An Independent Poland

Why and How the Ancient Democratic Nation Should Be Resurrected for the Thirty-Five Million Poles Now Under Oppressive Foreign Rule

By Ignace Jan Paderewski
[Plenipotentiary of the Polish National Committee in America]

[The World's Work, December 1918]

Although President Wilson has spoken emphatically for an independent and reunited Poland, I think it must be difficult for Americans to understand how deeply his utterances have touched Polish hearts, how profoundly they have stirred our gratitude. You have been free so long I fear you have come to take your freedom somewhat for granted. Can you, who for a century and a half have exercised the elective franchise, realize the unquenchable thirst for liberty, that during a century and a half has consumed Poland?

I want to present Poland's democratic claims to your attention before I undertake a narrative of the steps by which she was dismembered: three acts of imperial banditry which, so any historian will tell you, are the blackest on the long criminal calendar of European diplomacy. We have been painted as an unstable and bellicose nation, bordering upon anarchy when left to our own devices; your textbooks, drawn partly from German sources, have depicted us as always spoiling for a fight. And it is true that Poland has done much fighting. She has fought a hundred wars, but not one for conquest. All have been in self-defense, or in defense of justice, of Christianity. In 1241, at the Battle of Lignica, she threw back the Tartar invaders. In 1683, John Sobieski saved Europe from Ottoman dominion. Through five centuries Poland bore the brunt of Turkish arms, until she won the appellation of "the Buckler of Christendom." She has warred often for the liberty of others; and among the illustrious generals who fought for the independence of your own country, the only one who possessed no slaves was a Polish nobleman, Tadeusz Kosciuszko.

Poland has been the cradle of the world's liberalism. She concluded, in 1413, a political union with Lithuania, an act of free union, proclaiming for the first time, in a document of almost evangelical beauty, the- brotherhood of man. Two centuries and a half before England achieved a Habeas Corpus Act, three centuries and a half before the French Declaration of the Rights of Man, Poland introduced, in 1430, her famous law, Neminem captivabimus nisi jure victim; she was first to provide that no man should be imprisoned unless legally convicted. Her Constitution of 1505 was the world's primary application of a democratic parliamentary system. In 1573, she inaugurated a virtual republic, its chief magistrate elected for life and called a king, but forbidden to lead the militia across the frontier except with the "consent of the Senate. And in that very same year, the year, you remember, of St. .Bartholomew's Night, the Polish Senate provided freedom for all creeds, the right of every man within its jurisdiction to worship as he chose.

In those days Poland was what America is to-day, a refuge for all men oppressed and persecuted. Your country is a political descendant of the nation which, in 1208, first applied the elective franchise, and, in 1347, established the first complete civil code of Christian Europe.

Poland's enemies have had much to say about the excesses committed by our nobility. There is no need to discuss this at any length, but I may say that with the exception of a few almost feudal families, the Polish nobility was not an aristocratic class, but simply a privileged democracy. The Polish nobility was a vast body of men enjoying all civic and political rights, even some rather mediaeval privileges won by their ancestors or by themselves on battlefields or in other public service. They were electors, voters. Everybody who distinguished himself in war, in statesmanship, in science, or even in art could become a nobleman, a voter. How democratically this was applied some facts and figures will attest: In 1847, in France, at the time of Louis Philippe, out of a nation of twenty-eight millions, there were but 150,000 voters; whereas two hundred years before that, in 1647, Poland had nearly 300,000 voters in a nation of less than eleven millions. In England, before the famous Reform Bill of 1832, 2 per cent only of the population enjoyed all political rights, while in 1732, 12 per cent, of the Polish population was in complete possession of those rights. And it may be said further to the credit of our nobility that in the middle of the Eighteenth Century, our landowners of their own initiative began the emancipation of peasants from conditions of serfdom.

This war has been fought to make the world safe for democracy. The causes of Poland's partition lay in her democratic and progressive premiership. The causes cannot be found in any inherent anarchic predilection. There is always a tendency toward anarchy in accomplishing the overthrow of autocratic establishments; but Poland's momentous reforms were accomplished without revolution, without bloodshed, by unanimous vote, in quiet and dignity.

The Polish executives, the kings, were limited in their power by an excessively liberal Constitution, and so were lacking in authority the nation deprived of a permanent standing army, was an easy prey to predacious neighbors; and her fertile plains, known in ancient times as the granary of Europe, afforded an added temptation to them. But the primary reason was her democratic temper, which aroused the suspicion and fear of near-by feudal despots."


Notwithstanding the fact that in this war nearly three million Polish-speaking soldiers have been forced into fratricidal combat, driven into battle by German and Austrian and Russian conscription, to fight their cousins and brothers, many persons seem to believe Poland a small nation! They forget the magnitude of its historic domain and the numbers of its people. The Kingdom of Boleslaus the Great (992-1025) stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Carpathians. It included part of Saxony, the whole of Silesia, and stretched almost to Berlin. In 1772, when came the first dismemberment, Poland covered 300,000 square miles, almost 100,000 miles more than the German Empire of to-day. Its population was eleven and a half millions. It ranks, indeed, with Italy as the fifth European nation. Before the outbreak of this war there was a compact mass of 35,000,000 people in Europe speaking the Polish language; and whatever ruler might claim dominion over them, they were one: no mutilation of the national body, no cruelties or oppressions, could dissever the Poles in spirit. They remain to-day one nation in language and in aspirations, despite a century and a half of political slavery, and through all those years the love of liberty has burned within them as an inextinguishable flame.

The name of Poland is derived from the word Pole, which in all Slavonic languages means a field, a plain; and it derives from the fact that the country lies in a vast productive plateau of which the River Vistula is the centre, and which has the River Oder on the west and the River Dnieper on the east. This has been the home for centuries of the Poles. In the early days of the Ninth Century, before the eastern Slavonic country had been conquered by the Normans of Roesland and had received from them the name of Russia, the inhabitants of the country bordered by the rivers Dnieper and Oder and those living in the Vistula and Warta districts were all known under the name of Polanie, Polans. The most ancient of Russia's historical documents, the Chronicle of Nestor, dating from the beginning of the Twelfth Century, as well as the first prominent historian of Russia, Karamazin, agreed that the ancient Poles and the Polans were the same people, speaking the same language.


They were a kind, soft-hearted, peace-loving people. In the northwestern parts of their large country, while cultivating laboriously their ancestral rather arid soil, they developed, as is always the case where man has to fight Nature, into thrifty, energetic agriculturists; while in the south they remained somewhat indolent and poor, trusting to the extreme fertility of their land. Fond of songs and music, of dances, hospitable to excess, they were leading an easy life, to which their rich and poetic mythology lent great charm and beauty. Very soon, however, this kindly, peace-loving people, surrounded by greedy neighbors, exposed to easy invasion, in order to protect their liberty, to protect their homes, their wives, and children, were compelled to forge weapons, to learn warfare. They learned it quickly and well, and within a short time out of rustic, pastoral tribes, bound by a common danger, they became a real nation, made up of plowmen and warriors. For there could not be a real nation without a people who loved their soil, without a people who knew how to cultivate that soil in peace and how to protect it in war.

Early in the second half of the Tenth Century, under Mieszko the First, her first historical ruler, Poland was called to take her place among the Christian Kingdoms of Europe; but it was given to Mieszko's son, Boleslaus the Great, to unite all Polish lands, all Polish tribes, and to build up a political power of the very highest order.

I have told you that Poland's democratic spirit was at the root of her destruction by uneasy and covetous neighbors. It might not have happened had Poland been isolated, as you were here: she might have escaped had she been unhampered and unassailed in working out her political salvation. But just when the democratic ferment had weakened without solidifying her governmental structure, she fell prey to the unscrupulous Powers about her. Catherine II was on the throne of Russia, and when she set out to enlarge her territory at the expense of Poland, Frederick the Great, the father of Kaisercraft, aided her. The Empress Maria Theresa of Austria pretended that the spoliation of Poland was extremely distasteful to her, but she was jealous and afraid of Frederick's growing power; and so the time was ripe for the rape of a nation.

A cattle plague in 1770 afforded excuse for invasion. Frederick threw into Poland military forces which he chose to call cordons sanitaire, and it was officially explained that they were necessary to prevent a spread of the epidemic. The others followed the same course, and their troops pushed forward until each occupied a prearranged area, selected as its spoil. After the epidemic had subsided, the troops were not withdrawn. They remained in Poland.


Then, on February 17, 1772, the first treaty of partition was signed at St. Petersburg between Catherine and Frederick. Later, they admitted Austria. Russia took Vitebsk, Polotsk and Mscislaw, 1,586 square miles of territory with a population of 550,000; Austria took the greater part of Galicia (but not Cracow), 1,710 square miles; with a population of 816,000; and Prussia took the maritime palatinate (minus Danzig), East Prussia (minus Thorn) and Great Poland as far as the Nitza; and the palatinates of Marienbad and Ermeland; 629 square miles, with a population of 378,000.

They seized one fourth of Poland's territory, one fifth of her population. To the remainder they graciously accorded autonomy, dependent upon their royal favor.

Before the next partition, in 1793, the personnel of the thieving triumvirate altered. Catherine remained, but in Prussia, Frederick William took up his predecessor's policies, and Francis ascended the throne of Austria.

In 1791, King Stanislaus Poniatowski, last of the Poles to rule, brought about the adoption of a liberal constitution and proclaimed religious tolerance. He extended the franchise to the town burghers, prior to that unrepresented in the Diet, and established a cabinet of ministers. Nothing could have displeased Catherine more acutely than this liberalism. She would have preferred anarchy in Poland; and Francis, a weakling, was equally disquieted.

Catherine was at war with Turkey. It seemed no moment for conquest in Poland; but she hoped to embroil the kinsmen, Francis and Frederick William, with revolutionary France, make peace with Turkey, then turn and rend Poland; and in the end that was substantially what happened. For while the armies of Prussia and Austria were being defeated by the democracy of France, Catherine sent her armies again into Poland, and gave battle to a heroic force of 46,000 men under Prince Joseph Poniatowski and Kosciuszko. For a time they stemmed the invasion. The Prussians, fearful lest Catherine would seize territory while they got none, poured into Great Poland; and on September 23, 1793, came the second partition.

Russia took the eastern provinces of Kiev, Minsk, and Bracelaw and the greater part of Volhynia, an area of 90,006 square miles, with a population of three millions; Prussia got Dobrzyn, Kujavia and the most of Great Poland, with Thorn and Danzig. Poland remained only one third her original size, with a population, of three and one half millions.

Kosciuszko led a revolution in 1794 against the Russians. History has told you how the whole country flamed into revolt, and how it was humiliated. The three enemy Powers rushed their armies into the little Kingdom, crushed and massacred the Poles and burned their dwellings. Catherine's hands were the reddest and so she took the lion's share of the loot. To Austria went Western Galicia and Southern Masovia; to Prussia, Podlachia and the rest of Masovia, with Warsaw; and into Russia's insatiable maw went the remainder.


Out of the welter of this war will come a belated justice for all these wrongs. Russia has been punished. The political system which made possible her depredations has been destroyed, and she can no longer oppose the restoration of Poland. The victorious Allies, we may be sure, will bring the other aggressors to terms. Before Germany had forced the United States into this war, President Wilson made clear his attitude. In his address to the United States Senate on January 22, 1917, he said:

I take it for granted, for instance, if I may venture upon a single example, that statesmen everywhere are agreed that there should be a united, independent, and autonomous Poland, and that henceforth inviolable security of life, of worship, and of industrial and social development should be guaranteed to all the peoples who have lived hitherto under the power of governments devoted to a faith and purpose hostile to their own.... Any peace which does not recognize and accept this principle will inevitably be upset. It will not rest upon the affections or the convictions of mankind.

After the United States had entered the war, the President reaffirmed his conviction as to Poland. In his address to Congress on January 8th, last, he gave one of his fourteen Articles of Peace as follows:

XIII. An independent Polish State should be erected which should include the territory 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.

Mr. Lloyd George has expressed similar convictions, and the Versailles Conference has declared that not only Great Britain, but France and Italy, are committed to them.

The interest of Germany demands a weak Poland, surrounded by provinces either directly belonging to Germany, or recognizing Teutonic supremacy. The interests of peace require a large, powerful, and economically independent Poland. This can be attained through a complete union of all provinces once belonging to the Polish crown. Only a Poland with access to the sea through Danzig will be able to maintain direct relations with England, France, and America. Danzig is to us what London is to England. And only with the mines of Silesia, her ancient province, will Poland be able to acquire economic independence of Germany, to support her surplus population and to check excessive emigration. Despite four centuries of Germanization, the Regency of Opeln, Upper Silesia, contains a peasant and workingman population genuinely Polish, indigenous to that soil without a break from prehistoric times, which was, in 1910, a million and a half strong. The people have defeated every effort at denationalization.

An economically independent, self-supporting Poland will constitute a substantial barrier to the Mittel Europa dream of dominion. No other nation stands to win so much from the defeat of the Central Empires. No other nation offers a better guarantee to the future security of Europe. Its liberation is prerequisite to the safety of the world from German greed and aggression. A peace which would leave in Germany's hand any economic whip over Poland, would be a German peace.

Poland should be restored in a manner which would satisfy the needs and wishes of the Polish nation. A new Poland should be a continuation of that which she has been, otherwise she can not find again the ideal which she has in her soul. It has in itself all the elements of vitality and progress, and it is so deeply rooted in the nature of the Polish people that it forms the psychological necessity of their existence. Polish life can not be normal if she lacks the essential elements which have given her breath. The partitions of Poland have not divided the nation. They have created a flagrant contradiction between an artificial state, established by force, and the national conscience.

If one should plan to cut out a certain part of the former Poland to make a new one, if instead of erasing the artificial confines, one should only modify their direction, it would be creating irridentisms which would fatally lead to a new crisis. If we are to have a lasting and durable peace, we must reunite in the new Poland all the Polish lands. It is evident that it would be difficult to construct a Polish state out of territories where there are no Poles. But would it be possible to build a Poland out of lands which have never formed-a part of her history, if by some chance, let us suppose, due to a forced immigration, the number of Poles would reach 65 per cent of the inhabitants?


The correct number of Poles inhabiting Polish lands is generally little known, because in compiling the statistics the interested governments always treated the ethnical problems from a viewpoint of their politics. The following calculations are based upon the only existing authority, the official statistics compiled before the war, and as such they must be accepted with the understanding that they show only the minimum of Polish elements:

    • a. Kingdom of Poland, within the territories outlined by the Congress of Vienna (1815) of 127,684 square kilometers. Total population (including Russian troops): 13,427,180; Poles:
      10,232,200 (76.46 per cent); Lithuanians: 336,900; Ruthenians: 374,280; Russians:
      137,200; Jews: 1,746,600; Germans, 500,000.
    • b. Lithuania and White, Ruthenia: 6,000,000 Poles.
    • c. Ruthenia: 870,000 Poles.
    • d. In Russia, the scattered Polish colonies (chiefly in the industrial districts), count approximately 600,000.

The total number of Poles in the Russian partition is 17,702,200.

    • a. Galicia, consisting of a part of former 'Little Poland and Red Ruthenia, covers an area of 78,497 square kilometers. The total number of inhabitants is:
      8,200,000, composed of Poles, 4,960,000 (61 per cent); Ruthenians, 320,000, (39 per cent).
    • b. Silesia of Cieszyn, with an area of 23,000 square kilometers. Total population 434,000, with 285,000 Poles, or 65 per cent
    • c. Spisz, occupied by the Austrians since 1769, and to-day belonging to Hungary, has 200,000 Poles.
    • d. Bukowina, has 36,000 Poles, Bosnia, 12,000, and other Austrian provinces, 24.000 Poles.

The total number of Poles in Austrian partition is 5,417,000.

    (Compiling the official statistics the Prussian Government employed various methods with the purpose to diminish the figures of the correct number of Poles. The recognition of the Kaszub and Mazurian dialects as belonging to separate nationalities, and other details of registry particularly unfavorable for the Poles, were the chief means of lowering the figures of Poles in the Prussian partition.
    (The statistics of primary schools are a trifle more accurate than the figures of the general census, although still unfavorable to the Poles. According to the latest data ((1910)) the figures of Polish population in the Prussian partition are as follows:)
    • a. The Grand Duchy of Posen (annexed by Prussia during the second partition of Poland in 1793) covers an area of 28,996 square kilometers, with a total population of 2,100,000 out of which there are 1,465,000 Poles, or 69.67 per cent. Out of forty-two districts thirty-three have an unquestionably predominant Polish population.
    • b. West Prussia (formerly Royal Prussia) was assigned to Prussia by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The total area is 25,553 square kilometers, with a population of 1,703,500, of which 754,500 (44.29 per cent) are Poles. Out of twenty-nine districts fourteen have a predominance of Poles.
    • c. East Prussia (Ducal Prussia). Total area: 37,000 square kilometers. Population: 543,000. The Poles number 385,000, or 70.9 per cent,with an overwhelming predominance in eight districts out of ten.
    • d. Prussian Silesia. Total area: 40,355 square kilometers with a population of 2,208,000, of which 1,548,500, or 70.1 per cent are Poles. Out of twenty-six districts, eighteen have the Polish majority of population.
    • e. In Germany, outside of Polish territory, there live about 600,000 Poles. The major part of them (over 500,000) is concentrated in the industrial districts of Westphalia.

The total number of Poles in the German partition, was, in 1914, 4,751,000. Counting the increase of population from the year 1914 till 1918, we can estimate the total population of Poles in the German partition as 5,000,000.

The minimum figure, compiled by Poland's enemies, gives a total of Polish population in the Russian, Austrian, and German partitions as 25,319,200, but actually it may be accepted as certain that the total is fully thirty-five millions.

It is not to be supposed that all these thirty-five million Poles will be included within the boundaries of the new state; for although Mr. Wilson's references to an "indisputably Polish population," and to the necessity of an outlet to the sea, have served to underscore those phases of the question, other problems present themselves. Whether we attempt to envisage the New Poland according to linguistic, cultural, economic, geographic, or historic boundaries, we find our path beset by difficulties. To work out the solution there will be, in all probability, some combination of several or all these factors.

No Pole wishes to transgress the national individuality of the Lithuanians or Ukrainians (Ruthenians), and a scrupulous observance of their best interests may be expected from those who will exercise authority in determining their fate, and the fate of all the new nations which are to arise in Europe out of the ashes of this war. Historic Poland, prior to the partition of 1772; divided itself naturally into two sections: the Kingdom of Poland, with an area about equal to your state of Missouri, and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania; and the latter divided itself into the portions inhabited by the Lithuanians themselves and that inhabited by the Ruthenians or Ukrainians. So that the problem ahead is of great complexity. Space precludes the discussion of it in detail, but it may be possible to sketch the situation as it exists, for instance, in East Prussia, in Galicia and in those eastern provinces seized by Catherine II.

The original inhabitants of East Prussia were of Lithuanian stock, and were Germanized by the Teutonic Order. The language spoken now in the larger part of the province is German and the province itself is economically dependent on Germany. Its population is but 144 to the square mile and the obedient peasant votes at the behest of the large landowner. Those who preserve any recollection of Lithuanian origin take little interest in public affairs.

The landed proprietors are the German Junkers. This province is the stronghold of the reactionary militarist caste. The conservative extremists in the Prussian House are elected mainly by the spiritless East Prussian serfs—for in reality they are in a state of serfdom. Nowhere has the House of Hohenzollern found stauncher support. Feudal traditions and the feudal viewpoint are undisturbed to-day among the aristocracy of East Prussia, and to deprive this dangerous retrograde class of its power in German affairs, to lop this limb from the German body politic, would be political surgery of the highest order. Until that major operation is performed, we can hardly hope to witness any true democratization of the German system.

Between East Prussia and the main body of the German Empire lies West Prussia, containing Danzig, which is Poland's natural and historic seaport. I think it would not be presumptuous for me to say that West Prussia seems certain to be included in Polish territory, in which event we may expect to see Danzig become once more a flourishing city, and perhaps to achieve a population of a million. German manipulation of the currents of trade is responsible for the city's present decadence.

If, then, West Prussia were to become a part of the Polish state, and East Prussia were to remain under German dominion, it would form an isolated province, without physical contact with the parent, and might constitute a menace to the future peace of Europe. It has been suggested by some that the part of East Prussia which contains the German-speaking population, and is the seat of Konigsberg, be united with Poland on a basis of home rule; by others, that it be made a small independent republic, connected with Poland by a customs union and amply safeguarded as to its administrative integrity. These are but two of several solutions offered, and the advocates of both would provide that a great land reform be inaugurated, under which the large estates could be colonized by the peasantry.

Eastern Galicia has been the home of a Ruthenian national movement, known also as Ukrainian. Only 25 per cent of the population of that part of Galicia is Polish-speaking, but the Ruthenians, in spite of their numerical strength; constitute less than 5 per cent of the element engaged in professions and trades, aside from small farming. The natural resources of the province are great. In its western section are rich coal, fields and salt mines, and in the eastern are oil fields and deposits of potassium salts. The question of the disposition of this territory is so complicated by economic and political issues that I can do no more here than indicate their nature.

The eastern provinces of Kovno, Vilna, Grodno, Minsk, Mohylov, Vitebsk, Volhynia, Polotsk, and Kiev are economically and socially the most backward of ancient Poland. They have an area of 180,911 square miles, and represent the part seized by Russia, other than the Kingdom of Poland. Their population is various. Ruthenians, White Ruthenians, Poles, and Lithuanians will be found there, and the most recent estimates of the Polish element put it at six millions; but no acceptable figures as to the other elements are at hand, because the Russian census has always been untruthful.

For a long time Russia regarded these provinces as Polish, but after 1830 she made every effort to stamp out Polish influences there, and to prevent the speaking of the Polish language, which had been used before that in the schools and in the University of Vilna, and for administrative purposes. As to the disposition to be made of this territory, some favor the organization of a separate state from the Northern Lithuanian section, and its union on a home rule basis with Poland. It is impossible to predict what the decision of those at the peace table will be. I have mentioned some of the possibilities only in the hope of acquainting you with the problems which are to be a part of the task of remaking the map of Central Europe.

I think it hardly worth while to describe the farce of Polish restoration manoeuvred by the Central Powers in the hope of making our soil a recruiting ground. It is enough to say that they failed in their schemes.


What is Poland to-day? It is a vast desert, an immense ruin, a colossal cemetery. Precious works of art, valuable books, documents, and manuscripts, all the priceless proofs of our ancient, thousand-year-old culture, have been confiscated, as the operation is diplomatically called when it is performed by an overwhelming, collective force. Several large cities have been spared, preserved for the comfort of our united guests. But on the tremendous battlefront, extending from the Baltic Sea to the Southern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains, all of Russian Poland, almost the whole of Austrian and even a portion of Prussian Poland have been totally ruined. Three hundred towns, two thousand churches, twenty thousand villages are no more. An area equal in size to your states of Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, and Maine together has been laid waste.

For what could remain of a country where in many districts those huge armies of millions of men were moving forward and backward for eighteen months? Eighteen months of continuous fighting, eighteen months of incessant danger, eighteen months of uninterrupted anguish and pain, imposed upon an innocent-nation! Millions of homeless peasants, of unemployed workmen, of humble Jewish shopkeepers, have been driven into open wastes. Millions of bereaved parents, of breadless, helpless widows and orphans are still wandering about in the desolate land, hiding in woods or in hollows, happy if they find an abandoned trench and in that trench, next to the body of a fallen fighter, some decaying remnants of soldier's food.

The Polish National Committee has a message for all Americans: Help us to break forever the chains which shackle and humiliate an ancient and highly civilized nation, a nation which has been for centuries one of the vital organs of progress and humanity. Each of you can help. Then the old Polish Republic, which has been murdered by three autocracies, will rise again, resurrected by the generosity of American democracy.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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