Wednesday November 11 marks two great anniversaries and two national days of remembrance. What is more, they are very closely connected to one another.
On November 11, 1918 World War I ended with an ‘armistice’ or cease fire between the armies of Germany, France, Britain, and the United States on the ‘western front’ – that blood-soaked border between France and Germany. This cease fire ended a tragic four years War in which millions of soldiers had died.
In the years after, people everywhere began to honor those who had sacrificed so much in the War. In America, November 11 was recognized as Armistice Day. Today, it is Veterans Day, when we honor those men and women in uniform who have served our country in all our wars. It is indeed a hallowed day.
Now on that very same day, November 11, 1918, Jozef Pilsudski was in Warsaw to proclaim Poland’s independence – after 123 years in which the Polish people had endured the oppressive rule of three alien empires – Russia, Germany and Austria. Today November 11 is Poland’s national day, Poland’s ‘Fourth of July’.
For Poland’s people, World War I had its own special significance. In 1918 the Russian, German, and Austrian empires all collapsed, giving them ‘the chance of a lifetime’ to regain their independence. That independence had been lost between 1772 and 1795, when those same empires had combined to divide up the country in a series of three land-grabs known in the history books as the ‘partitions of Poland.’ From 1795 on, six generations of Poles knew only foreign rule and oppression.
But the memory of independence survived. Indeed, in the 19th century, Poles heroically rebelled to regain their independent statehood, most notably in 1830 and 1863. But their efforts failed. Poland’s oppressors were simply too powerful to be driven out in an insurrection. Indeed it was the reality of oppression that led so many Poles – over five million – to emigrate from their homeland, to settle in France, Belgium, Canada, Brazil and most by far in the United States. Everywhere they created organizations dedicated to helping Poland regain its freedom. In America these organizations included the Polish National Alliance, the Polish Falcons, and the Polish Women’s Alliance.
In partitioned Poland, the dream of independence lived on as well. Among the countless patriots devoted to the cause were the self-trained military strategist Jozef Pilsudski (1867-1935), the renowned virtuoso pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941), and the political thinker Roman Dmowski (1864-1939).
When World War I broke out they and their comrades seized the moment to win Poland its freedom. Inside Poland, a killing ground for the armies of Poland’s three occupiers – at war with each other, Pilsudski led legions loyal to him and the cause. Dmowski was in Paris as head of a national committee that aimed at winning recognition from France and Britain for a postwar Polish state. In the U.S., Paderewski put his musical fame to work in winning support for Poland from influential Americans, the massive Polish immigrant community, and even the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson.
At War’s end Pilsudski made his declaration of independence. Paderewski soon joined him and became Poland’s first Prime Minister. In 1919 he and Dmowski represented Poland’s cause at the Paris Peace Conference. Pilsudski became head of newly formed Polish armies and took on the tough task of regaining Poland’s lands by force of arms. Indeed, it was only in March 1921 when Poland’s borders were secured, after 300,000 fighting men were lost in battle.
The Poland that emerged after World War I became the Poland of the Second Republic. It was a Poland deluged with problems and no allies to assist in its reconstruction. But that new Poland succeeded in deepening its citizens’ renewed commitment to independence. And despite the tragedy of World War II and 45 years of Soviet domination that followed, another Poland, the Poland of the Third Republic, was reborn to freedom in 1989, backed by the United States, Pope John Paul II, and people of Polish origin in the emigration.
The leaders of the new Third Republic acted quickly to make November 11 Poland’s national day.
In November 2000, the Wisconsin Division of the Polish American Congress was proud to hold its annual Polish Independence Day/Veterans Day Banquet at the newly opened Polish Center of Wisconsin. Over 240 guests were at that great event, including the Consul General of free Poland from Chicago. This was the start of a beautiful tradition at the Polish Center that will be renewed once our country emerges from the pandemic.
Donald Pienkos is a Professor Emeritus at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His article originally appeared on the Website of the Polish American Congress of Wisconsin.