Two years back, I spent a few hundred words exhorting us all to remember Poland’s grim First World War – and I’ve been virtually ignoring it ever since. Today’s a good day to make up for that, because 5 November 1916 saw the proclamation of a new Kingdom of Poland by the Emperors of Germany and Austria-Hungary.
As you might expect, this gesture by two of the three great powers dedicated to carving up Poland was not exactly a gift, and was in fact an act of ruthlessly exploitative self-interest designed in Berlin . Yet it was welcomed by some Polish nationalists at the time, and is still seen by many Polish commentators as the first step on what would be a tortuous path to modern independent nationhood. This says a lot about the condition of ethnically Polish territories in late 1916, which can be summed up as catastrophic but merits a more detailed commemoration.
I abandoned Poland at the end of 1914, after unsustainable German and Austro-Hungarian offensives along the central sector of the Eastern Front had been halted by the Russians, leaving the two sides locked in entrenched stalemate on a line east of Warsaw (11 November, 1914: Remember Poland?). Poles everywhere had been conscripted by whichever side controlled their homeland, and had frequently ended up fighting each other, while the only part of modern Poland that had been spared battlefield devastation and pillage was the northwestern region then in Prussia.
This miserable period of stagnation had come to an end in the summer of 1915. The huge territorial gains made by the Central Powers’ summer Triple Offensive, and the Russian ‘Great Retreat’ that re-established the frontline 350km further east, eased Poland’s situation in some respects. For the time being at least, the Russians had been driven out of all but the country’s eastern fringes, and the brunt of the fighting was no longer taking place on Polish soil.
On the other hand, the retreating Russians took a substantial portion of Poland’s heavy industrial plant with them, and Poland was the one place where the Russian Army’s much-vaunted scorched earth policy was carried out with any real efficiency. Meanwhile economic exploitation of the newly occupied territories by the Central Powers, very much led by Germany, was swift, wide-ranging and ruthless. The overall effect on Polish life was devastating. Factory closure and unemployment were rife in the cities, despite mass deportations of workers deeper to Germany or Austria-Hungary, while fuel and food shortages, exacerbated by hyperinflation and enforced exports for the German war effort, brought widespread malnutrition and encouraged the spread of diseases.
Amid this chaos, Polish nationalist and independence movements struggled to find common focus. As had been the case before the War, various political and military groupings adopted positions according to their regional priorities. In the south, for instance, some Galician nationalists sided with the Russians to get rid of the Austro-Hungarian dominion, and others did the reverse, while nationalist groups further north accepted Russian or German sponsorship on the same basis, and they all raised armed forces to fight for their particular allies. The most coherent and best known nationalist force, the Polish Legions, was formed in August 1914 as an independent unit of the Austro-Hungarian Army. Its commanders included Josef Pilsudski, the most prominent anti-Russian agitator in pre-War Galicia and the main focal point for relations between Polish nationalists and the Central Powers.
Poland’s situation worsened from the summer of 1916. The Brusilov Offensive brought the Russians back into Polish Galicia, and economic exploitation by the Central Powers escalated dramatically under the Hindenburg Programme laid down by the new German supreme command. In October, amid rising popular and industrial unrest in urban areas, Pilsudski resigned his commission in the Polish Legions after a dispute over the number of Polish officers. With the loss of its most influential nationalist figurehead, the German supreme command (and a completely subservient Austro-Hungarian command) felt it prudent to make a token concession to Polish nationalist sentiment.
The ‘Two Emperors’ Proclamation’ issued on 5 November was certainly token. It declared the establishment of an independent Kingdom of Poland, a hereditary constitutional monarchy allied to the Central Powers and comprising all the ethnically Polish territories formerly under Russian control. It failed to specify the monarch involved or how he would be chosen, postponing any decisions until after the War, and made no attempt to define the new kingdom’s actual boundaries. Nor was the new state provided with a government, let alone a governmental system, so at first the only tangible proofs of its existence were the immediate establishment of a national army, with Pilsudski as its commander, and a mass outbreak of the national flags, symbols and ceremonies now permitted by the occupying authorities.
Initial popular enthusiasm for the Proclamation was fleeting. January’s announcement of a government – or at least a Provisional Council of State made up of ten German and five Austrian appointees – did nothing to alter the general view of the Kingdom as a puppet state, and Pilsudski soon fell out with his German sponsors, losing his command in March after refusing to have his troops swear allegiance to the Central Powers. By then, with deportations and forced exports to Germany rising all the time, revolutionary events in Russia were threatening to move the goalposts for Berlin and swamping any prospect of further wartime political development in Poland.
So the Kingdom of Poland remained in limbo, destined for history’s dustbin as soon as the War ended and meanwhile amounting to little more than a name and an idea, treated with contempt at the time by both its subjects and its sponsors. Yet sometimes the expression of an idea to the world at large can give the idea life, and many modern Poles view the Proclamation as a vital moment enabling the eventual establishment of a truly independent Poland.
In part, this refers to the reappearance and widespread adoption of Polish national symbols from November 1916, but the Proclamation is also credited with bringing the question of Polish independence into the international diplomatic arena, because it demanded a response from the western Allies. What had been a debate conducted within three empires hostile to Polish ambitions now included Britain, France and Italy, and would soon include the United States. By the time the War ended full Polish independence would be enshrined as one of US President Wilson’s prerequisites for peace, and the Treaty of Versailles would create an enlarged, independent Poland led by Pilsudski as head of state.
The Proclamation of 5 November didn’t mark any kind of end to Poland’s wartime suffering, and the Poland it helped create was not long for this world, but for all its illusory nature the puppet Kingdom created in 1916 was a reminder of the power of ideas, even when the military overkill gets mind-boggling. The German regime tried deploying an idea to douse the fire of Polish nationalism, and though the tactic failed the idea, released into the ether with a coating of official status, developed an indestructible life and will of its own… one of those small lessons from history worth remembering the next time someone floats a racial stereotype or a Mexican wall idea.