The Cession of East Upper Silesia to Poland
Dr. Georg Eckert / History
Photo: UniService Transfer

The Cession of East Upper Silesia and the Loss of Democratic Ideals

Jahr100Wissen interview with historian Dr. Geog Eckert The cession of East Upper Silesia, which aroused indignation in Germany and a wave of national fervor in all political parties, was completed in terms of state law with the German-Polish agreement on May 15, 1922, and entered into force on June 20, 1922. What territories were involved?

Eckert: Contemporaries were much more familiar than we are with the names of the places that were so hotly disputed. Both sides were aware of the enormous strategic, but also symbolic value of the ceded territories with such important production sites as Katowice, Bytom or Königshütte (known through Adolph von Menzel's famous painting from inside the iron rolling mill there). This was the center of the extremely important Upper Silesian industrial area.

After a referendum in 1921, it initially looked as if the territories would remain with the German Reich. Why did things turn out differently?

Eckert: The Treaty of Versailles had provided for several referendums in the East. In Marienwerder (West Prussia) and in Allenstein (East Prussia), overwhelming majorities (approx. 90/10) voted in favor of remaining part of Germany. The situation here was more complicated. Even the agitation before the vote was much fiercer, paramilitary groups were already fighting each other. On the Polish side, Wojciech Korfanty organized two uprisings before the vote, and a third immediately afterwards. In the end, the result here was much closer (about 60/40). The German side insisted that the vote was binding for the entire territory, while the Polish side pointed to a disadvantage in the vote (to which Germany had brought numerous "Ruhr Poles" of Silesian origin by train), in particular to majorities in favor of Poland in Katowice, for example, the most populous city in Upper Silesia. Above all, however, the Allies disagreed on how to deal with the result of the vote. Great Britain leaned toward the German reading, France vehemently supported the Polish one. The Inter-Allied Governmental and Plebiscite Commission for Upper Silesia, which had already been set up in 1920, failed to reach a result; a decision was required from the higher-level Conference of Ambassadors, which agreed on the "Sforza Line" named after the Italian ambassador. Germany received the larger, agriculturally structured part of the territory and population, but Poland received the heart of the important industrial region. Wojciech Korfanty, the organizer of the uprisings in Upper Silesia at the time, played a decisive role. In what way?

Eckert: Korfanty had already represented the interests of the Polish-speaking Upper Silesians as a member of the Prussian Parliament and the (German) Reichstag, and even before the end of the war he had argued for the transfer of corresponding territories to the newly founded Polish Republic. In an increasingly fierce dispute, which included assassinations on both sides, he organized the three Silesian uprisings. The first in August 1919 was put down by paramilitaries of the Black Reichswehr, the second in August 1920 was ended only by the intervention of the Allied Commission, and the third in May 1921 - the bloodiest, with several thousand dead - was again repelled by German Freikorps. The fame Korfanty gained from this can be gauged from the fact that he almost became Polish prime minister in July 1922.

The so-called Third Uprising on May 3, 1921, succeeded only because the Allies looked the other way and left their weapons to the insurgents. Thus, armored trains and ammunition transports arrived in Upper Silesia unhindered. One British journalist even wrote that the border was as free as London Bridge. On this question of cession, England and France did not agree at all. Why not?

Eckert: The antagonism between the interests of the Allies was already apparent in the Paris suburban negotiations immediately after the First World War, but even more so in the implementation of the corresponding resolutions. The commission that had been set up to implement the Upper Silesian plebiscite was chaired by a French general. He emphatically pursued France's goal of a permanent political, military and economic weakening of Germany, for which a cession of the potent Upper Silesian industrial area to Poland was a suitable means. Great Britain, on the other hand, wanted the matter to be settled quickly: from London's point of view, a stable postwar order also meant implementing the majority vote without further turmoil - and not weakening Germany excessively because it might be needed as a bulwark against Bolshevik Russia. So great were the differences that the League of Nations Council was called in; neither an agreement among the Allies nor one between Germany and Poland seemed within reach after the third uprising.

Why did the Council of the League of Nations, to which the matter was handed over, ultimately decide in favor of a division of the territories?

Eckert: For the League of Nations Council it was important, on the one hand, to solve the problem itself and, on the other, to demonstrate the League's ability to act as a new institution. A commission took up the issue, proposed a division according to the voting results in the individual parts of the territory, and brought Germany and Poland to the negotiating table. Both sides had to back down from their maximum positions, but a bitter aftertaste remained, especially in Germany. For many, this proved once again that the great democratic ideals of the Allies were only a tool to continue humiliating the losers of the war. Nevertheless, after the enormous turmoil in and around Upper Silesia between the end of the war and the agreement between Germany and Poland, there was no further confrontation, not even skirmishes on the newly drawn border. In Germany, in the crisis year of 1923, the occupation of the Ruhr and hyperinflation overshadowed the painful loss of eastern Upper Silesia.

This division had great economic consequences. What were they?

Eckert: The severance of essential structures of the economically strong Upper Silesian industrial area affected both national economies as well as individual businesses. The advantage was clearly on the Polish side. Both the immense coal deposits and most of the coal reserves, most of the iron and steel mills and most of the chemical industry, which was closely linked to coal, were located east of the new border. However, the now Polish part also suffered from the fact that established supply chains were suddenly torn apart; many large companies now had to cope with the fact that their operations were suddenly located in two states. Nevertheless, there were also profiteers on the German side: for example, Friedrich Flick, who acquired many stakes in companies now located in Poland in order to form a large steel group at favorable prices, thanks to high inflation and the support of the Reich government, which was working to secure German assets. His plan did not work out, but Flick knew how to take advantage of the constellation, including by putting the acquired shares into nested holdings in the Netherlands to be protected from a Polish expropriation policy.

What were the political repercussions?

Eckert: The career of Hans Lukaschek can be used to illustrate how differentiated the reactions were. Until 1920, Lukaschek had been the district administrator of the Rybik district, which was later largely annexed to Poland, and then the head of the Silesian Committee, an agitational organization for the retention of all of Upper Silesia by Germany. After the partition, however, he was a member of the so-called Mixed Commission for Upper Silesia, responsible for disputes concerning the protection of minorities guaranteed by the German-Polish agreement. Despite all the conflicts and irreconcilability, the actors found compromises that were quite suitable for everyday life. As much discontent as the agreement generated and as much as both sides liked to use it for political profiling, it by no means prevented Germany and Poland from agreeing on a non-aggression pact in January 1934.

Hans Lukaschek, a resistance fighter against Hitler, said on the 30th anniversary of the vote in Upper Silesia, in 1951: "What happened then in terms of injustice, that ultimately had the consequence of leading to the Second World War, because it had undermined faith in justice among the German people." Is he right about that?

Eckert: In any case, the repercussions for the Weimar Republic were considerable. In immediate reaction to the Allied partition decisions, the cabinet of Reich Chancellor Joseph Wirth resigned on October 25, 1921, and he now held office without a parliamentary majority. From the German point of view, the events surrounding Upper Silesia were another indication of a larger pattern, another example of the unsustainability of the Versailles Treaty. In any case, they further encouraged the assumption that the Allies respected their great guiding principles of international law, such as the "right of self-determination of peoples," only where it served their power-political interests - to dismember Germany. The fact that Hitler broke off the Second World War with a fictitious raid on "Sender Gleiwitz" from the fence of the newly drawn German-Polish border after the plebiscite gives an indication of the immense consequences. Lukaschek, however, had something else in mind in his later speech as Minister for Expellees: namely, the expulsion of the German Silesians as a result of the Second World War, which now put the cession of East Upper Silesia at the time in a different light.

Uwe Blass (conversation of 04/13/2022)

Dr. Georg Eckert studied history and philosophy in Tübingen, where he received his doctorate with a study of the early Enlightenment around 1700 with a British focus, and habilitated in Wuppertal. In 2009, he started as a research assistant in history and now teaches as a private lecturer in modern history.




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