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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Political power is useless without an army, the decision was therefore taken to form units of the People’s Guard in individual towns. Before the People’s Guard, there were the Guard and Security Service units, which, over time, became a form of support for the future uprising. 

After the outbreak of revolution in Germany, the Polish Military Organisation of the Prussian Partition recovered. On 11 November 1918, a team of leaders, or the so-called Council of Eleven, with Mieczysław Andrzejewski as its leader, was formed. Two days later, this team organised a spectacular entry into the meeting of the Poznań WSC at the City Hall, forcing it to accept several Polish members; the action was later referred to as the “attack on City Hall”. From that moment on, the Poznań branch of the Council was entirely in Polish hands. The Soldier Council was led by Bohdan Hulewicz. Mieczysław Paluch became a representative of the Executive Division of the WSC at the 5th Army Corps command. The members of the organisation therefore gained control of fundamental decisive issues concerning military affairs in the capital of the region.

Soon after the attack on the City Hall, the PMOPP started to organise activities that were just as spectacular and risky. On 15 November, a failed attempt at occupying Fort IX was made. Three days later, Polish soldiers failed to occupy the military barracks behind Brama Dębińska. On the other hand, a bold action, the goal of which was to steal 80 kilogrammes of files concerning new German formations ended successfully. Furthermore, the Poles managed to prevent the stealing of gold from a branch of the Reich’s Bank, and occupied the barracks with military equipment on Rycerska (later: F. Ratajczaka) street, the guardhouse in Młyńska street and the Uniforms Office in the district of Jeżyce, on Nollendorfa (Jackowskiego) street. Radio operator Stanisław Jóźwiak, who served at the Cytadela radiostation, was a valuable “asset” for the organisation. Now the conspirators could gain access to correspondence exchanged between the German command in Poznań and the authorities in Berlin. Over time, a group of conspirators, determined activists gathered around Władysław Zakrzewski, Mieczysław Paluch and Bohdan Hulewicz, was formed. They started to consider the possibility of forming a secret staff for the future uprising. They were called the Paluch Group or the Secret Military Staff. In reality, however, the role of the team was not as it had been planned, it was therefore soon neutralised by inspectors from the Commissariat of the SPC. It may basically be assumed that the “staff” existed only in the hopes and imaginations of the organisers. However, Paluch and his partners certainly did not lack creativity, determination and resolve. 

Before the outbreak of the uprising. Diplomatic relations

The Greater Poland Uprising should be considered with reference to the diplomatic situation in 1918-1919 and the circumstances that occurred in the Polish lands. Contrary to common judgements and opinions on Poland’s exceptional role in Europe, during the Great War we were not a subject, but rather an object of international politics, which, to a large degree, resulted not from our national traits, but from our geopolitical location which involved the lands on the Vistula and Warta rivers in nearly all larger European conflicts. Firstly, in 1914, the invaders wanted to attract subjects of Polish nationality. From the Russian side, the attractive factor was the manifesto of Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich, in which he promised that the memory of Poland would be kept, if the inhabitants of the Kingdom decided to support the Romanovs and Petersburg; soon afterwards, the Puławy Legion was formed. Austria-Hungary consented to the creation of the Polish Legions (despite the failure of the First Cadre Company’s mission). The Germans waited until 5 November 1916 to establish, in cooperation with Vienna, the temporary Kingdom of Poland, composed of lands taken from Russia. Their intention was not to contribute to the rebirth of Poland, but rather to have access to as many recruits as possible. The Legions proved to be the longest-lasting, as despite the oath crisis in July 1917, over time they gave rise to the pro-independence tradition which later prevailed in the reborn Poland (not without the influence of the charismatic personality of Józef Piłsudski). 

During the acts of war, as the situation related to the army was becoming clear in all three partitions, attitudes towards the Polish affair, or, above all, to Polish soldiers, were also changing, because the matter was of utmost importance to our allies. Under this rule, only in 1917, when the tsarist system in Russia fell and the threat of diplomatic interventions from Petersburg disappeared, were Poles allowed to form a Polish army in France, commanded by General Józef Haller.

The situation of Poland did not change much at the end of the First World War. As soon as the armistice in Compiègne was signed, former conflicts and biases reappeared. Among the countries of the victorious coalition which were preparing themselves for the opening of the peace conference, two factions were visibly distinguished: the British one and the French one. The United States assumed the role of an intermediary who counted on economic profits after the war, especially since American divisions participated in the war on the Western Front (there were reasons to claim that the Americans actually saved the collapsing front). Italy clearly shared the side of the British, hoping for territorial benefits resulting from the breakup of Austria-Hungary. As a result, the Polish cause had only one honest and genuine ally: France. Let us add that France based its relations with Poland, not on sentimental reasons (since in politics there are no friends, only common interests), but on the obligation resulting from its policy. The rebirth of Poland, often portrayed in our country as a form of recognition or even homage to the Polish determination in fighting for independence, was actually a result of the fact that Europe was in a need of a relatively strong state that would separate Bolshevik Russia from the defeated Germany. On the other hand, a reborn Poland guaranteed the stability of the anti-German alliance, which was a necessity, if Berlin should want to take revenge for the 1918 disaster. 

In the late autumn of 1918, the majority of politicians from Poznań thought that a fait accompli based on an armed uprising may only bring harm to the Polish cause. Considering the balance of powers visible in Paris at that time, every unconsidered move of Polish diplomacy, caught between a rock and a hard place, could have an adverse impact on the border and on the political situation of the country being reborn. These concerns soon proved true during the Polish-Bolshevik war, when Poland was left on its own. At the beginning of December, however, information flew to Poznań that the Polish cause in Paris did not look good. In the files of Ignacy Jan Paderewski, stored in the Archive of New Acts in Warsaw, there is information concerning some secret signals sent from Paris to politicians from Poznań. The signals expressed the need to undertake “action aimed at stressing the will of society as to the nationality of specific lands”.

Starting an armed struggle on Polish lands annexed to the Reich would, however, entail a high diplomatic risk. The disclosure of these suggestions would be harmful to the image of France, and would deteriorate the position of the Poles to that of an undisciplined nation mistrustful towards western powers; a nation that, although still in the process of regaining its freedom, is already trying to impact the shape of Central Europe on its own. To achieve as much as possible, an uprising had to break out soon, while the German forces were in revolutionary chaos and while the Army subordinate to Ober-Ost command was far in the east. The people in the territory of the Prussian Partition, especially in Greater Poland, were morally ready for battle. It was the organisational level of preparations that was insufficient. The greatest problem was that there were not enough experienced officers and commanders. Diplomatic concerns, expressed also in Warsaw, were visible in the position of Ignacy Jan Paderewski, manifested in Poznań between 26 and 31 December 1918. 

In this situation, the Commissariat of the Supreme People’s Council on the one hand decided to wait, and on the other strengthened its military and diplomatic contact with Warsaw. The uprising outbreak date was initially set at mid-January 1919. 

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