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A Poland left beaten, a Poland left broken.
Stripped of their right to assembly, and their right to their language.
A multi-ethnic population, now absorbed into 3 separate empires.
With tensions with France rising in the West, and all 3 of these nations coming into Napoleon’s crosshairs -what was the future of Poland to be?
The turn of the century brought with it uncertainty, rebellion,and hiding beneath it all: a spark of nationalism, ready to be stoked.
Life under the imperial rule wasn’t great, and the Poles began searching for a way out almost immediately.
Restrictions had been placed on their language and religion.
They were treated as second class citizens.
Many musicians, artisans, poets and engineers, all fled political persecution and lived out their days in exile.
A people hard to quell, a people in search of solidarity.
If only they could get help from someone on the outside.
Napoleon: a despot, a tyrant, a threat to the monarchy.
Or, a champion of the Republic, a breaker of subjugations.
A military genius with bold ambition.
Napoleon was all of these things, and none of them.
Brief History Of Poland
But to the Poles… to the Poles, he was hope.
Poland ended up being an important ally of Napoleon during his coalition wars.
And he had granted them autonomy under the Duchy of Warsaw, in gratitude for their help.
But after the failed invasion of Russia, the Poles found themselves once again occupied, by the advancing Russians, who then annexed more territory, than they had in the partitions.
The brief rebellion by the Polish people now vanished with Napoleon’s exile.
So, was it all nor nothing then? Well, not really.
The Age of Rebellion kept alive the spark, that had burned brightly with Napoleon.
Uprising after the uprising was fought, and each generation was taught of the one, that had preceded it – inspiring new resentment and new rebellion.
The Poles found solidarity in their religion, their language and their customs.
Eventually forming a romantic nationalism, that would not be snuffed out.
Instead of being successful militarily, they were successful in keeping the Polish spirit alive.
Along with influential people, like Mickiewicz and Chopin.
As the decades crept by, and the hope for Poland seemed lost, there began to appear some light on the horizon.
The Prussians and Austrians had gone to war for supremacy over the German nation-state, and Germany had been born out of the rubble.
This, for many reasons, was not good.
Suddenly, Europe’s intricate balance of power had been destroyed.
A war for dominance over the continent seems inevitable in hindsight to us now; but in those days it was diplomats, who saw the coming danger.
Pressure was building, diplomacy was failing.
Power was imbalanced.
Something had to give… but what?
World War I began with Austria and Serbia.
But soon, turned into a multi-alliance pan-European war, fought on every part of the continent.
The former allies of Austria, Germany and Russia were now enemies.
The former Polish lands were the epicenter of the Eastern front, and Polish armies fought on both sides.
And both sides were promising the Poles their freedom, in exchange for their help.
Eventually, the Russians and Romanians would be defeated and forced to hand over all their Polish lands to Germany, in a peace treaty.
Setting up and occupied piece of territory for Polish people, they more than likely had no intention of letting them keep.
But with Russia knocked out of the war, the Americans had entered it, and one of Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points, was support for a liberated Poland.
With the defeat of Germany in 1918, Polish officials reclaimed much of their former territory.
And Józef Piłsudski was installed as the new leader of Poland, after a 123 years of foreign rule.
But the fight was not over.
The Bolshevik Revolution had left Russia to fight a brutal civil war, and once it was over,the Red Army set its sights on the Polish lands, they had recently lost.
The brave Polish armies lined up to defend their homeland.
Defending their capital of Warsaw, they stood ready for battle.
Against all the odds, the Poles would go on to lead a seemingly miraculous defeat of the Red Army.
In a stunning display of incredible bravery, and military prowess, the II Polish Republic was here to stay.
Polish leader Józef Piłsudski envisioned the recreation of the multicultural Poland of the past.
And reflected in this, the Second Polish Republic was among the most diverse at the time.
The next few years, usually called the “interwar period”, was dominated by strong, political rhetoric, radical ideas, and a high focus on foreign policy.
That being said, it wasn’t the most stable government.
There were even a couple of coups, here and there.
Across the border, in Germany, things were pretty bad as well.
The crippled economy and political turmoil, had allowed a radical like Adolf Hitler to come to power in 1933.
Introducing sweeping reforms of the government, and seizing dictatorial-like powers, it was not long, before Poland came into Hitler’s crosshairs.
Invading the Republic would allow Hitler to attain many of his short-term goals.
Such as: seizing the industrial heartland, and reaffirming Germany as a military power.
But also, his long-term goals, of eradicating Jews and other undesirables,and invading his arch-rivals, the Communist USSR.
But in a completely unexpected move, the Germans signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, secretly dividing Poland into two spheres of influence, hoping to bide their time, and not fight a two-front war.
(Good job guys, I think that’ll work out.)
The German army invaded Poland on the 1st of September, 1939, beginning the Second World War.
They were the first to taste the German “Blitzkrieg”, a radical, new form of Lightning warfare, designed to punch deep into enemy lines and surround them, cutting off their defenses.
Poland was not ready for this.
Europe was not ready for this.
The World was not ready for the Blitzkrieg.
Poland fought bravely in defense of their homeland, but they were defeated in a few short weeks, Warsaw being heavily bombed until September 27th.
Just to briefly clear something up: one myth spread by German propaganda, was the ineptitude of the Polish army, using sabered cavalry against the German Panzers.
This is completely false, there is no record of this ever happening.
And both sides had heavily armed cavalry units, it wasn’t that uncommon.
The fall of Warsaw, however, would not be the end of the fight.
Thousands of troops evacuated, and joined the armies of the Allied Powers, and continued to fight thoughout the war.
Many thousands more, civilians and soldiers, went into underground resistance, in towns and forests, to continue fighting the Germans and the Russians.
Poland was one of the worst-faired nations in World War II.
Combined with military and civilian casualties, Poland lost the highest percentage of any population in the war.
With one fifth of Polish citizens dying in combat, or in mass executions.
Of the 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust, half of them were Polish.
As the Red Army advanced into Polish territory in 1944,the army in Warsaw rebelled against the German occupiers.
They hoped, that the Soviets would join them to retake the city from the Nazis.
But this would not happen.
The Soviets were not their allies.
Nor did they come as liberators.
And stopped outside of Warsaw, and watched and waited, as the Germans slaughtered the Polish resistance, ignoring their radio calls for help.
Once the Polish army was killed, and the Germans had retreated, the Red Army marched into the pile of rubble, where Warsaw had once stood.
The Red Army had also uncovered the brutal death camps in Poland, set up to exterminate Jews and other minority groups by the Nazis.
News of this horror would soon spread throughout the world.
With the Polish foreign army, and the domestic army now fighting on both fronts, the European theater ended with a joint occupation of Germany, by the Allied armies in the West, and the Red Army in the East, in 1945.
Poland lay in waste and ruins, swapping out one occupying army with another.
And one madman dictator, for another.
For better or worse, the Red Army was once again on polish soil, and the atrocities and war crimes they committed on their advance, meant, that their stay would likely be an unpleasant one.
Uncertainty was on everyone’s mind.
The citizens of this central European nation could feel Stalin’s cold, clammy hands on their throat.
Would their sovereignty stay intact?
Would they remain a people inspired by liberty and stoicism?
How could they face the challenge, of rebuilding their nation,and come to terms with the brutality of the Holocaust?
As the British, French, and Americans strained they eyes, to watch and see, what the Soviet government was going to do next, their view became obscured by a giant, iron curtain.
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