Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Word On Upper Silesia

I  want to say something now about German perceptions of what was going on in Paris, especially in connection with the coal-producing territory of Upper Silesia.  Remember that no Germans were allowed visas to be in any part of France during the conference, except at the few occasions when the German delegation was invited to come.  At the same time, the Germans were not just sitting on their hands.  Indeed, they were having extensive discussions about what to say to the Allies once they got a chance to talk. 

If the Germans were not allowed to go to France, by the way, at least France could come to Germany.  Considerable German territories were occupied immediately after the war by American, French, and British troops.  But even so, contact in the sense of high diplomacy was extremely limited.   So much of the German discussion was based on guesswork.
But they could easily guess that the Allies were interested in the coal-rich eastern region of Upper Silesia.  This borderland was peopled about equally by ethnic Germans and ethnic Poles.  Yet the value of the coal for the newly set-up state of Poland (darling of the Allies—especially of Wilson) was self-evident. 

There was much talk on parts of the political spectrum of the Allies "spiriting away Upper Silesia from us" to give to Poland, as one leftist politician put it at a political gathering in the early stages of the November Revolution (1918).  Some even suggested that the Allies would hold a border referendum, a plebiscite, in Upper Silesia and other ethnically mixed border regions, and since all Germans "knew" that everyone on the border would vote German, they hoped merely to have Allied troops present to prevent "Polish skullduggery." 

On December 27,  1918, however, the eastern German city and province of Posen (just to the north of Silesia) experienced an uprising that would alter conditions substantially.  German Posen became Polish Poznań.  An uprising in several local places ended in an influx of paramilitary forces from the newly revived Polish state.  Indeed, as the local Polish soldiery and those who had come to their aid made their way into the region, they set up an organization called the  "Central Organization for Cleansing Poznań (city) of Jews and Germans" (Centralna Organizacja dla Oczyszczenia Poznania od Żydów i Niemców). This was one of the earliest known uses of the term "cleansing" in the context of unwanted ethnic groups.

And indeed, the first postwar migrations of any sort in the German-Polish border region resulted from the Poznań uprising of December 1918, supported by the new government of Poland, which led to an exodus of Germans and Jews. The "Posen Pattern"—meaning a violent overthrow of the local authorities sanctioned by the victorious Allies—echoes through much of the German official record about the border in after the war.

Still, German statesman swayed between optimism and pessimism.  Many agreed with General von Seeckt that holding onto the eastern territories would be "child's play."  On the other hand, many Berlin planners continued to wonder how to interpret the strange information they were receiving second-hand from Paris.  As for the borderlanders in Upper Silesia, a startling development occurred:  local people from both the Polish-speaking population and from among the Germans banded together to form the League of Upper Silesians, under the slogan "Upper Silesia to the Upper Silesians!"  These people were hoping for a neutral, independent state, a kind of Luxembourg of the east. One thing that very sizeable group proved was that many of the "Polish" inhabitants of Upper Silesia did not really want to opt for what must have seemed the shaky new Polish state. 

Actually, I will deal with this period of time later in a more general context of the autonomist crisis, since autonomist movements emerged in many regions of the Germany during 1919 and later. 

But the point here is that while the Upper Silesians were attempting to control their future, the Allies were making other plans.  In April, ninety years ago, the Allies began working out the details for border plebiscites to be held in several different German regions. 

This is a story we have to keep tabs on, and indeed a very important one. 

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Design of a Violent Century by Hunt Tooley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.