As World War I was drawing to a close and the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, Western Europe erupted in euphoria of victory and Eastern Europe erupted in chaos. The signing and the defeat of Germany did not solve many issues of frontiers in Eastern Europe and with many nationalities hoping for a creation or recreation of an independent national state, there was still a lot of work to be done.
Poles in Greater Poland seized the opportunity and staged a successful uprising in the Province of Poznań (ger. Provinz Posen) in Greater Poland. The uprising started on December 27, 1918 and ended on February 16, 1919 when the Entente powers renewed the truce which affected the Greater Poland region.
Let’s go back in time a little, Polish politicians had been working on recreation of the Polish state since the end of the 18th century. In fact, they never stopped. Ignacy Paderewski, a world-renowned pianist turned statesman was instrumental in stirring up pro-Polish sentiment in the United States and Western Europe during World War I. The Blue Army is just one example of that sentiment. Another is the support of President Woodrow Wilson.
The thirteenth of Wilson’s fourteen points stated that: “An independent Polish state should be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations, which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea, and whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant.“ As romantic and idealistic the sentiment was, it was also just as ambiguous.
On December 25, Paderewski returned to Poland and visited a number of towns and cities to tremendous ovation and euphoria. We should not underestimate his stature: being a world citizen and one of the most popular and successful pianists of his time in Western Europe and the United States he had many influential friends (including the aforementioned President Wilson). Being a fervent patriot, he used his international influence to further the Polish cause. His presence in Greater Poland was seen as dangerous by the Germans since the region had a major Polish population. When the pianist arrived in Poznań, he was received at a banquet at Hotel Bazar and was met by children waving banners, people singing patriotic songs, parades and a general state of excitement. On December 27, the Germans organized a parade of their own, and the soldiers of the 6th Prussian Grenadier Regiment were breaking into private houses to rip up and stomp the Polish, French, and American flags the Poles displayed. The soldiers also reportedly defaced the building of the Supreme People’s Council. By 5:00pm, the situation was getting out of control and shots were fired. The uprising began.
Some things require more detail. The partitions of Poland which took place at the end of the 18th century ended the experiment that was the Commonwealth of Both Nations. Poland ceased to exist as an independent state and was absorbed by the three partitioning powers. Political life and hope of independence did not stop in any form however, and its most extreme examples were the suicidally ambitious insurrections in 1794, 1830, 1861 and 1905. (It is interesting to note that the Greater Poland Uprising of 1806 was successful, like its 1919 counterpart, as it helped create the Duchy of Warsaw under the patronage of Napoleon.)
The political life of the nation never faltered and World War I offered new hope as the partitioning powers were, for the first time, on opposing sides of a conflict. In 1916, the Interparty Committee opened as an underground (read, illegal) organization which advocated peaceful takeover of the Poznań region. After the armistice, it was renamed the Supreme People’s Council (the one attacked by the German soldiers). The peaceful approach did not work and the Council took leadership over the nascent uprising that started before the new year.
Paramilitary organizations were a dime a dozen in the partitioned lands and (this is not much of an exaggeration), it was thought that the only pursuit a Pole should concern him or herself with at the time, was preparing for an uprising. Because you just never knew when the chance would present itself. One such organization was the People’s Guard, but there was a whole underground network which also included the Polish Military Organization and the Guard and Security Service among others. The second was actually a German organization which was made up of Poles and Germans in which Poles worked secretly to prepare for an uprising and learned infrastructure. Because, you know, Poles never make anything simple.
An interesting anecdote tells the story of how the uprising got its first plane. When Paul Pohl, German pilot, was ordered to take the Albatros D.III plane to Berlin from Poznań, he was reluctant to do so because of the chaos going on in Berlin. Pohl’s friend and fellow pilot, a Pole by the name of Franciszek Jach told Pohl to take the plane to Jach’s family farm in the country and he would receive…. kiełbasa. Having already tasted the homemade goodness, Pohl and Jach flew the plane north where they landed in the field and local peasant helped push the plane into a large barn (oh, the great early days of flying). The insurgents then proceeded to “inform” Pohl that they will take over the plane. Seeing the hopelessness of the situation, Pohl did not put up a resistance but did receive the promised kiełbasa and was taken to the train station from where he went to Berlin.
Franciszek Jach and his brother spent the night painting the Polish Air Force checkerboard on the plane and spent the next day flying over the region. They were the first Polish pilots in the Greater Poland Uprising. The insurgents later attacked and took control of the Ławica airport in Poznań which allowed them to bomb the city of Frankfurt. And by that we mean they dropped 36 bombs (oh, the great early days of flying).
The insurgents took advantage of the demoralized German military that recently lost the war and by mid-January, they took control over most of the Provinz Posen. When the armistice was renewed in February to include the Greater Poland region, Poles were in charge of the province. When the Treaty of Versailles was signed later that year, Poland weas granted the lands won by insurgents as well as some areas of Pomerania, the cities of Bydgoszcz, Leszno, and Rawicz, not all of which had predominantly Polish populations. Many of the insurgents later fought in the Silesian uprisings of 1919-21.