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Upper Silesia plebiscite – an intensive course in Polish identity

23.03.2021 - 16:06 update 07.04.2021 - 16:31
Editors: OO

| Maria Sztuka |

The Palm Sunday of 20 March 2021 became the most important date in the 20th century history of Upper Silesia. The plebiscite that was to decide about the fate of over 1 million people, outline the borders and determine whether the Upper Silesia should belong to Poland or Germany, started early in the morning.

The plebiscite in consequence of which the surface that constituted 1.1% of the country’s area was incorporated to Poland (the state which regained independence only three years before) was not a local event. On the contrary, it set the future for the Republic of Poland. In the opinion of Maciej Fic, PhD, D.Litt., historian from the Institute of History at the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Silesia, without this piece of land Poland would be an agricultural and pastoral country.

After the end of the Great War, the world’s fate was decided by the participants of the peace conference in Paris, during which the Treaty of Versailles was signed on 28 June 1919. One of its resolutions was to give Poland part of the land that had been under the Prussian rule, and run a plebiscite in the Upper Silesia, which had never been part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth before the Partitions of Poland.

“Although this form was recognised by the Supreme Council of Peace Conference in Paris as the best tool to examine the will of the region’s inhabitants, despite the apparently equal conditions for preparing and participating in the vote, in reality it proved to have a number of limitations, which particularly affected the Polish side,” wrote Prof. M. Fic in his article entitled Najbardziej demokratyczna forma wyboru? Uwarunkowania plebiscytu z 20 marca 1921 roku na Górnym Śląsku [The most democratic form of choice? Conditions behind the plebiscite of 20 March 2021 in the Upper Silesia] in the 21st volume of “Echa Przeszłości” (a scientific journal).


Silesia in 1920

The post-war situation was equally shaped by the economic crisis and the radical sentiments among the society. From the beginning of 1920, the plebiscite territory was supervised by the Interallied Committee composed of British, French, and Italian representatives. The task of the committee was to take care of the appropriate course of the plebiscite campaign, as well as to maintain order and peace. This last duty was executed with the help of Italian and French troops, who were later joined by British soldiers.

“For us, from the perspective of one hundred years certain issues are obvious, but they were not as clear for the participants of those events,” explains the historian. “The Habsburg, Hohenzollern and Romanov monarchies in Europe collapsed, as well as the Osman dynasty in the Ottoman Empire. The Republican forms of government began to emerge in the new reality. This transformation process had impact on many different areas.

The position of the inhabitants of the Upper Silesia, who suddenly had to takes sides, should be seen in the context of those political changes. A simplified image shows the division into the wealthy pro-German population and the poorer pro-Polish group of Upper Silesians. The conflict had not only national, but also social consequences. What is more, the pro-Polish population was subject to pressure imposed by the German administration and representatives of bourgeoisie and aristocracy.

On the one hand, there was the Polish Plebiscite Committee led by Wojciech Korfanty, and on the other its German equivalent.

“The plebiscite question is universally perceived as opting either for Poland or Germany. In fact, the plebiscite participants, i.e. mostly the inhabitants and a group of the so-called emigrants, were asked whether they wanted the area to be still part of Germany, or to be incorporated to Poland. There was no question of whether somebody was feeling Polish or German, the plebiscite did not refer to national identity, but to state issues,” emphasizes Prof. M. Fic.

The Polish Plebiscite Committee had to face enormous challenges. While the main task of the German Plebiscite Committee was to coordinate the plebiscite campaign, the Polish Plebiscite Committee was also responsible for work at the grassroots – not only for campaigning, but also for awakening the Polish identity. Those were very broad, multi-themed activities: the Committee tried to reach the target groups using economic, national, cultural and religious arguments. Such strategy was adopted both by Poles, who referred to Our Lady of Częstochowa, and by Germans, who highlighted Saint Hedwig of Silesia. According to the historian, there was no clear division of arguments that would have been used by one of the sides only. There was a fierce propaganda fight, many tools were applied (including posters and leaflets), and the message was delivered in two languages.

Relying on the language that the inhabitants of the Upper Silesia used at home proved to be misleading. It turned out that a numerous group of Polish speakers decided that Upper Silesia should remain in Germany. Wojciech Korfanty was hoping that the population, especially the people who were nationally indifferent (about one third of all voters), would vote for incorporation to Poland. He also believed in the migrants from Ruhrpolen. However, his expectations were in vain. The huge propaganda caused extraordinary mobilisation on both sides and massive participation in the vote.


Record turnout and results

Due to the pressure on both sides of the dispute and the intensity of the competition, the plebiscite was attended by approximately 97.5% of the eligible voters. It may be regarded as a phenomenon that only less than 4,000 out of 1,190,000 voting cards were found to be invalid, which should be seen as a minor manifestation of neutral attitude. The ultimate result was not favourable for Poles: a little over 40% (mainly villages and towns) opted for incorporation to Poland, whereas a little under 60% (especially big cities) voted for remaining in Germany. However, Article 88 of the Versailles on the organisation of the plebiscite treaty stipulated that “The result of the vote will be determined by communes according to the majority of votes in each commune.”

“Had the result of the plebiscite come down only to achieving the absolute majority of votes, then the German side could have upheld their position, claiming that the Upper Silesia should stay indivisibly within its borders,” explains the historian. “However, the provision saying about economic and social conditions, and relying on the results in specific communes allowed to divide the plebiscite area.”

According to the initial plan designed by members of the Interallied Committee, Poland was to receive small areas near Pszczyna, Rybnik and eastern scraps of land, without large urban centre, and particularly without the industrial region. This confirmed Wojciech Korfanty’s conviction that it was necessary to oppose these projects. This is why the Third Silesian Uprising broke out in the night of 2/3 May 1921. The clearly specified goal to manifest dissatisfaction of Poles and the attempt to exert pressure, so that the planned division of borders would be more favourable for the Polish side, was achieved. However, the shape of borders, which also became an element of political dispute between the British and the French, was ultimately decided by the so-called expert committee composed of representatives of China, Belgium, Brazil and Spain. Although Germans were awarded a greater part of the Upper Silesia, the most industrialised area, due to its proximity to the Polish border, was given to Poland. Out of the overall number of 82 coal mines, 14 steel plants and 37 blast furnaces, Poland received 63 coal mines, 9 steel plants and 22 blast furnaces. In the opinion of Prof. M. Fic, for many inhabitants the plebiscite became an intensive course of Polish identity, which resulted in the votes of almost 480,000 people who opted for incorporating the region in Poland.

The complicated history of Upper Silesia at the beginning of the 20th century is one of the primary research interest areas for Prof. M. Fic. Nowadays, it is not only Polish and German, but also French, British and Italian sources that can be used for studying the past. However, due to the fact that Silesian uprisings and plebiscite became an element of shaping the historical policy, all sources should be approached with particular caution. “The more previously unpublished source materials are found, the bigger the chance that we will be able to verify the image they present as truer and more real,” emphasizes the researcher.  In Poland, knowledge about uprisings and plebiscite can be obtained thanks to research visits in State Archives in Katowice and Opole, Central Archives of Modern Records in Warsaw, archives of the Institute of National Remembrance, resources of the Silesian Institute in Opole, Museum of Opole Silesia, Silesian Museum in Katowice, Museum of Silesian Uprisings in Świętochłowice, as well as special collections of the Silesian Library – and this is just a small section of a huge research area. Part of these documents, thanks to research visits of Prof. M. Fic, has already been introduced into the scientific literature. The historian is the author of ten monographs and over one hundred articles in scientific journals and research bulletins. He is the Chariman of the Upper Silesian Historical Society and a member of the Board of the Museum of Silesian Uprisings in Świętochłowice.

The first volume of Słownik Powstań Śląskich (Dictionary of Silesian Uprisings, dedicated to the events of 1919) edited by Prof. Maciej Fic and Prof. Ryszard Kaczmarek was published in 2019, and the second volume, encompassing the history of the plebiscite campaign and Second Silesian Uprising, was released in the following year. The third volume will soon be available in bookshops.

The article entitled „Upper Silesia plebiscite – an intensive course in Polish identity” was published in the February issue of „Gazeta Uniwersytecka UŚ” (University of Silesia Magazine) no. 5 (285)

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