With white-and-red flags fluttering over their heads and patriotic songs on their lips, Poles celebrate the 104th anniversary of Poland regaining its independence with countrywide and international events.
A whole variety of celebrations is about to sweep through Poland regionally and locally on November 11 to express how much Poles hold dear the independence their ancestors fought and died for so that their descendants may enjoy it. Provincial capitals as well as smaller towns and localities will hold ceremonies, music and film festivals, and independence runs.
Official celebrations featuring statespersons, diplomats, and other officials, are set to begin as early as noon at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw, where a solemn change of guard will be performed, followed by a wreath-laying ceremony at the foot of the statue of Józef Piłsudski – marshal of the Polish army and one of the key architects and freedom fighters behind Poland’s successful resurgence of 1918. A patriotic song concert will follow, and the official celebrations will move to Krakowskie Przedmieście street where more music shows, debates, and children-dedicated performances are to be performed. Earlier in the day, two holy masses will be celebrated at 10 and noon in Warsaw’s Temple of Divine Providence located in the high-end neighbourhood of Wilanów.
But perhaps the most spectacular event is the Independence March. Scheduled to begin at 2 pm at Warsaw’s downtown Dmowski Roundabout, it will walk down the main artery of Jerozolimskie Avenue, cross the Vistula river over the Poniatowski bridge and conclude at the forefield of the National Stadium. With previous editions’ participation counting in tens of thousands of Poles, the bottom-up organised procession has been a staple manifestation of national belonging of all members of the nation regardless of age, gender, ethnicity and other characteristics.
Poland – a phoenix of a nation
When on November 11, 1918, WWI officially ended, the Second Polish Republic came into being. It took Poland 123 years to regain independence after being partitioned by the Russian Empire, the Austrian Empire, and the Kingdom of Prussia in 1795.
While November 11, the day when the bloody conflict ended, is recognised as the moment when Poland regained its independence, the world learnt that Poles had thrown off the occupiers’ yoke a couple of days later, namely, on November 16, when the Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Army Józef Piłsudski dispatched a letter to the states of the world.
The Polish Republic disappeared from the map of Europe in 1795 as a result of its territory being annexed by its three neighbours: Russia, Prussia and Austria. Many generations of Poles had tried to resurrect the state since then, but the situation only changed during WWI, when the partitioners found themselves in opposing military camps.
From the first days of the war, Poles started forming military groups aimed at regaining their country’s independence. Józef Piłsudski was especially active in building the Polish military force. The activities were also buttressed by a diplomatic campaign that resulted in the statement of principles for peace outlined by President Thomas Woodrow Wilson in January 1918. One of the Fourteen Points announced the erection of an independent Polish State.
Crucial to restoring independence was the defeat in the war of all three of the occupying powers. Russia withdrew from the war in 1917, immersed in the confusion of the Bolshevik Revolution and civil war. Austria-Hungary disintegrated and went into decline, and the German Empire bowed to pressure from the forces of the Western Allies. For Poles, this was a unique opportunity to reclaim their independence.
Roman Dmowski, a prominent right-wing spokesman, lobbied for Polish aspirations among the Allied Powers, and Józef Piłsudski emerged as the most prominent figures in the independence struggle. The latter became the Chief of State of the newly restored Poland in 1918. Other prominent statesmen who contributed to regaining independence include Polish People’s Party leader Wincenty Witos, famous composer Ignacy Jan Paderewski, prominent socialist politician Ignacy Daszyński, and Wojciech Korfanty who fought against the German occupation of the Silesian region.
It needs to be stressed that at the time the idea of independent Poland and Polish national identity was very attractive and popular, garnering support also of originally not Polish people, who would often embrace Polish ways, customs and citizenship.
On 11 November 1918, an armistice was signed on the Western Front, which virtually ended the war. Józef Piłsudski returned to Warsaw from a German prison a day earlier. Thanks to his unquestionable authority, most of the Polish pro-independence centres submitted to his will. Piłsudski took command of the emerging Polish Army on November 11 – the day that went down in history as the day Poland regained independence.
On 16 November Józef Piłsudski notified the states of the world, both those which fought in WWI as well as the neutral states, about the creation of the independent Polish State. The note was dispatched in the nick of time as preparations for the peace conference ending the war were already underway. The presence of Polish State representatives at the conference was indispensable to ensure that the borders of the reborn state would be drawn in a way that benefited Poland.
Józef Piłsudski’s note of the creation of an independent Polish State:
To the President of the United States, Her Majesty’s Government, The Government of the French Republic, The Government of the Kingdom of Italy, The Government of the Empire of Japan, The Government of the German Republic and Governments of all belligerent and neutral States
As the Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Army, I hereby notify belligerent and neutral governments and nations of the existence of an Independent Polish State within all the territories of the united Poland. The political situation in Poland and the yoke of the occupation have so far made it impossible for the Polish nation to speak freely about their fate. Thanks to the changes caused by the great victories of the allied armies, the restoration of Poland’s independence and sovereignty has now become a fact.
The Polish State is formed upon the will of the whole nation and based on democratic foundations. The Polish Government will replace the rule of violence that hung over the country for a hundred and forty years with a system built on order and justice. Relying on the Polish Army under my command, I believe that no foreign army will from now on enter Poland before we express our formal stance on the case. I am convinced that the powerful Western democracies will offer help and brotherly support to the reborn and independent Republic of Poland.
In the name of the Minister of External Affairs Filipowicz
Warsaw, 16 November 1918
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