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Silesian Uprisings

The Silesian Uprisings (Aufstände in Oberschlesien; Powstania śląskie) were a series of three armed uprisings of the Poles and Polish Silesians of Upper Silesia, from 1919–1921, against Weimar 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.

Historical background

Much of Silesia belonged to the Polish Crown in early medieval times, but passed to the Kings of Bohemia in the XIV century, then to the Austrian Habsburgs. Frederick the Great of Prussia seized Silesia from Maria Theresa of Austria in 1740 in the War of Austrian Succession, after which it became a part of Prussia and, in 1871, the German Empire.

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 fulfil its obligations in regards to reparations to the Allies.

Mineral resources

Upper Silesia was rich 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.

Demographics in the early 20th century

The area east of the Oder in Upper Silesia was dominated by ethnic Poles, most of whom were lower class. A large proportion spoke a dialect of Polish, many also felt that they were a Slavic ethnic group of their own called Silesians. At the same time, the vast majority of the landowners, businessmen, factory owners, local government, police and Catholic clergy were already German. Almost all of the higher German Silesian officials were Protestant while the vast majority of Polish Silesians were Catholic.

In the German census of 1900, 65% of the population of that eastern part of Silesia was recorded as Polish speaking, decreasing to 57% in 1910. This was the result of forced Germanization as well as creating a category of "bilingual inhabitants" for the purpose of the census, which reduced the number of Polish-speaking Silesians. According to a language map drawn up by German Professor Paul Weber, in most Upper Silesian districts east of the Oder river Polish-speaking Silesians made up over 70% of the population in 1910.

Versailles plebiscite

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 Treaty mandated a plebiscite within two years in the whole of Silesia, although the Polish government only wanted one in the part of Silesia east of the Oder river. So it was decided to hold the plebiscite in all of Upper Silesia, including both the predominantly Polish speaking areas in the east and the predominantly German speaking Upper Silesian areas west of the river.

It was decided by the Allies that the Upper Silesian plebiscite was to be conducted on March 20, 1921. In the meantime, German administration and police were left in place.

In the background, propaganda and strongarm tactics on both sides led to increasing unrest. The Germans told the workers that they would lose their jobs and old age pensions if they voted for Poland. Furthermore, troops of the German "Freikorps" (Free Corps), made up of veterans of the former German army, terrorized those Silesians who favored voting for Poland. On the other side, Polish propaganda stressed that if Poland won the plebiscite, Silesian Poles would no longer be oppressed or treated as second class citizens as they were in Germany, and they would not lose their old age pensions. The Polish sides also employed the Polish Military Organisation - predecessor of Polish intelligence - to further their cause.

Eventually the deteriorating situation resulted in the first two Silesian Uprisings in 1919 and 1920.

The plebiscite took place as arranged on March 20, two days after the signing of the Treaty of Riga, on March 18, 1921, which ended the Polish-Soviet war of 1919-1920.

In the plebiscite, around 707,605 votes were cast for Germany, while 479,359 for Poland. The Germans thus had 228,246 votes of majority.

A right to vote was granted to everybody who turned 20, had been born or had lived in the plebiscite area. A result was mass migration. The German outvoters numbering 179,910; the Polish numbering over 10,000. Without the outvoters, the Germans would have a majority of 58,336 instead of 228,246.

The Third Silesian Uprising broke out in 1921. The League of Nations was asked to settle the matter before it led to even more bloodshed. In 1922, a six-week investigation determined that the land should be divided between the two nations. This decision was accepted by both countries, and the majority of Upper Silesians. Approximately 736,000 Poles and 260,000 Germans lived in Polish (Upper) Silesia and 532,000 Poles and 637,000 Germans in German (Upper) Silesia.

First Silesian Uprising (1919)

On 15 August 1919, German border guards (Grenzschutz) massacred ten Silesian civilians in the Mysłowice mine (Myslowitzer Grube) and caused the First Silesian Uprising against German control over Upper Silesia. The massacre sparked protests from the Silesian Polish miners. Ultimately, several Polish leaders were arrested during a general strike of about 140,000 mine workers. The revolting miners demanded that the police and local government authorities be both German and Polish in the future.

Roughly 21,000 Germans soldiers of the Weimer Republic's Provisional National Army (Vorläufige Reichsheer), with about 40,000 troops in reserve, quickly suppressed the uprising. What followed was German repression of the ethnic Poles of Silesia, and approximately 2,500 Poles were either hung or executed by firing squad. 9,000 ethnic Poles sought refuge in the Second Polish Republic along with thousands of family members (altogether about 22,000 persons). The repressive actions came to an end when Allied forces were brought in to restore order, and the refugees were allowed to return later that year. Once the Uprising had been crushed, a strong resentment arose within the Silesian Poles, reinforcing the Polish culture with which they identified.

Second Silesian Uprising (1920)

The Second Silesian Uprising (Drugie powstanie śląskie) was the second of three uprisings.

In February 1920, an Allied Plebiscite Commission arrived in Upper Silesia, made up of British, French, and Italian forces, but it was too small to maintain order. In any case, the British and Italians favored the Germans, while the French favored 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. This led to celebrations among the German community over what they assumed would be the end of independent Poland. The volatile situation quickly degenerated into violence (as German militias attacked the Poles) which continued even after it was made 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, Pless, Buthen. Between August 20 and 25, the rebellion spread to Konigshutte, Tarnowitz, Rybink, Lublinitz and Gross Strehlitz. 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 Silesian Uprising (1921)

The Third Silesian Uprising (Trzecie powstanie śląskie) was the last and largest and longest of the three uprisings, as it comprised the Battle of Annaberg.

It begun in the aftermath of the plebiscite which yielded mixed results. The British and French governments disagreed on the interpretation of the plebiscite. The main bone of contention was the "Industrial Triangle", the coal and steel producing district east of the Oder river bounded by the cities of Beuthen (Bytom), Gleiwitz (Gliwice) and Kattowitz (Katowice). The French wanted it to go to Poland, to give the latter an industrial base and weaken Germany; the British, supported by the Italians, wanted it to stay in Germany because the Germans claimed they could not pay war reparations without Upper Silesia.

In late April 1921, rumors flew that the British and Italians would prevail over the French, and thus Upper Silesia would remain in Germany. The insurrection began on a date planned for early in May Unlike the Second Uprising, the Third was carefully planned and organized under the leadership of Wojciech Korfanty.

The Third Silesian Uprising began on May 2/3, 1921, with Polish destruction of German rail bridges (see "Wawelberg Group") in order to thwart immediate German measures to suppress the uprising. A particular concern was to prevent a recurrence of the many acts of violence that had been perpetrated against the populace by German paramilitary groups, the Freikorps, which had ostensibly been created to support the German border-protection police (the Grenzschutz). The Freikorps comprised mostly volunteers and demobilised German soldiers.

The Inter-Allied Commission, in which General Henri Le Rond was the most influential personage, waited rather long before taking any steps to end the violence. The French troops of occupation generally favored the insurrection. In some cases British and Italian contingents actively cooperated with Germans. On the other hand 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 an initial success of the insurgents, taking over a large portion of the area of Upper Silesia, the German Grenzschutz several times resisted the attacks of Wojciech Korfanty's Polish troops, some cases in cooperation with 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 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 upon the released territory not being re-occupied by German forces, but by Allied troops. It was not, however, until July 1st 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.

Aftermath

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 gathered its own data, interviewed Poles and Germans from the region, and made its decision on the basis of self-determination. On the basis of the reports of this commission and those of its experts, the Council awarded the greater part of the Upper Silesian industrial district to Poland.

Polish Government had decided to give Silesia considerable Autonomy with Silesian Parliament as a constituency and Silesian Voivodeship Council as the executive body.

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 fall 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 and renamed.

In the Silesian territory which 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 which 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 case 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 Upper Silesian or Geneva Convention, was worked out by the League of Nations to preserve the economic unity of the area. It also set up a tribunal to arbitrate disputes. Furthermore, since Germany claimed she could not do without Upper Silesian coal, she was allowed to import 500,000 tons per year at reduced prices. However, when the coal agreement ran out in 1925, Germany refused to import the coal, and tried to use this as economic pressure to make Poland agree to a revision of the whole Polish-German frontier. Then Germany started a tariff war with Poland with the same intent, but failed to reach her goal.

Epilogue

The last surviving veteran of the Silesian Uprisings is Wilhelm Meisel, born 7 January 1904.

References

Further reading

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