Eastern Borderlands (1918-1939)

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A Land Born in Battle

As a result of the partitions, the Polish Republic was wiped off the map of Europe. Despite numerous national uprisings Poles did not manage to regain independence – not until a worldwide conflict involved all the partitioning powers, the deposition of the Tsar by the February Revolution and the subsequent October Revolution in Russia, the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, created conditions suitable for the restoration of the Polish state. This unique opportunity was exploited by Józef Piłsudski, who was born in Żułów near Wilno. Shortly after an unsuccessful revolt in 1905, he promoted the thesis that combat against the enemy should be conducted using one’s own army. In the years preceding the outbreak of the First World War, under the slogan of armed struggle for Independence, he created the military cadres of the future Polish Legions (Związek Walki Czynnej/Association for Active Struggle, Związek Strzelecki /Rifleman Association, “Strzelec”/”Rifleman” Society). Leading them, he realized the dream of millions of Poles, a free and independent Polish state.
The battle for an independent Poland started in September 1914 with the entry of the First Cadre Rifle Company into the area of the Russian Partition of Poland. This effort, aimed at triggering an anti-Russian uprising in the Polish Kingdom, failed due to lack of popular support. Józef Piłsudski then subordinated himself to the Supreme National Committee (Naczelny Komitet Narodowy) and began the formation of the Polish Legions, composed of three brigades. Simultaneously, he set up the Polish Military Organization, whose aim was to cause a diversion within the territory of the Russian partition. The brigades took part in fighting on many fronts during the war. The First Brigade, personally led by Józef Piłsudski, operated near Krakow and in the Russian partition, involved in the battles of the Nida, Krzywopłoty, Łowiczówek, Konary, Jastków and Kamionka in the Lublin region, and the Rasna and Wysokie Litewskie in the Podlasie region. The Second Brigade, led by Ferdynand Kuttner, fought in the Eastern Carpathians, where it was involved in the battle of Mołotkowo, and later in the battles of Zielona, Rafajłowa and Kirlibaba. Its second regiment of Uhlans was involved in the famous charge of Rokitna in the Bukowina. The Third Brigade, led in turn by Wiktor Krzesicki, Stanisław Szeptycki, Zygmunt Zieliński and Bolesław Roj, entered the battle in July of 1915 and cooperated with Józef Piłsudski’s brigade in the Lublin region.

Starting in October all three brigades were positioned on the Wołynia front. This was the peak of combat activity of the Polish Legions, which numbered over 16 thousand soldiers. In July of 1916 Polish troops took part in the battles of river Styr, where they fought the largest battle in their history – Kostiuchnowka. In that battle the legionaries, despite the hurricane-like gunfire and constant Russian attacks, maintained the front line for several days. They withdrew only after the collapse of their flank defences, which had been protected by Hungarian and Czech troops.

When the Russian front reached Galicia, the Central Powers, experiencing ever more acute shortages of manpower, encouraged the Poles to fight them. On November 5, 1916, the emperors of Germany and Austria-Hungary issued a decree pronouncing that the lands of the Russian partition of Poland will create a sovereign Polish State after the Great War – a state that would be permanently allied with the Central Powers. It was the first visible effect of the military buildup engineered by Józef Piłsudski.

Another breakthrough was provided by the February Revolution in Russia in 1917. This turn of events enabled a wider range of activities for Poles in Russia. Efforts were initiated to form separate divisions which could join the struggle for independence. In April of 1917 the Fourth Division of Polish Rifles was formed in the East. In July the First Polish Corps (one out of the three) was assembled, led by Józef Dowbor-Musnicki. Finally, in June a Polish Army in France (called the “Blue Army”) was beginning to form, eventually led by Józef Haller. When the Poles had finally acquired their own armed forces, the Central Powers demanded that the Polish units swear an oath of allegiance. Józef Piłsudski thought that, after the expulsion of the Russians from the lands of the soon-to-be-restored Polish Republic, further support from the Germans and Austrians would not serve the Polish national interest. Accordingly, he and the First and the Third Brigades refused to give a slavish oath, triggering the so called “oath crisis”. As a consequence, both brigades were disbanded. Some officers were interned in the Benjaminowo camp, while the rest of the soldiers were interned in Szczypiorno. Józef Piłsudski was interned in the Magdeburg prison.

Due to the deteriorating situation on the Western Front, the Central Powers began to lose control over the occupied Polish lands as well as the Regent Council, or state government. On October 7, 1918 the Regent Council issued a manifesto to the Polish Nation, formulating the principle of the independence of the Republic. It was the first act of the Polish government declaring restoration of statehood. Throughout the area of the former partitions, spontaneous disarming of the withdrawing German troops had begun. During the night of the 6th and 7th of November, the Temporary People’s Government of the Second Republic of Poland was formed in Lublin, headed by Ignacy Daszyński. It stabilized the situation in a country swept by chaos. At the moment of cessation of hostilities, which coincided with the release of Józef Piłsudski and his return to Warsaw on the night of November 10, 1918, the question of Polish independence was already obvious.

When the four-year war ended on November 11th, the Regent Council entrusted Józef Piłsudski with supreme military command, and on November 14th the Regent Council dissolved itself, transferring its power to Piłsudski.
One of the most important tasks facing the newly forming Polish State was a determination of its territorial extent. The first decisions in that matter were taken during a conference organized in 1919 in Versailles near Paris. Leaders of the 27 victorious nations gathered there to establish principles for a lasting peace and to decide the fate of the defeated. On October 28, 1919 a peace treaty with Germany was signed, establishing the Polish western border. Germany lost almost the entirety of Greater Poland (Wielkopolska), a region which won its independence in an armed struggle even before the peace negotiations started. The Second Polish Republic was also granted the East Pomerania region, but without Gdansk, which received a Free City status and remained administered by the League of Nations. The Versailles Treaty also called for plebiscites in Upper Silesia, Warmia and Masuria to determine if these regions would belong to Poland.
The issue of the eastern border was diametrically different. The position of the Entente Powers with regards to the place of Poland in the East lacked consistency. On one hand an expansion of Bolshevism was feared, on the other hand a diminution of Russian territorial holdings by Poland was not welcome. In this situation it became obvious that the shape of the eastern border had to be decided politically, but primarily by a military force. A majority of Poles considered the pre-partitions lands a natural part of the historical and national legacy. They did not take into account the new realities ensuing from the century-old policies of Russian and Austrian occupants, leading to far-reaching changes in the Polish situation in the Kresy (Eastern Borderlands). In political circles, discussions on the future of the eastern lands, which were to be retaken by Polish troops, led to two fundamental concepts: Federation (authored by Piłsudski) and Incorporation (authored by Roman Dmowski, Piłsudski’s political opponent, but a man with undisputed contributions to the establishment of the independent Polish State). Neither of these concepts was acceptable to the leaders of the Bolshevik “Red” or counterrevolutionary “White” Russia. All of them treated the reborn Poland as a part of the former Russian Empire. In the opinion of the “Whites” – Poland, separating Russia from the rest of Europe, violated the principles of a Russian policy established by Peter I and Catherina II. The “Reds”, in turn, expressed a view that securing the achievements of the revolution and the formation of a new society within a single Bolshevik state is impossible. The necessary condition to maintain the achievements of the October Revolution was to transfer the socialist ideals to the West. Poland, separating Russia from the working class centers of Germany, Czechoslovakia or Hungary, had to disappear.

However, the struggle for the eastern border of Poland did not begin with an armed conflict with Bolshevik Russia, but rather an armed conflict with a hastily-formed Eastern Ukrainian People’s Republic. The situation in that region was extremely variable and complicated. Three separate centers were attempting to simultaneously create Ukrainian statehood: the Eastern Ukrainian People’s Republic in Eastern Galicia, the Ukrainian People’s Republic governed by a Directorate with Semen Petlura, and the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic. The first two centers fought with the third and with the troops of the “White” generals. Polish-Ukrainian relationships were particularly strained by the dispute about Lwów (Lviv), where Poles constituted the ethnic majority. On one hand, the city was one of the most dynamic centers of Polish culture; on the other hand, it was the main center of Ukrainian nationalism. Lwów was the only city with a Ukrainian university. The struggle began on November 1, 1918 when Austro-Hungarian soldiers of Ukrainian descent occupied the majority of public buildings in Lwów and proclaimed a formation of the Eastern Ukrainian People’s Republic. This move was opposed by Polish underground organizations and Polish inhabitants of the city, including young people later named “Orlęta Lwowskie” (Lwów Eaglets). Their forces were later supported by the emerging Polish Army. The first stage of this conflict ended during the night of November 22/23, 1918 when the troops of the Ukrainian Halicz Army withdrew from Lwów and begun a siege of the city. On May 22, 1919 the Polish Army offensive routed the enemy forces from the city. Over the following months, battles for Eastern Galicia continued. From the spring of 1919, thanks in part to the deployment of the Haller’s “Blue” Army to the Ukrainian front, the forces of the Eastern Ukrainian People’s Republic were systematically pushed east. By the middle of July the government of the Republic, with the remnants of their army, was pushed beyond the river Zbrucz. A formal armistice, sanctioning Polish territorial holdings, was signed on September 1, 1919. On November 21st the Supreme Council of the peace conference confirmed the autonomous status of Eastern Galicia. Poland received a mandate from the League of Nations to administer this area for 25 years. In March of 1923, Eastern Galicia was finally recognized internationally as an integral part of the re-born Polish State.
Russia disliked the Polish offensive, which at one point reached Kiev and ended in the occupation of that city. In a response to the Polish army taking Wilno, Minsk and Lwów, the Bolshevik army mounted a counteroffensive. The troops’ march was accompanied by murder and violence against civilians. Within the first months of the fighting, Soviets occupied a part of the historical Polish Kresy as far as Kamieniec Podolski. In the following few months Polish troops were pushed South West, as the Bolsheviks reached the rivers Bug and Narew. In July of 1920 the Bolshevik troops took Wilno, Grodno and Białystok, and one month later – Łomża and Ostrołęka. The Soviets begun to pose a threat to the capital, when the “Miracle on the Vistula” took place. This heroic struggle and the victory of Poles over the troops of Mikhail Tukhachevsky during the battle of Warsaw, secured the newly regained independence and protected Europe from the danger of the expansion of the Bolshevik revolution to the West.

In the middle of August a group led by Józef Piłsudski attacked the enemy from beyond the river Wieprz. This group broke the frontline at Kock, took Podlasie and appeared at the rear of the Tukhachevski’s forces. The Soviet troops, attacked from the South and the West, were forced to withdraw. The Bolshevik forces in Southern Poland also experienced defeat. After the battles of Komarów and Hrubieszów, which culminated in the destruction of the 1st Cavalry Division of Semyon Budyonny, the enemy retreated. By mid-October the Polish Army reached the Tarnopol-Dubno-Minsk-Dryssa line. On October 12, 1920 an armistice treaty was signed, and on October 18th the hostilities ceased.
In the shadow of the conflict with Bolshevik Russia, a Polish-Lithuanian feud flared up. In the Polish national conscience the traditions of the Union of Lublin were still alive. However, the leaders of the reviving Lithuanian State did not see a possibility of a closer union with the Second Polish Republic. A trigger point was the issue of Wilno and the Wilno Region. The historical capital of Lithuania was for a long time a city with Polish character, a fact that was difficult to accept by the Lithuanians who demanded its incorporation into their own state. During the chase behind the retreating Bolsheviks, Polish troops entered the territory contested with Lithuania. According to the earlier-signed Bolshevik-Lithuanian treaty, Wilno was supposed to belong to Lithuania and the Lithuanians strongly objected to a plebiscite to decide on the status of the Wilno Region. Taking this into account, Józef Piłsudski commanded General Lucjan Żeligowski to simulate a mutiny and to enter Wilno with his armed forces. On October 9, 1920 the 1st Lithuanian-Byelorussian Division, existing in the structures of the Polish Army and composed in large part of soldiers hailing from the contested region, expelled Lithuanians from the city. On this occupied territory, a new state was formed – Central Lithuania. On January 8, 1922 elections to the local parliament were held, which then unanimously voted for the incorporation of Wilno and its environs with Poland.
The official end to hostilities in the East took part on March 18, 1921 with a signing of a peace treaty in Riga by the Second Polish Republic, the Russian Federation and the Ukrainian Soviet Republics (both appearing as official parties in the conflict). The document primarily specified the border between Poland and Russia: running from the river Dzwina in the North, through Byelorussia (except Minsk which stayed on the Soviet side), marshes of the Polesie, all the way to the rivers Zbrucz and Dniester. Both parties guaranteed mutual rights in the areas of culture, education, and religious freedoms for the Polish, Russian and Ukrainian minorities across the respective borders. In addition, Poland was supposed to receive the cultural collections plundered and taken away after 1772, and to be compensated 30 million gold rubles for the economical exploitation of the Polish Kingdom by the Russian government in 19th century.

The period of struggle for the eastern borders of Poland was unusually turbulent for the Eastern Borderlands. The border set by the Riga Treaty did not provide for the return of all pre-partition lands of the First Polish Republic. As a result, many families identifying themselves with Poland – e.g. in the area of Kamieniec Podolski, which did not return to the motherland and belonged to the Soviet side – had to remain under foreign rule. For many of these families it was a great tragedy. However, for the Poles remaining in Russia the most tragic fate was yet to come. The Soviet government soon formed the Polish Autonomous Districts – Marchlewszczyzna (on the territory of the Ukrainian SSR) and Dzierzyńszczyzna (on the territory of the Byelorussian SSR). They were abolished in the 1930′s and a massive deportation of Poles to Siberia and Kazakhstan followed. Simultaneously with the loss of the pseudo-autonomy of these Polish districts, mass executions of Poles in the USSR began (the, so called, Polish operation of the NKVD). Only those that managed to immigrate to Poland from the lands remaining beyond the eastern border after the Riga Treaty avoided persecution. They numbered about 100 thousand, mostly noble landowners and intelligentsia.