Assessing Poland at the Start of World War I

Poland throughout its history has periodically disappeared from the face of the map only to re-emerge phoenix-like mainly due to the dogged perseverance and a strong sense of national identity exhibited by the Poles that has transcended prolonged periods of foreign domination. At the start of the First World War in 1914, Poland had been under one of the periodic “partitions” that it has suffered in its tragic history — having been divided among the three neighboring powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia for over a century. The events that followed during the War proved to be another turning point in the history of Poland and the Polish people — although, the war resulted in untold suffering for the Polish people, it also provided them with an unexpected opportunity of independence. This essay describes the fortunes of the nation during the First World War, assesses the post-war peace settlement that gave the independence back to Poland and analyzes the political, economic and social developments in the country during the inter-war period until the outbreak of the Second World War.

Poland at the Start of World War I

When the First World War started in 1914, Poland was partitioned and under the rule of three different powers, namely Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Germany with Russia ruling over the largest chunk. All three of them were involved in the war with Germany and Austria-Hungary, pitted against Russia on the eastern front and against France and Britain (later joined by Italy and the United States) on the western front. The Polish question had not been an issue for generations, because all three partitioning powers had a common interest in avoiding the problem. For other Western powers, Poland was insufficiently important to risk confrontation with any of the three occupying powers; hence the Poles were left to their fate. Events during the War was to bring the Polish question to the forefront of the world’s attention. (Biskupski, p. 38)

The Poles in all three parts of the partitioned country had anticipated the start of the war and their leaders considered ways of exploiting the situation. They were, however, divided in different groups — the ‘pro-ententes’ who wished for victory of the Western powers and Russia and the pro-Central powers group who hoped for victory of Austria-Hungary and Germany. The former regarded Germany as their principal antagonist, and expected that France and Britain would be more sympathetic to the Polish cause after their victory. The most influential representatives of this faction were the flamboyant pianist / politician Jan Paderewski, and the grand duke Roman Dmowski, considered by many as the father of modern Polish nationalism. The pro-Central powers group was led by the ‘independence faction’ of the charismatic J. zef Pi-sudski, who advocated strategic cooperation with Austria “as a sword against Russia; a shield against Berlin.” (Quoted by Biskupski, p. 39) Pilsudski also stressed for the formation of a separate Polish military army, considered by some at the start of the war as a foolish, quixotic policy.

Poland during Word War I

At the start of World War I, Russia tried to garner Polish support in the war by promising them unity and broad autonomy. The move, however, was still-born because the Russian armies suffered catastrophic reverses on the eastern front against the Germans.

Pilsudski, prepared a small force of Polish legions (that eventually grew into a large Polish Army by 1916) with Austrian support and fought against the Russians on the eastern front. Their heroic exploits made Pilsudski a national hero of the Polish people. The weak position of Austria in its alliance with German, however, prevented Austria to offer any significant concessions to the Poles that Pilsudski had hoped for.

Dmowski, who led the entente faction, had at the start of the war hoped that by cooperating with the tsar, Polish lands could be reunited after being wrested from German and Austrian control. (Dziewanowski, p. 63-64) His hopes were dashed due to the declining fortunes of the Russian army and their reluctance to allow the formation of separate Polish military factions. By 1915, most of the historic Polish territory under the Russians had been over-run by the German-Austrian armies. Moreover, the retreating Russians adopted a ruthless “scorched earth” policy that consisted of destroying everything in the face of enemy advance by burning villages, slaughtering the livestock and destroying all food. This destruction created immense suffering for the Poles and Dmoswki eventually left Russia to live in exile in Western Europe and tried to gather support for an anti-German faction among the Poles. (Biskupski, p. 39)

Paderewski, the famous pianist / composer and Polish patriot traveled to the U.S.A., intending to organize the large American-Polish community into a lobby to get the support of President Woodrow Wilson and the U.S. government. Due to his fame as a musician and his effective persuasion, Paderewski was successful in focusing the attention of the American public and the government on the Polish question. At first, the American support was for the humanitarian suffering of the Polish people that was skillfully diverted by Paderewski into political support for Polish aspirations of a homeland. (Biskupski, p. 43-44)

While the Germans were particularly opposed to granting any concessions for autonomy or independence of the Poles, staggering casualties to German forces and the Allied blockade during the war forced them to reconsider their policy on the Polish issue in order to be able to tap into the manpower resources of east-central Europe for their war effort. Germans attempts to recruit soldiers from among the Poles were stonewalled by the Polish leaders, including Pilsudski in the absence of a quid pro quo. The Central Powers were thus forced to concede and on November 5, 1916, they proclaimed the formation of a “Kingdom of Poland” under the protection of the Austrian and German emperors. The declaration, although, a modest tactical gesture — proved to be a turning point in the story of Poland’s reappearance on the map of Europe as a sovereign state. Soon thereafter two other vital developments took place — the Russian Revolution that removed the tsarist regime and the entry of the U.S. In the War. The Soviet government almost immediately recognized the right of the Polish people to full independence and so did the rival provisional government. This encouraged the Western powers, now led by the U.S., to take the Polish question seriously as an issue of international importance.

Post War Peace Settlement & Polish Independence

On January 8, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed his Fourteen Points, of which the thirteenth dealt with the Polish issue:

An independent Polish state should be erected, which would include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations, which would be assured a free and secure access to the sea, and whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant.

Events between September 15 and November 11, 1918 signaled the end of World War I with the defeat of the German / Austrian alliance and Wilson’s 14 points were accepted as the basis of peace negotiations. Since the territorial boundaries of the re-constituted state of Poland were not settled and different parts of the historically Polish land had been under the control of different powers, different improvised governments took control of different parts of Polish territory. Fighting also broke out between the Poles and Ukrainians, particularly in Eastern Galicia, previously held by the Austrians. Confusion reigned for some time with no central Polish authority that could control the situation, until Pilsudski was released from a German prison in November 1918, returned to Warsaw, and took control as provisional president of an independent Poland and appointed a leftist government. (Buell, pp. 85-87)

Initially, Dmowski and his conservative Polish National Committee challenged the leftist government in Warsaw as the official representative of the Polish people but luckily, before the Peace Conference at Varseilles began that would decide the future of Europe, Paderewski was appointed as the Prime Minister of a coalition government and both he and Dmowski represented Poland at the talks. The western borders of Poland were agreed to be determined on the basis of ethnic majorities and plebiscites where necessary except that the port city of Danzig, which was predominantly German but economically vital to Poland, was declared a free city. The ethnically mixed and highly coveted industrial and mining district of Silesia was divided between Germany and Poland, with Poland receiving the more industrialized eastern section. The determination of Poland’s eastern borders was even more problematic and led to boundary disputes with Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. (“History of Poland”)

Development in the Inter-War Period

Poland faced the most formidable political, economic and social problems in the post-war period. Politically and geographically the newly reconstituted country was in a precarious position — only a narrow strip of territory connected a country of over 20 million people with the Baltic Sea; it shared 60% of its border with Germany and Soviet Russia — both opposed to the very existence of the new state. The double enmity forced the country to devote one-third of its budget on defense. The country had been a battlefield that was passed over several times by the retreating and advancing armies of Germany, Austria and Russia during the war. The damage had been immense — close to 2 million buildings, over 4.5 million livestock, 11 million acres of agricultural land and 6 million acres of forests destroyed during the war. (Dziewanowski p. 86) The economic condition was further exacerbated because the three regions of Poland did not form a single economic unit, and the partitioning powers had subordinated the interests of their annexed provinces to those of Russia, Prussia, and Austria during their rule. Poland was also an ethnically mixed country and suffered considerable ethnic and social tensions, in particular heightened anti-Semitism and charges of unjust treatment of the minorities by the Poles. Despite these daunting problems, Poland overcame most of them in the inter-war period of hardly 20 rears, which is nothing short of remarkable. For example, a republican constitution was adopted soon after independence in 1921. Financial and agrarian reforms were undertaken and industrialization progressed. Even more important, significant advances were made in the field of education which had been particularly neglected in the Russian part of the partitioned country. Most of all, the Polish culture was revived after decades of official curbs leading to reaffirmation of the Polish nationhood that had been disputed for so long. The weaknesses remained in areas such as the unequal treatment of the minorities, the condition of the peasantry that remained generally poor, and the increasing trend towards authoritarian government following the military coup in 1926 that made Pi-sudski virtual dictator. (“Poland,” Columbia Encyclopedia)


In the heroic and tragic history of Poland, the First World War and the inter-war period constitutes a unique period in which the nation re-emerged from more than a century of partitioning and domination by its powerful neighbors to overcome the devastation and deprivation in a remarkably short period. It proved to be a short-lived interlude, before the wheels of history turned a full circle to bring the country under the yolk of brutal foreign rule yet again. This paper was a brief review of that turbulent and yet epochal period during which the Polish nation got an opportunity to express its independent, national aspirations to the full.

Works Cited

Biskupski, M.B. The History of Poland. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Buell, Leslie Raymond. Poland: Key to Europe. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1939.

Dziewanowski, M.K. Poland in the Twentieth Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.


Fisher, H.H. America and the New Poland. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1928.

History of Poland” Country Reports.Org December 6, 2003.

Poland.” The Columbia Encyclopedia. 6th ed. 2000.

Pilsudski had correctly predicted before the war that all the three partitioners would be destroyed / defeated in the war giving the Poles the opportunity for independence

On August 14, 1914, just a few days after the start of the War Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolayevich, commander-in-chief of the Russian armed forces, published a manifesto addressed to the Poles, promising them unification and self-government

Dmowski and the National Democrats stressed the priority of unification over liberation, believed that the Russians with support from the western powers would defeat the Germans and Austrians and would be able to reunite all territories inhabited by the Polish people under a more tolerant Russian regime.

A where he had been incarcerated for refusing to recruit Polish soldiers for the German war effort

This remained one of the major grudges of Germany and was one of the reason’s for its aggression in WWII

The 1921 census showed 14.3% Ukrainians, 3.9% Byelorussians, 7.8% Jews, and 3.9% Germans as the main minorities


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