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Polish History

The Polish state temporarily ceased to exist when the territories of the once-powerful Kingdom of Poland were divided among Prussia, Austria, and Russia in three partitions of 1772, 1793, and 1795. Nationalist aspirations were not extinguished, and determined factions within Poland's former frontiers and in exile waged a persistent struggle for the restoration of independence in the century and a quarter that followed.

Polish support was sought by both the Allies and the Central Powers in World War I. The Allies announced as one of their war aims the reestablishment of an independent Polish state. The Germans, occupying the country with the Austrians after driving out the Russian armies, set up a Polish Government on 5 November 1916 in an effort to gain the favor of the nationalists. The Allied offer had a greater appeal to the Poles, and the Polish National Committee in Paris, the strongest exile group, under Ignace Paderewski, identified itself with the Allies.

The Polish Republic was proclaimed by nationalist leaders at Warsaw on 3 November 1918, as it became obvious that the Central Powers were about to suffer a military collapse. Executive power was assumed by the Regency Council, the government organized two years before by the German occupation authorities. The Regency Council promptly called upon Jozef Pilsudski, the military leader who had led Polish troops in Austrian service against the Russians, to assume the leadership of the new republic. Pilsudski was invested with the powers of a military dictator and immediately invited Paderewski and other Polish leaders in exile to return. A coalition government was formed under Paderewski on 17 January 1919.

The new Polish state commenced its existence in the midst of ruin and poverty. Its territory had been the scene of heavy fighting between the Central Powers and the Russians in the opening stages of World War I, and the German and Austrian occupation forces had systematically exploited the country in the several years that followed. The end of the war found Poland's factories destroyed or idle, its livestock decimated, and the nation's economy in a state of chaos. Reconstruction and economic recovery in Poland were to take far longer than was the case with most other World War I participants.

Poland's northwestern and western borders were fixed by the Treaty of Versailles between Germany and the Allies on 28 June 1919, and its southern frontier by the Treaty of St. Germain between the Allies and Austria-Hungary on 10 September 1919. The Treaty of Riga (Latvia), 18 March 1921, ended a successful campaign by the newly established state against Soviet Russia and determined Poland's eastern and northeastern frontiers.

The territorial clauses of the treaty between Germany and the Allies provided Poland with a land corridor to the Baltic Sea and the site of the future port of Gdynia, at the expense of the prewar Reich. This arrangement isolated the province of East Prussia from Germany, disrupted much of the Reich's economy, and placed thousands of Germans in the Corridor within the borders of the new Polish state. Danzig, a major port at the mouth of the Vistula and populated almost completely by Germans, was made a free city, with a League of Nations commissioner and its own elected legislature. Poland was permitted to control Danzig's customs, to represent the Free City in foreign affairs, and to keep a small military force in the harbor area.

A plebiscite was to be held to determine the frontier in parts of Upper Silesia, but the Poles secured several of the more desirable areas by force in a sudden rising on 18 August 1919. Despite heated German protests, these areas were incorporated into Poland. Later plebiscites divided other areas along lines corresponding to the wishes of the local population. A Polish-French treaty of alliance on 19 February 1921 was designed to maintain the territorial arrangements that had been made and to provide France with an eastern counterweight to future German expansion.

The German attack on Poland precipitated World War II, making the Polish campaign one of particular significance to the student of the 1939^5 conflict. The lessons learned by the German Army in its operations in Poland were put to use in the later campaigns against the western Allies, the Balkan states, and the Soviet Union. Poland also formed the testing ground for new theories on the use of armored forces and close air support of ground troops. The complete destruction of the Polish state and the removal of Poland from the map of eastern Europe were grim portents of the fate of the vanquished in the new concept of total war.

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Page last modified: 09-08-2012 19:41:53 ZULU