Why Does Poland Celebrate Independence Day
On 11th November?
Written by Marek Kępa Adapted by Agata Górna Published: Nov 5 2018
On 11th November 1918, Poland regained its independence after 123 years of partitioning by Russia, Prussia and Austria. But what actually happened that historic day? Culture.pl chronicles the events of what is now commemorated as Independence Day, explaining why they occurred peacefully despite the obvious tension, and how these events brought back Poland’s freedom.
Out of the blue
How does a large country like Interwar Poland re-appear in Central Europe? What needs to happen on a particular day to make it ‘Independence Day?‘
A somewhat humorous answer to that question was provided by Marshal Józef Piłsudski, the celebrated Polish leader among those most largely credited with winning back Poland’s freedom:
Ladies and gentlemen, in 1918 – just like in the legionary song – ‘out of the blue there was a Poland anew’.
Although slightly facetious, the quote points to two important things. Firstly, that the 11th is an arbitrary date and as such is a bit ‘out of the blue’. Of course, it was an exceptionally important day to Poland’s independence, we’ll soon get into that, but you don’t reinstate a country in a single day. It’s a process which takes plenty of time. And that’s the second thing the quote points to by mentioning the Polish Legions: a Polish force in World War I, led by Piłsudski. The pro-independence stance of the Legions (originally created by the Austro-Hungarians to strengthen their own ranks) prompted many a Pole to believe that a free Poland is attainable. The Legions fought for years before Poland reappeared on the 11th.
In November 1918, the Great War was nearing its end with the partitioning powers all weakened by it. Poland was already enjoying partial sovereignty: the Regency Council, a temporary Polish governmental body, was functioning in Warsaw and laying the grounds for independence. But there were still German troops in the city, historians estimate some 30,000 of them.
On 10th November 1918, Piłsudski comes to Warsaw, freed from Magdeburg by the Germans [he had been interned there after refusing to fight for Germany – ed.]. On the 11th, he takes control of the military. On the 14th, he receives full power. The discussion as to which date to recognise as the formal regaining of independence was a long one. Source: interview with Wiesław Wysocki, chairman of the Piłsudski Institute, published in the periodical Niepodległość, 2017
Despite the long debate, just a year later in 1919, 11th November was being celebrated as the day when Poland reclaimed its independence. It gained the status of a national holiday in 1937.
Let them leave
Formally, Piłsudski became Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Army on the 11th by decision of the Regency Council. His first move in this capacity was to gain control of Warsaw, the former and prospective capital of an independent Poland. This was achieved by taking over key strategic places like police headquarters and arms warehouses from German troops. Naturally, such an operation would be a risky one and could easily lead to a fight. To avoid unnecessary bloodshed, Piłsudski addressed a committee of German soldiers that morning in front of the Presidential Palace in Krakowskie Przedmieście Street.
[He] guaranteed them safety and a peaceful evacuation. In return, he asked them to hand over control of the guarded objects, put down their arms and not to provoke the Poles. The same day the Command Centre of POW [a Polish underground, pro-independence, military organisation – ed.] issued the following order: ‘Avoid bloody fights with German soldiers. Raids on garrisons are out of the question. Let them peacefully leave for their country after they hand over their weapons and technical materials to the organisation’s units.’
Source: Kto w Listopadzie Rozbroił Niemców (Who Disarmed The Germans In November) by Mirosław Maciorowski, Gazeta Wyborcza, 2016
In the afternoon, Polish troops began taking over the city’s strategic objects. Understandably, the excitement among citizens was enormous and even ordinary civilians assisted the soldiers. Miraculously, the whole operation was carried out relatively peacefully – there were only a handful of casualties on both sides, unthinkable compared to how things had been up to that point. By the end of the day, most key places were in Polish hands, although Germans still remained in the Citadel in the Żoliborz district. That same day, Germany signed a peace treaty with the Triple Entente (Russia, France and Britain), ending World War I.
The peaceful manner in which the Poles took control of Warsaw was to a large degree an effect of Piłsudski’s aims. He wanted to avoid a confrontation with the numerous German troops, a confrontation that could potentially lead to mass casualties. In fact, it was precisely Piłsudski’s authority among Poles and his resulting ability to contain the chaos caused in Polish territories by the partitioning powers’ wartime demise that was the reason he was freed from Magdeburg in the first place.
But to fully understand why the Germans surrendered Warsaw so willingly on the 11th, one has to go back a day further. On the 10th, Piłsudski arrived in the city by an early morning train. After a meeting with Zdzisław Lubomirski, member of the Regency Council, he went to 2 Moniuszki Street (which no longer exists) where he stayed for two days at a bed and breakfast operating in one of the flats. At the establishment, ran by Wanda, Halina and Maria Romanówna, three sisters conspiring with POW, further meetings took place – there were plenty of pressing matters.
Among those received by Piłsudski was the young military man Józef Jęczkowiak. The marshal recounted the unrest he had witnessed in Germany, where war-weary soldiers were mutinying and creating committees advocating for a release from duty, an event historians now call the German Revolution. It was why he wanted to send Jęczkowiak on a mission to weaken the morale of the German troops in Warsaw. Posing as a German soldier, Jęczkowiak together with his associates quickly visited one of the German army’s dayrooms and addressed those gathered there:
(…) I stood on the table and in a full voice I began to tell about the revolution in Germany and about what I had heard from Piłsudski (…). People started shouting, at first only a few, later many of them: ‘we’ll do the same thing’, ‘long live the revolution’. I didn’t hear anybody opposing (…).
Source: Był Czyn i Chwała! Wspomnienia Harcerza 1913-1918 by Józef Jęczkowiak, 2015
The German soldiers stationed in Warsaw had also had enough of the war and were more than eager to go home. After Jęczkowiak’s speech, they established their own committee (the one addressed in front of the Presidential Palace) which worked with Piłsudski toward the city’s evacuation. The disarmament had actually already begun on the 10th, but most of it occurred the day after. Since the morale of the German soldiers had been successfully undermined, Zdzisław Lubomirski’s wife Maria could write in her memoirs on the 11th:
We’re free! We get to govern ourselves! This really happened and in such an unexpected fashion at that (…) The Germans are dumbfounded, they’re sporadically resisting, but they allow themselves to be disarmed not only by military men but also by common civilian whippersnappers… Strange things in our capital!
Source: Pamiętnik Księżnej Marii Zdzisławowej Lubomirskiej 1914-1918 (Memoirs of Countess Maria Zdzisławowa Lubomirska), 1997
Unforgettable & filled with happiness
Another description by a witness to the day’s events comes from the eminent writer Maria Dąbrowska. Apart from remarking that the weather was ‘absolutely beautiful’, she also wrote the following in her Dzienniki 1914-1945 (Memoirs 1914-1945), published in 2009:
From early in the morning, German officers are being disarmed on every street corner. But not only is the militia disarming them, so is the mob (…) Throughout the day, military assets and civilian authorities are being taken from the Germans. All day long, the streets are crowded. The trams are running as usual. There are cars with our soldiers everywhere (…). In the midst of all this, Poland is rising. And nobody can see how beautiful it is. Nobody notices in this commotion.
Perhaps, due to all the excitement, the beauty of the weather and the newly reborn state did indeed slip the attention of some observers. Without a doubt, it was independence from occupation that most people were reacting to. The moment’s enthusiasm was well expressed in the aforementioned memoirs of Maria Lubomirska:
The present day is historic, unforgettable, filled with happiness and triumphant!
Nevertheless, Poland was definitely going to be noticed by plenty of people soon, not only in the country but also worldwide. The evacuation of Warsaw and other Polish territories was generally going smoothly – in a matter of days, all German soldiers would leave the capital. On the 16th, Piłsudski sent a telegram to the rulers of the USA, Britain, Germany and other countries:
As the Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Army, I hereby notify war-faring and neutral governments and nations of the existence of an Independent Polish State, encompassing all lands of united Poland. (…) The Polish State arises from the will of the entire nation and shall be based on democratic principles. From the book 11th November – National Independence Day, published by the Central Club of Polish Soldiers in 2012
The shape of the reappearing country’s borders would still need to be determined, but after reclaiming its capital and political centre on the 11th, there was no doubt that an independent Polish state would now exist.
After 123 years of partitions, Poland was free once again.
to regain independence – odzyskać niepodległość
to commemorate - uczcić, upamiętnić
tension - napięcie
out of the blue (idiom) – znienacka, niespodziewanie
facetious – zabawny, żartobliwy
to strengthen - wzmocnić
attainable - osiągalny
to weaken - osłabić
partial sovereignty – częściowa suwerenność
temporary - tymczasowy
to lay the grounds – położyć fundamenty
Commander in Chief of the Polish Army – Zwierzchnik Polskich Sił Zbrojnych
prospective - przyszły
arms warehouses – magazyny z bronią
troops – oddziały
casualties – ofiary
peace treaty – traktat pokojowy
to a large degree – w dużym stopniu
whippersnapper – (old-fashioned) bezczelny smarkacz
to surrender –poddać się
willingly - chętnie
war-weary – umęczony wojną
to mutiny – buntować się
to disarm - rozbroić
I hereby notify – niniejszym informuję
partitions - rozbiory