Behind the Scenes of the Greater Poland Uprising

The Independence Organisations in the Poznań Region at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.

Janusz Karwat

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Before World War I, they were established, above all in German gymnasiums and universities, where larger groups of studying Poles were concentrated. Until the year 1885, associations of Polish students operated legally. Then, the Prussian authorities prohibited the establishment of any associations by Poles, including participation in the work of organisations outside universities. On 12 July 1896, a superior secret organisation was set up: the Union of Polish Youth Societies in Germany. One of the statutory objectives of the Union was national and educational activity among Polish exiles in Germany. In 1897, the Union consisted of 250 members belonging to 11 societies. The discovery of the activity of Union of Societies by the police led to the trial of Polish academics before the Tribunal of the Reich in Leipzig on 25-27 June 1900. 16 students received penalties ranging from one week to 3 months in prison. After this event, most of the Polish associations from German universities became part of the Union of Polish Youth Societies Abroad with its headquarters in Geneva (including Polish organisations from Aachen, Berlin, Chemnitz, Dresden, Fryburg, Greifswald, Halle, Heidelberg, Karlsruhe, Leipzig, Munich, Würtzburg and Wrocław).

The Association of Polish Youth, i.e. “Zet” was the most influential among the Polish students. Its range covered all partitions and foreign university centres where Poles studied. Set up on 14 January 1887 in Cracow, on the initiative of Colonel Zygmunt Miłkowski, it called for independence and democratism. The organisation had a three-level structure, i.e. 3 levels of initiation of the members (colleagues, comrades and brothers). ”Zet” was a type of patriotic order and its aim was to combine organic work with irredentism – as its activist Stanisław Szwedowski wrote. The highest authority in the association was the “Centralizacja” [“Central Board”], elected at annual congresses. District Committees, whose members were delegates from several academic centres, were subordinated to it. The circles (10) from the German Reich were concentrated in the Poznań district. Academic circles, the National Group, the theological group ”Swoi” [Locals], gymnasium commissars (from Pomerania, Silesia and Poznań), the ”Brzask” monthly magazine and from 1912, the civil defence commissar were all subordinated to the district board. National Groups were a temporary stage between secret gymnasium circles and ”Zet”. In 1908, the Gymnasium Council was established. Its consecutive leaders till 1919 were as follows: Antoni Wierusz, Tomasz Graczykowski, Witold Jeszke, Wincenty Kruszka, Priest Czesław Piotrowski and Zygmunt Zaleski. The commissars to whom the gymnasiums from the Poznań region were subordinated included: Czesław Chmielewski, Władysław Hedinger, Witold Jeszke, Władysław Likowski, Leon Strehl, Jan Plackowski and Maksymilian Wilimowski. The “Zet’s” Poznań district was different from other districts in terms of internal stability. The ”Zet” of the Prussian partition did not have any competition as was the case with the Russian partition. Under its direction, a new generation of Polish intelligentsia of the Prussian patition was shaped in the last twenty years before the outbreak of the war. It contributed significantly to the establishment of Polish carpenter and worker organisations in Berlin, Leipzig, Munich, Wrocław and Westphalia-Rhineland.

Initially the members of ”Zet” (brothers) also belonged to the National League. After the year 1899, two directions crystallised: socialist (press organ: ”Promień”) and national (press organ: ”Teka”) whose influence covered Galicia and the Prussian partition. The pushing aside of the idea of independence by the National League led to the termination of cooperation between them and ”Zet”. After the year 1910, the Centralizacja [Central Board] was located in Leipzig and Munich, and was composed of Greater Poland inhabitants: Aleksander Dubiski, Ignacy Nowak, Brunon Nowakowski, Stefan Rosiński and Leon Suchowiak. Before World War I, the organisation set its course on independence and took a both anti-Russian and anti-German stance. It accused the Commission of Confederated Independence Parties and Józef Piłsudski of bias in its military preparations and of turning a blind eye to matters related to the Prussian partition.

”Zet” became the main force that managed underground activities in the Prussian partition until the outbreak of World War I. Together with other organisations subordinated to it, it effectively counteracted the Germanisation of the Polish students. It did not have to face such competition here as in other partitions. It consciously struggled to interconnect organic work with those aspirations related to national liberation. Most of the Greater Poland political, social and economic activists as well as the clergy, during the inter-war period, were members of ”Zet”. Before the outbreak of war, the influences of Endecja [the National-Democratic Party] and Piłsudski’s adherents crossed into this organisation.

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