Silesian Uprisings

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Silesian Uprisings
Part of the aftermath of World War I
Polish Silesia insurgents.PNG
Silesian insurgents
DateAugust 1919 – July 1921
Result Ceasefire
Flag of Poland (1928-1980).svg  Polish insurgents Flag of Germany (3-2 aspect ratio).svg Germany

Polish armored car Korfanty in 1920 made by Polish fighters in Wozniak foundry. It was one of the two created, the second was named Walerus - Wozniak. Armoured Car Korfanty 1920.jpg
Polish armored car Korfanty in 1920 made by Polish fighters in Woźniak foundry. It was one of the two created, the second was named Walerus – Woźniak.

The Silesian Uprisings (German: Aufstände in Oberschlesien; Polish: Powstania śląskie) were a series of three uprisings from August 1919 to July 1921 in Upper Silesia, which was part of the Weimar Republic at the time. Ethnic Polish and Polish-Silesian insurrectionists, seeking to have the area transferred to the newly founded Polish Republic, fought German police and paramilitary forces which sought to keep the area part of the new German state founded after World War I. Following the conflict, the area was divided between the two countries. The rebellions have subsequently been commemorated in modern Poland as an example of Polish nationalism.



Wojciech Korfanty organized the Third Polish Silesian Uprising in Upper Silesia. Wojciech Korfanty.PNG
Wojciech Korfanty organized the Third Polish Silesian Uprising in Upper Silesia.

Much of Silesia had belonged to the Polish Crown in medieval times, but it passed to the Kings of Bohemia in the 14th century and, following this, to the Austrian Habsburgs. Frederick the Great of Prussia seized Silesia from Maria Theresa of Austria in 1742 in the War of Austrian Succession, after which it became a part of Prussia [2] and subsequently, in 1871, the German Empire. Although the province of Silesia overall had by then become overwhelmingly German-speaking, Poles constituted a majority in Upper Silesia. [3] [4] [5]

Mineral resources

Upper Silesia was bountiful in mineral resources and heavy industry, with mines, iron and steel mills. The Silesian mines were responsible for almost a quarter of Germany's annual output of coal, 81 percent of its zinc and 34 percent of its lead. [6] After World War I, during the negotiations of the Treaty of Versailles, the German government claimed that, without Upper Silesia, it would not be able to fulfill its obligations with regard to reparations to the Allies.[ citation needed ]

Demographics in the early 20th century

The area in Upper Silesia east of the Oder was dominated by ethnic Poles, most of whom were working class. Most spoke a dialect of Polish, a few felt they were a Slavic group of their own called Silesians. [2] In contrast, most of the local middle and upper classes were ethnic Germans, including the landowners, businessmen, factory owners, local government, police, and Catholic clergy. [2] There was a further division along religious lines; German Upper Silesians were almost all Protestant, while Polish ones were invariably Roman Catholic. [2]

In the German census of 1900, 65% of the population of the eastern part of Silesia was recorded as Polish-speaking, which decreased to 57% in 1910. [2] This was partly a result of forced Germanization, [7] but was also due to the creation of a bilingual category, which reduced the number of Polish speakers. [2] German scholar Paul Weber drew a language map that showed that in 1910, in most of the Upper Silesian districts east of the Oder river, Polish-speaking Silesians constituted a majority, forming more than 70% of the population there. [2]

While still under German control, various Poles identified as Silesians would write, publish, distribute pamphlets, newsletters and other written material, promoting the idea of a Polish-Silesian Identity. Included among the statements within these texts was adherence to the Roman Catholic church. One such publisher was Ignacy Bulla (later changed to Buła in celebration), who would spread information related to these principles at risk to his own life and freedom. He is widely credited with having inspired the Polish-Silesian patriotic feelings that inspired the uprisings. His contribution to bringing Silesia back into the Roman Catholic Church was the subject of at least one dissertation presented by a Seminary student.

Versailles plebiscite

The Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919, had ordered a plebiscite in Upper Silesia, to determine whether the territory should be a part of Germany or Poland. [2] The plebiscite was to be held within two years of the Treaty in the whole of Upper Silesia, although the Polish government had only requested it to be held in the areas east of the Oder river, which had a significant number of Polish speakers. [2] Thus, the plebiscite took place in all of Upper Silesia, including the predominantly Polish-speaking areas in the east and the predominantly German-speaking areas west of the river. [2] The Upper Silesian plebiscite was to be conducted on 20 March 1921. In the meantime, the German administration and police remained in place. [2]

Cap badge of the Polish Storm Detachment during Silesian Uprisings Cap badge of the Polish Storm Detachment during Silesian Uprisings.PNG
Cap badge of the Polish Storm Detachment during Silesian Uprisings

Meanwhile, propaganda and strong arm tactics by both sides led to increasing unrest. [2] The German authorities warned that those voting for Poland might forfeit their jobs and pensions. [2] Pro-Polish activists argued that, under Polish rule, Silesian Poles would no longer be discriminated against. Poland also promised to honour their German state social benefits, such as the old age pensions. [2] However, many German Army veterans joined the Freikorps (Free Corps), a paramilitary organization whose troops fought any pro-Polish activists. [2] The pro-Poland side employed the Polish Military Organisation (POW) – a secret military organisation and predecessor of Polish intelligence  – to fight back with the same force. [8]

Eventually, the deteriorating situation resulted in Upper Silesian Uprisings conducted by Poles in 1919 and 1920.

The right to vote was granted to all aged 20 and older who either had been born in or lived in the plebiscite area. A result was the mass migration of both Germans and Poles. [9] The German newcomers accounted for 179,910, while Polish newcomers numbered over 10,000. [2] Without these "new voters", the pro-German vote would have had a majority of 58,336 instead of the final 228,246. [2] The plebiscite took place as arranged on 20 March. A total of 707,605 votes were cast for Germany and 479,359 for Poland. [2]

The Third Silesian Uprising conducted by Poles broke out in 1921. The League of Nations was asked to settle the dispute before it led to even more bloodshed. In 1922, a six-week debate decided that Upper Silesia should be divided. This was accepted by both countries, and the majority of Upper Silesians. Approximately 736,000 Poles and 260,000 Germans thus found themselves now in Polish (Upper) Silesia, and 532,000 Poles and 637,000 Germans remained in German (Upper) Silesia.[ citation needed ]


First uprising (1919)

First Silesian Uprising
Date16–26 August 1919
Parts of Upper Silesia
Result German forces crush uprising
Flag of Germany.svg Grenzschutz
Oberschlesisches Freiwilligen-Korps
Flag of Poland.svg Polish Military Organisation
Commanders and leaders
Alfons Zgrzebniok

On 15 August 1919, German border guards (Grenzschutz) massacred ten Silesian civilians in a labour dispute at the Mysłowice mine (Myslowitzer Grube). The massacre sparked protests from the Silesian Polish miners, including a general strike of about 140,000 workers, [10] and caused the First Silesian uprising against German control of Upper Silesia. The miners demanded the local government and police become ethnically mixed to include both Germans and Poles. [2]

About 21,000 Germans soldiers of the Weimar Republic's Provisional National Army (Vorläufige Reichsheer), with about 40,000 troops held in reserve, quickly put down the uprising. The army's reaction was harsh, with 2,500 Poles either hanged or executed by firing squad for their parts in the violence. [ citation needed ] Some 9,000 ethnic Poles sought refuge in the Second Polish Republic, taking along their family members. This came to an end when Allied forces were brought in to restore order, and the refugees were allowed to return later that year.

Second uprising (1920)

Second Silesian Uprising
Date19–25 August 1920
Result Foreign-enforced cease-fire
Flag of Poland.svg Polish Military Organization Flag of Germany.svg German civil government and police of Upper Silesia Allied Plebiscite Commission Military Forces

The Second Silesian Uprising (Polish: Drugie powstanie śląskie) was the second of the three uprisings.

In February 1920, an Allied Plebiscite Commission was sent to Upper Silesia. It was comprised via the representatives of the Allied forces, mostly from France, with smaller contingents from United Kingdom and Italy. [2] Soon, however, it became apparent that the Allied forces were too few to maintain order. Further, the commission was torn apart by lack of consensus: the British and Italians favored the Germans, while the French supported the Poles. [2] Those forces failed to prevent continuing unrest. [2]

In August 1920, a German newspaper in Upper Silesia printed what later turned out to be a false announcement of the fall of Warsaw to the Red Army in the Polish–Soviet War. Pro-German activists spontaneously organised a march to celebrate what they assumed would be the end of independent Poland. The volatile situation quickly degenerated into violence as pro-German demonstrators began looting Polish shops; the violence continued even after it had become clear that Warsaw had not fallen. [2] [11]

On 19 August, the violence eventually led to a Polish uprising which quickly resulted within the occupation of government offices in the districts of Kattowitz (Katowice), Pless (Pszczyna) and Beuthen (Bytom). Between 20 and 25 August, the rebellion spread to Königshütte (Chorzów), Tarnowitz (Tarnowskie Góry), Rybnik, Lublinitz (Lubliniec) and Gross Strehlitz (Strzelce Opolskie). The Allied Commission declared its intention to restore order, but internal differences kept anything from being done; British representatives held the French responsible for the easy spread of the uprising through the eastern region. [12]

The fighting was slowly brought to an end in September, by a combination of allied military operations and negotiations between the parties. The Poles obtained the disbanding of the Sipo police and the creation of a new police ( Abstimmungspolizei ) for the area, which would be 50% Polish. [11] Poles were also admitted to the local administration. The Polish Military Organisation in Upper Silesia was supposed to be disbanded, though in practice this did not happen.

Third uprising (1921)

Third Silesian Uprising
Date2 May – 21 July 1921
Result League of Nations forces a ceasefire.
Flag of Germany.svg Grenzschutz
Flag of Poland.svg Polish Military Organisation
Greater Polish Army
Inter-Allied Commission
Commanders and leaders
Friedrich Wilhelm von Schwartzkoppen
Karl Höfer
Wojciech Korfanty
Maciej Hrabia Mielzynski
Jules Gratier
Filippo Salvioni
William Heneker
Train derailed by the insurgents near Kedzierzyn Wykolejony pociag.jpg
Train derailed by the insurgents near Kędzierzyn
Polish insurgents unit in 1921 Powstancy slascy 1921.jpg
Polish insurgents unit in 1921

The Third Silesian Uprising (Polish : Trzecie powstanie śląskie) was the last, largest and longest of the three uprisings. It included the Battle of Annaberg and began in the aftermath of a plebiscite that yielded mixed results. The British and French governments could not reach a consensus on the interpretation of the plebiscite. [2] The primary problem was the disposition of the "Industrial Triangle" east of the Oder river, whose triangle ends were marked by the cities of Beuthen (Bytom), Gleiwitz (Gliwice) and Kattowitz (Katowice). [2] The French wanted to weaken Germany, and thus supported Polish claims on the territory; the British and the Italians disagreed, in part because the German government declared that a loss of the Silesian industries would render Germany incapable of paying the demanded war reparations. [2]

In late April 1921, rumours spread that the British position would prevail, prompting the local Polish activists to organise an uprising. [2] The insurrection was to begin in early in May. Having learned from previous failures, the Third War was carefully planned and organized under the leadership of Wojciech Korfanty. It started on 2–3 May 1921, with the destruction of German rail bridges (see "Wawelberg Group") in order to slow down the movement of German reinforcements. A particular concern was to prevent the recurrence of violent acts against Polish civilians by members of the Freikorps, demobilised Imperial German army units that had refused to disband. These paramilitary units existed throughout Germany and usually acted independently from both the provisional official army and the leadership of the fledgling German Republic.

The Inter-Allied Commission, in which General Henri Le Rond was the most influential individual, waited rather long prior to taking any steps to end the violence. [13] The French troops generally favored the insurrection, while within some cases, British and Italian contingents actively cooperated with Germans. [13] UK Prime Minister Lloyd George's speech in the British Parliament, strongly disapproving of the insurrection, aroused the hopes of some Germans. but the Entente appeared to have no troops ready and available for dispatch. [13] The only action the 'Inter-Allied Military Control Commission' and the French government made was demanding immediate prohibition of the recruiting of German volunteers from outside Upper Silesia, and this was promptly made public. [13]

After the initial success of the insurgents in taking over a large portion of Upper Silesia, the German Grenzschutz several times resisted the attacks of Wojciech Korfanty's Polish troops, in some cases with the cooperation of British and Italian troops. [13] An attempt on the part of the British troops to take steps against the Polish forces was prevented by General Jules Gratier, the French commander-in-chief of the Allied troops. [13] Eventually, the insurgents kept most of territory they had won, including the local industrial district. They proved that they could mobilize large amounts of local support, while the German forces based outside Silesia were barred from taking an active part in the conflict.

Twelve days after the outbreak of the insurrection, Korfanty offered to take his troops behind a line of demarcation (the "Korfanty Line"), conditional on the released territory not being re-occupied by German forces, but by Allied troops. [13] It was not, however, until 1 July that the British troops arrived in Upper Silesia and began to advance in company with those of the other Allies towards the former frontier. [13] Simultaneously, with this advance, the Inter-Allied Commission pronounced a general amnesty for the illegal actions committed during the insurrection, with the exception of acts of revenge and cruelty. [13] The German Grenzschutz was withdrawn and disbanded. [13]


Silesian Insurgents Monument in Katowice. The largest and heaviest monument in Poland, constructed in 1967. Katowice - Pomnik Powstancow Slaskich.jpg
Silesian Insurgents Monument in Katowice. The largest and heaviest monument in Poland, constructed in 1967.

Agreements between the Germans and Poles in Upper Silesia and appeals issued by both sides, as well as the dispatch of six battalions of Allied troops and the disbandment of the local guards, contributed markedly to the pacification of the district. [13]

The Allied Supreme Council was, however, still unable to come to an agreement on the partition of the Upper Silesian territory on the lines of the plebiscite; the British and the French could only agree on one solution: turning the question over to the Council of the League of Nations. [2] [13]

The greatest excitement was caused all over Germany and in the German part of Upper Silesia by the intimation that the Council of the League of Nations had handed over the matter for closer investigation to a commission; this remained comprised via 4 representatives, one each from Belgium, Brazil, Spain, and China. [13] The commission collected its own data and issued a decision, stressing the principle of self-determination. [2] On the basis of the reports of this commission and those of its experts, in October 1921 the Council awarded the greater part of the Upper Silesian industrial district to Poland. [2]

The Polish Government had decided to give Silesia considerable autonomy with the Silesian Parliament as a constituency and the Silesian Voivodeship Council as the executive body.

Poland obtained almost exactly half of the 1,950,000 inhabitants, viz., 965,000, but not quite a third of the territory, i.e., only 3,214 of 10,951 square kilometres (1,241 of 4,228 mi2). [13] This, however, comprised by far the more valuable portion of the district. Of 61 coal mines 49½ fell to Poland, the Prussian state losing 3 mines out of 4. Of a coal output of 31,750,000 tonnes, 24,600,000 tonnes fell to Poland. All iron mines with an output of 61,000 tonnes fell to Poland. [13] Of 37 furnaces, 22 went to Poland, 15 to Germany. Of a pig-iron output of 570,000 tonnes, 170,000 tonnes remained German, and 400,000 tonnes became Polish. [13] Of 16 zinc and lead mines, which produced 233,000 tons in 1920, only 4, with an output of 44,000 tonnes, remained German. [13] The main towns of Königshütte (Chorzów), Kattowitz (Katowice), and Tarnowitz (Tarnowskie Góry) were given to Poland. [13] In the Silesian territory that Poland regained, the Germans were a significant minority. Similarly, a significant minority of Poles (about half a million Poles) was still left on the German side, most of them in Oppeln (Opole). [2]

In order to mitigate the hardships likely to arise from the partition of a district that was essentially an economic unit, it was decided, on the recommendation of the Council of the League of Nations, that German and Polish delegates, under a chairman appointed by the Council of the League, should draw up economic regulations as well as a statute for the protection of minorities, which were to have a duration of fifteen years. [13] Special measures were threatened in the event that either of the two states should refuse to participate in the drawing up of such regulations, or to accept them subsequently. [13]

In May 1922, the League of Nations issued the German-Polish Accord on East Silesia, also known as the Geneva Accord, intended to preserve the economic unity of the area and to guarantee minority rights. The League also set up a tribunal to arbitrate disputes. Furthermore, in response to a German complaint about the importance of Silesian coal for the German industry, Germany was given the right to import 500,000 tons per year at discounted prices. [2] In 1925, three years following the development of the agreement and approaching the termination of the coal agreement, Germany refused to import the appropriate quantities of coal, attempting to use the coal issue as a lever against Poland, trying to impose a revision of the whole Polish-German frontier. [2] Polish-German relations worsened, as Germany also began a tariff war with Poland, but the Polish government would not yield on the border issue. [2]

The last veteran of the Silesian Uprisings, Wilhelm Meisel, died in 2009 at the age of 105. [14] [15]

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Further reading