On November 11, 1918, after 124 years of partition and oppression by the three contiguous empires, Austria, Germany (Prussia), and Russia, Poland regained her independence. The victorious allies-England, France, and the United States-celebrated November 11 as the Armistice Day, the day on which a long and bloody war finally ended. For Poland, November 11 meant the end of a much longer struggle to regain her independence-Konfederacja Barska of 1768-1761, the Napoleonic Wars and the D¹browski Legions, the November Uprising of 1831-1832, and the January uprising of 1863-1864.
Despite the separation imposed by the partitions and in the face of the intense germanisation and russification policies of the occupying powers, the Polish nation retained a strong sense of community and an equally unyielding determination to be one, free, and independent. The spiritual unity of the nation was nurtured and perpetuated by the cultural influences of Mickiewicz, Chopin, Raymont, Sienkiewicz, Zermoski, and, of course, by the shared religious experience in the Roman Catholic Church.
Given her unfortunate geographical position, Poland’s struggle for independence against the three frequently cooperating empires was, as history shows, very difficult. But, as history also shows, it was not impossible. When Poland finally won her independence, therefore, it was not only because of what Poles themselves did, but also because of what happened around them on the international arena.
Unable to defeat her powerful neighbors herself, Poland’s seemingly only hope, if she were to win independence, lay in the surrounding empires defeating themselves, or being defeated by others, or both. And, as Józef Pi³sudski anticipated, this was precisely what happened in the Great War. Under the hammer blows of military defeats, internal social unrest, and the Bolshevik revolution, Russia was seriously weakened and withdrew from the war. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, a polyglot of nations, disintegrated in the face of the impending defeat of the Central Powers. Germany was vanquished by the combined forces of France, England, and the United States. The defeat and the temporary internal disarray of the partitioning powers opened for Poles a unique opportunity to reach for their long sought independence.
America’s entry into the war not only assured allied victory but also provided vital moral and political foundation for Poland’s claim to independent statehood. During the course of the war, Austria, Germany, and Russia appealed to Poles for support for their respective war efforts in exchange for vague promises of more or less limited autonomous Polish kingdom after the war. This bidding for Polish support was clearly won for the allies by President Woodrow Wilson, who, in the thirteenth of his Fourteen Points of January 8, 1918, clearly declared his commitment to “a united, independent, and autonomous Poland, with free, unrestricted access to the sea.”
In this Great War, Poles fought on all major fronts and in all major armies. In many cases spontaneously and under the able leadership of Józef Pi³sudski, Polish volunteers from all three parts of their partitioned country formed national military units, which quickly coalesced into an armed force capable of securing the country’s borders. Nearly 500,000 Polish soldiers died in the war and at least the same number were wounded. The sacrifice was great, but so was the cause.
And so, the events and the diverse forces, which came together in 1918, enabled the Polish nation to win back its right to an independent existence and to be able to shape its own future.
Thus, November 11 of that memorable year was for Poland also a beginning. Truly daunting tasks lay before her leaders: establishing borders with, in most cases, hostile neighbors, uniting into one, integrated society a nation which, for the preceding century and a quarter, had been divided among three very different imperial systems, and constructing functioning economic and political systems. November 11, 1918, was a huge success for Poles, but it also imposed on them the responsibility for solving their quite formidable problems. They are still working on them. And we, here in America, wish them much success.
Dr. Witold J. £ukaszewski
Autor powyższego artykułu, doktor Witold Łukaszewski, jest profesorem historii i nauk politycznych w San Huston State University w Texasie. W artykule tym autor omawia historyczne tło walki o niepodległość i ogólną sytuację polityczną w czasie I Wojny Światowej, która stworzyła dogodne warunki do odzyskania niepodległości przez Polskę. Autor zaznacza również, że dzień 11 listopada obchodzony jest w Stanach jako dzień zakończenia I Wojny Światowej, który stał się Świętem Weteranów. Dla Polaków ten sam dzień jest Świętem Niepodległości, rocznicą odzyskania naszej państwowości po ponad stu latach zniewolenia.