It’s May 1921, and trouble is brewing once again in the border region of Upper Silesia. Most Silesians have voted to remain in Germany rather than join Poland – but now, it’s civil war: https://youtu.be/HwDAorQnd4U
The Versailles Peace Treaty that ended the First World War had created a new and contentious border between Germany and Poland. One of the disputed regions was Upper Silesia, which was part of Germany but was majority Polish-speaking. A low-level proxy war flared up in 1919 and again 1920, but the peak of the violence was in May 1921. In this episode, we’ll take a look at the events of the 3rd Upper Silesian uprising, and it all began exactly 100 years ago.
Back in 1918, point 13 of US President Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points for peace stated that “indisputably Polish” territories should go to Poland. The trouble for the post-war Paris Peace Conference was that areas like Upper Silesia were linguistically and ethnically mixed. Many locals considered themselves Upper Silesians before Germans or Poles, but the national question began to dominate the political fight over the region. Economics, though, was the most important thing for German and Polish state interests, since both wanted control of the region’s large coal and iron deposits.
The Treaty of Versailles called for a plebiscite to determine whether Upper Silesia would stay a part of Germany or join with Poland. The Allies sent a Plebiscite Commission and a 15000 strong French and Italian peacekeeping force, but the situation was tense. According to French General and head of the Commission, Henri Le Rond, their job was not easy:
“[…] The Commission has a hostile population, a hostile police force, a hostile magistracy, a hostile German Government, and a not altogether friendly Polish Government.”
In the months leading up to the vote, both sides pushed their option, but the Germans had the support of the state: the bureaucracy, school system, and police were all under ethnic German control. German-speaking citizens also formed the Defence League, which agitated for the German cause. The pro-Polish campaign was led by the charismatic politician Wojciech Korfanty, but was partly suppressed by the German authorities.
The violent clashes in 1919 and 1920, had resulted in radicalisation on both sides, and a dispute about who was eligible to vote had further strained the situation. But when the plebiscite took place in March 1921 there was relatively little violence and 98% participation. The result was 60% in favour of Germany, even though 60% of Upper Silesians spoke Polish as their mother tongue. Historians have argued about why locals voted as they did, and some recent studies have argued Upper Silesians were primarily motivated by the local situation rather than blind patriotism – for most, Germany seemed to offer a more prosperous future than Poland. (Boehler 114)
The result of the plebiscite did not automatically resolve the border problem. The Allied Commission would have to take the results into account, but the Allies couldn’t agree on a solution. The French favoured Polish claims, since they wanted to make sure that the new Polish Republic would be a strong ally in any future conflict with Germany. The British worried that if Poland got too much territory, German bitterness would prevent a lasting peace. Franco-British mistrust got even worse in February and March 1921 over the question of how much Germany would have to pay in war reparations, and the French occupation of three more German cities in the Rhineland. The Germans argued that they would need the revenue of the Silesian mines to be able to pay. The French were unmoved, but British Prime Minister Lloyd George was sympathetic:
“The question of reparations is bound up with [Upper Silesia]. If the Poles won’t give the Germans the product of the mines at reasonable terms, the Germans say they cannot pay the indemnity. There the Allies may be cutting off their nose to spite their faces if they hand the mines to the Poles without regard to the question of the indemnity.”
In April, there was still no end in sight to the deadlock. While the British and Italians wanted to give most of the region to Germany, France and Poland wanted the border along the Oder river,. To complicate matters, in the larger cities and the most industrialised region, voting had been quite close. The longer the crisis lasted, the more the British worried that Germany’s economic recovery was being held up by the uncertainty.
So the tricky question of what to do with Upper Silesia had split the Allies and inflamed Germany and Poland. And in the middle of the negotiations, the situation on the ground boiled over.
On May 1, Korfanty’s newspaper published an article which falsely claimed that the Allied Commission was about to accept the British-Italian border proposal, which was favourable to Germany. The article set off a powder keg. Polish-speaking coal miners went on strike, and local paramilitary groups took up arms, joined by volunteers from across the border in Poland. The 3rd and most violent of the Upper Silesian uprisings had begun. On May 3rd, about 12,000 armed Poles and Polish-Silesians began to advance towards the northern and western parts of the province.
In the eyes of the Polish state and local nationalists, these groups were acting against German oppression. Polish paramilitary leader Jan Faska gave his reasons in his memoirs:
“My father’s stories left a grim impression on me; I saw the horror in his eyes as he gave [me] a detailed account of the bloody suppression of a miners’ strike […] in 1919. When [the German] cavalry charged in to attack the strikers, my father barely managed to cheat death. Shaken by the experience, he ground his teeth in helpless fury as he recounted it, cursing the German nation.” (Boehler 95).
According to British reports, French troops had begun disarming the German paramilitaries, but weren’t doing much to stop the Polish ones. Italian units and Polish insurgents did clash at Rybnik, which resulted in 25 Italians killed and 100 wounded. Thanks to tacit French support, the Polish militias were able to defeat many of the isolated and unsupported German irregular units.
German Chancellor Joseph Wirth and his government were outraged, and submitted a note of protest to the Allies:
“The Upper Silesian voting area is now largely in the hands of Polish gangs. The peace-loving population is being terrorized, and destruction of valuable production facilities is to be expected. Acts of murder and abduction are increasing; the regular operation of the mines and smelting works is forcibly prevented. Korfanty has assumed the position of chief administrative officer, is appointing military and customs officials, and is handing out death sentences. The Polish gangs are heavily armed and organized on military lines, and their activity has spread over the whole country at breakneck speed.”
The Weimar government asked the Allies for permission to send in the German army and police, but the French refused. To add to the crisis, at the same time the Upper Silesian civil war was raging, the Allies presented Germany with a revised reparations bill of 132 billion gold marks.
British Prime Minister Lloyd George largely agreed with the German position, and urged the French to use their troops on the ground – which included tanks and artillery - to restore order. He felt that Poland had broken the rules of the Versailles peace treaty by supporting the uprising, and openly challenged the French on May 13:
"Either the allies ought to insist upon the Treaty being respected, or they ought to allow the Germans to do it. Not merely to disarm Germany, but to say that such troops as she has got are not to be permitted to take part in restoring order in what, until the decision comes, is their own province - that is not fair. Fair play is what Britain stands for, and I hope she will stand for it to the end."
French Prime Minister Aristide Briand refused to back down, and insisted that France was protecting its Polish ally, and itself:
"I am certain that Mr. Lloyd George would never on his own initiative invite German troops to march against Poland, and so against France. No such invitation could possibly be issued except in concert with the Allies. We have been getting a lot of advice from England recently, but it would be more useful for the establishment of order if we could get [more British troops] to help our 12,000.... The French Government could never consent to German troops entering Upper Silesia."
As the diplomatic conflict got worse in early May, so too did the situation on the ground. Both the German and Polish governments lent indirect support to the fighters, and set up command centers on their borders to the province. German-speaking Upper Silesians had begun to organize their own militia, the Selbstschutz Oberschlesien. In the next two weeks they were joined by volunteers from the rest of the country, and Freikorps units like the well-known Marinebrigade Ehrhardt, which had been instrumental in the failed Kapp Putsch a year earlier. One of the volunteers was Ernst von Salomon, who described how his unit was created on the fly:
“In the train we formed the nucleus of a company, a leader was found after a few minutes’ talk, immediately and as a matter of course his authority was recognised; a future sergeant major wrote out the roll.” (Boehler 111)
Officially, the German government opposed the illegal activities of the Freikorps, and some were arrested and disarmed before they made it to Upper Silesia. But in practice, German leadership and newspapers were convinced that the pro-Polish uprising had been planned in advance, was professionally led, and was being actively supported by France. The government couldn’t send its own troops, but it also didn’t want to give the radical and violent paramilitaries a free hand either. So Berlin sent Generalleutnant Karl Höfer to oversee the German militia and, in theory, reign in the Freikorps to avoid the risk of open war.
Polish paramilitaries were also organizing under leaders like Jan Faska, a veteran of the Great War. Warsaw also secretly sent an extrajudiciary paramilitary force known as the Bojoowska Polska to Upper Silesia. Korfanty sometimes clashed with these paramilitaries, who were quick to resort to violence no matter what the political cost:
“The Warsaw militias of Mr. Machnicki, Glupek, and others are at large in Sosnowiec. There are grounds to suspect that these people organise expeditions to Upper Silesia by themselves and commit murder and pillage. Banditry is having a terrible effect on the local population.” (Boehler 112)
Much the same was said of their German opponents as well.
So the 3rd phase of the Upper Silesian Civil War was underway, and German reinforcements had arrived. It wouldn’t be long before they went into action.
Between May 6 and May 20, the fighting in Upper Silesia had been mostly isolated skirmishes, with pro-Polish forces on the attack. Jan Faska’s units managed to capture the important St. Anne’s Mountain, also known as Annaberg and Góra Świętej Anny. St. Anne’s Mountain was a 300m high hill which dominated the Oder valley and gave pro-Polish troops a clear view of the German positions.
With more and more experienced Freikorps fighters arriving, the Germans began to counterattack. Veteran groups like the “Kompanie von Eiden” and the “Sturmbatallion Heinz” successfully recaptured several local strongpoints. They key battlegrounds were the railway lines, and the banks of the Oder River. A major clash took place on May 20 along the Zembowitz-Kreuzberg rail line. A Polish armoured train equipped with machine guns and artillery managed to force the Germans back and retain control of the line for the Polish side.
When General Höfer arrived on the scene, preparations were already underway for Bernhard von Hülsen’s Freikorps Oberland and Silesian Militia to retake St. Anne’s Mountain. Höfer acknowledged that the position was tactically important, but he worried that if local German forces launched a high-profile offensive, France might invade western Germany in response. Another problem for the Germans was supply. They were short of rifles, ammunition, and only a few machine guns. It was a gamble, but Höfer agreed to let the attack go in even though Berlin had officially forbidden it.
At half past midnight on May 21, 900 German troops left their trenches. The plan was to attack the mountain from three sides, while an extra battalion advanced on the neighbouring village. Polish defensive fire stopped the Germans at first, but the former stormtroopers used the tactics they’d learned in the Great War to penetrate Polish defenses and bypass points of resistance. The German spearheads reached the top of St. Anne’s Mountain more quickly than they expected, and their advance on the village forced the Poles into a retreat. By 12:30 in the afternoon, the Germans were in control of the heights and the village, and began to consolidate their new lines. They also raised the old Imperial flag, and not the flag of the Weimar Republic.
Polish forces counterattacked throughout the afternoon, with the support of an armoured train, but the Germans’ elastic defence tactics wore them down. Von Huelsen called the battle the first German victory since November 1918. According to Höfer’s memoirs, the victory boosted morale unrealistically:
“A great pride filled the victorious troops; some believed that they could now accomplish anything, if only given the chance. How gladly we would have complied with their wishes! But such an inferior assessment of the insurgents was not justified, as the next few days clearly demonstrated. The insurgents had lost a battle and an important position on the Annaberg; they had been surprised to feel the German fist and they had been terrified. But one must judge with moderation. The insurgents recovered from the defeat much faster than we expected, and there was heavy fighting for the next few days.”
The capture of the St. Anne’s Mountain had also brought the Germans much-needed weapons captured from the retreating Poles, but their lines were now stretched even further than before and they were still lacking ammunition. Although fighting continued around St. Anne’s for several days, neither side could deliver a knock out blow. The Germans were left in control of 2/3 of Upper Silesia, and the Poles with 1/3.
There was political fallout from the battle as well. Paris formally protested to Berlin, and threatened to withdraw French protection for German areas in Upper Silesian cities. General LeRond, insisted that the Freikorps be disarmed, and remaining German militias withdraw from the mountain.
The German government responded that they were not involved, and the Freikorps had acted independently, both of which were half truths. But the Germans did realize that the political risk of another such attack was too great, and they feared Korfanty might even order the destruction of the mines if his forces began to lose too much ground.
The British position remained largely sympathetic to what they viewed as the German right to defend themselves. They also wanted to avoid a rift with France, or an escalation of the violence. In early June, the Allied Commission tried once again to create a neutral zone between the two sides. The British had sent in reinforcements under Canadian General William Henneker, who was able to mediate between Le Rond, Höfer, and Korfanty. An agreement was reached for the German and Polish militias to withdraw early in July. All told, the 3 conflicts in Upper Silesia between 1919 and 1921 had cost the lives of at least 3000 people on both sides (Boehler 112).
The neutral zone agreement reached in June did calm things down on the ground, but a long-term political solution was still needed. The Allied Supreme Council in Paris started yet another round of negotiations in August, and Lloyd George and Briand were still at loggerheads. They haggled over villages and towns, but the main problem was still whether the industrial zone of Upper Silesia would go to Germany so it could pay war reparations, or to Poland, to help with its struggling economy. France was isolated, since the smaller Allies involved in the talks, like Belgium, China, and Brazil, sided with the British. The British were not really in a position to force a solution in favour of Germany though, since they were distracted by the war in Ireland, the Greco-Turkish War, and the Middle East. They also did not want to destroy the alliance with France over Upper Silesia.
The question of the border was turned over to the League of Nations. The League appointed two experts to finalize the line, one from Switzerland and one from Czechoslovakia. The Germans protested that British support for the Czechoslovak expert was unfair, but they were overruled, since the League was anxious to put the Upper Silesian question to rest.
The League drew the new frontier with the intent of keeping most of the industrial area intact as an economic unit. 57% of the inhabitants and about 70% of the territory of Upper Silesia would remain in Germany. Although Poland received a smaller share, it did get most of the factories and mines. Neither side was satisfied, but the decision generally favoured Poland. When the outcome became known in Germany, politicians and the press were livid. The scandal was so serious that the German cabinet was forced to resign – but it wasn’t only German politics that were now out of control. As of fall 1921, inflation began to spiral to previously unseen levels, and the Mark lost half its value between August and December - an ominous sign of things to come in the German Reich.
Sources and Bibliography:
- Boehler, Jochen. Civil War in Central Europe 1918-1921 (OUP, 2018)
- Campbell, F. Gregory: The Struggle for Upper Silesia, 1919-1922. In: The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 42, 1970.
- Lesniewski, Peter: Britain and Upper Silesia 1919-1922. 2000.
- Michalczyk, Andrezej: Celebrating the nation: the case of Upper Silesia after the plebiscite in 1921.
- Hitze, Guido: Die oberschlesische Frage im Jahre 1921. In: Die Politische Meinung 12/02.
- Hitze, Guido: Oberschlesien als internationaler Streitfall. In: PAN 20/01.
- Hoefer, Karl: Oberschlesien in der Aufstandszeit 1918-1921. Erinnerungen und Dokumente, 1938.
- Tooley, T. Hunt: German Political Violence and the Border Plebiscite in Upper Silesia, 1919-1921. 2008.