By Eric Vandenbroeck

Having been partitioned between Austria, Prussia, and Russia in the late eighteenth century, and having failed in its various strivings toward reunion and revival in the nineteenth century (even as the Polish national idea, defined chiefly in opposition to its perceived Russian mirror-image, flourished), in the twentieth century the entirely unexpected outcome of the First World War in Eastern Europe, in which all three of Poland's dissectors and persecutors were defeated, suddenly presented Poles with the opportunity for unification and liberation in 1918. The abruptness and unexpectedness of this outcome of the world war left many issues unresolved (or even unexplored). Not least among them was the conundrum of where. Precisely, the new Second Polish Republic's eastern border might be placed among the kaleidoscope of ethnicities that blurred the edges between it and Russia. This was further complicated, of course, at the close of the world war, by the conflict between US President Woodrow Wilson's pious espousal of self-determination and the European Allies' (not unreasonable) fear that the equally sudden and unexpected revolutionary developments in Russia might all too soon be echoed on their doorstep in Berlin, Budapest, and Vienna. In such an unmapped moment thus the Polish issues in the end would be resolved by force of arms.1

As we shall see, neither did military operations end on Polish soil following the armistice in November 1918 but rather were followed by a border struggle in the new state, which continued for the next three years.

What happened was that in January 1918 US President Wilson included a recreation of Poland as the thirteenth of his famous "Fourteen Points": An independent Polish state should be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations, which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea, and whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant.

Whereby it was early recognized that some of the problems were whether Poland is to obtain territory west of the Vistula, which would cut off the Germans of East Prussia from the empire, or whether Danzig can be made a free port and the Vistula internationalized.

On January 29, 1919, then, President Wilson himself announced the interpretation of the thirteenth point to which he would subscribe. On that day one of the two Polish delegations appeared before the Supreme Council of the Allied and Associated Powers and reviewed the general problems which faced the reborn state: Upper Silesia, Poznan, Eastern Galicia and the delicate situation of her Eastern Frontiers. Stressing the importance of her access to the Baltic, they did not formally lay claim to the city of Danzig; nevertheless, their description of the situation and the implications contained therein were such as to elicit from the President the statement that he "was henceforth convinced that Danzig must be Polish and that in this affair he would be with Poland." Several weeks later a joint Anglo-American conference accepted a Polish-German frontier proposed by Sir Esme Howard and Dr. Lord and approved the grant of Danzig to Poland.

The problem, of course, was that there was no “indisputably Polish” (or, for that matter, indisputably Ukrainian or Czech or Serbian) part of Europe to which all could agree. Populations were too intermingled in most parts of Europe to provide the clean, easily demarcated borders that national self-determination required. Furthermore, many people had never identified themselves with a nation-state, only with a region or religion or a language group.

In Point Ten Wilson had written: “The peoples of Austria-Hungary, whose place among the nations we wish to see safeguarded and assured, should be accorded the freest opportunity to autonomous development.” development.” But who exactly were those peoples, which ones should get their state, and where should their borders be? Were the Czechs and Slovaks similar enough to warrant their inclusion in the same state? What of the German, Polish, and other minorities who would inevitably be included in those borders?

Most claims for territory came with either a historical or an ethnic argument. In the majority of cases, of course, the historical positions of one group contradicted those of one of its rivals.

Also were Wilson’s Point Thirteen called for Poland to “be assured a free and secure access to the sea,” few Poles then lived near the coast, which was populated mostly by ethnic Germans. The obvious port for the new state, Danzig (Gdansk), had a German majority. To refuse it to Poland would deny the new state a chance to sell its goods overseas, but to take it away from Germany would violate the principle of national self-determination. The same problems confronted Memel (Klaipėda), which had at least a plurality of ethnic Germans, but Lithuanian nationalists demanded it on historical and economic grounds.

These battles over economic issues were anything but trivial. States that could not support themselves would not be able to contribute to the overall recovery of European markets, assist in the restoration of international security, or fend off destabilizing challenges from the left or the right. It is therefore not surprising that so many of the most acrimonious debates about territorial borders occurred over regions rich in coal or other minerals. In most cases, these claims contradicted the principle of national self-determination. To return to the ever-complex Polish case, the Poles demanded Upper Silesia just as the French had demanded the Saar. Both regions contained rich coal deposits, but neither had majority Polish or French populations.

One of the more intractable problems centered on the coal-rich Silesian Duchy of Teschen, today the region around Cieszyn near the intersection of the borders of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Another of the places Lloyd George said he had never heard of, Poland demanded it based on a 1910 Austro-Hungarian census that claimed Polish as the dominant language of the region. The Czechs, however, disputed that claim, arguing that most of the region’s Poles were newcomers who had arrived to work in the mines; they claimed that the region’s true identity was indisputably Czech. The main rail lines of the region, moreover, went to Czech and Slovak districts, not Polish ones. Under the Austro-Hungarian rule, these distinctions did not much matter. In October 1918, however, two rival councils, one Polish and one Czech, had claimed the right to govern Teschen in the wake of the collapse of the empire’s authority. Armed forces from both sides had clashed in January and February 1919, auguring a future of violence and instability that might undermine whatever the statesmen agreed to in Paris.

Thus the initially non-violent national revolutions within the Dual Monarchy soon morphed into violent upheavals in the form of both inter-state and civil wars, notably in the eastern borderlands.

Like in the case of when the National Committee proclaimed the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, with Lemberg as its capital, war broke out between the newly established West Ukrainian state and the Polish Republic, which also laid claim to Lemberg and East Galicia. Both sides were aware that military control over the disputed territory would create realities on the ground that the peacemakers in Paris would be unable to ignore. After two weeks of fighting, Polish troops conquered Lemberg, but the war itself continued until July 1919 when it ended with a Ukrainian defeat.2

So it is clear that when Woodrow Wilson had promised, in the thirteenth of his Fourteen Points, that a reconstituted Poland should receive territory that was ‘indisputably’ Polish while also gaining "free and secure access to the sea", the impossibility of simultaneously fulfilling both of these promises, given the size of the German communities settled all along the Baltic coast, illustrates the challenge of creating a new functioning successor state with undisputed borders in east-central Europe. This challenge was further complicated by other factors: four years of armed conflict on the Eastern Front had ravaged the lands that were to become Poland. Hundreds of thousands of its inhabitants had been killed or deported far to the east and west by occupying Germans, Austrians, and Russians. Epidemics and famine plagued the rural and urban population in late 1918.

Personalities mattered as well. For example, the Czechs had articulate representatives who agreed on the main points of the Czech position and showed a willingness to compromise with their future neighbors. The Poles, on the other hand, disagreed even among themselves about the borders of both historical Poland and the new Poland they wished to create. Two antagonistic Polish delegations divided between its new head of state and commander-in-chief, Józef Piłsudski, and the Polish National Committee in Paris under Roman Dmowski, pushed their cases so far that they angered not only the diplomats in Paris but their new neighbors as well.

Polish leaders in Austrian Poland did not have anyone comparable to a Roman Dmowski or Józef Pilsudski. Their “Supreme National Committee” had supported Pilsudski and his legions, but unlike him, they supported the “Austrian solution,” that is, the union of Austrian and Russian Poland in a Crownland within the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Since A-H was the ally of Germany, they did not demand union with Prussian Poland). One adherent to this view was Wladyslaw Sikorski, who led another Polish Legion in the A-H Army. (He was to become Polish Premier in the early 1920s, then again Premier of the Polish govt.- in- exile and Commander-in-Chief of Polish Armed Forces in the West in World War II). The Austrian solution collapsed with Austria-Hungary. Poles began to disarm Austrian soldiers in Galicia in November 1918, just as they disarmed Germans in Warsaw at this time.

The first Polish government and Pilsudski were both distrusted in the West because Pilsudski had cooperated with the Central Powers in 1914-17 and because he had supported the formation of a Socialist government. It was not until January 1919, when the great pianist Ignacy Paderewski became Premier, also Foreign Minister of a new government, that it was recognized in the West. (Paderewski had arrived in Danzig on a British warship, then went to Poznan. His presence there in late December 1918 sparked German attacks and Polish resistance, which developed into a Polish uprising against the Germans in Prussian Poland).

With hostile neighbors all around it, the army of the emerging Polish nation state had to be built from scratch with soldiers who had fought in three different imperial armies during the Great War, often against each other. While the Czech leadership was united in its political representation at the Paris Peace Conference, the Polish leadership was divided between its new head of state and commander-in-chief, Józef Piłsudski, and the Polish National Committee in Paris under Roman Dmowski.3

Piłsudski was to emerge triumphant from that power struggle, not least because he focused on realities on the ground while the peacemakers in Paris were still discussing the future borders of east-central Europe. The son of an impoverished Polish-Lithuanian nobleman from Vilnius (Polish: Wilno) in the Russian part of Poland, Piłsudski had been politically active from an early age. This was largely in response to Russian rule, which made it mandatory for him, a practicing Catholic, to attend Orthodox services and to speak Russian rather than Polish. He was arrested for the first time in 1887 for participating in a failed plot organized by Lenin’s elder brother to assassinate Tsar Alexander III and was sent to Siberia for five years. In 1900 he was arrested again but escaped. He spent the years before the war in the socialist underground, robbing banks and trains to procure desperately needed funds for his political causes.4

When the First World War (also called 'the Great War') started in 1914, large numbers of ethnic Poles fought in three different imperial armies, some for Austria-Hungary and Germany, others for Russia. Piłsudski initially supported the Central Powers and even raised volunteers, the Polish Legions, to assist in the war against Russia, the chief obstacle in the way of Polish hopes for national independence. Germany and Piłsudski were thus united in their desire to defeat the Russian Army. When Russia collapsed in 1917, he grew increasingly concerned that a victorious Germany might be too powerful a neighbor. His increasingly tense relationship with the Germans who had occupied the formerly Russian-Polish territories since 1915 eventually landed him in prison, where he remained until the very end of the Great War.5 On his release and return to the old Polish capital of Warsaw in November 1918, Piłsudski was acclaimed "first marshal of Poland" by his legionnaires. It was obvious to him and anyone else that the nearly simultaneous collapse of Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary provided a unique historical opportunity to recreate a state that had been swallowed up in the late eighteenth century. But where exactly were the borders of Poland? The borders of the old state had repeatedly changed, and since the partitions of the late eighteenth century, Poland had completely vanished from the map. Ethnic Poles had lived under Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian rule since the partitions and the population patterns, urban structures and economy of resurrected Poland had little in common even with the eighteenth-century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.6

Under Piłsudski’s military leadership, Poland remained in a constant state of open or undeclared war between 1918 and 1921, fighting against Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians to the east, Lithuanians to the north, Germans to the west, Czechs to the south, and Jews (as ‘internal enemies’) on territory it already controlled.7 In the east, Poland’s military engagement against Ukrainian troops in Galicia began at the very beginning of November 1918, even before the official conclusion of hostilities on the Western Front and the proclamation of the Second Polish Republic on 11 November.8 Here, as elsewhere, territorial ambitions in ethnically divided regions were at the heart of the conflict.9 While Galicia’s western half, including the city of Kraków, had a clear Polish majority, matters were more complicated further east, where – with the exception of the cities of Lemberg and Tarnopol (Ukrainian: Ternopil) – ethnic Poles were vastly outnumbered by Ruthenians (Catholic Ukrainians), who, after gaining independence from the Habsburg Empire in November 1918, now sought unification with the Ukrainian Republic. The Poles, however, were entirely unsympathetic to such aspirations and resisted with force.10

By the spring of 1919, Piłsudski’s reorganized Polish armed forces were also engaged in Upper Silesia against a strong force of German volunteer troops in the west and in the north against Lithuanian Bolsheviks, who had recently captured the disputed city of Vilnius.11 However, the most existentially threatening of conflicts for the newly reconstituted Polish nation state was the war against Soviet Russia between the spring of 1919 and the autumn of 1920. It began with a Polish thrust into Belarus in 1919 and the second advance towards Kiev in April 1920. In bitter fighting the Poles advanced east, capturing Kiev in May, but lacking the hoped-for local support to sustain their position. Leon Trotsky’s Red Army held firm. In June the Red Army drove the Poles out of the Ukrainian capital, before starting parallel offensives through Minsk in Belarus, and across western Ukraine. Lenin seized the opportunity to overthrow what he perceived as a bourgeois Polish government and to export the revolution further west, ordering his troops to advance on Warsaw. In the summer of 1920, he even set up a puppet government – the "Polish Soviet Socialist Republic" under Felix Dzerzhinsky – to administer the territories they had already conquered. During its brief existence of merely three weeks the "Polish Soviet Socialist Republic" was governed from an armored train commuting between Smolensk and Białystok.12

Throughout the campaign, both sides committed countless atrocities against enemy soldiers and civilians, notably Jews.13 As the German-Jewish war veteran and novelist Arnold Zweig noted in 1920, presumably in response to a particularly well-documented pogrom in Pinsk: "Poles and pogroms have befallen the Eastern Jewish people who live piled together in the big cities and scattered through towns and villages. From the big cities comes shocking news, but the towns and villages, without railroads, without telegraph offices, have long been mute. Slowly one one hears what is happening there: murder and massacre."14

By August the Soviet troops were closing in on the suburbs of Warsaw. The Poles were largely cut off from Allied support, with the exception of a small French contingent under General Maxime Weygand, who had been accompanied to Poland by a young and talented staff officer, Charles de Gaulle.15 As foreign diplomats began to evacuate the Polish capital, a masterfully executed counter-attack by Piłsudski, celebrated in national mythology as the "Miracle on the Vistula," gave the Poles the upper hand and led to the rout of the Red Army. In September, Lenin sued for peace. The Treaty of Riga, signed on 18 March 1921, left Poland with the western parts of Belarus and Ukraine. These territories would remain contested for many years to come, not least because they added more minorities – some four million Ukrainians, two million Jews and a million Belarusians – to Poland’s ethnic make-up.16

In the south of the new Polish state, the Allies acted as a mediator between the rival interests of two "victor states." The small former Habsburg Duchy of Teschen (Polish: Cieszyn; Czech: Těšín), for example, was claimed by both Poland and Czechoslovakia. According to the Habsburg census of 1910, ethnic ‘Czechs’ were outnumbered two to one by "Poles" in Teschen, while another considerable percentage of the population was "German".17 Despite its tiny size, the former Habsburg duchy had significant coalfields, which added the above mentioned economic dimension to its perceived strategic importance as a major railway junction in central Europe. Czechoslovakia, the favorite successor state of the Western Allies, claimed that the territory was vital for its economic and strategic future, but Polish speakers constituted a majority of the population. In January 1919, Prague and Warsaw dispatched troops to address the situation on the ground before a decision was made in Paris. Unsure as to how to appease their two key allies in central Europe, the peacemakers in Paris partitioned the Duchy in July 1920 without holding a referendum, a solution with grim results for the inhabitants.18

Under pressure from the Big Three (the US, France, and Britain), Poland and Czechoslovakia agreed to an inter-Allied commission that eventually divided Teschen and its coal fields into two with little regard for the ethnic distribution of the town’s population. Poland got the city center, Czechoslovakia got the railway. In 1938, as part of the Munich Conference’s infamous division of Czechoslovakia, Poland annexed the rest of Teschen, then called Zaolzie. A final resolution did not come until 1958, almost four decades after the Treaty of Versailles and, of course, after another world war.

Also, Germany’s borders with Poland were very complex and required more words than those of all the other German borders combined because the new frontiers had to be specified in great detail. The new state of Poland took a large swath of Pomerania, West Prussia, and Posen. The effect was to cut a “Polish corridor” through Germany that would guarantee Poland access to the sea. Poland did not, in the end, however, gain control of the overwhelmingly German port city of Danzig, which instead became a free city under the authority of the League of Nations and open for both Germany and Poland to use for trade. Germans who chose to remain living there had to give up their German nationality. East Prussia was thus cut off from the rest of Germany. Memel also became a free city under the protection of the Allies despite the town having a majority German population.

Most immediately, the Bolsheviks posed a threat to the new Poland as the two states disputed the borders that the peace process had set in Eastern Europe. Although they had drawn Poland’s new borders in Paris, the British, French, and Americans could do little to ensure that the Soviets, or for that matter the Germans, would respect them. For that reason, French leaders like Gens. Ferdinand Foch and Maxime Weygand wanted France and Britain to provide equipment and technical assistance to the new Polish army so that it could better defend itself. A strong Poland, they hoped, would balance the power of Germany and the Soviet Union while providing France with a grateful ally in Eastern Europe. Other Western officials either wanted to stay out of the dispute or, in some cases, blamed the Poles for trying to expand their borders while the Russians were distracted by their civil war. Polish forces did indeed drive east, capturing territory that was supposed to become part of the new states of Lithuania and Ukraine. These moves gave Poland enemies on all sides of its already indefensible borders. Less than a year after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the Soviet Union, and Poland were at war.

European conservatives worried that a Soviet victory in that war would destroy an already fragile Poland, destabilize central Europe, and bring a Bolshevik government up to the German border. Stopping the Soviet Union as far east as possible therefore became a priority of the highest order. Initial Soviet success on the battlefield only added to the climate of fear. Weygand went to Warsaw to help the Poles plan and prepare a counterattack (one of his subordinate officers was a young Charles de Gaulle), partly with Polish veterans of the Allied armies of the First World War formed into a French-led “Blue Army.” In August 1920, Polish forces won a critical victory outside Warsaw that contemporaries compared to Charles Martel’s victory over the Moors in 732. Whereas Martel had stopped a Moorish threat to Europe from the south, the Poles had stopped a communist one from the east.

There was thus great sympathy and gratitude in the west toward the Poles, although sympathy and gratitude had their limits. Neither France nor Great Britain had any desire to risk an extension of the brewing war in the east, although they did seek to form alliances with a strong Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. They, therefore, supported Poland’s extensive land claims against the Soviet Union in the 1921 Treaty of Riga even at the risk of future tensions with the Soviets. That treaty produced the so-called Riga Line, which gave Poland fifty thousand more square miles of Russian, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian territory than the Paris Peace Conference had promised.

Although its victory over the Soviet Union made Poland larger and stronger, France and Britain reacted coolly to the Treaty of Riga, in large part because it overturned the settlements of Paris by force. The borders of Poland thus became one of the first major provisions of the Paris Peace Conference revealed as unenforceable. Instead of being negotiated with or arbitrated by the League of Nations, the new Polish border had been determined by brute force. It, therefore, struck most Europeans as a symbol of the futility of the very concepts that had ostensibly informed the Treaty of Versailles. Russians, Ukrainians, and Lithuanians reacted with bitter anger at Poland’s land grabs, as well as at France and Britain for their support of the Poles. As even many Polish officials recognized, the Treaty of Riga was a Pyrrhic victory, giving Poland land (much of it not inhabited by ethnic Poles) at the cost of bitter enmity from the country’s new neighbors. It also created a border with the Soviet Union that had few natural defenses and gave the pariah states of Germany and the Soviet Union a common grievance unarmed crowds of protesters.19 Altogether, between 1918 and 1920 roughly 150 civilians were killed in the ethnic and political turmoil in the Czech lands alone, while the war that Prague waged against the Hungarian Soviet Republic during the spring and summer of 1919 cost more than one thousand lives.20 Many of the perpetrators of irregular violence against civilians were former Czech legionnaires who had gradually returned home from Russia, before forming the nucleus of Prague’s new Republican army.21 Given their active role in the war and the fight against Russian Bolshevism, former legionnaires felt that it was their "duty" to defend the new state against communists, German and Hungarian "separatists," and Jews.22 In May 1919, for example, Legionnaires played a prominent role in the public lootings of Jewish and German property in the streets of Prague.23 More dramatic incidents of violence occurred in the borderlands. During the Czechoslovak invasion of Slovakia, and notably after the repulsion of Prague’s troops by the Hungarian Red Army and the introduction of the short-lived Slovak Soviet Republic, Czech troops resorted to terror against civilians, notably Jews, Catholic priests and suspected communists.24 In another border region, near Uzhgorod, a Catholic priest was assaulted and eventually stabbed to death with bayonets in front of terrified villagers.25


The Little Treaty of Versailles

Although by some accounts Europe’s territorial reorganization in 1918– 19 halved the total number of people deemed minorities, from 60 million to between 25 and 30 million, the new successor states initially had no legal framework in place to secure their rights.26 The Allies thus drew up the so-called Minorities Treaties, a series of bilateral agreements signed by each of the new states as a precondition for their international recognition.27

Post-imperial Poland was supposed to provide the model. The Polish Minorities Treaty, or “Little Treaty of Versailles” as it is known, signed on the same day as its better-known namesake, would guide all subsequent statements from the conference on the subject, and similar agreements would bind no fewer than seven additional successor states.28 The Minorities Treaties sought to protect the collective rights of all ethnic or religious minorities now living in the successor states of east-central Europe.29 The new nation-states had to guarantee the rights of political organization and representation, and the use of minority languages in courtrooms and schools, as well as compensation for land transfers. In Czechoslovakia, for example, international treaties guaranteed minority groups collective rights. In areas where they made up at least 20 percent of the population, Germans had the right to obtain an education and deal with state authorities in their language. As ethnic Germans tended to be clustered in certain regions, this effectively meant that 90 percent of them were able to avail themselves of this concession.30

Alleged violations of the treaties could be brought to the League Council and the International Court of Justice. Significantly, parties outside the national boundaries could make representations on behalf of beleaguered minorities. The Hungarian government, for example, might sue on behalf of Magyars in Slovakia, or Weimar Germans on behalf of the Sudeten Germans. It was one of the peace conference’s most significant achievements, as it provided a legal framework through which aggrieved minorities could (and did) seek redress against treaty violations.31

As we have seen above, the situation was less clear when it came to minorities that had no national state to fend for their interests, such as the roughly six million Jews living in the Pale of Settlement in the western borderlands of the collapsed Romanov Empire and the eastern half of the former Habsburg Empire (notably in Western Galicia and Hungary). Whereas the Jews of the Romanov Empire had been periodically subjected to pogroms before 1914, those living in the Habsburg lands were relatively safe from violence.

Overall, the treaties designed to allow ethnic minorities a certain degree of cultural autonomy and legal protection proved ineffective. Even Czechoslovakia, generally considered the most tolerant and democratic of the successor states, soon displayed an ambivalent attitude towards its non-Czech subjects. At least in theory, or so Tomáš Masaryk, the son of a Czech mother and a Slovak father, assumed, the cultural differences between Czechs and Slovaks could easily be bridged. But while the Reformation had turned the majority of Czechs into Protestants, the Slovaks, who had lived under Hungarian rule since the tenth century, were staunchly Catholic. And if the Slovaks had hoped that Masaryk would keep his promise, made in the Pittsburgh Agreement of 1918, that they would be granted far-reaching cultural autonomy within the new state, they were soon proven wrong.32

Masaryk’s attitude towards the sizeable German minority was even more problematic, even if the “Sudeten” enjoyed a considerable degree of cultural freedom in areas where they constituted a majority. Simultaneously, however, he led the grassroots pressure for land reform, when he decided to break up the large (mostly German-owned) estates – a move that also allowed Czechs to “colonize” the German-inhabited western borderlands of Czechoslovakia.33 As Masaryk’s Foreign Minister, Edvard Beneš, freely admitted in conversation with a British diplomat, the end of Austro-Hungarian rule had led to a reversal of ethnic hierarchies: “Before the war, the Germans were here” (pointing to the ceiling) and “we were there” (pointing to the floor). “Now,” he declared, reversing his gestures, “we are here, and they are there.” Land reform, Beneš insisted, was “necessary” to “teach the Germans a lesson”.34

From the perspective of the losing parties in Europe, the Minorities Treaties were merely a fig leaf to cover up the blatant breach of the fundamental principle of self-determination, which they had wrongly assumed would underpin the new world order. The defeated states agreed that their “lost” minorities had to be “returned” at all cost, putting treaty revisionism high up on the political agenda long before the Nazis entered the scene. It was not a good foundation for a lasting peace.35



Thus as we have seen, the Polish state that emerged after World War I was not a creation of the peacemakers, although defining the borders of the new Poland had seen more commission meetings than any other aspect of the conference. The Polish National Committee that had been formed during the war advocated a return to the boundaries of 1772, which would have meant the inclusion of millions of Lithuanians, Belorussians, and Ukrainians. The French, ever in search of a counterweight in the east against potential German aggression, favored a strong Poland. The Lithuanians, Belorussians, and Ukrainians did not; nor did the British and Americans. They favored a smaller Poland, along what became known as the Curzon line. Poland’s new western borders included a small strip of Pomeranian territory around the River Vistula to allow the Poles access to the sea, as stipulated in Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Its eastern boundaries were decided in a war with Russia, which lasted from February 1919 to September 1920. The Poles were victorious, and the expanded territory added a further two million Jews, four million Ukrainians, and one million Belorussians to their minority population.

Initially, this large state was governed by the Sejm, a democratically elected parliament based on the French model. However, the 92 political parties, the introduction of proportional representation, and the exuberant individualism of the Polish intelligentsia made parliamentary government difficult. In 1927, Marshal Józef Piłsudski, who had played a major part in the formation of the new Poland, decided to end the ‘chaos,' and established a military dictatorship. His government had lasted for twelve years before it was terminated by Hitler and Stalin. After the Second World War, the country was stripped of its eastern "minorities," and the German-speaking population was expelled. Poland became the homogenous nation it is today.


1. As we shall see, no clear ethnic demarcation line could possibly separate the confounding mix of nationalities-Lithuanians, Belorussians, Rusyns, Ukrainians, Jews, and others who occupied the lands betwixt Russia and Poland. On the Polish question, see: Kay Lundgreen-Nielsen, The Polish Problem at the Paris Peace Conference: A Study in the Policies of the Great Powers and the Poles, 1918-1919, Odense: Odense University Press, 1979; Mieczyslaw B. Biskupski, "War and the Diplomacy of Polish Independence, 1914-1918:' Polish Review, vol. 35, no. 1 (1990), pp. 5-17; Piotr Wandycz, "Poland on the Map of Europe in 1918:' Polish Review, vol. 35, no. 1 (1990), pp. 19-25; and Paul Latawski (ed.), The Reconstruction of Poland, 1914-23, London: Macmillan, 1992.

2.Timothy Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus 1569– 199 (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2003), 137– 41; Judson, Habsburg Empire, 438.

3. Piotr Stefan Wandycz, The Lands of Partitioned Poland, 1795– 1918 (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1974), 291– 3; Norman Davies, God’s Playground, vol. 2: 1795 to the Present (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 52– 3; MacMillan, Peacemakers, 219ff; see also Jochen Böhler, ‘Generals and Warlords, Revolutionaries and Nation State Builders: The First World War and its Aftermath in Central and Eastern Europe’, in idem, Włodzimierz Borodziej and Joachim von Puttkamer (eds), Legacies of Violence: Eastern Europe’s First World War (Munich: Oldenbourg, 2014), 51– 66.

4. On Piłsudski, see, among other books, Peter Hetherington, Unvanquished: Joseph Pilsudski, Resurrected Poland, and the Struggle for Eastern Europe, 2nd edition (Houston, TX: Pingora Press, 2012); Wacław Jędrzejewicz, Pilsudski: A Life for Poland (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1990); Holger Michael, Marschall Józef Piłsudski 1867– 1935: Schöpfer des moderne Polen (Bonn: Pahl-Rugenstein, 2010).

5. Davies, God’s Playground, vol. 2, 385.

6. Ibid, 5ff.

7. Jochen Böhler, ‘Enduring Violence. The Post-War Struggles in East-Central Europe 1917– 1921’, in Journal of Contemporary History 50 (2015), 58– 77; idem, ‘Generals and Warlords, Revolutionaries and Nation State Builders’.

8. On the Polish-Ukrainian conflict, see Torsten Wehrhahn, Die Westukrainische Volksrepublik: Zu den polnisch-ukrainischen Beziehungen und dem Problem der ukrainischen Staatlichkeit in den Jahren 1918 bis 1923 (Berlin: Weißensee Verlag, 2004), 102– 12; Mykola Lytvyn, Ukrayins’ko-pol’s’ka viyna 1918– 1919rr (L’viv: Inst. Ukraïnoznavstva Im.I. Krypjakevyča NAN Ukraïny; Inst. Schidno-Centralnoï Jevropy, 1998); Michał Klimecki, Polsko-ukraińska wojna o Lwów i Wschodnią Galicję 1918– 1919 r. Aspekty polityczne I wojskowe (Warsaw: Wojskowy Instytut Historyczny, 1997).

9. Margaret MacMillan,Peacemakers: The Paris Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War, 2009, 235.

10. Kay Lundgreen-Nielsen, The Polish Problem at the Paris Peace Conference: A Study in the Policies of Great Powers and the Poles, 1918– 1919 (Odense: Odense University Press, 1979), 222– 3, 279– 88.

11. On Upper Silesia, see Timothy Wilson, Frontiers of Violence: Conflict and Identity in Ulster and Upper Silesia 1918– 1922 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). On the Polish-Lithuanian conflict, see Andrzej Nowak, ‘Reborn Poland or Reconstructed Empire? Questions on the Course and Results of Polish Eastern Policy (1918– 1921)’, in Lithuanian Historical Studies 13 (2008), 134– 42; Snyder, Reconstruction of Nations, 57– 65.

12. Norman Davies, White Eagle, Red Star: The Polish-Soviet War, 1919– 1920 and ‘the Miracle on the Vistula’ (London: Pimlico, 2003), 152– 9; Jerzy Borzęcki, The Soviet-Polish Peace of 1921 and the Creation of Interwar Europe (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2008), 92.

13. Adam Zamoyski, Warsaw 1920: Lenin’s Failed Conquest of Europe (London: Harper Press, 2008), 67; Davies, White Eagle, Red Star, 141, 152ff. On the atrocities, see Jerzy Borzęcki, ‘German Anti-Semitism à la Polonaise: A Report on Poznanian Troops’ Abuse of Belarusian Jews in 1919’, in East European Politics and Cultures 26 (2012), 693– 707.

14. Arnold Zweig, Das ostjüdische Antlitz (Berlin: Welt Verlag, 1920), 9– 11.

15. On French involvement in the war, see Frédéric Guelton, ‘La France et la guerre polono-bolchevique’, in Annales: Académie Polonaise des Sciences, Centre Scientifique à Paris 13 (2010), 89– 124; idem, ‘Le Capitaine de Gaulle et la Pologne (1919– 1921)’, in Bernard Michel and Józef Łaptos (eds), Les Relations entre la France et la Pologne au XXe siècle (Cracow: Eventus, 2002), 113– 27.

16. Davies, White Eagle, Red Star, 261ff; Borzęcki, The Soviet-Polish Peace of 1921.

17. See Piotr Stefan Wandycz, France and her Eastern Allies, 1919– 25: French-Czechoslovak-Polish Relations from the Paris Peace Conference to Locarno (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1962), 75– 91.

18. Robert Howard Lord, ‘Poland’, in Edward M. House and Charles Seymour (eds), What Really Happened at Paris: The Story of the Peace Conference by American Delegates (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1921), 67– 86, 82– 3; on the dispute, see Harold Temperley (ed.), A History of the Peace Conference of Paris, 6 vols (London: Frowde and Hodder and Stoughton, 1921– 4), vol. 4, 348– 63.

19. On the Czech-German clashes in the first interwar years, see Karl Braun, ‘Der 4. März 1919. Zur Herausbildung Sudetendeutscher Identität’, in Bohemia 37 (1996), 353– 80; Johann Wolfgang Brügel, Tschechen und Deutsche 1918– 1938 (Munich: Nymphenburger Verlagshandlung, 1967), 75– 78; Rudolf Kučera, ‘Exploiting Victory, Sinking into Defeat: Uniformed Violence in the Creation of the New Order in Czechoslovakia and Austria 1918– 1922’, in Journal of Modern History (forthcoming).

20. On the international context of the war, see Miklos Lojko, Meddling in Middle Europe: Britain and the ‘Lands Between’, 1918– 1925 (Budapest and New York: Central European University Press, 2006), 13– 38; Dagmar Perman, The Shaping of the Czechoslovak State: Diplomatic History of the Boundaries of Czechoslovakia (Leiden: Brill, 1962); Wandycz, France and Her Eastern Allies, 49– 74.

21. On the returnees, see Gerburg Thunig-Nittner, Die Tschechoslowakische Legion in Rußland: Ihre Geschichte und Bedeutung bei der Entstehung der 1. Tschechoslowakischen Republik (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1970), 112– 23. On the special position of the Czechoslovak Legion members in the Czechoslovak republic, see Natalie Stegmann, Kriegsdeutungen, Staatsgründungen, Sozialpolitik: Der Helden- und Opferdiskurs in der Tschechoslowakei, 1918– 1948 (Munich: Oldenbourg, 2010), 63– 116.

22. Ivan Šedivý, ‘Zur Loyalität der Legionäre in der ersten Tschechoslowakischen Republik’, in Martin Schulze Wessel (ed.), Loyalitäten in der Tschechoslowakischen Republik 1918– 1938: Politische, nationale und kulturelle Zugehörigkeiten (Munich: Oldenbourg, 2004), 141– 52; Kučera, ‘Exploiting Victory, Sinking into Defeat’. For a comparative perspective on Alsace-Lorraine and the Czechoslovak borderlands, see Tara Zahra, ‘The “Minority Problem”: National Classification in the French Gerwarth, Robert. The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End, 1917-1923 (Kindle Locations 8656-8664). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition. and Czechoslovak Borderlands’, in Contemporary European Review 17 (2008), 137– 65.

23. Kučera, ‘Exploiting Victory, Sinking into Defeat’.

24. Peter A. Toma, ‘The Slovak Soviet Republic of 1919’, in American Slavic and East European Review 17 (1958), 203– 15; Ladislav Lipscher, ‘Die Lage der Juden in der Tschechoslowakei nach deren Gründung 1918 bis zu den Parlamentswahlen 1920’, in East Central Europe 1 (1989), 1– 38. On the broader central European context, see Eliza Ablovatski, ‘The 1919 Central European Revolutions and the Judeo-Bolshevik Myth’, in European Review of History 17 (2010), 473– 49; Paul Hanebrink, ‘Transnational Culture War: Christianity, Nation and the Judeo-Bolshevik Myth in Hungary 1890– 1920’, in Journal of Modern History (2008), 55– 80; Kučera, ‘Exploiting Victory, Sinking into Defeat’.

25. Kučera, ‘Exploiting Victory, Sinking into Defeat’.

26. Alan Sharp, ‘“The Genie that Would Not Go Back into the Bottle”: National Self-Determination and the Legacy of the First World War and the Peace Settlement’, in Seamus Dunn and T. G. Fraser (eds), Europe and Ethnicity: The First World War and Contemporary Ethnic Conflict (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), 25; Raymond Pearson, National Minorities in Eastern Europe: 1848– 1945 (London: Macmillan, 1983), 136.

27. Mark Levene, Crisis of Genocide, vol. 1: The European Rimlands 1912– 1938 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 230– 40.

28. For the text, see ‘Treaty of Peace between the United States of America, the British Empire, France, Italy, and Japan and Poland’, in American Journal of International Law 13, Supplement, Official Documents (1919), 423– 40. Carole Fink, ‘The Minorities Question at the Paris Peace Conference: The Polish Minority Treaty, June 28, 1919’, in Manfred Boemeke, Gerald Feldman and Elisabeth Glaser, (eds), The Treaty of Versailles: A Reassessment after 75 Years (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 249– 74.

29. Ibid.

30. Jaroslav Kucera, Minderheit im Nationalstaat: Die Sprachenfrage in den tschechisch-deutschen Beziehungen 1918– 1938 (Munich: Oldenbourg, 1999), 307.

31. Carole Fink, Defending the Rights of Others: The Great Powers, the Jews, and International Minority Protection (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 260; Zara Steiner, The Lights that Failed: European International History 1919– 1933 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 86.

32. Mary Heimann, Czechoslovakia: The State that Failed (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 33– 4 (Pittsburgh Agreement) and 61– 2 (on broken promises).

33. On land reform, see Daniel E. Miller, ‘Colonizing the Hungarian and German Border Areas during the Czechoslovak Land Reform, 1918– 1938’, in Austrian History Yearbook 34 (2003), 303– 17.

34. As quoted in Mark Cornwall, ‘National Reparation? The Czech Land Reform and the Sudeten Germans 1918– 38’, in Slavonic and East European Review 75 (1997), 280. On Czech-German relations in interwar Czechoslovakia more broadly, see Jaroslav Kucera, Minderheit im Nationalstaat; Jörg Hoensch and Dusan Kovac (eds), Das Scheitern der Verständigung: Tschechen, Deutsche und Slowaken in der Ersten Republik (1918– 1938) (Essen: Klartext, 1994).

35. On revisionism, see the following collection of essays: Marina Cattaruzza, Stefan Dyroff and Dieter Langewiesche (eds), Territorial Revisionism and the Allies of Germany in the Second World War: Goals, Expectations, Practices (New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2012).