The Polish state and its Armed Forces (1918-1939)

The Polish state and its Armed Forces (1918-1939)

Józef Piłsudski (1867-1935), founder of the modern Polish state in early Twentieth century

Besides being a revolutionary, Jozef Pilsudski played a leading role in the quest for Polish independence. In his early life, he detested the ‘Russification politics’ of the Czarist regime in the Polish territories and rebelled against Russian occupation, for which he was sentenced several times in Russian labor camps. After his return, he chose to continue his revolutionary path via Socialism, and played a key role in the Polska Partia Socjalistyczna, (PPS).To him, Socialism was only a vehicle to achieve his primary goal, the independence of Poland.

Just prior to the beginning of World War I, several Polish political parties joined hands and formed the political alliance Komisja Skonfederowanych Stronnictw Niepodległościowych (KSSN). This coalition wanted Piłsudski to use the Polish paramilitary forces to join the Central Powers and defeat the major menace at that time, Czarist Russia. Both Germany and Austria-Hungary were eagerly making use of the Polish contingents, but not too keen on promising the Poles their independence. Although with any reluctance the Central Powers agreed to the deal, due to the lack of military manpower, and provided the Poles with a king and limited independence. The new king Karol Stefan acknowledged Józef Pilsudski’s popularity among the population and made him the new Secretary of War. As a leader within the War department, Piłsudski, refused to let his soldiers take the pledge of allegiance to the Central Powers. From his point of view, the Polish military’s sole loyalty lay within the framework of a new Polish state. The outraged Germans arrested him for this rebellious behavior, but the incarceration of a Polish hero backfired. The Polish populace loved the loyalty of Piłsudski to the newborn state, instead of foreign occupation. At the end of the war the Germans set him free and upon arriving in Warsaw, Piłsudski proclaimed Poland an independent republic on 18 November 1918.

After the war, two political rivals dominated the internal political arena with different views on which course the Polish state should take until the early 1920s. Piłsudski, on one hand, was a proponent of a multi-ethnic Polish state, in accordance with the previous kingdoms that existed during the Middle Ages. Dmowski, however, advocated a single ethnic Polish state and one faith, Catholicism. Thus, leaving no place for the Jewish population to reside. After the formal international recognition of a new Polish state at the Peace Conference of Versailles, more troubles occurred. Poland’s neighboring countries, were carefully watching the boundaries of the fledgling state. Especially, the deter-mination of Eastern boundaries proved to be a dire situation. The British lord, George Curzon, proposed a boundary between the Soviet Union and Poland, based upon linguistic affiliation. Only the areas where more than 50 percent of the population spoke Polish should be included in the new state, excluding large Polish groups living in Lwow (nowadays Lviv, Ukraine).

In late 1918, the -recently established- Red Army got its marching orders. The soldiers were to proceed westwards and acquire as much territory on the withdrawing German army. At the same time, the new Polish state was defining its territorial boundaries and was surprised by the sudden arrival of a large body of Soviet troops. A total of 780,000 Soviet troops collided with a hastily mobilized Polish force of almost the same proportion. The outcome of this Wojna Bolsewiczka, was favorable to the Polish forces. The integrated use of airplanes, tanks and modern tactics, based on maneuverability and speed were too much for the rigid operating Red Army. Furthermore, Soviet’s most important leaders like Lenin, Trotski and Stalin were defeated by Polish forces, including women and children. Especially, Stalin was hurt by the Polish endeavour to stop the Red Army at the battle of Warsaw (1920). He paid the price in his decision as -a military leader- to take Lwow for his own prestige. The stubbornness of Stalin to be on time for the siege of the Polish capital, instead of supporting the other fightin
g elements at Warsaw, showed the Communist party that he was lacking military strategy. Stalin was clearly hurt by the allegation (mainly from Trotski) and developed grudges against the Poles as well. The later party leader, Nikita Krushchev, even admitted in 1956 to Władysław Gomulka that the Polish-Soviet war of 1920 was still ‘fresh in his mind’.

The Sanacja-regime (1926-1939) was an era in pre-war Poland that marked a change in political culture. A large part of the population felt disenfranchised with quarreling politicians in the early phase of the interwar period. Therefore, Piłsudski in

Poolse ZHP
A march of the Polish scouts (ZHP) during the interwar period in the vicinity of Lwow (Nowadays the city is called Lviv, located in the Ukraine).

stalled a ‘Colonels regime’ of friendly (ex-)military leaders with powers to overrule the Polish parliament, in case of a political stalemate. After Piłsudskis death in 1935, the true power of government stayed with military actors like Edward Śmigły-Rydz. In the interwar period was essentially a ‘Turkish style democracy’, with a large role for the military as protectors of the state. The paramilitary heritage of Poland that existed during the partition years persisted between the World Wars. Military style youth organizations (ZHP) were thriving in these times and a curriculum existed at secondary schools for 16-18 year olds to participate in military training. As a result, Poland -as a society- was ready for a war on the eve of World War II.


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