Poland Between World Wars

The rebuilt Polish state had a territory of 389,000 sq. km. Its population, according to the census of 1921, amounted to 27 million, with Poles amounting to 69% (18.7 million), Ukrainians 14%, Jews 8%, Byelorussians [Belarusians] 3.9%, Germans 3.8% of the entire population. There were also many Lithuanians, Russians and Czechs. Catholics made up 65% of the population, the Uniats 10%, members of the Orthodox Church 12%, Jews 10% and Protestants 2.5%. The overwhelming majority of the population lived in the countryside (75%). Peasants made up 55%, workers 27%. small businessmen 11%, intelligentsia 5%, bourgeoisie 1%. and landowners 0.3% of the total population. The hostilities, pillage by the occupiers, and demographic losses left Poland's economy in ruin. The greatest destruction was suffered by the Kingdom's industry, which also lost its markets in Russia after the war. The consolidation and economic unification of the three formerly partitioned areas was the largest problem to be overcome. The concentration of land with a relatively small number of owners, on the one hand, and the combination of peasant farms on the other, as well as the shortage of arable land available to peasants produced tensions and conflicts. Destroyed towns could not accommodate the surplus of rural manpower.

The first years of existence of the state were filled with strenuous work on the reconstruction of the economy and creation of the state apparatus, as well as on lawmaking. Those years were crowned with the adoption of the Constitution of March 17, 1921, which was patterned after the democratic Constitution of the Third French Republic. Nineteen party tickets were entered in the 1922 parliamentary elections. The parties formed blocs: the right wing getting 29% of votes, the centre 21%, the left wing 25%, and the national minorities 22%. The National Assembly made up of two houses (Sejm and Senate) elected the President. He was Gabriel Narutowicz, the candidate of the centre and left wing, supported by the national minorities. The disappointed right wing unleashed a violent campaign against the President. On December 16. 1922, Narutowicz was assassinated by a mentally disturbed supporter of the right wing. The murder and the shock it caused cooled the fanaticized masses of the right-wing's followers. Stanislaw Wojciechowski was elected President. The conflict over the election of Narutowicz highlighted the weak points of the political structures--the party factionalism, the tensions between the right and the left, as well as between the Polish majority and the national and religious minorities. Social tensions were further deepened by the difficult economic situation. Spiralling inflation turned into hyperinflation in 1923. Industrial production in 1924 amounted to 56% of that recorded in 1913. A government composed of experts named in 1923 carried out a successful monetary reform under the chairmanship of Wladyslaw Grabski. Sound currency restored the economic balance providing grounds for better business conditions in the years 1925-1929.

The national existence and the borders of the Polish Republic were guaranteed by the Treaties of Versailles and Riga. Germany and Russia could not tolerate the loss of territory and the emergence of the Polish state, forgetting that those were the lands once seized during the partitions. As a result, they did their best order to weaken the Polish state or even destroy it, if the situation permitted. The counter-balance rested in the Polish-French alliance and in Poland's alliance with Romania, which was threatened by Russia. On the other hand, England supported German demands, acting on the assumption that peace can be maintained by satisfying the aspirations of the big powers and not of medium-size or small countries. That, in the long run, proved to be an erroneous assumption with regard to Germany and Soviet Russia. The fall of Grabski's government at the end of 1925 and the ensuing difficulties in forming a new government, the parties' incessant manoeuvring for power, as well as tensions arising from the economic war declared on Poland by Germany in that year, sent the Polish political system reeling. In May 1926, after a few years spent on the political sidelines, Jozef Pilsudski staged an armed coup d'etat. The political system consequently created in 1926 was called Sanacja (from a slogan referring to cleansing political life of party factionalism and corruption, with which the previous governments and parties were charged.) Legal modifications introduced to the political system after May 1926 were small indeed, as all the political parties and the trade unions continued their activities with little change. Freedom of the press was maintained. In practice, however, an authoritarian regime was created, curbing the powers of the Sejm and harassing the opposition parties, and finally arresting the opposition leaders and putting them on trial in 1931.

The Sanacja came to power when the economic situation was generally favourable, but soon the world crisis of 1929-1933 hit out at the weak Polish economy with particular force. Industrial output fell dramatically and in the worst year of 1932 it represented 53% of that of 1913. Prevailing prices led the rural population to poverty and destitution. Unemployment in towns rose dramatically. Recovery came only after 1935. In foreign policy Poland was threatened by the build-up of the military potentials of Germany and the Soviet Union. The preparations of those states for war were time consuming, which is why they concluded non-aggression pacts with Poland: the Soviet Union in 1932 and Germany in 1934. That gave Poland, according to Jozef Pilsudski, several years for internal reform and development of a defensive capability. The Polish political reforms were crowned with the Constitution of April 23, 1935, which strengthened the president's position and power. The years between 1936 and 1939 were a period of economic growth, development of industry, especially in the Central Industrial Region situated between the Vistula and San Rivers. State intervention and the correct choice of investment targets were largely the result of policies pursued by Deputy Prime Minister Eugeniusz Kwiatkowski. The average standard of living was improving, unemployment was falling and part of the surplus of rural manpower was absorbed by new projects. All that was important in view of the demographic increase.

In 1939, Poland numbered some 35 million people. Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jozef Beck, continued the policy of balanced relations with Moscow and Berlin However, the readiness of the Western Powers to meet Germany's demands upset the pan-European equilibrium. That policy had its climax in Munich where Czechoslovakia's interests were sacrificed for the sake of illusive peace (1938). At the beginning of 1939 German diplomacy put forth demands toward Poland: to incorporate Gdansk into the Reich and to build an extra-territorial motorway through Polish Pomerania. Moreover, Germany proposed that Poland accede to the Anti-Soviet Pact. It was assumed in Poland that submissiveness would lead to the loss of independence. Thus, for the first time, Nazi Germany encountered opposition to its expansion. In the meantime Great Britain changed its policy. In April, Britain gave guarantees for Poland's independence, which were later confirmed by France. That being the situation, the Soviet Union helped Germany to pull itself from isolation. The Soviet Union was simultaneously negotiating with Germany, England and France, promising assistance against Germany on the condition of Poland's consent for the entry of the Red Army onto Polish territory. The fate of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in 1940 later demonstrated what the result of the entry of that army onto Polish soil would have meant. Under the existing circumstances, greater profits could be derived by Stalin from an alliance with Germany. On August 23, 1939, the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact was signed. Its secret clauses defined the zones of influence (i.e., areas for territorial expansion) of both nations, including a new partition of Poland.

On September 1,1939, without declaring war, Germany attacked Poland. The independent existence of Poland lasted for only 20 years. The statehood regained as a result of the struggle of several generations was of great value to Poles. The two decades of independence brought both successes and failures. The greatest achievement was the consolidation of the areas and economies of the three former partitions into a uniform state organism. The new legislation enacted at that time was another important accomplishment. The construction of the port of Gdynia and development of the Central Industrial Region were also among the successes. Polish dreams of a free and just homeland were best expressed by Stefan Zeromski when he wrote about "houses made of glass," bright, spacious and available to all. However, economic reality was more difficult. Poland was a destroyed, underdeveloped country, and social conflicts and the poverty of a part of society were a source of widespread pain.

The German onslaught on Poland on September 1, 1939, started the Second World War. On September 3, Britain and France declared war on Germany. On September 17, the Soviet Union invaded Poland. Confronted with the enormous military might of the enemies and having no assistance from France and Britain, which were unprepared for war, Poland was forced to suffer a military defeat. The struggle ended at the beginning of October. Under the German-Soviet Treaty of September 28, 1939, dividing Poland into two partition areas, the Rivers Pisa, Narew and Bug became the borderline between the occupying powers. Poland was under occupation by two cruel and totalitarian states. The Soviet Union snatched 50% of Poland's territory, inhabited by 14.3 million people, including 6.5 million Poles. During eighteen months of occupation the most active individuals from all walks and domains of life were murdered. Hundreds of thousands of people were arrested and sent to Soviet concentration camps. Together with members of their families, upwards of 1.5 million Poles were imprisoned in the Gulag system. Most of them died of exhaustion and famine. In the spring of 1940, 15.000 Polish officers, who had been taken prisoners of war, were murdered at Katyn, Kharkov and Miednoie. Among them were commissioned officers and doctors, scientists, lawyers, engineers, chaplains and teachers called up for service at the outbreak of war. The fate of Polish citizens under the German occupation was no less horrible. The aim of the Germans was to turn Poles into unskilled labourers. High schools and universities were closed. The treasures of Polish culture were plundered and taken away to Germany. Mass arrests and executions went on unabated throughout the occupation period. Roundups were organised in towns and hostages from among the innocent population were taken. A network of concentration camps in which slave labour force was inhumanely exploited was established. Hundreds of thousands of people were murdered there or died of hunger, disease or exhaustion. Some three million Polish Jews perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Majdanek and Treblinka death camps. Poles and citizens of other countries occupied by the Nazis also died there.

The defeat suffered in September 1939 did not stop the Polish resistance. A Polish government in exile was formed. It was recognised by the states of the anti-Nazi coalition. Wladyslaw Sikorski became the Prime Minister. The Home Army was formed in Poland. Operating underground, it used the weapons of subversion, intelligence and propaganda, preparing for an uprising. At its peak the Home Army numbered some 250,000 soldiers. General Stefan Rowecki-Grot was the commander-in-chief of the Home Army until the time of his arrest on June 30, 1943. He was replaced by General Tadeusz Komorowski-Bor. In December 1940, the Government Delegation in the Homeland, led by the deputy prime minister of the government in exile, was set up to operate clandestinely. Despite terror and arrests, the Polish underground state functioned throughout the whole period of the occupation. It was preparing for assuming power after the liberation. As high schools and universities were closed, it was necessary to develop clandestine forms of schooling. There were also hundreds. of underground newspapers and printing houses. As early as 1940 the government in exile established the Polish Armed Forces in the West. Polish fighter pilots made a great contribution to the victory in the Battle of Britain.

After the German attack on the Soviet Union (June 1941) and following a Polish-Soviet agreement, General Wladyslaw Anders formed a Polish Army in the USSR. In the spring and summer of 1942, with Stalin's permission, that army was evacuated to Iran. During the liberation of Italy, Anders' army won fame for storming the Monte Casino Monastery (May 1944). Upon the counter-offensive by the Red Army, the Soviet attitude toward Poland was altered. However, when in April 1943 the Germans found the graves of Polish officers at Katyn and the Polish government in exile asked the International Red Cross to look into the case, the USSR severed diplomatic relations with the Polish government. Polish communists in the Soviet Union set up the Union of Polish Patriots. The formation of a Polish division under the command of General Zygmunt Berlin began.

The year 1943 was particularly tragic for the Polish cause. Gen. Sikorski was killed in an air crash and the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Army, Gen. Grot-Rowecki, was arrested in Poland. An uprising broke out in the Warsaw Ghetto, but was crushed by the Nazis despite courageous efforts on the part of the Jews and attempts at assistance by Christian Poles. In January, 1944, the advancing Soviet troops entered Poland's pre-war territory, treating those lands as Soviet property. Military co-operation with local Home Army units lasted until the Germans were defeated. Upon victory, Polish units were taken prisoners, very often by deceit, and transported to the Gulag camps and Siberia. After Soviet troops crossed the Bug River, the USSR set up the Polish National Liberation Committee, entirely dependent on the Soviets. Polish society remained consistent in supporting the institutions of its underground state, the Warsaw Uprising being the final attempt to win full independence for Poland.

The uprising broke out on August l, 1944, and lasted until October 2. The losses of the insurgents amounted to some 17,000 killed and 6,000 wounded, with about 180,000 civilians dead. After the uprising, the entire population, nearly one million people, was expelled from the city. The Germans started destroying what was left of Warsaw. During the uprising and later, during the destruction of Warsaw, the Red Army took no action. Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, leading the government in exile, had made attempts at reaching an agreement with the Soviet government. In the way, however, stood Moscow's demands to recognise the Curzon Line as a frontier and the Polish National Liberation Committee was transformed into a Provisional Government of the Polish Republic, recognised by the Soviet Union. In January 1945, Soviet troops crossed the Vistula and took shattered Warsaw. In March 1945, the Soviet authorities proposed talks with the leadership of the Polish underground. When the talks became reality, sixteen Polish leaders, including the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Army, General Leopold Okulicki, and the Delegate for the Homeland, Jan Jankowski, were treacherously imprisoned. Poland's destiny was resolved by the three major powers without the participation of the Poles at the Yalta Conference, held February 4-11, 1945. It was decided there to establish a Provisional Government of National Unity, made up of members of the pro-Soviet government and émigré politicians. That government was to hold free elections.

Stanislaw Mikolajczyk made a compromise and entered the Government of National Unity as a Deputy Prime Minister. The government in exile, led by Prime Minister Tomasz Arciszewski, opposed the dictate. In response, Britain and the United States withdrew their support and diplomatic recognition. Yet that government continued, persisting as the symbol of the struggle for sovereignty. When the German Reich fell on May 8 or 9, 1945, and the most bloody of wars was thus ending, Poland was theoretically in the group of the victorious allies. Polish soldiers had been fighting the Germans from the first to the last day of the war. Among all nations, however, Poland lost the highest percentage of her citizens, who fell in the struggle or were murdered as a result of the occupiers' policy of terror--a total of 6.5 million people, including almost all the Jewish Poles. The capital city was annihilated, material and cultural losses were tremendous. In addition, Poland emerged from the war with a government imposed from the outside and composed of people whom the nation did not trust. They were planning to introduce changes by force--changes the Polish people did not want.

Katyn Forest

After over 50 years of conspiratorial silence by political systems, both in Russia and the Western Democracies. The Kremlin officially admitted that the NKVD (Russian secret police), on orders from Stalin and the Politburo (Russian Congress) killed over 1/3 of the total officer corps of the Polish Armed Forces in 1940.