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In 1918 the newly restored Polish state grappled with numerous
problems, one of them being the fluid character of Poland’s borders.
Their final shape had to be either negotiated or established by
force, whereby diplomatic demands had to be supported with armed
action. Such is the background to the three Silesian uprisings. Upper Silesia was a remarkable part of the German state – most
of its inhabitants spoke Polish, or rather a local dialect of the
language. This, however, did not unequivocally determine their
nationality. The national identity of Upper Silesians kept tending,
alternately, towards the Polish or the German element.
Germany’s defeat in World War I and the surge of revolutionary sentiment in its wake left a deep mark on Upper Silesia. Ethnic clashes, which had been mounting for some time, got a fresh impulse from the emergence of a Polish state with claims to this industrialised region with vast potential.
At the end of 1918, the Polish population of Upper Silesia started forming People’s Councils; at the same time Upper Silesian deputies participated in the session of the Partition Sejm of Poznań. It was inevitable that the Polish-German conflict should exacerbate. Indeed, it came to a climax during the summer of 1919, when a spate of strikes unfolded in support of the national and social cause.
Counter-activities by pro-German groups prompted into action some of the local Polish Military Organisation (PMO) members. On the night of 16 August 1919, the first armed operations took place (the First Silesian Uprising). Badly coordinated fighting occurred mainly in the areas with the highest percentage of Polish population – the Pszczyna (Pleiss) and Rybnik counties. The command of the uprising was assumed by the head of Upper Silesian PMO Alfons Zgrzebniok. The initial modest success did not transform into an overall victory – the cities remained unconquered, Poland failed to provide support. In the face of the Germans’ overwhelming advantage, on 24 August Zgrzebniok gave his troops the order to discontinue operations.
Notwithstanding the military defeat, Poles triumphed in the local elections of 1919. In February 1920, the allies took control of Upper Silesia with a view to launching a plebiscite to determine the region’s sovereignty. As arguments of the two sides clashed during the pre-plebiscite campaign, the Germans, who controlled the local police, proved to have more clout. Under the circumstances, Alfons Zgrzebniok gave a signal to armed struggle on 19 August 1920 (Second Silesian Uprising). This time, the operation was much better planned and its most important goal was achieved – the German police were disbanded and a Polish-German force created in its stead. However, it did not produce the final resolution of the problem.
This was to have been achieved through the plebiscite scheduled for 20 March 1921. Due to many factors, partially brought in by the Poles themselves (such as the demand to grant the right to vote to those born, but not residing in the plebiscite area), 59.6% of the votes cast were in favour of Germany. The German element prevailed in the Western counties and in the cities. The eastern part of the region and the rural areas opted for Poland.
As the allies continued to disagree on the interpretation of the plebiscite results, Wojciech Korfanty, head of the Polish Plebiscite Commissariat gave the signal to another, third uprising. It started on the night of 2 May 1921 and involved fully-fledged military operations. These aimed to reach the so-called Korfanty line, i.e. the proposed Polish-German border. With the benefit of surprise, the troops were able to achieve this goal already in the first week of combat.
German counteroffensive, although unable to tip the balance of the struggle, threatened to break through insurgents’ lines. Under the circumstances, the allies decided to step in and force the warring parties into an armistice. Hostilities ultimately ceased by the end of July.
In 1922, as a result of a division of Upper Silesia instituted after the uprising, 70% of the territory remained on the German side of the border. At the same time, the bulk of the local mining and metal industry fell to Poland. When Upper Silesia joined Poland, it became its exceptionally rich part.