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Poland, officially the Republic of Poland (Rzeczpospolita Polska or Republika Polska) was a sovereign state in central Europe that existed between the two World Wars; from the creation of an independent Polish state in the aftermath of World War I, to the invasion of Poland in 1939 by Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the Republic of Lithuania, which marked the beginning of the Second World War.
When the borders of the state were fixed in 1922 after several regional conflicts, the republic bordered Czechoslovakia, Germany, Free City of Danzig, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, and the Soviet Union, plus a tiny strip of the coastline of the Baltic Sea, around the city of Gdynia. Furthermore, in the period March 1939 - August 1939, Poland bordered then-Hungarian Carpathian Ruthenia. It had an area of 388 634 km² (sixth largest in Europe, in the fall of 1938, after the annexation of Zaolzie, the area grew to 389,720 km².), and 27.2 million inhabitants according to the 1921 census. In 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II, it had an estimated 35.1 million inhabitants. Almost third of these were minorities (13.9% Ukrainians, 3.1% Belarusians, 8.6% Jews, 2.3% Germans, and 3.4% percent Czechs, Lithuanians and Russians).
The Second Polish Republic is often associated with times of great adversity, of troubles and of triumph. Having to deal with the economic difficulties and destruction of World War I, followed by the Soviet invasion during the Polish Soviet War, and then increasingly hostile neighbors such as Nazi Germany, the Republic managed not only to endure, but to expand. Lacking an overseas empire, Poland nevertheless maintained a level of economic development and prosperity comparable to that of the West. The cultural hubs of Warsaw, Kraków, Poznań, Wilno and Lwów raised themselves to the level of major European cities. They were also the sites of internationally renowned universities and places of higher learning. By 1939 the Republic was becoming a major world player in politics and economics.
In terms of foreign policy, Poland focused on remaining neutral with both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. In 1938, it took advantage of the German invasion of Czechoslovakia by recapturing the Zaolzie territory. Following the annexation of the territory into Poland, the Polish government allowed Czech troops to withdraw into Poland following Czechoslovakia's defeat in March 1939. Following the defeat of Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939, Poland shared borders with Nazi Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and the Soviet Union.
On September 1, 1939, one week after the signing of the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany. The campaign ended on September 23, 1939, with Germany, Lithuania and the Soviet Union occupying the entirety of Poland. While Poland did not surrender and continued as Polish Government in Exile and the Polish Underground State, the Polish territories were annexed by Nazi Germany. Following Operation Barbarossa, the Soviet-occupied territories of Poland were annexed by Germany.
Formative years (1918-1921)
From its inception, the Second Polish Republic struggled to secure and maintain its existence in difficult circumstances. Most Polish leaders of that period wanted to regain territories lost by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the late 18th century (result of the Partitions of Poland). The same territories were coveted by others — from aspiring separatist regions struggling to secede (such as the Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltics), to more powerful neighbours minded neighbours like the Soviet Union — desiring lands previously controlled by the Russian Empire. The new Polish borders were perceived in relation to those of the Commonwealth which in turn established them in the 14th century. However, opinions varied among Polish politicians as to how much of the territories the new Poland should regain, with Józef Piłsudski advocating a concept of Międzymorze — a democratic , Polish-led federation of independent states — and Roman Dmowski of Endecja faction, who set his mind on a more compact Poland composed of ethnic Polish or 'polonizable' territories.
To the southwest, Poland encountered boundary disputes with Czechoslovakia over Austrian Silesia (see: Zaolzie). More ominously, an embittered Germany begrudged any territorial loss to its new eastern neighbor. The December 27, 1918 Great Poland Uprising liberated Greater Poland. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles settled the German-Polish borders in the Baltic region. The port city of Gdańsk, a city with close ties to both Poland and Germans, and then with a significant German majority but as economically vital to Poland as it had been in the sixteenth century, was declared a free city. Allied arbitration divided the ethnically mixed and highly coveted industrial and mining district of Silesia between Germany and Poland, with Poland receiving the smaller in size, but more industrialized eastern section in 1922, after series of three Silesian Uprisings.
The German-Polish borders were so complicated that only close collaboration between the two countries could let the situation persist (1930 km., compared to the 430 km. of the present-day Odra-Nysa line). The unification of the former Prussian provinces lasted for many years. Until 1923, these provinces were ruled by a separate administration.
Military conflict proved the determinant of Poland's frontiers in the east, a theater rendered chaotic by the repercussions of the Russian revolutions and civil war. Piłsudski envisioned creating a federation with the rest of Ukraine (led by the Polish-friendly government in Kiev he was to help to install) and Lithuania, thus forming a Central and East European federation called "Międzymorze" (literally "between seas"). Lenin, leader of the new communist government of Russia, saw Poland as the bridge over which communism would pass into the labor class of a disorganized postwar Germany. And the issue was further complicated as some of the disputed regions had assumed various economic and political identities since the partition in the late 18th century while some didn't have an ethnically Polish majority in the first place they were still viewed by Poles as their historic regions, since they envisioned Poland as a multiethnic state. In the end, the negotiations broke down, sinking Piłsudski's idea of Międzymorze federation, instead, wars like the Polish-Lithuanian War or the Polish-Ukrainian War decided the borders of the region for the next two decades
The Polish-Soviet War, began in 1919, was the most important of the regional wars, and one of the most important conflicts of the interwar period. However, it was not until 1920 that its two participants realized they were facing more than a local border dispute. Piłsudski first carried out a major military thrust into the Ukraine in 1920 and in May Polish-Ukrainian forces reached Kiev. Just a few weeks later, however, the Polish offensive was met with a Soviet counter-offensive, and Polish forces were forced into a retreat by the Red Army. Poland was driven out of Ukraine and back into the Polish heartland, with the decisive battle of the war taking place near the Polish capital of Warsaw. Although many observers at the time marked Poland for extinction and Bolshevization, Piłsudski halted the Soviet advance and resumed the offensive, pushing Soviet forces east. Eventually both sides, exhausted, signed a compromise peace treaty at Riga in early 1921 that divided the disputed territories of Belarus and Ukraine between the two combatants. These acquisitions were recognized by the international agreement with the Entente. Poland reluctantly granted local autonomy to the Ukrainian population of Galicia, many of whom were embittered by their incorporation into a Polish state. In 1922, in the aftermath of the Polish-Soviet War and Polish-Lithuanian War, Poland also officially annexed Central Lithuania following a plebiscite, which was never recognised by Lithuania.
The Riga arrangement influenced the fate of the entire region for the years to come. Ukrainians and Belarusians found themselves without a province of their own, and some Poles also found themselves within the borders of the Soviet Union. The condition of those left under Bolshevik rule as a result of the Treaty was would be later marked by forced collectivistion, state terror, purges, labor camps and famine. The newly-formed Second Polish Republic, one third of whose citizens were non-ethnic Poles, engaged in promoting Polish identity, culture and language at the expense of the country's ethnic minorities who felt alienated by the process.
From Democracy to Authoritarian Government
Reborn Poland faced a host of daunting challenges: extensive war damage, a ravaged economy, a population one-third composed of wary national minorities, an economy largely under control of German industrial interests, and a need to reintegrate the three zones that had been forcibly kept apart during the era of partition.
Under these trying conditions, the experiment with democracy faltered. Poland's formal political life began in 1921 with adoption of a constitution that designed Poland as a republic modeled after the French Third Republic, vesting most authority in the legislature. The postwar Polish parliamentary system proved unstable and erratic, much like that of the French Third Republic.
In 1922 disputes with political foes caused Piłsudski to resign his posts as Chief of State and commander-in-chief of the armed forces; but in 1926, after four subsequent years of ineffectual government, he assumed power in the May 1926 Coup d'État. For the next decade, Piłsudski dominated Polish affairs as strongman of a generally popular centrist regime. Military in character, Piłsudski's government mixed democratic and dictatorial elements while pursuing national Sanation ("healing"). In 1935 a new Polish Constitution was adopted, but Piłsudski soon died and his protégé successors drifted toward open authoritarianism.
In many respects, the Second Republic fell short of the high expectations of 1918. As happened elsewhere in Central Europe, with the exception of Czechoslovakia, the attempt to implant democracy did not succeed. Governments polarized between right- and left-wing factions, neither of which was prepared to honor the actions taken by the other.
Typical of these concerns was the issue of the nationalization, in Poland, of foreign-owned, particularly German and Jewish, assets. Poland's minorities became increasingly alienated, due in part to the government's failure to honour treaty obligations concerning minority autonomy, as neither Germany nor Soviet Union were Poles lived, had signed such treaties. Antisemitism rose steadily as the Depression gained momentum in the 1930s, despite the fact that Poland was home to over three million Jews (mostly ethnic Polish), the largest Jewish population in Europe at the time and 10% of Poland's population. Much of the Jewish population was pauperized by recurrent boycotts.
Nevertheless, interbellum Poland could justifiably claim some noteworthy accomplishments: economic advances, the revival of Polish education and culture after decades of official curbs, and, above all, reaffirmation of the Polish nationhood that had so long been disputed. Despite its defects, the Second Republic retained a strong hold on later generations of Poles as a genuinely independent and authentic expression of Polish national aspirations.