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The Warsaw Voice » Other » November 5, 2008
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Independence Day
November 5, 2008   
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As the result of three partitions carried out by its neighboring powers, in 1772-1795 Poland slowly ceased to exist as a state. In November 1918, after 123 years, it reappeared on the map of Europe.

As a result of three partitions-in 1772, 1793 and 1795-the partitioning powers took over Poland as follows: Russia-463,200 sq km and over 5.4 million inhabitants, Prussia-141,400 sq km and about 2.6 million inhabitants, and Austria-128,900 sq km and about 4.2 million inhabitants. Russia occupied 82 percent of Poland's territory in its borders of 1772, Austria took 11 percent, and Prussia 7 percent. In 1807 Poland gained a vestige of independence in the form of the small Duchy of Warsaw established by Napoleon Bonaparte. After Napoleon's defeat, this was transformed in 1815 into the non-sovereign Congress Kingdom, formally united with Russia by a personal union.

Poland's return to the map of Europe was linked to the changed political situation in the final months of World War I. On Jan. 8, 1918 U.S. President Woodrow Wilson presented a 14-point program for the postwar order in Europe, and item 13 outlined the formation of a sovereign Polish state with access to the sea.

Russia, in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution, was in the throes of civil war. Germany, having defeated the Russian forces, occupied the Baltic countries up to the Gulf of Finland, Belarus and almost all of Ukraine, and forced Russia to sign a separatist peace treaty in Brest on March 3, 1918. Soon, though, Germany was defeated in the campaign on the western front. In October 1918, as a result of defeats in the Balkans, the Austro-Hungarian empire disintegrated as well.

No state authorities functioned at this time in the entire region of Galicia.

On Oct. 28, Cieszyn Silesia was the first region to declare its incorporation into the still nonexistent Polish state. In Poznań, a Polish body called the Supreme People's Council was formed. The Polish Liquidation Commission was established in Cracow, chaired by Wincenty Witos. After disarming the Austrian garrison, this body took power in Cracow and then in all of western Galicia. A similar operation failed in Lviv, where the Ukrainians beat the Poles to it, seizing practically the whole city and declaring Lviv the capital of the Western Ukrainian People's Republic. Fighting broke out between Polish volunteers and Ukrainian forces, with troops from the Polish cities of Przemy¶l and Cracow arriving Nov. 22 to help ensure a Polish victory. This was the start of the Polish-Ukrainian war which ended in the summer of 1919.

The Provisional People's Government of the Republic of Poland was constituted in Lublin on Nov. 7, with socialist Ignacy Daszyński as prime minister. A program of reforms was announced, covering such issues as an eight-hour work day, the abolition of giant landed estates, nationalization of mining, heavy industry, banks and transportation, introduction of insurance, and free lay education for everyone. Other cities and regions were also witness to the spontaneous formation of various independence-minded government bodies based on existing local political parties or military organizations.

The most important events, however, took place in Warsaw, the seat of the Regency Council which-following the Sept. 12, 1917 decision of Germany and Austro-Hungary-ruled in the Kingdom of Poland. Set up Nov. 5, 1916, it was a semblance of a Polish state dependent on the two powers. This council was also formally commander of the Polish Armed Force, a small army of the Kingdom of Poland that was part of the German army in 1917-1918.

In the wake of Germany's defeat on the western front, on Oct. 7 the Regency Council announced Poland's independence and stripped Warsaw Governor-General Hans von Beseler of his command of the Polish Armed Force. On Oct. 25, the government of Józef ¦wieżyński was appointed, the first Cabinet that did not seek the approval of the German and Austro-Hungarian occupying authorities.

Nov. 10 saw the return to the political arena of Józef Piłsudski, commander of the First Brigade of the Legions, Polish military units originating from the First Cadre Company formed in Cracow on Aug. 3, 1914 at Piłsudski's initiative. A day earlier Emperor Wilhelm II had abdicated in Berlin, the German Republic had been proclaimed and a revolution had broken out. The German authorities released Piłsudski from prison; he was taken to Warsaw by special train, escorted by Count Harry Kessler, who was designated as Germany's representative affiliated to the future Polish government.

The arrival of Piłsudski-a symbol of resistance against the partitioning powers-sparked mass enthusiasm. Disarming of the German garrison began on the night of Nov. 11; the main role in this was played by the underground Polish Military Organization that Piłsudski had organized in 1914-1917 in the Congress Kingdom. The Regency Council handed over military power to him on Nov. 11 (and civil power on Nov. 14), and then dissolved itself.

On the same day, Nov. 11, in Compiegne, 70 km from Paris, in a railway carriage that was the headquarters of Allied Commander-in-chief and French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the German delegation signed the terms of the armistice ending World War I. The map of Europe was fundamentally changed. Austro-Hungary disappeared and eight new countries emerged: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland. Imperial Germany and Austria became republics.

In an act passed by the Sejm in 1937, Nov. 11 was declared Independence Day-the Day of Rebirth of the Republic of Poland.
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