11 November 1918: Poland re-emerged as an independent political entity after 123 years of foreign occupation.
By the end of WWI, the concept of Poland’s independence had been successfully pitched to the Allied Powers in Paris by Roman Dmowski and Ignacy Paderewski. As a result, the claim for Poland’s independence was included as part of the peace negotiations with the Central Powers. In the Armistice terms imposed on Germany, all German forces were forced to stand down in Poland and other occupied areas. As the war ended, the Germans sent Józef Piłsudski, then under arrest for disobeying their orders, back to Warsaw. On 11 November 1918, with the formal end of WWI, Piłsudski took control from the puppet government the Germans had set up in Warsaw a few weeks earlier. This act marked the beginning of Poland’s sovereignty. Although formally independent, all Poland had at that time was the recognition of its statehood by the Allied Powers. Everything else had to be won, including the state’s borders, or built from scratch. The new country required its own institutions, its own legal and monetary system as well as its own infrastructure.
Józef Piłsudski correctly predicted the outbreak of a major war, the Russian Empire’s defeat by the Central Powers, and the Central Powers’ defeat by the western Allies. Concluding that Poland’s independence would have to be won militarily, a few weeks after WWI began he formed the Polish Legions, a military force that fought alongside Austria Hungary against Russia and later became the backbone of the Polish Army. In 1917, with both Austria Hungary and Russia faring poorly in the war, Piłsudski withdrew his support for the Central Powers. In November 1918, when Poland regained its independence, he became Head of State. Between 1919 and 1921, he commanded Polish forces in six border wars that shaped the country’s territory until 1938. Pictured above is Józef Piłsudski with his officers shortly after the end of WWI.
In 1915, Roman Dmowski, convinced of Russia’s impending defeat, began campaigning on behalf of Polish independence in the capitals of the western Allies. In 1917, in Lausanne, he founded the Polish National Committee, recognised by the Allied Powers as the legitimate representative of Polish interests until late 1918, when the first Polish government took control of the country.
Ignacy Jan Paderewski was a pianist and composer. His worldwide musical fame granted him access to diplomacy and the press, which eventually made him a major spokesman for Polish independence. In 1918, Paderewski played an important role in persuading US President Woodrow Wilson to include the question of Poland’s independence as part of the peace negotiations with Central Powers. A few months later, he was chosen as Prime Minister of the newly reborn Poland and represented the country at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.