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Independence Day in Poland

Our guests often ask about the partitions of Poland and the history of Independence Day, 11th of Novemeber. Although volumes have been written about it, I will try to convey briefly a piece of our Polish history.

After the era of the hereditary dynasty (Piasts in 10th-14th C, Jagiellons in 14th-16th C), there was a period of free election (16th-18th C), when kings were elected by the nobility.

The choice election of king was associated with a great politics. The nobility and especially the magnates (the richest noble families) sought to obtain the greatest possible privileges in exchange for support for their candidate.

The free election was a system that weakened the royal power, moreover, it gave the possibility for foreign dynasties to interfere in the affairs of Poland.

The last elected king elected in 1964 was Stanisław August Poniatowski (reigned 1964-1795). Already 4 years later, the Bar Confederation was established from part of the nobility, supported by France and the Saxon dynasty, which questioned the legality of the reign of the Polish king. The Confederation collapsed and was followed by new conflicts and civil wars.

Stanislaw August Poniatowski - The Last King of Poland
Stanislaw August Poniatowski - The Last King of Poland

I Partition of Poland 1772

In 1772, three major powers (Austria, Prussia and Russia) signed the first partitioning convention, occupying 1/3 of the Polish lands.

In 1788, the Four-Year-Old Sejm began its deliberations. It prepared many reforms, but undoubtedly the most important provision was the Constitution adopted on May 3, 1791.

It was the first in Europe and the second in the world (following the Constitution of the United States). Its aim was, among other things, to preserve the sovereignty of the state.

II Partition of Poland 1793

The Constitution caused an uproar among the invaders, but the Tsarina Catherine II reacted the hardest. The nobility and magnates devoted to the Tsarina rebelled against the new law and established the Targowicka Confederation in 1792.

The Polish-Russian war broke out, in which Russia won. Thus, in 1793, the second partition of Poland between Russia and Prussia was signed (Austria was busy with the war with France), in which subsequent provinces fell under the rule of the partitioners.

The Republic of Poland no longer had access to the sea. As a result of the second partition of Poland, the economy collapsed. The invaders had the most fertile lands in their hands. Food prices rose rapidly.

III Partition of Poland

A year later, in 1794, an uprising under the command of Tadeusz Kościuszko broke out. Kosciuszko was well known in the USA for his achievements of design and oversee state fortifications including West Point. Unfortunately, Russia's military power was enourmous and the uprising collapsed.

Negotiations between the invaders lasted a long time, and the final borders after the third partition were established in the autumn of 1795.

King Stanisław August Poniatowski abdicated and moved to St. Petersburg.

The Polish State ceased to exist for the next 123 years.

Partition of Poland

However, the national consciousness of Poles never died.

Poles created, wrote and composed in a patriotic spirit, and many eminent Poles emigrated (including Fryderyk Chopin and Maria Curie Skłodowska).

Napoleon and his march to the East gave Poles hope, the Duchy of Warsaw was established. But after his defeats the fate of Poland again depended on the partitioners.

By virtue of the Vienna Treaty, in 1815 the Kingdom of Poland was established, in which Tsar Nicholas the First was appointed the Polish king. The political-administrative autonomy of the Kingdom was gradually reduced until it was completely abolished.

Poles broke up to fight unevenly for independence many times, however the most important was 1830 November Uprising and 1863 January Uprising. Unfortunately, these uprisings ended with defeat and further oppressions.

It was only the events during WW1 that brought new hope to the Polish cause.

In November 1916, the emperors of Germany and Austria proclaimed the rebirth of the Polish state on the territories of Russia (the so-called Act of 5 November). It was a breakthrough in the collusion of silence on the Polish question.

A few months later, the tsarist regime was overthrown in Russia. The new Russian authorities have recognised the right of Poles to self-determination. Soon the French and British decided to do it.

Despite the initial euphoria of Act 5 November, it quickly disappointed the Poles. Emperors Wilhelm II and Franz Joseph I did not define the borders of the Polish state. They also remained silent about the person of the future monarch. It became clear to everyone that they only wanted to recruit Poles and use them in the fortline.

In the spring of 1917, the legionnaires became increasingly frustrated and uncertain about the future. Legions were then transferred to the German command and were to be the basis for the future Polish army. Legionaries feared that their formations might lose their Polish national character.

At the instigation of Józef Piłsudski (later head of state), most of the legionnaires refused to take a new version of the military oath, in which they were to commit themselves to maintaining an alliance with the central states until the end of the war. As a result, the Polish Legions were dissolved.

Jozef Pilsudski
Józef Piłsudski

Legionaries - former Russian subjects - were imprisoned in the camps. The Austrian subjects were conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian army and sent to the Italian front. For the benefit of the internees, Polish society organized fund-raising and material collections, and the fugitives from the camps were helped in hiding from the authorities.

Piłsudski himself was interned in a military prison in the former fortress in Magdeburg. He was surrounded by a legend of a martyr of a national cause.

For the sake of the Polish cause, Ignacy Paderewski, an eminent pianist and later Prime Minister of Poland, lobbied with the President of the United States of America. Woodrow Wilson began to favor the Poles.

In his address to the Congress in January 1918 the President announced the reconstruction of independent Poland with access to the sea as one of the conditions for the conclusion of a lasting peace.

Woodrow Wilson speach in Congress
Woodrow Wilson speach in Congress

The notion of Poland's independence was soon recognised by other leaders of the entente states. In France, the Polish Army was formed from volunteers coming mainly from Polish communities.

When the war in the West ended in October and November and the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed, Poles began to disarm the occupying forces and create independent state institutions.

Józef Piłsudski, freed by the Germans upon his arrival in Warsaw on November 11, 1918, took over the civil and military power from the Regency Council and took over the function of the Head of State.

A new stage in the history of Poland has begun!

Independence Day Poland
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