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1919-1920 - Russo-Polish War - Background

Since the seventeenth century, Polish-Russian relations have been characterized by the continuous advance of Muscovy against the Polish-Lithuanian state, which had erected a frontier at Vitebsk and Kiev against the Golden Horde and its Muscovite successors. As the aristocratic constitution continued to weaken the executive and military power of Poland and as Peter the Great and Catherine II succeeded in eliminating Sweden and Turkey as power factors in the north and the south, Russian plans for the dismemberment of Poland entered a new and conclusive phase. The drive of the Tsars to destroy Poland as a European power, to remove the obstacle to Russia's westward expansion on the Continent, contributed to Catherine II's decision to partition the kingdom of Poland. The acquiescence of Austria and Prussia in 1772 arose, on the one hand, from the deep-seated fear of Russian armies harbored by the philosopher-king of Prussia, who had recently experienced defeat at Gross Kunersdorf, and, on the other, from the emerging distrust of Russian intentions which was to characterize Austrian foreign policy in the nineteenth century. Upon the occasion of the Third Partition of Poland (1795), the Prussian and Russian monarchs vowed that no Polish state would be resurrected or Polish nationality recognized.

By prewar ownership Poland was divided into Russian Poland, German Poland, and Austrian Poland. During the war the Poles became even more divided in political plans than they had been before. The Polish provinces of Russia, Austria and Germany now became belligerent. The battle line prevented the Poles in the different provinces from communicating with each other. Compulsory military service distributed them among the armies of Russia, Austria and Germany, and compelled them to fight against one another, often brother against brother and father against son. Under these conditions the political cleavage became more marked.

At the beginning of the war the Russian government feared an uprising in Poland and at first withdrew its armies east of Warsaw, but, contrary to expectation, the Poles of the "Kingdom of Poland" sided with the Entente. In this they were influenced by the National Democrats under the leadership of Dmowski. The population of Russian Poland took this position believing that the Entente would be successful and that, under the influence of France and Great Britain, Poland might be reunited with large autonomy.

In Austrian Poland (Galicia), the Poles for the most part sided against Russia and formed a legion of volunteers, commanded by General, then Colonel, Pilsudski to fight against her. This legion had a distinct uniform which the Russian command refused to recognize as a belligerent's uniform. Consequently, when the Russian army captured any of the legion, those prisoners were shot.

In German Poland, the population, less mercurial than their brothers of Russian and Austrian Poland, bided their time and waited an opportunity to assert their national rights with effectiveness. The Germanizing influences led the German Poles to refrain from jeopardizing their position of well-being by premature national action which had little chance of success.

The Russian revolution had a very salutary effect on Polish national unity. It took from the Austrian Poles any incentive for continuing the war on the side of the Central Powers, and brought them into agreement with their co-nationals in Russian Poland. The revolution also made Polish independence possible, because it put an end to the secret agreement between France and Russia, by which the latter was to have a free hand in making her western boundaries with Germany, and whereby the Polish question was to remain wholly within the control of the Russian government.

It cannot be said that, originally, the Entente, as such, intended to reconstitute an independent Poland. It was the war itself that brought about the possibility of that independence. The occupation of Russian Poland by Germany, facilitated the intercommunication of the nation. At once, agitation for autonomy began. With this growing demand, Germany found herself obliged to make concessions. Then President Wilson's declaration in favor of Polish unity gave a strong impetus to the movement for independence. The end of the war made possible the uniting of Poland into an independent state. After the armistice, the Poles rose in Warsaw and assisted the departure of the German army. Paderewski arrived at Danzig on his way to Warsaw.

In Austrian Poland (Galicia), national independence had also been achieved. The Emperor Carl had recognized the rights of the different nationalities to decide their own destinies. In Cracow and in western Galicia, generally the Poles immediately took possession of the government. In eastern Galicia, the returning regiments, mostly Ruthenians, seized the government at Lemberg and established a provisional Ruthenian government. This brought on a Polish uprising in Lemberg, which drove out the Ruthenian government. So began a war on a small scale between Ukrainians (Ruthenians) and Poles, which finally led to an alliance between Petlura, the Social Democratic Dictator of the Ukraine, and the Polish government. Under this agreement the Poles started their campaign against the Bolsheviki.

From the first it was evident that the new state must largely depend on its relations to its neighbors, Russia and Germany. France and Great Britain were able to help and influence Poland's policy. But in the end France and Great Britain, it was evident, were too far removed to exercise a continual and so a permanent controlling influence over her destinies. Of course, America could give only economic and moral support. Poland's everyday economic and political affairs would of necessity be with Germany and Russia on account of their proximity to her.

One of the temporary weaknesses of Poland was that the three sections, Austrian Poland, Russian Poland and German Poland, would require time to amalgamate. The people in these three sections had each undergone an entirely different evolution. The population, divided for a hundred years in provinces of Russia, Austria and Germany, had grown apart. In order to consolidate itself effectively, the country required favorable conditions of friendship with her neighbors for many years.

The Entente formulated a policy for the new Polish state which was in its own interest and not in Poland's permanent interest. This policy was a conception of French military diplomacy, acquiesced in by the British because they wished to give France a free hand, insofar as their own interests allowed, in organizing the new order on the European continent. The heart of this plan was to make out of Poland a powerful buffer state as large as possible and strong enough in a military sense to be able, with the assistance of Czecho-Slovakia and even Rumania, to exercise a restraining influence on Germany and even on Russia. The French desired to build up a strong Polish army and create a military cordon about Germany.

Poland's eastern border as proposed at the Versailles Peace Conference was the so-called Curzon Line, named after the member of the British delegation to the conference. The line which he proposed was accepted unanimously by the delegates. Poland's eastern border, as proposed in 1919, was not an inflexible line. It was merely a general plan the details of which were to be elaborated later by the governments of the new Poland and the USSR. In 1919-20 it was not deemed advisable to go farther before the people of Russia, who were still in the midst of a revolution, had an opportunity to regularize their political life and to express themselves regarding the final boundary line with Poland.

But Poland, intoxicated by her regained independence, could not forget her eminence in the past, when she held the Ukraine as far as Kiev. This was a territory dotted with Polish colonies. Post-War Poland, accordingly, demanded a wide stretch of land which was mainly inhabited by White Russians, and which extended to the line which was the Soviet-Polish border. The more chauvinist Galicians dreamed of the extension of Poland far into Ukraine or Little Russia, bordering the famous frontier of 1772, which marked the highest period of Polish greatness. Reminiscent of the glory of the Jagellonian empire of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when Poland was the master of east central and eastern Europe, Polish nationalism has assumed many of the characteristics of political imperialism. Its demands embrace a strange mixture of ethnographic (Upper Silesia, Galicia), historical (Vilna, Byelorussia, East Prussia), and strategic-economic (Danzig, Stettin) arguments, to the confusion of the foreign observer, for the arguments often contradict the demands based on the other premises. Polish nationalism has sought the restoration of Jagellonian Poland in the east and Piast Poland in the west.

War broke out over these claims, which brought the Soviet troops to the very gates of Warsaw.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:29:27 ZULU