“Protecting independence is a permanent task”

“Life goes on in an incredible hurry. […] Every hour brings something new,” writer Maria Dąbrowska writes in her work Introduction. November 10, 1918. The age of empire is coming to an end in Germany, which is crying out for revolution. William II decides to flee to the Netherlands, and the next day in Compiègne, the German delegation signs an armistice under the guise of capitulation, ending the First World War. Austria-Hungary had collapsed some time ago, and a civil war was raging in Russia. New states are emerging on the ruins of empires. The clock of freedom is also ringing for Poland.

Seeing independence with their own eyes has been the dream of several generations of Poles since the end of the 18th century.e In the 19th century, the countries divided between three powerful neighbors – Prussia, Austria and Russia – were erased from the maps of Europe. There were times, especially during the Napoleonic Wars, when Poland’s dream of freedom seemed very close to being realized. But then independence faded again. The Poles fought hand-to-hand several times: in the Cracow (1846), Poznan (1848) uprisings, and twice against Russia, in the November (1830–1831) and January (1863–1864) uprisings. The price of these failed uprisings was high: death sentences, exiles to Siberia, confiscation of property, the abolition of Polish autonomy, and the strengthening of Germanization and Russification.

However, even in captivity, Polish culture flourished and society did not turn away from its Polishness. Prominent writers such as Nobel laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz or artists such as Jan Matejko created in all honesty “for the comfort of hearts”. In their works, they reminded the greatness of Poland and gave people hope.

The beginning of the First World War created hope in the hearts of Poles who were filled with the love of independence. In August 1914, the armies of the tyrants clashed: Germany and Austria-Hungary on one side, and Russia on the other. The protracted conflict exhausts the three powers. Russia plunges into revolutions, the Habsburg Empire crumbles like a house of cards, and Germany, under threat of revolution, is forced to ask for peace from the Entente on its own terms. A historic opportunity opens before the Poles. We must act quickly to prevent this from happening.

“At dawn, German officers are disarmed on every corner of the streets. […] We are taking back from the Germans their military equipment and civil administrations all day long. Introduction From Dąbrowska. The writer notes his observations on the spot: his comments on the disarmament of the Germans date back to November 11, 1918, and later became known as the starting point of the new Poland. On this cold and foggy Monday, the Council of Regency, a body created by the occupying powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary, hands power over the army to Jozef Piłsudski, one of the main animators of the Polish cause. Three days later, the Council also gives him full civil authority.

On November 16, 1918, Piłsudski sent a telegram to the governments of “all belligerent and neutral states” informing them that Poland still included all lands recently divided between neighboring states, was democratic and “established on the basis of rule and justice.” “, regained its sovereignty. The government of Jedrzej Moraczewski, appointed by Piłsudski, announces important social reforms: the eight-hour workday, the right to vacation, and health insurance. Women were also given the right to vote, long before many Western countries. All this made a resurgent Poland decidedly modern. turns into a state.

And in the autumn of 1918, no one could predict what territorial form this new state would take – if it could survive. In Galicia, the Poles fought fiercely with the Ukrainians for Lviv and Przemyśl. The western border of the republic was established at the cost of four uprisings against Germany – one in Greater Poland and three in Silesia. The biggest threat comes from the East. It is Bolshevik Russia that wants to carry out its bloody revolution in Europe “over the corpse of white Poland”. In 1920, the Poles defeated the Bolsheviks on the outskirts of Warsaw and Lviv. By halting the Soviet advance, they defend their newly acquired independence. The Old Continent has almost two decades of peace ahead of it.

But freedom is not given once and for all. Poland became painfully aware of this in 1939 when it fell victim to the aggression of its two totalitarian neighbors: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. This time he returns to the map of Europe after six years of hard hitting and destruction. However, it would have to wait many decades – the fall of communism in this part of the world – to regain its full sovereignty.

The generation of Poles born in a free country has already entered adulthood. But even in the third decade of the 21st yeare century, freedom and peace in Europe are not self-evident. Russia’s merciless aggression against Ukraine proves this to us even more.

On November 11, we celebrate another year of national independence in Poland – we are happy to live in a free country, but we realize that independence is a permanent obligation. If necessary, defend with a weapon in hand.

Karol Nawrocki is a historian and president of the National Institute of Remembrance.

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