By Frank J. Dmuchowski
On November 11th Polonians will be formally celebrating Polish Independence Day (Święto Niepodległości) throughout the world. The greatest celebrations will be in Poland. There will be celebrations not only on the 11th but on the days surrounding it. This day commemorates the events on November 11, 1918 when Józef Piłsudski was appointed commander-in-chief of the Polish armed forces and essentially the head of Poland as authority was ceded to him by all of the major different political factions that were coming into being in Poland as World War I was ending. Piłsudski then asked Ignacy Daszyński (1886-1936) to become Prime Minister and form a free and legitimate Polish Government. It was the first in over 123 years.
It was also the day that Poland officially proclaimed to the world that she has returned and will continue her 120+ year fight for her right to be a free and independent state. It was also the day on which the First World War ended. On that day the occupying German forces did not fire on Poles and they were disarmed in Warsaw and other parts of Poland. It was the day on which the Polish Army came into formal existence in the 20th century. It was a day that was a continuation of the 124 year struggle to re-establish a free and independent Poland, a struggle which did not end until 1989 with the election of Lech Wałęsa, and a struggle which took the lives of millions of ethnic Poles and other Polish Citizen, most of who were civilians.
Contrasting the American Fight for independence and the Polish Struggle for Independence
I am inserting this section in order to give my readers an additional perspective on the American and Polish fights for independence from an occupying power. For Americans it was a ten year struggle against England who was the occupying power. For Poland it was a struggle that consumed almost 200 years with the brutal occupation in one form or another primarily by Germany/Prussia and Russia/Soviet Union.
When Americans think of the Fourth of July, they generally think of it as the day on which the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776. This declaration stated that the United States was a free and independent nation. The American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) was fought for 8 years. George Washington became commander of the fledgling American forces on June 14, 1775. The cost of the American Revolutionary War in military and civilian casualties was less than 75,000. Please note that I am excluding the American Civil War which resulted in the tragic loss of over 600 thousand dead from battle and other causes. This was not a war fought with occupying powers it was an internal struggle of Americans fighting and killing fellow Americans for control of the destiny of the United States.
In the 240 + year period from 1776 to 2012 America was a free and independent nation except for ten years of the Revolutionary War. On the other hand during that same 240 year period Poland has been a free and independent nation for less than 50 years. Her quest for independence during that period would result in the deaths of close to 7 million, most of whom were civilians. These are incomprehensible losses which includes military and civilian losses in both World Wars. Poland understands the cost of freedom perhaps more so than any other nation.
Józef Pilsudski and George Washington – The Right Men at the Right Time
Both Pilsudski and Washington played critical pivotal roles for Poland and the United States, respectively, when Poland on November 11, 1918 and the United States on July 4, 1776 declared their existence as independent political states. They were both commanders-in-chief of their nation’s army and would lead their nations in peacetime. The ultimate survival of a nation rests on its military leadership and the willingness of the people to support them.
In the cases of the United States about 30% of the civilian population supported England and 30% were neutral. In the case of Poland the vast majority of civilians and those Poles who were fighting during the First World War no longer wished to be cannon fodder for the Russians, the Germans or the Austro-Hungarian Empires. Virtually the entire population was tired of being exploited. They were determined to end the exploitation. There was no other choice on the table.
Each of them, both Pilsudski and Washington, was the right person at the right time. Thanks to them and those they led, today we have a strong Poland and United States of America.
Poland Remembers Those Who Fought For Polish Independence Before November 11, 1918
One of the ways that Poland remembered the contribution of those who fought for her independence was the awarding of the “Krzyż i Medal Niepodleglości” (Cross of Independence) and the Medal of Independence) to honor those who fought for Polish independence when there was no Polish state. Piłsudski’s second wife Alexsandra Piłsudska née Szczerbińska (1882-1963) deserves much of the credit for the establishment of this award. The award was created in 1930. It was one of the highest medals awarded in Poland between the two World Wars.
These awards particularly recognized those who participated in the January 1863 Uprising (PowstanieSstyczniowe), some of whom were still alive in 1930. They and others were in the truest sense of the word “citizen soldiers”. In addition to the participants in the January 1863 Uprising, a number of others received the Cross of Independence or the Medal of Independence for actions taken between 1863 and 1918. For Józef Piłsudski the 1863 Uprising was an intellectual and emotional source of inspiration for his goal of achieving a free and independent Poland.
An important point to note is that while the Cross of Independence and the Medal of Independence were established as civilian awards, they were respected as military awards by both civilians and the military. Consequently the recipients received the same consideration and respect as those who received strictly military awards after November 11, 1918. The concept of the “citizen soldier” is something that is well understood and respected by Poles and Americans today as well as in days past.
Conclusion: November 11th as “Polish Independence Day” and “American Veterans Day”
November 11th as Polish Independence Day was established in 1937 and celebrated twice before the war. It was not until 1989 when a free and independent Poland was re-established that it has been celebrated on a regular basis. In a sense it is primarily a military celebration although there is increasing participation by more elements of Polish society in public observances. This is a consequence of the fact that all elements of Polish society were part of the struggle for freedom. The fight for freedom was not simply in some other country. It was in their towns, villages, even their backyard particularly during the Second World War. Consequently Poles understand at a very deep level that “Freedom is not Free” and that “The Price of Freedom is Eternal Vigilance”.
I would encourage our readers to look at their family history, as well as Poland’s and America’s national history, and to remember those who fought and died over the years for Poland and the United States. We are blessed to still have among us men and women who fought as civilians and military during the Second World War and immediately afterwards. They deserve a special debt of gratitude and immense respect for their service to Poland and to the United States.
Let’s remember them and all of the other men and women who have served in the military of the United States and Poland on November 11th, which is also Veteran’s Day in America.