The Experience of the German Minority in Interwar Poland
Chase Hanson, Fall 2017
The Interwar experience is a significant period in the history of minority groups in Europe. This is due do to the downfall and shattering of the Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian Empires in the aftermath of the First World War. As a result, several new states formed in Eastern Europe, many based upon the minority of the old empires that once ruled there, but also saw the establishment of new minority groups with these fledgling states. During these politically tumultuous there was a diplomatic movement to ensure that minority would be protect and be ensured certain rights, this eventually became principle of the League of Nations, with new member states needing protections for their minority population in order to be admitted into the organizations. One of these new states was Poland, gaining its independence after being partitioned over a hundred years ago, and within the territory that the state how controlled were Germans. By looking at the treatment of these Germans in Poland as a case study of how these new minority protections functioned and how effective they were. By establishing what were the protections the Polish state was legally obligated to uphold and compare it to the actual treatment of the German minority we can better understand the experience of the German minority in Interwar Poland
What is a Nation and how does it Act?
First let’s establish the framework of nationalism that I am working within for this work, a component needed to understand the experience of minority groups in Europe in order to understand how minorities understood themselves and how the majority groups understood the minorities within their domain. A problem associated with the defining of nationalism is understanding are the forces that cause nationalist feelings amongst a population. In the context of the German minority of Poland during the Interwar period this defining of nationalism is important because the minority was created in the aftermath of the First World War and was the former majority becoming a minority. By providing my own thoughts on nationalism and by comparing it to the work of prominent scholars and their study of nationalism, we can develop an understanding that will be applicable to the German minority in Interwar Poland.
When it comes to my personal views on nationalism, there are key parts that are involved. First is the people, for nationalism to develop you need people, but not just a random assortment of people. The second part is commonality amongst a group of people that involves a sense of community and unity to form a nation. This commonality stems from shared history, a common culture, similar religious or spiritual beliefs, a shared language, a homeland and interactions amongst the individuals of a group of people to become a nation. Third, is a shared belief that there is destiny for this nation. This sense of destiny causes the people within the nation to act for the nation, working to advance the nation and its interests. Some examples of this would include Manifest Destiny, the American belief of having a country spanning from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and Sonderweg, German for “special road” which is this belief that Germans have a unique path that followed throughout their history. Fourth is a desire to maintain the existence of this people and involves the defense of the nation from threats both from within and outside. This shared desire and sense of destiny leads to the group of people coming together and forming a nation-state.
This way of defining nationalism is based off of the work of several scholars in the field. First is Joseph Stalin and his work What is a Nation, a prominent feature of this work is the necessity of common features among a nation. Stalin defines four; common language, common territory, common economic life and economic cohesion, and common psychological make-up.John Hutchinson, and Anthony D. Smith, Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 19-20 Both Stalin’s and my definition share this sense that common characteristics are an essential part to the development of a nation. Another relevant scholar is Elie Kedourie, and his work Nationalism and Self-Determination, defining nationalism as a doctrine that divides people into nations, which desire to be independent states and encouraging people to devote themselves to that nation.Ibid., 48 His ideas are influential on my definition of nation and expands upon this idea of a nation’s destiny and how people within nations act to move towards that destiny. Hans Kohn expands upon this idea in Western and Eastern Nationalisms, in which he describes the effect that nationalism has on the human psyche. He describes nationalism as a state of mind that drives those possessing it to have new thoughts that are put into action.Ibid., 162
These definitions are related to the issue of minorities in two ways. First it provides a way of defining what a nation is. By providing several characteristics it becomes easier to figure what groups of people are and are not nations. For example, The Germans and the Poles match the characteristics presented and can be categorized as a nation, but, for example, gamers as a community do not possess most of these characteristics, sharing a common culture and interacting with each other but lack the rest. By defining what is a nation we can focus on these nations and observe how they act. In regard to minorities, this allows us to categorize which nation they belong to and how this affects their minority status. If they are part of a nation that has an established nation-state they can call on that state for aid and protection, but if that nation is only a minority within a state, they are more susceptible to oppression. Here the second way comes into play, by looking at how the members of a nation act we can see how their understanding of themselves as nation is a factor in their actions. By these definitions, nationalism is more than just a set of ideas, it is also a means of interacting with the world around them. For minorities, these interactions can both be how the minority acts toward the majority and how the majority acts towards the minority. In the case of the German minority in Interwar Poland, by looking at the actions of the Poles and Germans towards the other we can see how the shift in borders after the First World War effected both groups, with their statuses flipping from one to the other.
From Majority to Minority
In order to provide further context, let us establish how the Germans became a minority in the new Polish State. The area that is modern day Poland was home to ethnic Germans for centuries, since they migrated east in the middle ages. But their history as a minority group only goes back about a century to the aftermath of the First World War. During this time, the Poles gained independence from the German Empire, the Austria-Hungarian Empire, and the Russian Empire, and established their control over the territories that the ethnic Germans once held power in. The acquisition of German territories by Poland involved several stages during the closing stages of the First World War and in the following years.
Starting near the end of the First World War, German territory was ceded to Poland in three separate stages. First was the province of Posen, long a major center of the Polish nationalist movement, which declared independence on November 11, 1918 under the Naczelna Rada Ludowa, “Supreme National Council”, led by Wojciech Korfanty. Richard Blanke, Orphans of Versailles (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993), 9 The NRL received armed support from several organizations, such as Sokół, Hacerzy, and the Polska Organizacja Wojskowa Ibid, 9-10. This culminated in the Poznanian Insurrection of December 1918, in which the Polish Militias forced the German garrison in Poznań to surrender, and would spread across most of the province taking control from the Germans. Ibid., 15-7 The second stage was the ceding of land during the Paris peace talks that drafted the Treaty of Versailles. Under the provisions of the treaty, Germany was to cede “about 90 percent of Posen, about 66 percent of West Prussia, and smaller bits of East Prussia and Silesia” including several counties that were majority German. Ibid., 21 This land transfer came into effect on January 20th, 1920 with no outbreaks of violence, but divides start to form between Germans over how to react towards their new Polish rulers. Ibid., 25 The third and final stage was the dividing of Upper Silesia. Similar to Posen, the area experienced armed insurrection by the Poles against German Rule, but in February 1920 an “Inter-Allied Commission” took over. Ibid, 26 During this time, a vote was held on should Upper Silesia should remain in Germany or become part of Poland, resulting in a vote favorable to remaining in Germany. Ibid., 28-9 Tensions continued to remain high and eventually the League of Nations was brought in to resolve the situation, opting to divide the province between Germany and Poland based on how the percentage of the vote. Ibid., 29 During the approximately five years towards the end of and after the First World War, Poland was ceded significant areas of land from Germany. This land contained millions of ethnic Germans, who previously held power but now had become a minority in the new Polish state.
Protections under International Treaty
With this context of how the Germans became a minority in Poland, let us move onto the protections that the German minority were legally entitled to under law. The relevant document here is what has become known as the Little Treaty of Versailles, a treaty between Poland and the Allies sign at Versailles on June 28th, 1919. Christian Raitz von Frentz, A Lesson Forgotten: Minority Protection under the League of Nations. The Case of the German Minority in Poland 1920-1934, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 263 Consisting of twelve articles in total the purpose of the treaty was to deal with the transfer of these populations into Polish rule and establish protection for minorities within the new Polish State. Ibid., 263-267 Articles three, four, five, and six all deal with the issue of population transfer. Article three declares that any German, Austrian, Hungarian, or Russian citizenship eighteen years or older, and by extension their spouse and children, residing in their territory will become a Polish and that they can opt out of this nationality transfer and if so freely move to the state of their chosen citizenship. Ibid., 264 Article four is similar to article three, but covers those that were born in the territory and are not currently present in said territory, only providing a two-year period to opt out by declaring so in front of the proper Polish authority. Ibid., 264-265 The fifth article requires Poland to remain neutral in the decision-making process of which citizenship a person chooses. Ibid., 265 Article six deals with those not born the citizen of another state will become Polish citizens. Ibid., 265 The treaty is quite clear in its indent on how to deal with the changing political borders, taking a simple solution of making those residing within the relevant territory Polish citizens, well still giving them an option as to whether or not to keep it.
With regards towards protections for the minority population, these are dealt with articles two, seven, eight, nine, ten and eleven. Article two forces Poland to ensure the protection of life and liberty to all people residing in its territory irrespective of race, nationality, or religion. Ibid., 264 Furthermore, article two also guarantees the free expression of any creed, belief, or religion, so long as it is consistent with public morals or order. Ibid., 264 The seventh article establishes equality before the law and protection against the loss of civil and political right against discrimination based on religious beliefs and requires the establishing facilities in the judicial system for non-Polish speakers. Ibid., 265 Alongside these, article seven also protects the use of any language in private settings between people or in the publication of written works or newspapers. Ibid., 265 Article eight applies equal treatment and security under the law, namely the establishment and managing of religious, social, educational, and charitable institutions. Ibid.,265 Article nine requires the Polish public-school system to ensure the use of the student’s mother tongue and fair division of funds to areas of higher concentrations of a minority population. Ibid., 265 It must also be noted that in regards German, this only applies in what was formerly German territory before the First World War. Ibid., 266 Articles ten and eleven deal specifically with the Jewish minority in Poland and deal with education within the Jewish community and issues around the Sabbath, being irrelevant to the understanding of the German minority in Poland. Ibid., 266 Overall, on paper, the German minority was guaranteed several rights and protections under the rule of Poland and had reasonable expectations overall
The last two remaining articles, one and twelve, are arguably the most important of the articles as they work to prevent abuses of minorities by Poland. Article one declares that articles two through eight will recognized as laws by the Polish state and bars the government from passing any form of legislation or taking any action that conflict with them or supersede them. Ibid., 263-264 Article twelve makes the treatment of minorities in Poland an international concern and provides a guarantee of these protections from the League of Nations. Ibid., 266 To go along with this guarantee, it forces Poland to agree that any member of the Council of the League of Nations can bring any infringements of its obligations to its minorities and that dispute in regard to this issue will be brought before the Permanent Court of International Justice which had the final decision. Ibid., 266-267 Lastly, article twelve allows for modifications of the provisions of the treaty, but only with the approval from a majority of the member countries on Council of the League of Nations. Ibid., 266 With these two articles, it provides further guarantees of protection from poor treatment from Poland, and forces Poland to abide by the treatment or face international push back.
The Reality of the Treatment of the German Minority in Poland
Germans, like other minorities in Poland, were guaranteed certain rights and protections under treaties backed up by the League of Nations. The major issue right now is that these protections are only on paper and does not reflect the reality of the experience German Minority in Poland. Throughout the interwar period, the German minority faced different forms of oppression and mistreatment by the Poland. One prominent issue was the allocation of Polish citizenship to the German minority population. Under the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, only Germans that had become residents in the applicable territory before 1908 were eligible to gain Polish citizenship. Ibid., 145 The reasoning behind this year was significant was that it was when the Prussian colonization law was reformed and enabled the Prussian Colonization Commission to take land to be distribution amongst German settlers by forcing Poles to sell their land. Ibid., 145 Compounding upon this, the Polish Government interpreted the provisions of the treaty to include anyone who had left the territory at some time since 1908 and those with other residences outside of the territory were also not eligible for Polish citizenship. Ibid., 146 Due to the language of the treaty on the treatment of the minorities in Poland, the Polish state was able to limit which Germans were granted citizenship. The Polish government actively discriminated against the German minority, breaking another of their obligations under the international treaty.
A related issue was the treatment of those who opted out of Polish citizenship and remain in Poland. As of 1924 there were around 30,000 German citizens residing in Poland, with an estimated 3,800 would were considering changing their minds and becoming Polish citizens. Richard Blanke, Orphans of Versailles (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993), 66 Under the provision of article 41 of the Treaty of Versailles, those who opted out of Polish citizenship “might” move back to Germany. Ibid., 66 The Polish interpreted this in a way that involved the expulsion of those retained their German citizenship. Ibid., 66 Both the debate over citizenship and over the question of these people ability to stay lead to negotiations between Germany and Poland ending on August 30th, 1924. Ibid., 66 They agreed that those eligible for citizen would fall in line with the German interpterion, removing the bars based on temporary absence and secondary residences outside the applicable area, and the Polish interpretation of expelling those who refused to take Polish citizenship. Ibid., 66 By the end of 1925, over 18,000 Germans would be expelled from Poland, which only stopped due to a shortage of funds and fears over how their other Western countries would view them. Ibid., 67
Another action taken by the Polish government that actively targeted German property and liquidating it without due compensation. In 1919 53.7 percent of the land in Poznań and 69.9 percent in Pomerania while consisting of about 37 percent of the population in each province. Stephan Horak, Poland and Her National Minorities 1919-1939, (New York: Vantage Press, 1961), 135 This land was settle by Germans in the nineteenth century through a land transfer that involved the purchasing of land from Polish peasants ran by the German or Prussian state, depending on the time period. Ibid., 135 Two legislative acts would go on to affect the German property holders in these areas. First was what was known as a “Annulment Law” passed on July 14, 1920. Richard Blanke, Orphans of Versailles (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993),, 68 This law nullified all purchases of land in Poland that was owned by the German state that occurred after the armistice agreement. Ibid., 68 The justification for this law was that Germany only did this to prevent Poland from taking over the land themselves after realizing this land was going to transfer after peace negotiations. Ibid., 69 Second was a law for land reform passed on July 15th, 1920, focused on agricultural land that was to be redistributed amongst the Polish population. Stephan Horak, Poland and Her National Minorities 1919-1939, (New York: Vantage Press, 1961), 139 Originally not intended to only affect non-Polish landowners, the law was altered in 1925 adding new limits based on area. Ibid., 139 In Eastern Poland, the limit was set at 300 hectares, while in western Poland, where the largest concentrations of Germans reside, was set at 180 hectares. Ibid., 139
By January 1st, 1928 the following amounts of properties had been seized in these territories; “89 large estates of 200 hectares or over for a total of 95,386 hectares, 3,664 small landed properties and estates for a total of 53,662 hectares, 1,652 municipal and other public holdings, and 272 industrial and commercial enterprises”. Ibid., 137 This Polish liquidation of property should have been accompanied with proper compensation under international treaty, but was not leading to those who lost their property to sue for damages that amounted to a total of 200,000,000 Swiss francs. Ibid., 137 An example of this would be the Bethesda Hospital in Gniezno-Gnesen. The hospital’s primary clientele was Polish, around 90 percent, but was primarily staffed by Germans, including the head physician. Richard Blanke, Orphans of Versailles (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993), 69 The Polish government took it over and replaced the staff to only consisting of Poles and paid 47,000 zloty for a property estimated to be worth 600,000 zloty by the previous owners. Ibid., 69 Overall almost 500,000 hectares of land had been seized from German land owners for redistribution by 1929 of the over 1,500,000 hectares that they had owned in 1918. Stephan Horak, Poland and Her National Minorities 1919-1939 (New York: Vantage Press, 1961), 139 The Polish government went on a massive liquidation spree of German property, taking property worth millions without properly the owners of the property.
Richard Blanke points out that these policy actions made little sense for Poland to take during this time period. He points outs many of the Germans expelled from the country were productive and made little economic sense to remove from Poland’s economy. Richard Blanke, Orphans of Versailles (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993), 66 Furthermore, he points out that the Polish government did not have enough financial resources to actually properly carry out a liquidation campaign of German property. Ibid., 68 Blanke, however, submits nationalist forces leading to a development of a “de-Germanization” campaign in Poland. Blanke quotes several Polish from the time period expressing national rhetoric against the German minority. Wladyslaw Sikorski, the future head of the Polish government in exile during the Second World War, stated “the de-Germanization of the western provinces must be completed in the shortest time and at the most rapid pace”. Richard Blanke, “The German Minority in Inter-War Poland and German Foreign Policy – Some Reconsiderations” Journal of Contemporary History Vol. 25, No. 1 (Jan., 1990): 89-90. Wincentry Witos, chief of the Peasant Party, said “it is high time the German carriers of culture disappeared”. Ibid., 90. In 1924, Interior Minister Ratajski declare “every German that we can somehow get rid of must leave” Ibid., 90.. State police chief Furvjelm believed that it was his “duty to weaken the German nationality. Ibid., 90. There was this common sentiment amongst the political leaders of Poland that “Poland belong to the Poles” and that the German minority was a threat to this vision. Therefore, any action was justified in their minds to pursue the expulsion of as many Germans out of Poland as possible, but for those Germans that stayed in Poland they would face other methods of “de-Germanization”.
One of the first methods of “de-Germanization” was the banning of German organizations. The most prominent of these was the banning of the Deutschtumsbund zur Wahrung der Minderheitsrechte in Polen, German League for the Protection of Minority Rights in Poland, in 1923. Christian Raitz von Frentz, A Lesson Forgotten: Minority Protection under the League of Nations. The Case of the German Minority in Poland 1920-1934, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 209 The organization served as an advocacy group to the international community and the League of Nations and as the primary director of cultural, economic, and political interests of the German minority in Poland. Ibid., 209 In 1930 the leading members of the Deutschtumbund were charged with treason against Poland. Ibid., 209 The acts that brought this charge included advising Germans on how to handle the process of liquidation of their property and to send their children to schools that used German, recommending that those Germans eligible for military service maintain their right to German citizenship in order to avoid it, and gathering statistics on German children’s school attendance. Ibid., 211
Suppression of German newspapers also was a common occurrence. When Poland became the ruling power of former German territory there were around a hundred newspaper in German, of fifteen were daily editions, and most of received subsidies from the German government. Richard Blanke, Orphans of Versailles (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993), 75 In October 1920, the German-Polish Press Service, an organization back by the German government to aid German minority newspaper in Poland, was banned. Ibid., 76 Limits were also placed on the amount of complaints about the Poland and it was common for newspaper to be fine or confiscated for doing so. Ibid., 76 For example, the Thorner Zeitung during 1920 was censored or confiscated for printing criticisms of the Treaty of Versailles multiply times a week by Polish authorities. Ibid., 76 Editors of the German minority papers would face jail time or would be assaulted for printing newspapers with topics that were not approved to by the Polish government to be printed. Ibid., 76 Both the suppression of the German oriented organizations and newspaper were used as a means of weakening the position of the German minority within Poland. This was likely done in order to make it easier for “de-Germanization” and limit the political abilities of this minority.
Perhaps the most prominent “de-Germanization” effort was against the German minority school system that Poland slowly strangled into almost nothing. In 1921-1922 school year, there were 1,250 elementary schools in Poznań and Pomerania that used German as their primary language, but by the 1926-1927 school year the total number of German schools fell to 371. Christian Raitz von Frentz, A Lesson Forgotten: Minority Protection under the League of Nations. The Case of the German Minority in Poland 1920-1934, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 226 Central Poland experienced a similar phenomenon, with 550 public German schools in 1919 and falling to eleven in 1937. Stephan Horak, Poland and Her National Minorities 1919-1939 (New York: Vantage Press, 1961), 128 Throughout Poland there was major decline in the number of German schools to the point of almost not existing and unable to educate the German minority in their native language.
The reasoning behind this can be seen in the various actions the Polish government took that affected the German school system. Stanislaw Grabski was the chief architect of Poland’s minority school policy, and the Culture Minister from 1923-1925. Richard Blanke, Orphans of Versailles (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993), 77 He enacted policies that aimed to “Polonize” the minority schools and their students, such as requiring instruction in Polish after the fourth grade, reducing the time devoted to minority languages as the student advanced in their grade level. Ibid., 77 Minority school teachers were also required to be proficient in Polish and take oaths of loyalty to Poland and it was common for German teachers to be replace by Poles. Ibid., 77 German school associations were dissolved, such as the German Evangelical and German Catholic school systems in Central Poland that were dissolved by the Polish government on March 3rd, 1919. Stephan Horak, Poland and Her National Minorities 1919-1939 (New York: Vantage Press, 1961), 127 The Polish government went through a considerable effort to take control of the education of the children of the German minority in Poland. This control resulted in the end of German schools and German students being forced to learn Polish instead of their mother tongue. The reasoning behind this was to turn these children into Poles and “de-Germanize” them.
The treatment of Germans in Poland during the Interwar period was quite poor and in many ways quite hostile to the minority living there. This treatment likely stemmed from the Poles’ own sense of nationalism, which took become explicitly anti-German the stronger it became. This situation was made possible as Poland started to ignore its obligations under international treaty that were intended to protect the minorities in Poland in order to follow their sense of nationalist goal of creating a “Poland for Poles”. This kind of treatment of the German minority by the Poles shows how ineffective the League of Nations was at upholding its own self proclaimed duty of protecting minorities over its existence.
|↑01||John Hutchinson, and Anthony D. Smith, Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 19-20|
|↑04||Richard Blanke, Orphans of Versailles (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993), 9|
|↑12||Christian Raitz von Frentz, A Lesson Forgotten: Minority Protection under the League of Nations. The Case of the German Minority in Poland 1920-1934, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 263|
|↑33||Richard Blanke, Orphans of Versailles (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993), 66|
|↑39||Stephan Horak, Poland and Her National Minorities 1919-1939, (New York: Vantage Press, 1961), 135|
|↑41||Richard Blanke, Orphans of Versailles (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993),, 68|
|↑44||Stephan Horak, Poland and Her National Minorities 1919-1939, (New York: Vantage Press, 1961), 139|
|↑49||Richard Blanke, Orphans of Versailles (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993), 69|
|↑51||Stephan Horak, Poland and Her National Minorities 1919-1939 (New York: Vantage Press, 1961), 139|
|↑52||Richard Blanke, Orphans of Versailles (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993), 66|
|↑54||Richard Blanke, “The German Minority in Inter-War Poland and German Foreign Policy – Some Reconsiderations” Journal of Contemporary History Vol. 25, No. 1 (Jan., 1990): 89-90.|
|↑58||Christian Raitz von Frentz, A Lesson Forgotten: Minority Protection under the League of Nations. The Case of the German Minority in Poland 1920-1934, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 209|
|↑62||Richard Blanke, Orphans of Versailles (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993), 75|
|↑67||Christian Raitz von Frentz, A Lesson Forgotten: Minority Protection under the League of Nations. The Case of the German Minority in Poland 1920-1934, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), 226|
|↑68||Stephan Horak, Poland and Her National Minorities 1919-1939 (New York: Vantage Press, 1961), 128|
|↑69||Richard Blanke, Orphans of Versailles (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993), 77|
|↑72||Stephan Horak, Poland and Her National Minorities 1919-1939 (New York: Vantage Press, 1961), 127|