Second Polish Republic: The Pangs of Nationhood in an Independent State

1918 - 1939

It is difficult to disagree with the general perception that independent interwar Poland was characterised by political, social and ethnic strife.

This is not surprising given the disparate and backward nature of the three parts of the new state under construction, reconstituted after 123 years of the Russian, Prussian and Austrian partitions. Inevitably the task of national consolidation was enormous, requiring quite Herculean efforts of will and imagination. Poland made great strides in most areas of economic, cultural and personal life. Fashion, film, theatre, and music flourished as did sport, scientific development, tourism and the adjuncts to modern society. This was often underrated for, to quote the poet and Noble Prize laureate Czesław Miłosz, the Poland of the Second Republic ‘was a mythical country, poorly described, and rarely visited by the younger generation’.

The Statesman Józef Piłsudski’s presence and policies bestride the scene – in myth and reality. Having been associated with key events in the complex manoeuvres before and during WWI, Piłsudski moved from a socialist and federalist ideology to a more pragmatic role in state building. Unwilling to take on the presidency of an independent Poland after the free presidential elections of 1922 because of the unacceptable attitudes of the political right (especially the National Democrats) – as he saw it – he retired into splendid isolation. However, when his patience with the untidy mess which was Polish politics finally snapped, he led a coup against parliament in May 1926. The first Polish President Gabriel Narutowicz took up the post rejected by Piłsudski. Narutowicz’s assassination in December 1922 had seemed a bad omen, and greatly upset Piłsudski, who would have been the intended target had he taken the Presidency. The petty squabbles within parliament seemed to fit the national stereotype. Poland’s deteriorating relations with a revanchist Germany – seeking the return of what it saw as its native lands – and a bad-tempered Soviet Union – still nursing the wounds of the defeat suffered in 1920 –were not made any easier by tensions with its own minorities such as Ukrainians (16%) as well growing antisemitism (Jews comprised 10% of the population).

Emigration was largely economically driven although Jewish migration had other causes, not least the policies and actions of the ruling right-wing parties including the National Democrats, whose influence increased after Piłsudski’s death in 1935. There was a general shift to the right and calls for the forced migration of Jews to Palestine, the boycott of Jewish businesses and limits on access to universities became commonplace. This explains the migration of some of the key Polish figures to the UK in the interwar period. However, 20 years of Polish independence was cut short when the Germans invaded – soon to be followed by the treacherous assault of the Red Army from the East on 17 September. The military alliance with Britain and France of 1939 availed the hapless Poles little.

Text by Professor Jerzy Kolankiewicz


Artist Feliks Topolski RA

(b. 1907 in Warsaw – then occupied Poland; d. 1989 in London)