November 7, October 28, or, after all, November 11? Why are we celebrating regaining independence on this particular day?
From the beginning of the Second Republic of Poland, there have been debates over which out of the 1918 events should be considered as a symbolic moment of regaining freedom by the Poles. The choice of only one breakthrough day appeared difficult. “Poland’s struggle for independence was a process,” explains Professor Grzegorz Nowik, Head of the Department of History and Scientific Research at the Józef Piłsudski Museum in Sulejówek.
The left-wingers related to the independent movement were strongly opting for November 7. One of their arguments was that on November 7, 1918 in Lublin the Provisional People’s Government of the Republic of Poland with Ignacy Daszyński (a leader of the Polish Socialist Party [Polska Partia Socialistyczna, PPS]) as its Prime Minister, was formed. The cabinet’s term was very short, because as early as on November 12 it subordinated to Józef Piłsudski, but before that it had published a manifest which announced the proclamation of the reborn Poland a republic, the summoning of the Legislative Sejm, and which declared all Polish citizens equal.
For “the populars” (ludowcy), the supporters of the Polish People’s Parties (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe), the most important date was October 28, when in 1918 in Kraków, the Polish Liquidation Committee was created to maintain order in Galicia and Cieszyn Silesia. The head of the Committee was Wincenty Witos, a leader of the Polish People’s Party “Piast” (PSL), who was supported by all parties active in this region.
Another date suggested for official celebration of Polish independence referred to the Regency Council of the Kingdom of Poland. It was established in 1917 by virtue of the Act of November 5, 1916 in which the Emperors of Germany and Austria-Hungary proclaimed the creation of the Kingdom of Poland. The Council, seated in Warsaw, was to be the first authority of the future Kingdom. “On October 7, the Council proclaimed the independence of Poland, hence this date was also considered as an important date in the Polish independence calendar,” adds Professor Janusz Odziemkowski, a military historian and a scholar at War Studies University (Akademia Sztuki Wojennej, ASzWoj). Five days later, the Council declared the act of taking-over from Germany the superiority over the Royal Polish Army (die Polnische Wehrmacht, Polska Siła Zbrojna).
The supporters of Piłsudski were eager to relate the act on regaining independence by Poland with his Chief, so they opted for celebrating the Independence Day on November 11. “What’s interesting, nothing special really happened on that day,” says Professor Krzysztof Kawalec, Head of the Institute of History of Poland and General History in the 19th and 20th Century at the University of Wrocław’s Institute of History.
Brygadier Józef Piłsudski came to Warsaw from Magdeburg a day earlier. Right after his arrival, he started negotiations with German delegation from the Central Soldier’s Council on the withdrawal of the former occupant’s forces from the Kingdom of Poland. On this territory, still remained over 80,000 revolted Wehrmacht soldiers, out of which 30,000 in Warsaw. Piłsudski guaranteed that they could safely leave the Kingdom, provided that they return their weapon and ammunition. On the night of November 10/11, a disarmament of the former occupant’s soldiers began on the streets of Warsaw.
On November 11, the Regency Council handed Józef Piłsudski the command over the Polish army. The following days were also rich with breakthrough moments. On November 12, the Council entrusted Piłsudski with the mission of forming a national government. Two days later it was dissolved, and the future Marshal Piłsudski took over the full rule. On November 16, Piłsudski sent to the governments if victorious states a telegram notifying that a Polish state had been proclaimed. The following day, a Polish cabinet was formed with Jędrzej Moraczewski as its Prime Minister. “This intoxication and the bursts of joy that Polish people were experiencing at that time is impossible to describe. After 120 years, cordons were gone,” Prime Minister Jędrzej Moraczewski noted in his memories.
Parades and Marshal’s Baton
Each of these dates could become a date for celebrating independence. However, it was the date of November 11 that was ultimately decided on. Why? „This day, in a free capital of the Republic of Poland the command over the new Polish army, which was an important factor in the process of state formation and was a guarantor of independence, took Józef Piłsudski,” explains Professor Nowik. “With time, all units of the army being formed at the time on Polish territory recognized him as their commander.”
There was one more reason for November 11 to become the Day of Independence. It was about combining the fact of regaining Polish sovereignty with the end of the war, and by this means placing what happened on the Polish territory in international context. On November 11, 1918, in the French city of Compiègne, Germany signed the document on the armistice (also known as the Armistice of Compiègne), which ended the struggles of World War I, and sealed Germany’s total defeat. “This date links Polish history with the history of Eastern Europe. It is the support of Entente that as of 1918 helped us to fully achieve our national goals,” explains Professor Kawalec. “Poland became part of the Versailles order, and an element of western system of alliances.”
The day of November 11 was officially celebrated as the Day of Independence not until a year later. In 1919, contemporary conditions did not allow to celebrate regaining independence as the Poles fought for the borders of their reborn Poland. Therefore, the first serious celebrations were organized a year later, and on that occasion Józef Piłsudski was appointed Marshal. However, the celebrations were more festive only after the coup d’état in May of 1926. Piłsudski, as a Prime Minister, published a circular letter proclaiming the day of November 11 as a public holiday and a day off for state administration employees. “The above date should be present in the memory of our society and be preserved in the minds of children and young people, who from the beginning of their lives should sense the importance and sublimity of this day,” it was noted in the letter. Since then, it had become a tradition that on this day Marshal Piłsudski would every year watch parades at the Saxon Square or in the Mokotów Field, and award orders in Belvedere Palace. Moreover, on the occasion of November 11, 1928, the square before the Saski Palace in Warsaw was named Marshal Józef Piłsudski Square (or Pilsudski Square), and in 1932, the Aviator Monument was unveiled and the Ministry of Religion and Public Enlightenment recognized this day as a day off school.
After Marshal Piłsudski died, the Sanation [Sanacja, political movement] was building his cult of personality, and a proclamation of the November 11 date as a public holiday made it easier to associate regaining independence with Piłsudski. “The day of November 11, the anniversary of regaining by the Polish Nation an independent national existence with the great name of Józef Piłsudski, a victorious Chief of the Polish Nation in the fights for freedom of Fatherland – is a solemn National Independence Day,” as we read in the Act of April 23, 1937. For the last two years before the war, in the face of the upcoming threat, the military parades on the Independence Day were organized on a great scale, and they were intended to present a military power of Poland.
Poland Is Not Yet Lost
Under German and Soviet occupation celebrations of the Independence Day were prohibited. “Although in the Second Republic of Poland the day of November 11 was officially celebrated only twice, for the Poles it became one of the symbols of Polish statehood,” says Professor Odziemkowski. The operations of minor sabotage units reminded about this holiday, but there was a risk of fierce repressions by the occupants. In spite of that, young conspirators would paint the writings on the wall, such as: “Poland is not yet lost,” “Poland is still alive,” or the emblem of Fighting Poland (an anchor). They also distributed posters and leaflets about the Independence Day, put white-and-red flowers and guidons beneath the monuments. The Polish underground press would publish articles recalling this important date.
The end of war unfortunately never put the date of November 11 back into the calendar of public holidays. Communist authorities, hostile towards the heritage of the Second Republic of Poland and Józef Piłsudski, abolished the Independence Day by means of the Act of July 22, 1945. The holiday was replaced with the National Day of the Rebirth of Poland, celebrated on July 22, which commemorated the proclamation of the Polish Committee of National Liberation [Polski Komitet Wyzwolenia Narodowego, PKWN] manifest in 1944.
However, the communities related to independence movement never forgot about this prewar holiday. As of 1970s, when democratic opposition was shaped, autonomous and illegal celebrations were organized. They included catholic masses for Fatherland, for example in a Warsaw St. John Cathedral, patriotic manifestations, dispersing leaflets, and laying flowers under the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The participants of the celebrations were often pursued and repressed by communist state authorities. “A prohibited public holiday of November 11, similarly to the holiday on May 3 [anniversary of the Constitution of May 3, 1791], survived in social awareness of the Poles, and became their symbol of striving for independence,” emphasizes Professor Odziemkowski. In the period of 1980–1981, after the August 1980 and the formation of Solidarity, half-legal celebrations would gather crowds of many thousand people.
Officially, the National Day of Independence on November 11 was restored by Polish Sejm by virtue of the Act of February 15, 1989. The Act says that the holiday is celebrated “to commemorate the anniversary of regaining by the Polish Nation an independent state entity as well as the fights of generations of Poles for freedom and independence.”
autor zdjęć: NAC