Behind the Scenes of the Greater Poland Uprising

What events led to the outbreak of the Greater Poland Uprising in December 1918?

Marek Rezler

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Conspirators and politicians

In the period preceding the outbreak of the First World War, the fourth generation of Organicists was active in the territory of the Prussian Partition. A look back on the scope of their work allows for the conclusion that within less than 100 years they managed to establish structures which were completely independent of the Berlin authorities, covering nearly all of the crucial domains of state and economic life.  

The Germans probably only realised the growing threat when they discovered the phenomenon of the successful companies founded and managed by Priest Piotr Wawrzyniak. Although the Organicists managed to establish a flexible economic and organisational system that could compete with the invader’s authorities, they were unable to stop the mental changes that were inevitable due to being a part of a foreign country for such a long time. If an uprising was to break out, the opportunity had to appear as soon as possible. 

In 1918, when the power of the Reich was waning, the inhabitants of Greater Poland already had strong foundations to ensure a swift takeover of power in the region, and to take control of the basic branches of economy - apart from industry, as the Poznań province was a region that was meant to serve as an agricultural base. At that time, the Prussian Partition could either passively wait for decisions to be taken at the peace conference and accept them “as they were”, or start an armed uprising, a demonstration that would move these decisions in the direction more desired by the Polish people. 

In Greater Poland, the organisation that had the biggest influence was the National-Democratic Party (Stronnictwo Narodowo-Demokratyczne), established in 1897. It was a national and anti-German movement presenting a specific and clear vision of a future independent Poland. The NDP had practically no rivals, not even socialists or the peasants’ movement, while many leading Polish institutions, such as the Union of Earning and Economic Associations, a large number of People’s Banks, the People’s Libraries Society or numerous corporate organisations, were in the hands of priest-community activists who were in close cooperation with the NDP. There were also professional organisations and the Catholic Society of Polish Workers’ circles, which later became the basis for creating the Greater Polish Christian Democrats Party, which in turn took the lead in the Polish circles in Upper Silesia. To a certain degree, this ideological monolith was very useful (particularly during the fight for freedom). However, it could be considered as an obstacle as far as the region’s functioning in an independent, multi-party state was concerned.  

In this reality, the extensive social, ideological and economic movement, based on anti-German and pro-independence environments, fuelled conspiracy activities, especially among the youths from secondary schools. In Slavic countries, the organisation that gained greatest popularity was the Gymnastic Society “Sokół” (“Falcon”) established in 1862 in the Czech Republic. The first nest of “Sokół” in the Prussian Partition was formed in December 1884 in Inowrocław, on the initiative of scouts from Lviv. Soon, the network of “Sokół's” nests covered the entire territory of Greater Poland, relying mostly on petite bourgeoisie connected to the peasant movement.

From the very beginning, “Sokół” in Greater Poland was only theoretically a society focusing on the popularisation of physical culture. In fact it was an association preparing young people for military service and shaping their patriotic attitude and attachment to national tradition. The scope of its activity covered not only the Prussian Partition, but also Polish communities in exile, among others, in Westphalia and Rhineland. Before the outbreak of the Great War, thirteen districts, which since July 1893 were associated in the Greater Poland Falcons Association and, two years later, in the Polish Falcons Association in Germany, were active. Before the war, there were 291 nests (or circles) comprising nearly 12 thousand members. 

The idea emerged over time to include teenagers in pro-independence activities as part of scouting, which at the time was very popular and, more importantly, fully legal. The most popular organisation operating in this area was the Tomasz Zan Society, the core activity of which was focused on self-education. In fact, it prepared its participants for pro-independence activities. “Zet”, i.e. the Polish Youth Association (founded in Krakow by Zygmunt Balicki and operating in all of the partitions), was better organised and more targeted. Its participants included Polish students from Berlin, Leipzig and Munich. It was focused on training future managers and leaders. However, the idea of moving scouting to the territory of the Prussian Partition was initiated by members of “Sokół”. In 1912, on the initiative of Doctor Ksawery Zakrzewski, the Vice-President of the Poznań branch of “Sokół”, the first scout groups were created in Greater Poland too. The first Polish scout patrol in Greater Poland, named “Poznań”, started activity on 17 October 1912. By the end of the year, an entire scout group was formed. Later on, four scout groups were joined in the scout troop “Piast”. The patrons of the groups were, subsequently: Bolesław Chrobry (Bolesław the Brave), Kazimierz Wielki (Casimir the Great), Mieczysław I and Władysław Jagiełło. Not long afterwards, legal Polish scout groups were established all around Greater Poland. Its most prominent leaders were: Cezary Jindra, Wincenty Wierzejewski, Henryk Śniegocki and Antoni Wysocki. Girl scouts, organised in their own (less numerous) groups, were trained as nurses. As time passed, a rule was developed that a teenager would pass from scouts to “Sokół”, and from “Sokół” to the army.

In 1914, there were approximately 40 scout groups operating in the territory of the Prussian Partition. They included nearly 900 male and female scouts in total. Two years previously, secret Polish Rifle Squads had also been established. Their members, just as their colleagues from Galicia, carried out secret army training. 

Furthermore, in 1864-1914, so in the period between the fall of the January Uprising and the outbreak of the Great War, a new generation of young Poles unburdened with the experience of defeat, raised in a patriotic spirit, hardened in the fire of the reality of Kulturkampf, emergency laws and the removal of the Polish language from education and administration, and school strikes, was born and brought up. It was therefore natural that activists started to form secret, formally self-educational organisations which, in fact, focused on pro-independence activity.  

It was all about conspiracy. It must not be forgotten, however, that all of the Polish organisations operating in the Prussian Partition did great educational work. It resulted, among other things, from the specific character of the family and social life of the era when every community, focused around handicraft, religion or sports, took care of the education of their community members, fostered national awareness, organised trips, concerts, amateur theatre performances, feasts, picnics and festive integration meetings and, as far as was possible, also acted as publishers. 

In the flames of war

Nearly two million soldiers of Polish nationality served in the armies of the invader countries. 500000 of them passed through the German army, fighting mainly on the toughest, Western Front. It is assumed that at least 148000 of them were killed. Before the rebirth of Poland, the Poles had to fight against each other in opposing armies. It was also they who contributed to the change of the moods within the army, when after several months, victorious marches and battles gave way to a positional war that was long-lasting, near pointless and disastrous to all of the sides of the conflict. The soldiers on the front were occupied with their own affairs, making them unable to influence the situation in their country. However, the Polish youth and the members of the secret organisations who did not go to war did not suspend their activity. From 1915, the Secret Independence Organisation functioned in schools. A year before, “battle groups of ten” had been organised among the scouts, and in May 1915, the “Union” Sports Club", the core activity of which was focused on recreation and independence, was founded. The leading activists and organisers of these associations included Stanisław Nogaj and Zenon Kosidowski. Similar organisations were established in other towns of Greater Poland. On 2 April 1916, the Municipal Scout Quarters, led by Henryk Śniegocki, was founded. 

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