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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As the weeks passed, the political situation of the lands of the Prussian Partition was becoming increasingly problematic. Unfortunately, the activity of the Polish and Greater Poland diplomats did not always correspond to their actual significance on the international scene – even despite spectacular speeches made at the peace conference by an excellent speaker and patriot, Roman Dmowski. They planned to liberate the territories of the Prussian Partition with the help of Józef Haller’s army, which would head south from Gdańsk. Such an option would be viable, if an uprising broke out in Pomerania. The possibility of starting action in Upper Silesia was also taken into consideration. At the end of 1918, however, these plans were unrealistic. Nevertheless, in December 1918, the decision was made in Poznań to establish two secret associations: the Military Organisation of Pomerania and the Polish Military Organisation of Upper Silesia. Similarly to the PMOPP, they were not officially linked to the Polish Military Organisation based in Warsaw.

Time was apparently not on the side of the Polish pro-independence environment in the Prussian Partition. Despite links to Warsaw, political reasons prevented the possibility of geting any active help from the former Kingdom of Poland. As time passed, the revolutionary wave in Germany was slowly dying out, and military circles that wanted to gain control of the situation in the army and, if not continue the war in a hopeless effort, then at least restore order in a country, the fate of which was uncertain, given the prospect of having to sign a peace treaty, were gaining strength. Fewer soldiers were leaving the army, people eagerly joined numerous voluntary formations that, at least temporarily, ensured protection from an uncertain fate in civilian life. Regiments and battalions were returning to their garrisons, reinforcing the German military advantage. In a few weeks’ time it would be too late. Meanwhile, although in the People's Guard and in the Worker and Soldier Council there were volunteers driven by their patriotic spirits, there were too few experienced high-ranked commanders to wage an armed struggle. Success was an option in a town or in a poviat, but any further idea of how the fight should develop was rather blurry. In such cases, sometimes fate comes to the rescue.

In 1914, there was nothing that would suggest the occurrence of favourable circumstances. Despite the outbreak of war, the German side still oppressed the Polish people. Furthermore, the relations between Polish soldiers and German officers on the front were generally far from friendly. Only in the course of war, when it became clear that the conflict would last longer, did the situation slowly start to change. A brotherhood of arms appeared between the soldiers of Polish and German origin, which, however, did not change the pro-independence hopes of the Greater Poland residents.

The situation in a country, where the living conditions were deteriorating and the awareness of the Reich’s inevitable demise was rising, was different. Starting from 1917, from the elimination of Russia from the war and from the failures of the German offensives on the Western Front in particular, the underground resistance started to emerge in Greater Poland. “Polish leave”, from which soldiers did not return to the front, and desertion were becoming more and more common. In the region there was a large number of soldiers feigning illnesses and deserters – people who received military training and had war experience, but did not want to return to the front during the reign of Emperor William. They waited for the situation to develop further. The phenomenon was quite frequent, although not as common as was often described in memoirs and publications concerning the Greater Poland Uprising. In the civil circles of individual towns “shadow cabinets” were formed. These were secret Polish civil committees whose members would assume functions in administrative bodies and in the economy, if the German reign should break down. The education received in German schools was sufficient to assume such obligations, at least at the initial stage. The most fervent spirits were among the youth (mainly the scouts and members of “Sokół”) and conscripts who had passed military training, but had not been to the front or seen the atrocities of war yet. In February 1918, the Polish Military Organisation of the Prussian Partition was formed. Apart from its name (similarly to the later established Military Organisation of Pomerania), it did not have anything in common with the Warsaw-based Polish Military Organisation.

In November 1918 and after the outbreak of the revolution in Germany, the discipline of the German army on the Western Front broke down, and in the following weeks until the late winter of 1919, the Berlin authorities actually lost control of events in the Poznań province. At that time, the Germans had to handle a revolution within their own country and were concerned about the attitude of Greater Poland, which was the Reich’s agricultural base. For the Poles, it was an excellent opportunity to stand up for the rights they had been deprived of for the previous decades. Polish organisations, operating in the province, and civil committees became very active (although they still remained underground). On 11 November, the Executive Division of the Worker and Soldier Council was formed. Two days later, the Council was dominated by Poles as the result of a coup. Members of the PMOPP began gathering weapons and units of the People’s Guard and the Guard and Security Service were formed. Officially, their composition complied with the parity rule. In reality, their members were mostly Poles. In Ostrów Wielkopolski, a Polish unit was formed too early. After the intervention of the Commissariat of the SPC, it had to temporarily pass the border of the Kingdom of Poland and was then transformed into a Border Battalion which was accommodated in Szczypiorno. 

The course of events accelerated on 3-5 December 1918, when the Partition Sejm of Poznań held its meetings in Poznań. The Supreme People’s Council, with a six-member executive body - the Commissariat - was officially established. Taking advantage of the passiveness and confusion of a German administration that was not receiving any specific guidelines from Berlin, the Poles in Poznań and in many others towns in the region were gradually taking the initiative. Meanwhile, the Commissariat of the SPC was still conducting negotiations with Berlin. The talks, with interruptions, were continued even after the outbreak of the uprising, over the next several weeks. Tension was growing in the region. The atmosphere got tense as people waited for events that would impact the future of Greater Poland.

Ignacy Jan Paderewski’s arrival in Poznań in the evening of 26 December, and the demonstrations organised on this occasion caused an even greater surge in the patriotic spirit, which was skilfully fuelled by Polish patriotic circles. Paderewski, who came to the capital of Greater Poland to participate in talks concerning the future of the territories of the Prussian Partition after the signing of the peace treaty, avoided being associated with the sentiments in Poznań. He represented the authorities of Warsaw, thus associating the situation in Poznań with Paderewski would cause serious harm to the Polish affair at the peace conference in Paris. The official version was, therefore, that the artist fell ill and could not leave the “Bazar” hotel, where he was staying, until the end of the year.

On the next day, 27 December 1918, a ceremonious children’s parade in honour of Paderewski was organised in front of the “Bazar” Hotel, while the German side was preparing its reaction to the events in the city. In the late afternoon, a jingoistic march walked the streets of Poznań. The march was joined by soldiers from the Jeżyce-based 6th Grenadier Regiment. The most active demonstrators vandalised Polish buildings on which the flags of allied states were hung. Having done the same with the seat of the Commissariat of the SPC, they finally reached the Bazar. Here, the march was stopped by the Polish People’s Guard. As the tension grew and as the night got darker, a shot was heard. Although it is not clear who fired it or who was the target, the shot sparked further events. Both sides, although probably the Germans more so, were surprised by the course of events.

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