On June 28th 1919, in the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, the representatives of 28 states belonging to the victorious coalition signed a peace treaty with Germany. This document is considered the main act ending the First World War. Among the signatures on the document, there were two names of the representatives of Poland – a state that on the eve of the Great War outbreak was not to be seen on any of maps of Europe.
One of those people was an outstanding composer and pianist, known all over the world and extremely popular in the United States, and at the same time the Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Poland – Ignacy Jan Paderewski. The other one was the plenipotentiary delegate to the peace conference, the chairman of the Polish National Committee – Roman Dmowski. This is what he wrote about this event:
Never before in that room had one felt the historical seriousness of the moment, for us Poles more serious than for anyone. On the table there was lying the text of the treaty which Germany was to sign, the treaty which recognized the independent Polish state, by virtue of which Germany was giving Poland admittedly not everything that it had seized in the past, but almost everything that it had not managed to Germanize.
In this way, the effort of hundreds of thousands of Poles, formore than 120 years, was crowned. Finally, as a result of an utter shift in the balance of power in Europe, Poland was granted the right to exist as a separate, sovereign and independent state.
The First World War (1914-1918) radically changed the face of the world at that time, first of all in Europe. Russia, engulfed by a bloody revolution, the progressive territorial collapse of Austria-Hungary and the growing debt of Germany unexpectedly created favourable conditions for Poland and it did not take long for Poles themselves to take action in order to regain independence.
As early as in August 1917 Roman Dmowski formed the Polish National Committee with its HQ in Paris. It was an organization that set itself the goal to rebuild the Polish state with the aid of The Entente Forces. The Committee was soon recognized by the governments of France, Great Britain and Italyas therepresentationof thereborn State of Poland and its interests. Also in Poland, after ending the internal dispute with the Belvedere camp, centered around JózefPiłsudski, it became possible for the PNC to be recognized as the official representation of Poland for the peace conference in Paris.
The conference was officially launched in January 1919. Although the representatives of all the victorious countries attended the meeting, three European politicians made actual decisions on European matters: the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Lloyd George, the President of the United States Thomas Woodrow Wilson and the Prime Minister of France Georges Clemenceau. Ignacy Jan Paderewski and Roman Dmowski were heading the Polish mission, and soon, they were joined by WładysławGrabski acting as an expert in economic affairs.
Within less than two weeks from the beginning of the conference, Roman Dmowski was summoned by the Supreme Council of the Principal Allied and Associated Powers. It was in his five-hour policy statement where the Polish stance was officially presented for the first time. The speech tremendously impressed listeners and convinced many members of the conference, especially the Prime Minister of France Georges Clemenceau, to support the Polish cause.
The French had for some time been fostering the idea of “Great Poland” setting their sights at weakening as much as possible the position of the Germans, that jeopardized them, as well as at creating an appropriate counterweight for both the German-Austrian belt and emerging Bolshevik Russia. As a result, they supported the report prepared by a special commission (so-called Cambon Commission), which contained proposals regarding the Polish-German border. They largely took into account Dmowski’s requests, providing for assigning the entire Upper Silesia, Greater Poland, Pomerelia (Eastern Pomerania), Gdańsk, four districts on the right bank of the Vistula and a part of Lower Silesia to Poland and holding a plebiscite in Masuria. However, this concept did not appeal to everyone.
Lloyd George firmly opposed the demands of the Cambon Committee and was soon supported by the President of the United States. Great Britain, although allied with France, had its interest in maintaining Germany’s relatively significant position. That was a part of their doctrine of maintaining balance of power in Europe, which in practice amounted to the appropriate balance between Germany and France. In addition, for the English, Germany deprived of colonies and its former position on the world’s seas and oceans was a desirable trade partner.
Once the proposals regarding the western border of Poland were made public, Germans organized demonstrations throughout the country, and outraged German politicians attempted to put pressure on the members of the Supreme Council. As a result of those activities there was a change in the decision on the western border of Poland. It was established that although Poland would gain the whole of Greater Poland and it would also gain access to the sea through Eastern Pomerania, but Gdańsk, which was to receive the status of a Free City under the control of the League of Nations, was not included. In addition, the problemsof national status of Warmia, Masuria and Upper Silesia were to be decided by plebiscites.
The final decisions were received with strong dissatisfaction in Warsaw. Dmowski himself admitted that at the conference he lost the case of Warmia, Masuria and Silesia, as well as Gdańsk, whose status of the Free City he considered bizarre. However, there is something that is worth mentioning, the fact that Stanisław Cat-Mackiewicz also draws attention to, despite the facthe did not support national circles or Dmowski himself. In his history of Poland he wrote: The loses of which Dmowski speaks neither reduce nor diminish the enormous value of his work. He did as much for Poland as Masaryk and Benes did for the Czech Republic, although he was deprived of all the facilities they had at their disposal. Having obtained the western border by Polands is Dmowski’s historical merit.
It may seem that the matter of establishing relative peace in Europe ended along with the signing of further peace agreements between The Central Powers and The Entente Forces. In the context of Polish history, this statement seems obviously out of place. Reborn Poland still struggled with the problem of establishing borders in the east. In the context of the Versailles Treaty, however, it is worth paying attention to another document – the Treaty of Riga, signed between Poland, Russia and Ukraine in 1921. One could and should treat this document as a supplement and complement to the peace conference in Paris. But for this document, the peace in Europe, though preserved for mere twenty years, would have collapsed much earlier.