We’ve fallen a little behind on our World War I series. Over the next few weeks/months, we’re going to work to get caught-up to the calendar.
The town of Kostiuchnówka had already seen heavy fighting for nearly a year when the first hits of Russian artillery landed on July 4th, 1916. The town, located in Austrian occupied Russian territory (now, modern Ukraine), had been part of the frontline that was the Eastern Front since the massive Central Powers’ victory in the summer of 1915. Now, Kostiuchnówka was again an active battlefield as part of the Russian Brusilov Offensive.
The attack had unfolded as most of the attacks during the offensive – a brief artillery barrage followed by seasoned Russian troops putting pressure on the entire front, hoping to form a crack and exploit the advantage. 26,000 Russians were prepared to assault Kostiuchnówka. Only their opponents weren’t the usual mixture of men from the Dual Monarchy.
Many of the 5,500-7,300 men facing the Russians had recently been Russian nationals themselves. The men of the Polish Legion, led under Józef Piłsudski, weren’t merely fighting for Berlin or Vienna’s claims on Tsarist Russia, but for a renewed homeland for themselves. As Pilsudski’s men fell, the seeds for the short-lived Kingdom of Poland were being planted.
Despite the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth being one of the largest nation states in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, Poland had usually been at the mercy of their neighbors. By the summer of 1916, Poland had ceased to exist for more than 120 years following the nation’s division between Russia, Prussia and Austria-Hungary. Yet the potential future of a Polish state was very much on the minds of the country’s long-past conquerors.
While the concept of Lebensraum (“living space”) has been historically associated more with Nazi Germany, the Imperial Germany of 1914 was equally obsessed with the potential of acquiring Russian lands for resettlement. Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, the German chancellor who bore much of the responsibility for the Great War, saw the conflict as a pretext to claiming a strip of Russian Polish lands. For Bethmann-Hollweg, victory not only meant moving Germany’s border further east, but moving the populations of those newly acquired territories as well. The 2-3 million Russian Poles and Jews that occupied the region would have to be ethnically cleansed to allow for German settlers.
Germany’s Austro-Hungarian allies had their own ideas about how Russian occupied lands ought to be administrated. Russian Polish territory would be under the Dual Monarchy, but operate as a semi-independent Kingdom. The expansion of the Dual Monarchy into an Austro-Hungarian-Slavic Empire had been a highly debated topic, but had gone nowhere as Franz Joseph opposed the creation of another Slavic-majority state. The monarchy’s experience with the newly formed Polish Legions had cautioned them about the potential loyalty of future Polish subjects. The Russian socialist revolutionary Józef Piłsudski had formed the Legions to combat the Tsar at the start of the conflict in 1914, with one Legion in the East and one (under Pilsudski’s command) in the West. Within weeks of entering combat, the Eastern Legion refused to fight under Austrian command and was disbanded. Why would it be any different if the Poles had their own nation under an Austrian crown? In the words of Austrian Prime Minister Karl von Stürgkh, “Poles will remain Poles…150 years after Galicia was joined to Austria, Poles still didn’t become Austrians.” Ultimately, an army unit would be easier to dissolve than a state.
Franz Joseph’s chosen successor, Charles I, believed differently and vigorously supported the concept. Several members of the royal family had married into Polish nobility and spoke the language. And Germany herself had warmed to the possibility of an independent Poland. German Chief of the General Staff Paul von Hindenburg and his former Deputy, now General of the Infantry, Erich Ludendorff saw Poland as a potential bargaining chip to negotiate terms with Russia. An independent Poland could be a buffer against Russia and the recruitment of a Polish army might allow Germany to transfer units to the West. In addition to all those factors, support of an independent Poland would be a public relations coup against the Entente. Now it would appear as though the Central Powers were fighting for the rights of small ethnic states.
On November 5th, 1916, Germany and Austria-Hungary declared a reborn Kingdom of Poland. The Central Powers believed they had created a weak and willing puppet. But the members of the Polish Provisional Council of State had starkly different ideas.
Józef Piłsudski knew well of the capriciousness of repressive monarchies – he had endured one his entire life.
Born to a family of Polish nobility in Tsarist Russia, Pilsudski had grown up resenting Russian influence in his native homeland. His father had been a Polish rebel too, fighting in a 1863 uprising that was finally put down with some 20,000 Polish casualties. There was little evidence that Pilsudski embraced much more than passive resistance to Tsarist rule, preferring medical school to rebellion. That would change in 1887 as Pilsudski was rounded up under spurious charges of planning an assassination attempt on Tsar Alexander III. Pilsudski’s oldest brother had been a part of the plot, and anyone related to him had been captured as accomplises. Sentenced to five years in exile in Siberia, Pilsudski endured illness and abuse that nearly killed him. If Józef Piłsudski wasn’t a rebel going into exile, he most certainly was one afterwards.
Pilsudski would spend the next several decades attempting to ally himself to any movement, organization or nation he felt could assist in the liberation of Poland. He would acquire the reputation of a socialist, although Pilsudski’s politics, like almost all his following professional and personal relationships, were born more of convenience. Russia’s Socialist movements were among the only organized opposition to the Tsar’s rule, and thus Pilsudski, the son of Polish nobility, allied himself with a worker’s right political party.
Believing that “only the sword now carries any weight in the balance for the destiny of a nation,” Pilsudski sought out military assistance wherever he thought he could find it. Pilsudski vainly attempted to convince the Japanese to train and arm Polish legions or at least a Polish uprising in their 1905 war against Russia. He would have greater luck securing Austrian support for his endeavors, going so far as to create a paramilitary group based out of Kraków that would conduct guerrilla operations against Russia from 1906 until the eve of the war. By 1914, under the watchful eye of Austrian authorities, Pilsudski formed “rifle clubs” that managed to recruit and train nearly 12,000 men.
Pilsudski was a Polish nationalist first and foremost, but he also envisioned an Eastern Europe shockingly similar to the post-war era. Liberating Poland wouldn’t be enough; Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Latvians, Finns and the variety of Central Asian peoples who had come into the Russian Empire would also need to be freed. Pilsudski didn’t exactly envision a “Greater Poland” that occupied these lands, but rather promoted what he called “Prometheism”, the dissolution of the Tsarist Empire, by comparing the struggle for national independence to Prometheus stealing fire in defiance of Zeus.
Like so much else in Pilsudski’s life, “Prometheism” wasn’t as much about idealism as it was about practicality. As Pilsudski explained his philosophy:
“Poland’s strength and importance among the constituent parts of the Russian state embolden us to set ourselves the political goal of breaking up the Russian state into its main constituents and emancipating the countries that have been forcibly incorporated into that empire. We regard this not only as the fulfillment of our country’s cultural strivings for independent existence, but also as a guarantee of that existence, since a Russia divested of her conquests will be sufficiently weakened that she will cease to be a formidable and dangerous neighbor.”
Not unlike their eventual support of Lenin, the German authorities had little concept of what they were supporting when they invited Pilsudski into their puppet Polish Kingdom.
The Poles had welcomed the Germans as liberators when they marched into Warsaw in August of 1915. By the fall of 1916, Polish-German tensions were starting to boil.
For a nation starving and unemployed, the Germans made robust promises of food and work – so long as workers were willing to leave Poland and come to German farms and factories. Hundreds of thousands of Russian Poles gladly packed up their belongings and crossed the border. The practice had been common before the war; Poles were use to seasonal work in Germany. But the conditions that awaited them were far from advertised. German farms were working overtime to attempt to produce enough food, but between the demands of the cities and the demands of the army (not to mention the effects of the British blockade), more workers didn’t necessarily mean more production, just more mouths they couldn’t possibly feed.
In October of 1916, the German authorities in Warsaw issued the “Ordnance against the Reluctance to Work.” Roving forced labor groups rounded up men, at first just doing minor public works projects, but within weeks, sending thousands of men to distant corners of German-held Poland to work on farms. As if a preview of future horrifying attractions, many of the thousands of men rounded up for forced labor were Polish Jews. The laborers were worked extremely hard, many without pay. One Polish Jew likened the brutality in the forced labor program to exile in Siberia.
If the Germans and Austrians had assumed the Kingdom of Poland would be their puppet government, no one apparently told the Polish Provisional Council.
Meeting for the first time in January of 1917, the 25-man Provisional Council, all German or Austrian appointments, immediately began demanding autonomy. While the Council’s first acts were to espouse being a parliamentary monarchy, as Berlin and Vienna had commanded, they were less than satisfied with having control over only the courts and education policy (and only education policy for Poles; ethnic Germans in the region would be subject to their own schools). The Central Powers refused.
Pilsudski had been given control over the military and was tasked with raising an all-volunteer Polish Army. In theory, the core of the new Polish forces would the Austro-Hungarian Polish Legions – fitting, given the Legion’s experience. But Vienna quickly undermined the concept. Ethnic Poles who were also naturalized Austro-Hungarian citizens would be ineligible to join. Vienna was fighting a war to keep their ethnic minorities within the Empire, not to empower them to join a foreign army. Without those soldiers, it was becoming apparent that the Polska Siła Zbrojna or Royal Polish Army, would be little more than, in the words of Pilsudski, “German colonial troops.” Both the Poles and Germans soon began mockingly calling the force the Polnische Wehrmacht.
The Council’s relations with the Central Powers would reach a breaking point only months into the Kingdom of Poland’s existence. Unable to convince the Germans or Austrians to allow them more control, the Council passed a resolution favoring the Royal Polish Army over German authority. The measure was almost purely symbolic, but the Central Powers took the act as tantamount to rebellion. The Polish Army was now instructed to take a loyalty oath to Kaiser Wilhelm II – essentially placing the units completely under German authority. Pilsudski refused and resigned, convincing other commanders to do the same. Pilsudski and his supporters were arrested by Germany and most of the key leadership of the Council resigned in protest. The Kingdom of Poland hadn’t even lasted eight months.
For all practical purposes, the Kingdom of Poland was dead. But the corpse of a Central Powers-dominated Poland kept twitching.
A Polish Regency was immediately announced following the fall of the Provisional Council, and a make-shift constitution was hastily introduced. While a handful of native Poles were placed on the Regency’s Council, the administration was effectively run by Germany. For the remainder of the war, the Germans refused to allow the Poles to actually run anything in their own supposed government. Even a Reichstag resolution calling for more Polish participation in the Regency was never implemented by the local German forces.
For those Poles who had previously placed their trust in Germany, open rebellion and partnership with the Entente appeared their only route to independence. The Polish Military Organization (PMO), an offshoot of Pilsudski’s “rifle clubs” from his days in Kraków, began their own guerrilla war against the Central Powers while reaching out to the Entente.
As the Great War bled into it’s final days, the German-held East collapsed. In desperation, the Germans released Pilsudski from prison and sent him back to Warsaw. Better an anti-German Polish national at the helm of an independent Poland than a Russian Bolshevik, or so Berlin reasoned.
Pilsudski would be instrumental in saving the West from a Soviet invasion with his victory in the Polish-Soviet War that followed the end of World War I. And he would live long enough to see his “Prometheism” liberate many (but not all) the Baltic States.