with a number of uprisings waged against the occupiers, the opportunity to regain sovereignty only materialized after the First World War, when the three partitioning powers were fatally weakened by war and revolutions.
Józef Piłsudsk and the rebirth of the Polish state
By 1916, after gaining overall dominance on the Eastern Front, the allied German and Austro-Hungarian armies had seized the Russian-ruled part of Poland. In a failed attempt to resolve the “Polish question” as quickly as possible, the two Central Powers set up a puppet state, the Kingdom of Poland, governed by a Provisional Council of State and a Regency Council, pending the election of a king.
Hoping that Germany and Austria-Hungary would guarantee the independence of Poland, the military commander Józef Piłsudsk and his Polish Legions initially supported the Central Powers against Russia. But after the creation of the Kingdom of Poland, it soon became apparent that the newly created state would be little more than a puppet buffer-state for Germany.
So Piłsudski decided to switch allegiances to gain the support of the Entente, particularly France and the United Kingdom, for the cause of Polish independence. And in July 1917, he forbade Polish soldiers to swear allegiance and obedience to the Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany. The Polish Legions were disbanded and Piłsudski himself was arrested and interned in the German fortress of Magdeburg.
Three days before the Armistice, Piłsudski, whose arrest greatly enhanced his reputation among Poles, was released and placed on a private train, bound for Warsaw where he was warmly greeted. And on November 11, he was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Polish forces by the Regency Council and was later entrusted with creating a national government for the newly independent country as Chief of State.
A young and fragile Republic
The Treaty of Versailles, signed in June 1919, formally established the newly-founded Republic of Poland as an independent and sovereign state. But unrest continued at the borders of the newly formed state, particularly in the East, where Piłsudski was aware that the Bolsheviks were no friends of an independent Poland and that war with them was inevitable.
Under the leadership of Józef Piłsudski, the young Polish state solidified its independence in a series of border wars that re-defined the country’s borders. The most important of these conflicts, the Polish-Soviet war of 1919 gave Poland an eastern border well beyond what the peacemakers in Paris had envisioned, adding millions of Ukrainians, Jews and Belarusians to Poland’s minority population.
With the young state facing a host of daunting challenges, from extensive war damage to a ravaged economy, Poland’s formal political life began in 1921 with the adoption of the March Constitution, which designed Poland as a republic, modeled after the French Third Republic, vesting most authority in the legislature, the Sejm, tasked with electing the country’s first president.
Despite calls for him to contend in the Polish presidential election of December 1922, Józef Piłsudsk did not run for president. Instead, he supported the candidature of Gabriel Narutowicz, who became Poland’s first president, thanks to the votes of the minorities coalition, determined to defeat the nationalist and antisemitic National Democracy movement.
Coinciding with the celebration of the Armistice in other countries, Independence Day is celebrated in Poland on November 11 to commemorate the anniversary of the restoration of Poland’s sovereignty.
Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.
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