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The Warsaw Voice » Other » November 5, 2008
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The Second Polish Republic
November 5, 2008   
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The beginnings of the independent Polish state were not easy. The country was engaged in no fewer than six wars and border conflicts between 1918 and 1921. Poland expanded its territory in the wake of the Greater Poland Uprising of December 1918 and the Silesian Uprisings of August 1919, August 1920 and May 1921.

At War with the Soviets
The Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1920 was the greatest test. Many historians maintain that the Polish victory in the Battle of Warsaw in August 1920 had stopped the Soviet Union from advancing into Western Europe with the aim of imposing Bolshevik revolution. The war broke out in 1919 with skirmishing between Polish and Soviet forces at Mosty on the Neman River. The Polish forces were unstoppable during the first few months, successively capturing Vilnius, Minsk, Babruysk, Barysaw and Polotsk. Their winning streak came to an abrupt end when the 700,000-strong Red Army broke through the Polish lines in Belarus and Ukraine in June and July of 1920. Under the command of Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Russians marched on Warsaw in August, laying siege on the 15th. The decisive encounter took place outside Radzymin, about 20 km northeast of the capital. The Polish counteroffensive broke through Tukhachevsky's rearguard on the Wieprz River Aug. 16, surrounding the Soviet units within two days. On Aug. 31, the Russian 2nd Army under the command of Semyon Budyonny likewise found itself surrounded. A Polish offensive on the Neman River resulted in the capture of Grodno at the end of September and Minsk a month later.

A delegation of Polish governmental and parliamentary representatives signed an armistice in Riga Oct. 12 with officials of the Russian Federative Soviet Socialist Republic. The cease-fire came into effect Oct. 18. The two sides concluded the Treaty of Riga March 18, 1921. This delineated the Polish-Soviet border and regulated relations between the 2nd Polish Republic and the Russian Federative Soviet Socialist Republic, later the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), or Soviet Union.

Economic Reforms
Organizing the economy was a no less Herculean task. W豉dys豉w Grabski, two-time prime minister and treasury minister, is generally credited with overhauling the monetary system. The German ostmark, the Austrian crown and the Polish marka were all in circulation between 1918 and 1920. The last was only established as the republic's sole currency in 1920. Hyperinflation, however, soon prevented the State Treasury from meeting its budgetary commitments. The U.S. dollar traded at 15 million marks in 1923, compared with just nine in 1918. Grabski established a new currency known as the z這ty, pegged its value at 0.1689 grams of gold and replaced the marka at a rate of 1 to 1,800,000. The independent Bank of Poland was established April 24, 1924 to issue currency, regulate circulation and facilitate loans.

Setting up the Central Industrial Region (COP) between 1936 and 1939 was one of the greatest economic achievements of the 2nd Polish Republic. This was a heavy industry center in south-central Poland. The idea was to increase the country's economic potential and build up its armaments industry while combating the rampant unemployment left over from the economic crisis. The COP accounted for around 60 of Poland's investment outlays between 1937 and 1939.

The COP was set up by Eugeniusz Kwiatkowski, deputy prime minister charged with responsibility for economic matters, and treasury minister. It was also Kwiatkowski who concocted the plan to build a major port in Gdynia, a locality that had no municipal charter until February 1926. The idea of concentrating the armaments industry in the south had been conceived as early as 1921-1922 and drew on the military lessons of 1914-1921. The COP would be as far away as possible from the borders of both Germany and the Soviet Union, and wedged in between the San and Vistula rivers on all sides except the south, where it would be fenced off by the Carpathians. The COP was expanded to take in territory from the adjacent provinces of Kielce, Lublin, Lw闚 (today, Lviv, Ukraine) and Cracow. The COP covered 60,000 sq km., roughly 15 percent of the country's area, and over 5.6 million people, or about 18 percent of the population, lived there. More than 80 percent of the people within the COP lived in poor, overcrowded villages and there was an estimated labor surplus of between 500,000 and 700,000 people.

The COP's regions naturally complemented one another. Kielce, being well endowed with minerals, was the raw materials source, Lublin saw to the agricultural side of things and Sandomierz came to the party with gasoline, natural gas and hydroelectric power.

The May Coup
The 2nd Polish Republic was a country beset by internal conflict, which culminated in Marshal J霩ef Pi連udski's coup d'彋at of May 12-14, 1926.

Grabski's second government had fallen in November 1925, to be succeeded by a Cabinet comprising National Democrats, Christian Democrats, the National Workers Party, the Piast Polish People's Party, and the Polish Socialist Party, with Aleksander Skrzy雟ki in the driver's seat. Nobody was under any illusions about this being anything more a hastily cobbled together Band-Aid solution to forestall chaos until a new government could be formed and a parliamentary majority emerged. The socialists were the first to walk out of the coalition. Wincenty Witos managed to stitch a government together from the remaining parties May 10, 1926.

Pi連udski, who had until then had been sitting on the sidelines, announced "I am standing to fight the primary evil facing the nation, namely Poland being ruled by spoilt parties and factions, and the intangible being thrown aside in favor of money and perquisites."

The Warsaw garrison was put on alert on the night of May 11. Several units marched to Rembert闚, now a northeastern district of Warsaw, where they accepted Pi連udski's command, and marched on the capital the next day. Fighting between Pi連udski's forces and those of the government soon broke out. Pi連udski had demanded that Witos and his Cabinet resign whereas President Stanis豉w Wojciechowski had demanded that Pi連udski capitulate. The city was put under a state of emergency but most people demonstrated their support for Pi連udski. The primate of Poland, Aleksander Kakowski, and the speaker of the lower house of parliament, Maciej Rataj, attempted to mediate after two days of fighting, but to no avail. The government forces lacked artillery, unlike Pi連udski's units which were equipped with tanks and armored vehicles, and by May 14 were suffering one defeat after another.

Wojciechowski, who was worried the fighting had the potential to escalate into a civil war, gave the order to cease fighting and resigned. Witos resigned soon afterward.

The coup led to the formation of a new government led by Kazimerz Bartel. The National Assembly elected Pi連udski president but he declined in favor of Ignacy Mo軼icki, serving as Minister of Military Affairs instead.

Official figures put loss of life at 215 soldiers and 164 civilians. "Sanation," a political movement which advocated a "moral cleansing" of public life, was a major legacy of the coup. The movement lasted until the fall of the Polish state in September 1939. Sanation introduced an authoritarian government, fought communism, argued that democracy was in crisis, and urged the need for strong government and the dismantling of opposition parties.

September 1939
In the fall of 1938, Germany demanded the incorporation of the Free City of Danzig, today the Polish port city of Gda雟k, that an extraterritorial highway and railway be built through Polish Pomerania (the "Polish Corridor"), and that Poland become a German ally against the USSR by joining the Anti-Comintern Pact. In exchange, German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop offered to recognize the Polish-German border and to extend the 10-year Polish-German non-aggression pact for an extra 25 years. Germany also proposed eastern territorial changes that would benefit Poland. Polish foreign minister J霩ef Beck formally rejected the German demands in a parliamentary speech May 5, 1939.

The Soviet-German non-aggression pact, colloquially known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact after its signatories, was signed at the Kremlin Aug. 23, 1939. The USSR not only gave Germany its consent to attack Poland, but promised military assistance in the event that it did so.

At 12:30 a.m. Aug. 31, 1939, Adolf Hitler signed a decree designating 4:45 a.m. Sept. 1 as the time to attack Poland. Germany sent 1.8 million soldiers, 2,800 tanks, about 3,000 airplanes and 10,000 canon into Poland, which mobilized around a million soldiers, 880 tanks, 400 airplanes, and 4,300 canon.

Poland fought hard but was doomed from the outset. Neither Britain nor France honored their treaty commitments to come to Poland's aid.

The Soviet Union complied with the terms of a secret protocol to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact Sept. 17 by attacking Poland from the east with six armies numbering 600,000-650,000 soldiers and 5,000 tanks. The official pretext, forwarded to Polish diplomats that night, was the "disintegration of the Polish sate, the flight of the Polish government, and the need to protect the lives and property of ethnic Ukrainians and Belarusians in Poland's eastern territories, and to free the Polish people from war."

The Polish commander-in-chief, Marshal Edward Rydz-妃ig造, ordered his forces not to engage the Soviets. Defeat was slowly but steadily becoming inevitable. President Mo軼icki left Poland for Romania Sept. 17, together with the government of prime minister Felicjan S豉woj Sk豉dkowski.

The September campaign lasted from Sept. 1 to Oct. 6. Approximately 63,000 enlisted men and 3,300 officers lost their lives and another 133,700 were wounded. Some 400,000 were taken prisoners by the Germans and 230,000 by the Soviets.

The two aggressors carved up Poland between them.
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