How Poland became a nation again after WWI

Treaty of Versailles CAF

Though the emergence of an independent Polish state after World War I is often attributed to the efforts of President Woodrow Wilson, its emancipation was part of a series of events which finally culminated in the Versailles Declaration in 1918.

The spectre of a Polish state had, in fact, already been invoked two years earlier when the emperors of Austria and Germany – Franz Joseph I and Wilhelm II – proclaimed the emergence of a Polish Kingdom which could join their military alliance.

Almost historically parallel, after overthrowing Tsar Nicholas II in 1917, the Provisional Government in Russia issued a decree which recognised the right to Polish self-determination. 

“This untied the hands of the Western powers, which until then had treated the Polish issue as an internal matter of their Russian ally,” says Dr Piotr Szlanta, from the University of Warsaw.  

With the consent of the Soviets, the Polish National Committee was created in the summer of 1917, and with its headquarters in Paris, the organisation functioned effectively as the Polish government-in-exile.

“In 1918, the Polish issue could no longer be swept under the rug. From then on, there was no going back. A position on the Polish issue had to also be taken, sooner or later, by the Entente Powers,” says Dr Szlanta.

At a time when nation states were freeing themselves from the yoke of empire, Poland’s independence was important and the emergence of a Polish state was supposed to guarantee lasting peace in Europe.

Dr Piotr Szlanta said: “It was recognised that if this new international order was to be built on the rights of countries to self-determination…a nation of more than 10 million could not be denied the right to their own state. Without Poles’ demands being fulfilled, the post-war situation in Eastern Europe would not be stable, constituting a source of further conflicts, as in the 19th century, when Poles took up arms several times, launching uprisings and revolts.”

However, what firmly established the Polish state in the international imagination was the declaration of President Woodrow Wilson of January 8, 1918. During a speech to the US Congress, Wilson stated that the emergence of a united Poland from the three partitioned lands – with access to the sea – was a condition for lasting peace in Europe.  

“In brief, both sides of the Great War, which had already lasted four years, recognised the issue of Poland as important in 1918, and that a solution had to be found at the peace conference, independently of which side won the war,” says Dr Szlanta.

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