II Republic 1918–1945

1. The Kingdom of Poland (1916–1918)

The possibility of creating an independent Poland emerged during World War I. On November 5, 1916, in the lands of former Kingdom of Poland, which were conquered by Germany and Austria-Hungary, a puppet state the “Kingdom of Poland” (informally called the Regency Kingdom of Poland) was created by them in a joint proclamation. The Polish Kingdom practically did not exist as an independent state, had no borders established and remained under the control of Germany and Austria-Hungary, but it became the nucleus of an independent Polish state, known as the Second Republic (Rzeczpospolita).

Regency Kingdom of Poland, October 1917

 Interesting remark

 Polish term “Rzeczpospolita” relates to 4 important periods of the Polish history:

  • I Rzeczpospolita (half of the 15th century – 1795) – it is conventional name of the compound of the Crown of the Polish Kingdom and Grand Duchy of Lithuania
  • II Rzeczpospolita (November 1918 – July 5, 1945) – this period begins with proclamation of an independent Poland after World War I and finishes with withdrawal by Great Britain and USA the recognition of the Polish Government in Exile 
  • Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa / Polish People’s Republic (July 5, 1945 – June 4, 1989) – there is no number in the name as socialist authorities didn’t want to relate to former capitalists state
  • Rzeczpospolita Polska (official name) / III Rzeczpospolita (since June 4, 1989) – this name relates to present Poland

There is also unofficial term “IV Rzeczpospolita” which refers to years 2005-2007, when the prime ministry was Jarosław Kaczyński, who was in a deep opposition to III RP. The term IV RP means his political program which denied achievements of III RP, especially Round Table agreement.

2. The Second Republic (1918–1939)

The independent Poland emerged as a result of changes on the political map of the world resulting from World War I, and specifically the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the German empire and the collapse by the February and October revolutions of imperial Russia. The Poles did not remain idle in those conflicts, as they recognized that the World War I could create an independent Polish state. Even during that war the Polish military formations – including the famous Polish Legions of Jozef Pilsudski, operating in the Austro-Hungarian annexation – were created on the lands of the partitions. Also there appeared numerous centers of Polish authorities (often people’s), including the Regency Council in Warsaw and the Provisional Government of the People’s Republic of Polish Lublin, which turned later into Polish authorities. On the pic: Polish emblem 1919–1927.


Jozef Pilsudski and his military staff in Kielce, August 1914

 March of the 1st Brigade

2.1 Formation of the boundaries

The shape of the newly created state (November 11, 1918 – September 17, 1939), whose official name is the II Rzeczpospolita (II RP) – Second Republic, made up of the following factors:

 1. International treaties:

  • The Treaty of Versailles (September 28, 1919) – Poland has admitted most of the Prussian (Great Poland) and West Prussian lands, while Gdansk and around functioned on the basis of a certain autonomy as the Free City of Gdansk (Danzig)
  • The Treaty of Saint Germain (September 10, 1919) – Poland took over the administration at the disposal of the eastern part of the Western powers: Cieszyn Silesia and the whole of Galicia (it means Little Poland with Cracow, Carpathia and western Ukraine, near Lviv), then these lands in 1923 became finally Poland
  • The Treaty of Trianon (June 4, 1920) – Poland received part of the Orava and Spis
  • The Treaty of Riga (March 18, 1921) – Poland admitted Volhynia, Polesie and the former lands of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, land occupied by the Poles during the Polish-Soviet War 1919-1921

2. Armed conflicts and uprisings:

  • The mastery of Vilnius and the surrounding area as a result of the so-called “Zeligowski rebellion” (October 9, 1920) – as put forth claims to Vilnius and Lithuanians, led to a profound crisis in the Polish-Lithuanian relations and no diplomatic relations by the end of the 30s
  •  the Polish-Ukrainian war in western Ukraine (November 1918 – July 1919) – led to the establishment of a Polish government in Eastern Galicia, to the river Zbrucz
  •  Wielkopolska Uprising (December 27, 1918 – February 16, 1919) – meant that under the Treaty of Versailles the Polish included almost the entire Great Poland

Polish soldiers in Poznań

  • the Polish-Bolshevik War (February 14, 1919 – March 1921) – it helped to establish the shape of the eastern Polish border (see Treaty of Riga) and also inhibited the expansion of Bolshevik Russia to the west of Europe. During this expansion Red Army almost reached Warsaw and one of the most important moments of this war, called Battle of Warsaw (May 13 – 25, 1920), took place and is ranked as 18th in the list of landmark battles of the world. This battle, commanded by Jozef Pilsudski, is called often in Poland as “The miracle upon Vistula”

Battle of Milosna Miłosna, 1920

 „1920. The battle of Warsaw” (2011) – excerpts

  • Silesian uprisings (1920, 1921) – II and III Silesian Uprising were closely associated with imposed by the Treaty of Versailles plebiscite to settle the issue of having a membership of Upper Silesia (part of the Silesian opted for belonging to Poland, some to Germany, some insisted on autonomy). III uprising (May 2/3 – July 5, 1921) broke out after an unfavorable poll for the Poland (see Silesian plebiscite), influenced the final decisions for Poland and ponder what is possible. Militarily it has not been resolved, but was profitable for Poland. Although the country got only 1/3 of the area of Upper Silesia, but with high industry, what was economically very beneficial for the Second Republic

 Silesian insurgents

 Great Poland and Silesian uprising in photos

3. Plebiscites

– Silesian plebiscite (March 20, 1921) – 40.4% of participants were in favor of Poland, 50.6% for Germany, but the final decisions are influenced by III Silesian Uprising. Finally, in 1922 in Geneva, Poland received 29% of the plebiscite territories, which was created after the autonomous Province of Silesia (1922-1939)

– plebiscite on Warmia and Mazury (July 11, 1920) – much of this area was included to Germany

4. Seizure of Zaolzie (a common name for the western part of Upper Silesian Duchy of Cieszyn, located in Cieszyn Silesia, inhabited mainly by the Polish population) – after losing the case Zaolzie, which was awarded to Czechoslovakia, Poland captured the area in October 1938.

2.2 Shaping the structure of the State

The formal beginning of the Second Republic (RP II) was on November 11, 1918, when Jozef Pilsudski took military power from the Regency Council in Warsaw. This day is now an official national holiday. November 14 Pilsudski took over the civil authority, and began to exercise the highest office in the country as the interim Head of State. It was Germany to first recognize the independence of Poland – December 15, 1918, followed by France – February 24,1919, the United Kingdom – February 25, 1919, and the Vatican – March 27, 1919.

Jozef Pilsudski

The Second Republic has changed few times its political system, depending on the current constitution it was:

  • 1919-1926 – parliamentary republic, a democratic political system
  • 1926-1939 – the presidential republic, the authoritarian regime
  • 1939-1945 – presidential republic at war

Moving away from a democratic political system in favor of an authoritarian one was caused by a number crisis of government and inability to exercise effective power by a coalition with right and left wings (the governments changed every few months or even every month, and in extreme cases, every few days). In this situation, Jozef Pilsudski (not in any official function at that time) decided to make a coup and overthrow the legitimate authority, which was held on May 11-14, 1926. The authority was taken over by the people which had been associated for a long time with Pilsudski and there was a shift in emphasis towards the executive power, which was legitimized by the Constitution of the April 1935. After the May coup in 1926 the highest real power in the country was kept by Pilsudski, who held the office of the Inspector General of the Armed Forces. On the pic: the May coup in Warsaw.

This period in the history of the Second Republic is called “the sanitation” (sanatio – healing). This is not a glorious episode, because the opposition protesting against breaking democracy was treated very brutally, many activists, even older ones, were sent into prison in Brest, where they were beaten and humiliated. Many of them emigrated from Poland.

2.3 Basic information about II Republic

  • capital: Warsaw
  • area: 389 720 km² (as of October 1938 after the occupation of Zaolzie)
  • population: 34 849 000 (estimate from 1939; according to the census of 1931 – 31 918 000)
  • ethnic structure: Poles (68.9%), Ukrainians (16%), Jews (10%), Russians (6%), Germans (4%)
  • currency: Polish zloty
  • neighboring countries: Germany, USSR, Czechoslovakia, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Hungary

Women of Galicia, 1915

Dependent and autonomous territories:

The Province of Silesia (autonomy) – the Province of Silesia had its own parliament, a treasure and a very wide range of powers (to those traditions refers the contemporary, controversial for many Poles, Silesian Autonomy Movement)


Building of the Silesian Parliament in Katowice (today The Silesian Voivodeship Office)

Free City of Gdańsk (Wolne Miasto Gdańsk) – had its own constitution (approved by the League of Nations), national anthem, parliament (Volkstag), a legislative body, and the Senate, which was the executive power. Powers Gdańsk authorities were limited in many areas for the League of Nations (whose representative was in the High Commissioner WMG), and Poland, which was represented by the Commissioner General of the Polish Republic. The official language was German, but documents sent to the Polish and Kashubian living in WMG were accompanied by a translation into Polish language.


In the period from November 18, 1918 until September 30, 1939, fully 31 governments existed (and one was not created at all) in the Second Republic and the authority exercised 19 prime ministers (some of them took the role for few times).

2.4 Basic problems, successes and failures

The most important task after gaining independence was the formation of a modern state and the overcoming of differences arising from the different districts belonging to the various invading countries. It meant consolidation the unity of the different areas: institutional, economic, financial, currency, legal, educational, etc.


Warsaw, Krakowskie Przedmieście

Another task was the reconstruction of the Polish economy after a period of ruinous conquest in World War I and the expansion of the industry to the eastern parts of Poland which had almost no industry. (Russia did not invest there at all). Some basic problems for Polish economy were hyperinflation in 1923-1924, international crisis, the war customs with Germanyand finding new markets for Polish merchandise (especially coal) and industrialization. The flagships of this period of investments are: the Central Industrial District, economically activating the south-central districts of Poland, the harbor of Gdynia and the Railway Coal Line Katowice – Gdynia.

Port of Gdynia, Polish liner Piłsudski, the 30s

Another urgent need was an agrarian reform. The agricultural structure in Poland was little bit archaic, based upon owing big lands by big landowners so many villagers didn’t possess any land at all. Some allotment was necessary then, but Second Republic failed to solve this problem.

Harvest in Grzybno

Restoration of freedom resulted in a very positive development of Polish culture. Interwar period is the time of flowering of literature, theater, music and visual arts. Have achieved such international notoriety composer Karol Szymanowski (on the photo), the pianist, Ignacy Paderewski (also Polish prime ministry in 1919) and opera singer Jan Kiepura. In science great respect in the world enjoyed Polish philosophers and mathematics. (See also the article: Maths in Scottish café.)

The main weakness of this period was the instability of the political system and the ongoing government crisis, which contributed to the May coup and the introduction of authoritarian rule. The hot temperature of the political disputes resulted in the murder of the first democratically elected president Gabriel Narutowicz (December 16, 1922 ) and the absence of agreement in parliament torned by conflicts. For these problems, conflicts and disputes came on grounds of nationality, which was supported by heterogeneous national structure of the Second Republic.

Photo: president Gabriel Narutowicz.

 A major problem of the Second Republic was to ensure the security of Poland by the relevant international alliances. Special hazards were Germany and the Soviet Union. With both these countries, the Second Republic has concluded appropriate treaties: July 25, 1932 The non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, and in January 1934 declaration of non-violence with Germany (it was intended to be in force for 10 years). But what is interesting, Jozef Pilsudski had no illusions about them and prophetically stated: “With these two pacts, sit on two stools – it cannot last long. […] We need to know from where and when we fall first.”

 2.5 The end of the II Republic

October 24, 1938 Joachim von Ribbentrop, Foreign Minister of the Third Reich, demanded: a) incorporation by Germans the Free City of Gdansk; b) construction of an extraterritorial highway and railway line connecting East Prussia with the Reich – in return for the extension of a declaration of non-aggression for 25 years. When this request was denied, on April 28, 1939 Germany terminated the non-aggression pact.

September 1,1939, at 4.40 am, without a declaration of war, German army invaded Poland on the entire length of the Polish-German border and from the territory of Moravia and Slovakia, which meant that the total length of the front was about 1,600 km, putting Polish state in a strategic disadvantage.

September 1, 1931 – German soldiers on the border between Poland and Free City Gdańsk

September 17, 1939 at the evening, after an armed aggression from the USSR (the result of the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement), the government under the leadership of Slawoj Skladkowski, President Moscicki, and the Armed Forces Inspector General Edward Rydz-Smigly left the territory of the Polish state, going to Romania. After over monthly defense Poland, placed between Germany and Russia, once again lost its independence.

 German and Russian invasion on Poland, September 1939

2.6 Józef Piłsudski

He was the most important Polish politician of the interwar period. Piłsudski was born in 1867 in Zutow at Wilno in a very patriotic family. From his youth he was actively involved in the socialist movement, and for complicity in the Russian anti-tsar conspiracies was for 5 years exiled to Siberia. Anticipating the outbreak of World War I and seeing the opportunity to restore an independent Polish state, he organized Polish military units, military schools and courses. After the outbreak of war in the Russian partition land Pilsudski created Polish Legions with the legendary 1st Brigade, commanded by him, and also the Polish Military Organisation. Sent out against the Germans, he was imprisoned by them in Magdeburg. Released, he came to Warsaw where he took over military power from the Regency Council and 3 days later also civilian and became the Interim Chief of State. During the Polish-Soviet War (1919-1921) contributed to the defeat of the Soviets in the Battle of Warsaw. In March 1920 he became the first marshal of the reborn Poland.

Piłsudski was a protagonist of Polish federation with Lithuania and Ukraine, but he failed to realize this idea. In 1923 he retired from active political life, but returned to it in 1926 as a result of the disillusionment with government in a prolonged crisis state. He was the organizer of the so-called May Coup (May 11-14, 1926), smashing legally elected government and president. Then he set up himself a dictator. He held offices of the Inspector General of the Armed Forces and Minister of Defense, but practically was holding the real rule over the state.

Thanks to his foreign policy (in 1932 it led to a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union and in 1934 to the declaration of non-violence in its relations with Germany) and a hard attitude against the policy of great powers, Piłsudski improved and strengthened international position of Poland. In the internal relations he was fighting the negative aspects of the Polish political system – the overrule of the parliament, factionalism and political corruption. He died on December 5, 1935 and his funeral became a great lament and manifestation of the whole society, seeing in the Marshal Piłsudski a true statesman and undisputed authority of the state, although in the Second Republic he had also many political enemies. He rests now on the Wawel Hill. There are many legends and anecdotes connected with Piłsudski. One of those legends was his famous horse named Kasztanka (Chestnut) after the colour of her fury. The horse was characterized by big devotion to her master and his alone acknowledged. In remarks on the Poles Marshal was not averse to the very strict, often vulgar assessments. He once said: “Although sometimes I say stupid Poland, I make up for Poland and the Poles, it’s only Poland I serve.” One of the most funny notes is that: “Reason is like an ass. Each has its own “.


3. Government in exile (1939–1990)

After Soviet aggression against Poland on September 17, 1939, yet the same night, the Polish authorities – President Ignacy Mościcki, government and commander in chief Marshal Edward Rydz-Śmigly – left Poland to continue its operations in France. The road to it led by Romania, where support was counted (both countries entailed a military alliance), but Romanian authorities, under pressure from the Third Reich, the Soviet Union and France, decided to intern refugees. In this situation, in accordance with the constitution, Moscicki resigned from his office, entrusting it to the former Sejm marshal Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz, and the prime ministry became on October 1, 1939 General Wladyslaw Sikorski (both politicians managed to escape successfully to Paris). Thus legality and continuity of Polish authorities were preserved and the new government was immediately recognized by France, the United States and Great Britain, and later by other countries (those friendly and neutral ones). The government had its seat sequentially in Paris, followed by Angers, and since June 1940 in London.

General Władysław Sikorski in France

The main objectives of the government in exile was to participate in the fight against Germany in Western Europe with the construction of the Polish Armed Forces in the West, supporting operations of Polish armed forces in occupied Poland and the construction of structures of the Polish Underground State there.

3.1 Major projects of the government in exile during World War II

 Western Europe

The creation of numerous units of the armed forces (including the Carpathian Rifle Brigade, I Polish Corps – from 1942 Armoured Motor Corps, Independent Parachute Brigade, 1st Armored Division), which later fought actively against the Germans on all fronts of the world and made significant contributions in the final liberation of Western Europe.

On the “Holandia bez tajemnic” website, in section World War II, you can find few stories related to the liberation of Holland by Polish armed forces.

Polish armed forces on the West

1st Armoured Division of General Stanisław Maczek


Establishing diplomatic relations with the USSR on July 30, 1941 after the German attack on Russia (it was done at the headquarters of foregin Office in London). The result of this was creating in Soviet Russia the Polish army under the command of General Wladyslaw Anders (on the pic). Until leaving the present territory of the USSR on operational matters Polish Army would be subjected to the Supreme Command of the Soviet Union, and in organizational matters to Supreme Chieftain Polish Armed Forces. This army was later transferred to Syria, and Polish-Soviet relations were broken off after discovery by Germans the mass graves of Polish prisoners of war from camps in Ostashkov, Starobielsk and Kozielsk, what happened on April 13, 1943.


Exhumation of bodies of murdered officers, 1943

 – Katyń (documentary) / “Katyń” (2007), execution scenes


Appointmenting at the end of 1940 the Government Delegate at Home, as a representation of the government in the occupied country, the creation of secret forces, which since February 14, 1942 had the name of the Home Army (Armia Krajowa – AK).

 Home Army, Kaluszyn (Mazovia)

3.2 Postwar reality

The continued existence of the exile government faced a question mark, when an international conference in Yalta (February 4-11, 1945) decided to set up the Polish Provisional Government of National Unity, formed of representatives of the London government and the representatives of communists Provisional Government in Warsaw. The main task of the new government was organization free elections to Legislative Assembly. This concept was rejected by actual prime ministry of government in London Thomas Arciszewski, who on June 25, 1945 sent a note rejecting findings of the conference in Teheran and Yalta, stating that he could pass his constitutional powers only to a government selected in free elections in the country. Provisional Government of National Unity was formed, however, and emigration was represented by Stanislaw Mikolajczyk (one of the prime ministers of the government in exile).

Stanisław Mikolajczyk in Poznań, July 5, 1945

The establishment of this structure resulted in the withdrawal on July 6, 1945 diplomatic recognition to the government in London by Great Britain and the United States. Legislative Assembly elections took place on January 19, 1947 under strict control by the communist regime and the results were falsified, giving complete control of the communists (Mikolajczyk fled secretly from the country). The Western powers recognized the election results to be valid.

This decision did not end the activities of the government in exile (the last prime minister disbanded on December 22, 1990), but virtually stopped its political significance and his authority was further undermined by discrepancy of Polish western emigration. The activity of the Polish Government in Exile was completed by the transfer to Lech Walesa in 1990 presidential insignia of the Second Republic by the last president in the exile Ryszard Kaczorowski. On the pic: The Order of White Eagle, the highest distinction in Poland.

 3.3 Wladyslaw Sikorski – the mysterious death of a politician

The most prominent person of Polish government in exile was General Władysław Sikorski (May 20, 1881 – July 4, 1943), whose death in a plane crash in Gibraltar has become another great mystery of Polish history and the subject of many hypotheses and speculations.

During World War I Sikorski was one of the founders of the illegal Polish independent organizations, a member of famous Polish Legions and participant of the Polish-Bolshevik war (1919–1921). In the Second Republic he hold few important functions in government, was prime minister (1922-1923) and Minister of Military Affairs (1923-1924). After the May coup, which he did not support, he passed to the opposition and was ousted from power. Since October 1, 1939 he was prime minister of the Polish government in exile and Commander in Chief of Polish Armed Forces. As head of the armed forces he worked actively for the establishment of Polish troops in the West. After German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Sikorski sought to establish diplomatic relations with Russia, and by the arrangements thousands of Poles were released from prisons and labor camps and recruited into the Polish army formed there. The prime minister insisted, however, on restoring the eastern Polish border prior to September 17, 1939, which gave rise to tensions not only between him and Stalin, but also between the coalition partners who wanted above all to ensure the cooperation of the USSR even at the expense of Polish interests.

Diplomatic cooperation between government in exile and Soviets came finally to the end after discovery of mass graves of Polish officers in Katyn in April 1943. Sikorski’s request for sending there International Red Cross commission gave Stalin a pretext to terminate this cooperation (he accused Polish general for cooperation with Nazis). The Western Allies were also not eager to explain this case, which was uncomfortable for them for irritations with the needed ally. In this situation Sikorski’s death in a plane crash over Gibraltar on July 4, 1943 (aircraft, also with Sikorski daughter on board and few people more, crashed shortly after takeoff in the water, and only Czech pilot survived) was interpreted as an attempt on the life of politician very embarrassing for the Allies and Soviets.  (As potential instigators refer to the British authorities, the Soviet Union or the opposition in exile.)

General Sikorski in Gibraltar, shortly before his death

These theories, with suspicion of poisoning the prime minister, led in 2008 to highly controversial decision of exhumation of the body of general, incumbent since 1993 on the Wawel Hill. Research has shown clearly that Sikorski died from injuries in the crash, but the circumstances of this disaster still remain unsolved and arouse emotions.Things do not facilitate the unavailability of the British archives. To this day, some findings of the RAF, which in 1943 investigated this case, remain a secret, and nowadays only one Polish historian had access to them. Clues may lead to Moscow, as it suggests a document classified Top Secret, revealed in 2000, but it was again closed in the archives for 30 years. So it gives a big space for other more or less serious conspiracy theories.

“The suspisious death of General Sikorski” – documentary

part 1 / part 2 / part 3 / part 4 / part 5

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