The Silesian Uprisings (German: Aufstände in Oberschlesien; Polish: Powstania śląskie) were a series of three armed uprisings of the Poles and Polish Silesians of Upper Silesia, from 1919 to 1921, against German rule; the resistance hoped to break away from Germany in order to join the Second Polish Republic, which had been established in the wake of World War I. In the latter-day history of Poland after World War II, the insurrections were celebrated as centrepieces of national pride.
Much of Silesia had belonged to the Polish Crown in medieval times, but it passed to the Kings of Bohemia in the 14th century, then to the Austrian Habsburgs. Frederick the Great of Prussia seized Silesia from Maria Theresa of Austria in 1742 in the War of Austrian Succession, after which it became a part of Prussia and in 1871 the German Empire. Although the province had by now become overwhelmingly German speaking, a large Polish minority remained in Upper Silesia.
Upper Silesia was bountiful in mineral resources and heavy industry, with mines and iron and steel mills. The Silesian mines were responsible for almost a quarter of Germany's annual output of coal, 81 percent of its zinc and 34 percent of its lead. After World War I, during the negotiations of the Treaty of Versailles, the German government claimed that, without Upper Silesia, it would not be able to fulfill its obligations with regard to reparations to the Allies.
Demographics in the early 20th century
The area in Upper Silesia east of the Oder was dominated by ethnic Poles, most of whom were working class. Most spoke a dialect of Polish, but many felt they were a Slavic group of their own called Silesians. In contrast, most of the local middle and upper classes – the landowners, businessmen, factory owners, local government, police and Catholic clergy – were ethnic Germans. There was a further division along religious lines. The German Silesians were almost all Protestant, while the Polish Silesians were invariably Roman Catholic.
In the German census of 1900, 65% of the population of the eastern part of Silesia was recorded as Polish speaking, which decreased to 57% in 1910. This was partly a result of forced Germanization, but was also due to the creation of a bilingual category, which reduced the number of Polish speakers. German scholar Paul Weber drew a language map that showed that in 1910 in most of Upper Silesian districts east of the Oder river, Polish-speaking Silesians constituted a majority, forming more than 70% of the population there.
The Treaty of Versailles had ordered a plebiscite in Upper Silesia to determine whether the territory should be a part of Germany or Poland. The plebiscite was to be held within two years of the Treaty (signed in 1919) in the whole of Upper Silesia, although the Polish government had only requested it to be held in the areas east of the Oder river, which had a significant number of Polish speakers. Thus the plebiscite took place in all of Upper Silesia, including the predominantly Polish-speaking areas in the east and the predominantly German-speaking areas west of the river. The Upper Silesian plebiscite was to be conducted on March 20, 1921. In the meantime, the German administration and police remained in place.
Meanwhile, propaganda and strong arm tactics by both sides led to increasing unrest. The German authorities warned that those voting for Poland might forfeit their jobs and pensions. Pro-Polish activists argued that, under Polish rule, Silesian Poles would no longer be discriminated against. Poland also promised to honour their German state social benefits, such as the old age pensions. However, many German Army veterans joined the Freikorps (Free Corps), a paramilitary organization whose troops fought any pro-Polish activists. The pro-Poland side employed the Polish Military Organisation (POW) – a secret military organisation and predecessor of Polish intelligence – to fight back with the same force.
The right to vote was granted to all aged 20 and older who either had been born in or lived in the plebiscite area. A result was the mass migration of both Germans and Poles. The German newcomers accounted for 179,910; the Polish newcomers numbering over 10,000. Without these "new voters", the pro-German vote would have a majority of 58,336 instead the final 228,246. The plebiscite took place as arranged on March 20, two days after the signing of the Treaty of Riga, which ended the Polish–Soviet War of 1919/1920. A total of 707,605 votes were cast for Germany, while 479,359 for Poland.
The Third Silesian Uprising conducted by Poles broke out in 1921. The League of Nations was asked to settle the dispute before it led to even more bloodshed. In 1922, a six-week debate decided that Upper Silesia should be divided. This was accepted by both countries, and the majority of Upper Silesians. Approximately 736,000 Poles and 260,000 Germans thus found themselves now in Polish (Upper) Silesia, and 532,000 Poles and 637,000 Germans remained in German (Upper) Silesia.
First uprising (1919)
|First Silesian Uprising|
|Polish Military Organisation|
|Commanders and leaders|
On 15 August 1919, German border guards (Grenzschutz) massacred ten Silesian civilians in a labour dispute at the Mysłowice mine (Myslowitzer Grube). The massacre sparked protests from the Silesian Polish miners, including a general strike of about 140,000 workers, and caused the First Silesian Uprising against German control of Upper Silesia. The miners demanded the local government and police become ethnically mixed to include both Germans and Poles.
About 21,000 Germans soldiers of the Weimar Republic's Provisional National Army (Vorläufige Reichsheer), with about 40,000 troops held in reserve, quickly put down the uprising. The army's reaction was harsh; and about 2,500 Poles were either hanged or executed by firing squad for their parts in the violence. Some 9,000 ethnic Poles sought refuge in the Second Polish Republic, taking along their family members. This came to an end when Allied forces were brought in to restore order, and the refugees were allowed to return later that year.
Second uprising (1920)
|Second Silesian Uprising|
|Polish Military Organization||German civil government and police of Upper Silesia||Allied Plebiscite Commission Military Forces|
The Second Silesian Uprising (Polish: Drugie powstanie śląskie) was the second of three uprisings.
In February 1920, an Allied Plebiscite Commission was sent to Upper Silesia. It was composed of the representatives of the Allied forces, mostly from France, with smaller contingents from United Kingdom and Italy. Soon, however, it became apparent that the Allied forces were too few to maintain order; further, the Commission was torn apart by lack of consensus: the British and Italians favoured the Germans, while the French supported the Poles. Those forces failed to prevent continuing unrest.
In August 1920, a German newspaper in Upper Silesia printed what later turned out to be a false announcement of the fall of Warsaw to the Red Army in the Polish–Soviet War. Pro-German activists spontaneously organised a march to celebrate what they assumed would be the end of independent Poland. The volatile situation quickly degenerated into violence as pro-German demonstrators began looting Polish shops; the violence continued even after it had become clear that Warsaw had not fallen.
The violence eventually led on August 19 to a Polish uprising, which quickly took control of government offices in the districts of Kattowitz (Katowice), Pless (Pszczyna), Beuthen (Bytom). Between August 20 and 25, the rebellion spread to Konigshutte (Chorzów), Tarnowitz (Tarnowskie Góry), Rybnik, Lublinitz (Lubliniec) and Gross Strehlitz (Strzelce Opolskie). The Allied Commission declared its intention to restore order but internal differences kept anything from being done. British representatives held the French responsible for the easy spread of the uprising through the eastern region.
The uprising was slowly brought to an end in September by a combination of allied military operations and negotiations between the parties. The Poles obtained the disbanding of the Sipo police and the creation of a new police (Abstimmungspolizei) for the area which would be 50% Polish. Poles were also admitted to the local administration. The Polish Military Organisation in Upper Silesia was supposed to be disbanded, though in practice this did not happen.
Third uprising (1921)
|Third Silesian Uprising|
Polish Military Organisation|
Greater Polish Army
|Commanders and leaders|
Friedrich Wilhelm von Schwartzkoppen |
Maciej Hrabia Mielzynski
It began in the aftermath of a plebiscite that yielded mixed results. The British and French governments could not reach a consensus on the interpretation of the plebiscite. The primary problem was the disposition of the "Industrial Triangle" east of the Oder river, whose triangle ends were marked by the cities of Beuthen (Bytom), Gleiwitz (Gliwice) and Kattowitz (Katowice), all three of which were mostly inhabited by ethnic Germans. The French wanted to weaken Germany, and thus supported Polish claims on the territory; the British and the Italians disagreed, in part because the German government declared that a loss of the Silesian industries would render Germany incapable of paying the demanded war reparations.
In late April 1921, rumours spread that the British position would prevail. This caused the local Polish activists to organize another uprising. The insurrection was to begin in early in May. Having learned from previous failures, the Third Uprising was carefully planned and organized under the leadership of Wojciech Korfanty. It started on May 2–3, 1921, with the destruction of German rail bridges (see "Wawelberg Group") in order to slow down the movement of German reinforcements. A particular concern was to prevent a recurrence of violent acts against Polish civilians by members of the Freikorps, demobilised Imperial German army units that had refused to disband. These paramilitary units existed throughout Germany and usually acted independently from both the provisional official army and the leadership of the fledgling German Republic.
The Inter-Allied Commission, in which General Henri Le Rond was the most influential person, waited rather long before taking any steps to end the violence. The French troops generally favored the insurrection. In some cases, British and Italian contingents actively cooperated with Germans. UK Prime Minister Lloyd George's speech in the British Parliament, strongly disapproving of the insurrection, aroused the hopes of some Germans. But the Entente appeared to have no troops ready and available for dispatch. The only action the 'Inter-Allied Military Control Commission' and the French government made was demanding immediate prohibition of the recruiting of German volunteers from outside Upper Silesia, and this was promptly made public.
After the initial success of the insurgents in taking over a large portion of Upper Silesia, the German Grenzschutz several times resisted the attacks of Wojciech Korfanty's Polish troops, in some cases with the cooperation of British and Italian troops. An attempt on the part of the British troops to take steps against the Polish forces was prevented by General Jules Gratier, the French commander-in-chief of the Allied troops. Eventually, the insurgents kept most of territory they had won, including the local industrial district. They proved that they could mobilize large amounts of local support, while the German forces based outside Silesia were barred from taking an active part in the conflict.
Twelve days after the outbreak of the insurrection, Korfanty offered to take his troops behind a line of demarcation (the "Korfanty Line"), conditional on the released territory not being re-occupied by German forces, but by Allied troops. It was not, however, until July 1 that the British troops arrived in Upper Silesia and began to advance in company with those of the other Allies towards the former frontier. Simultaneously with this advance the 'Inter-Allied Commission' pronounced a general amnesty for the illegal actions committed during the insurrection, with the exception of acts of revenge and cruelty. The German Grenzschutz was withdrawn and disbanded.
Agreements between the Germans and Poles in Upper Silesia and appeals issued by both sides, as well as the dispatch of six battalions of Allied troops and the disbandment of the local guards, contributed markedly to the pacification of the district.
The Allied Supreme Council was, however, still unable to come to an agreement on the partition of the Upper Silesian territory on the lines of the plebiscite. The British and the French could only agree on one solution: turning the question over to the Council of the League of Nations.
The greatest excitement was caused all over Germany and in the German part of Upper Silesia by the intimation that the Council of the League of Nations had handed over the matter for closer investigation to a commission, consisting of four representatives – one each from Belgium, Brazil, Spain, and China. The commission collected its own data and issued a decision, stressing the principle of self-determination. On the basis of the reports of this commission and those of its experts, in October 1921 the Council awarded the greater part of the Upper Silesian industrial district to Poland.
Poland obtained almost exactly half of the 1,950,000 inhabitants, viz., 965,000, but not quite a third of the territory, i.e., only 3,214 of 10,951 square kilometres (1,241 of 4,228 mi²). This, however, comprised by far the more valuable portion of the district. Of 61 coal mines 49½ fell to Poland, the Prussian state losing 3 mines out of 4. Of a coal output of 31,750,000 tonnes, 24,600,000 tonnes fell to Poland. All iron mines with an output of 61,000 tonnes fell to Poland. Of 37 furnaces, 22 went to Poland, 15 to Germany. Of a pig-iron output of 570,000 tonnes, 170,000 tonnes remained German, and 400,000 tonnes became Polish. Of 16 zinc and lead mines, which produced 233,000 tons in 1920, only 4 with an output of 44,000 tonnes remained German. The main towns of Königshütte (Chorzów), Kattowitz (Katowice), and Tarnowitz (Tarnowskie Góry) were given to Poland.
In the Silesian territory that Poland regained, the Germans were a significant minority. Similarly, a significant minority of Poles (about half a million Poles) was still left on the German side, most of them in Oppeln (Opole).
In order to mitigate the hardships likely to arise from the partition of a district that was essentially an economic unit, it was decided, on the recommendation of the Council of the League of Nations, that German and Polish delegates, under a chairman appointed by the Council of the League, should draw up economic regulations as well as a statute for the protection of minorities, which were to have a duration of fifteen years. Special measures were threatened in the event that either of the two states should refuse to participate in the drawing up of such regulations, or to accept them subsequently.
In May 1922, the League of Nations issued the Upper Silesian Convention (also known as the Geneva Convention) intended to preserve the economic unity of the area. The League also set up a tribunal to arbitrate disputes. Furthermore, in response to a German complaint about the importance of Silesian coal for the German industry, Germany was given the right to import 500,000 tons per year at discounted prices. Three years down the road, in 1925, when the coal agreement ended, Germany refused to import the coal, attempting to use the coal issue as a lever against Poland, trying to impose a revision of the whole Polish-German frontier. Polish-German relations worsened, as Germany also began a tariff war with Poland, but the Polish government would not yield on the border issue.
The last veteran of the Silesian Uprisings, Wilhelm Meisel, died in 2009 at the age of 105.
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