Solving the Gordian Knot: the formation and evolution of minority protection regimes in Poland

Solving the Gordian Knot: the formation and evolution of minority protection regimes in Poland

Beata Halicka

This text is a part of the publication series based on the results of the expert Seminar “A Century of Minority Rights – Lessons from the Post-Versailles System“, organized by the International Centre for Ethnic and Linguistic Diversity Studies and the Department of Russian and East European Studies, Institute of International Studies (Faculty of Social Sciences of Charles University) with the financial support of the Charles University, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in the Czech Republic, and the German Embassy to the Czech Republic.

The issue of the legal protection of ethnic minorities appeared in the context of discussions regarding the self-determination of nations and the new international order following the First World War. News of Antisemitic pogroms in Odessa, Lvov (later Lwów) and Pinsk mobilized the western European and American Jewish diaspora to become actively engaged in legally guaranteeing basic rights to minorities. In alluding to international decisions now accepted for more than a century, today we often forget that these noble aims only found practical application to a limited degree. The signing of the Minority Treaties, (starting from the so-called Little Treaty of Versailles with Poland in June 1919) was imposed on the countries of central and eastern Europe as a precondition of finalizing the decisions of the Treaty of Versailles itself. Despite placing such expectations on newly created states, the western European powers themselves did not feel duty-bound to declare respect for the minorities in their own countries. Neither Great Britain, not France signed such treaties, fearing the far-reaching consequences in their relations with the subjugated peoples in their respective colonies. Moreover, the Weimar Republic was also exempted from signing a minority treaty, which had an additional negative influence on already-difficult Polish-German relations.[1]

Insofar as the difficulties in introducing these first international regulations concerning ethnic minorities undoubtedly deserve praise, they also drew attention to the fact that such regulations had not defined the status of minorities precisely nor had they specified what sanctions could be faced by those who would not or could not adhere to the obligations they had accepted. Thus, we are dealing with a situation in which one state was imposing rules on another which they themselves had no intention of following. Furthermore, the lack of clarity of these solutions created additional difficulties in their implementation. At the same time, all breaches of these rules met strident criticism in the international arena and were used for political ends. Insofar as what this peculiar policy of double standards looked like in practice, I will attempt to show this below based on the example of the situation in inter-war Poland and its relations with its German minority. The ethnic relations presented in a later section in the context of the Second World War and the post-war years are meant to supplement this picture and outline the question of how states dealt with observing minority rights over a longer perspective.

Ethnic diversity in interwar Poland

After the Polish state regained its independence and proclaimed the Polish Republic in 1918, it took more than four years until all the borders of the state were fixed. In 1922 Poland had a population of 27 million, of which only approximately 19 million were ethnically Polish. About one million inhabitants of the Polish state were considered to be German and were distributed throughout Poland.[2] Although the population of Jewish descent was less than 10 %, they had inhabited Polish territory for hundreds of years and had contributed a great deal to Polish culture. While one part of the Jewish population assimilated, others held on to their own culture and religion and distanced themselves from ethnic Poles. Antisemitism was widespread among the Polish population and the awareness that the Jews had the same rights as other citizens grew slowly.

The fact that Poland had signed a minority treaty resulted in attempts to introduce solutions in accordance with the declared obligations both at central and local government levels. Although this was not an easy process, the imposition of legal frameworks had already pointed towards certain standards. However, they were not in line with the rising mood of nationalism all over Europe, one which, in the case of Poland, significantly strengthened following the death of Marshal Józef Pilsudski in 1935. One may venture to say that if Europe had not been plagued with fascist ideology, national socialism, and the outbreak of the Second World War, the regulations concerning respect for minorities would have had a chance of being perfected in the international arena and implemented in particular countries to a greater or lesser degree.

Thus, the Gordian knot which existed in the borderlands of Central Europe were the territorial claims of particular ethnic groups and the impossibility of establishing borders between them. In the case of the territory of Poland, this especially concerned its eastern part. Established as a result of numerous confrontations and armed conflicts, Poland’s eastern border left no-one satisfied.

The new Polish state became a multiethnic state, with the territories in the east displaying an especially high degree of ethnic diversity. Today known as the Kresy, it comprised a borderland that many ethnic groups claimed for their own nation-state. This eastern borderland was home to 10.7 million people in 1931. The largest group in numerical terms, comprised Ukrainians (41.3%), followed by Poles (29.3%), Belarusians (17%) and Jews (9.3%).[3] In contrast to the case of Poles, the Belarusian and Ukrainian demands for their own nation-states and for self-determination were not recognized at the Treaty of Versailles. For Poland, this situation combining nation-building with the protection of minorities became a huge challenge.

Thus, in the southeastern borderland of Poland, Ukrainians constituted a relative majority, and an absolute majority in rural areas, while Poles usually dominated urban areas (16% of inhabitants of Lwów were Ukrainians). Although Poland had signed the treaty concerning minority protection in 1919, it was not capable of meeting the demands the Ukrainians made, considering them to be too great a threat to the cohesion of the new state. Although Poland was obliged to grant eastern Galicia autonomy, it did not keep its promise. At the same time, terrorist attacks and acts of violence by Ukrainian nationalists constituted a permanent element of political conflict. To sum up, in the case of the Polish Republic one may say that an alternative solution was chosen, namely the centralization of the state and the distinct oppression of the Ukrainian minority. This served only to distance Ukrainians from the Polish state more and more.[4]

The situation in the region of eastern Galicia changed radically with the outbreak of the Second World War and the Soviet occupation of eastern Poland from 17 September 1939. The war brought about the extermination of Jews and unbelievable suffering to Poles and Ukrainians. Both the Soviet and then German occupiers often deliberately incited these groups against each other. Thus, the differences of opinion which had existed since pre-war times now became the cause of civil war, as a result of which Ukrainian nationalists began ethnic cleansing of the Polish population. As Timothy Snyder explains in his book The Reconstruction of Nations, it was only the extremely brutal methods of waging war conducted by Hitler and Stalin that taught Ukrainians how to solve the “Polish problem”.[5]

The situation on the Polish-German border

According to the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was obliged to return to Poland a significant part of its Prussian provinces in the East, namely those taken in during the Polish partitions at the end of the 18th century. The proposed boundaries were contested by both sides. Both Poland and Germany saw the treaty as a violation of the principle of national self-determination. In order to solve the problem, plebiscites were planned in East Prussia and Upper Silesia. To avoid the partition of Upper Silesia, the Polish inhabitants of the region decided to take control of over half of its territory by military force. The Germans responded with volunteer paramilitary units from all over Germany. After three uprisings in 1919, 1920 and 1921, the region was eventually divided. The League of Nations confirmed a new border, and Poland received roughly one-third of the plebiscite zone. Subsequently, the German and Polish governments, under a League of Nations’ recommendation, agreed to enforce protections of minority interests that would last for 15 years. Nevertheless, both states pressured the minorities to assimilate to the titular nation, resulting in about 10 % of the region’s population migrating to the “right” side.

The resolutions of the Treaty of Versailles gave rise to a “revisionist policy” in the Weimar Republic. Part of this was seeking revision of the eastern border of Germany and the designation of Poland as a temporary state that had no right to exist. Such attitudes had their roots in German nationalism and colonial policies, ones which the German Reich had already practiced against the Poles in the 19th century.

It is important to state here that after the shifting of Polish-German border in 1919 – apart from some exceptions – Germans were not forced to leave Poland and had the right to decide if they wanted to stay or leave. Consequently, about 600,000 people left and a minority of about 1 million Germans remained in Poland. For most, the reason for emigrating was the change in their status in the Polish state. After 1919 the German population was deprived of the unique rights and privileges they had previously enjoyed. They felt an aversion to the new conditions in which they found themselves and did not agree with their new role as a national minority.[6]

After 1919 Germany changed its relationship to Germans living abroad, especially in the East. Rogers Brubaker called this a “volkisch reorientation of nationalism”.[7] They started to imagine the nation less in terms of state borders and more in terms of ethnic categories. One part of this policy was supporting Germans in Poland, which also served the goal of recovering the lost territories. In the case of Germany, one may speak about both territorial revisionism and ethnic irredentism. Despite this, the German minority in Poland did not become a homogeneous entity. As Winson Chu shows, it remained divided and, even after 1933, did not unite within a single representative organization.[8] In this context, it is not easy to clearly define the level of discrimination experienced by the Germans in Poland. On the one hand, there was a Polish policy of repression towards the German minority while, on the other hand, German nationalists in Weimar Germany used it as an instrument of their revisionist foreign policy. A good example of this is German relations with the League Council. Once Germany became a permanent member of the League’s governing body in 1926, Poland’s German minority petitioned the Minority Protection System more often than any other group.[9] Indeed, when dealing with those documents today a historian may gain the impression that the German minority in Poland was the most discriminated-against minority in Europe.

However, with the attack on Poland in 1939, the Nazi Germans considered the Polish population an inferior sub-species, declared Poles to be sub-humans, denied them the right to culture and education. They then murdered, deported, expelled them or forced them to do slave labor. Any protection of minorities had suddenly ceased to exist.

Who may belong to the nation?

During the Second World War, another element of social engineering gained importance, namely, a process known as ‘national verification’. Nazi-Germany first introduced the so-called volksliste in Polish territories incorporated into the Third Reich. This offered a part of Polish society the possibility of becoming volksdeutsche, a kind of second-class German citizen. Depending on the region, this process was voluntary (e.g. in the General Government) or forced (e.g. in Upper Silesia). Refusing to sign the list could end up with one’s whole family being sent to a concentration camp or resettlement camp. On the one hand, possessing volksdeutsche status ensured many privileges and much better treatment than other Polish citizens. On the other hand, those on the volksliste were called to serve in all formations of the German army (whose number is estimated at 500,000.) Of 9 million Poles living in German-occupied territory, about 2.8 million agreed to sign the list.

At the end of the Second World War, the Polish administration started its own process of national verification. The decree of the Polish Committee of National Liberation of 4 November 1944 ordered the compulsory internment of all those who had identified themselves as volksdeutsche. In order to avoid expulsion, all such people, as well as ethnic Germans, had to prove their Polishness. Such an approach was based on an assumption that everyone possessed a robust national identity. This left no room for individuals who identified themselves as neither Polish nor German, just a borderlander.

On the path to ethnic homogeneity

After the trauma of the Holocaust, the German and Soviet occupation and Polish-Ukrainian civil war, most people in Poland supported the idea that it was only possible to achieve a peaceful future by separating conflicting groups into nation-states. With agreements signed allowing the exchange of populations with the Lithuanian, Belarusian and Ukrainian Soviet Republics in September 1944 and the decision to forcibly migrate almost all Germans from the territory of Poland after the Potsdam Conference in 1945, ethnic homogeneity became a priority for postwar Poland. Officially, there was no German minority in Poland. Those volksdeutsche and Germans who had been “verified” as Polish, were labeled as “autochthons”. They were considered Polish as long as they made no claim to the contrary. As West Germany developed economically (the German Wirtschaftswunder) in the 1950s many of these “autochthons” “re-discovered” their “Germanness” and desired to emigrate. Poland thus had to strike a balance between easing emigration pressure in the Western territories while avoiding an “emigration craze” and the loss of too much manpower. Up to 1990, approximately 1.4 million persons left Poland and went to West Germany, while about 120,000 resettled in East Germany.[10]

The postwar nationality policies in Poland succeeded in that 97.7 % of the population in 2011 declared Polish as their sole national-ethnic identity. However, this success was achieved in part through the unnecessary expulsion and alienation of many individuals who could have been loyal citizens contributing to Poland’s reconstruction had these policies and their implementation been different.[11]

The situation of Germans in Poland first improved after 1989 when Germans were recognized as a national minority and granted all minorities rights and protection. Unlike Poland, today’s Germany does not recognize Poles living in Germany as a national minority, which is a reason for political disagreement in Polish-German relations.

The idea of protecting ethnic minorities by law, born at the end of the First World War, could only be implemented in Europe to a very small extent. Because of the totalitarian regimes represented by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, it took many decades until its implementation could be the subject of bilateral agreements once again. In the case of Poland, this occurred first after the political transformation of 1989/90 when Poland signed ‘good neighbor’ treaties with all its neighboring countries, thereby recognizing minority rights according to EU standards.


[1] Philipp Ther, Die dunkle Seite der Nationalstaaten. „Ethnische Säuberungen” im modernen Europa, Göttingen, 2011, p. 90.
[2] Winson Chu, The German Minority in Interwar Poland. Cambridge University Press, 2012, p. 21.
[3]  Grzegorz Hryciuk and  Witold Sienkiewicz (eds.), Wysiedlenia, wypędzenia i ucieczki, 1939–1959. Atlas ziem Polski, Warsaw 2008, p. 12.
[4] Philipp Ther, Deutsche und polnische Vertriebene. Gesellschaft und Vertriebenenpolitik in der SBZ/DDR und in Polen 1945-56, Göttingen 1998, p. 68 ff.; Ryszard Torzecki, Polacy i Ukraińcy. Sprawa ukraińska w czasie II wojny światowej na terenie II Rzeczypospolitej, Warsaw 1993, p. 12 ff.
[5] Timothy Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations. Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569–1999, New Haven, Conn. 2003, p. 176. Beata Halicka and Bogusław Mykietów (eds.), Kozaky-Pyrehne. Polen. Deutsche und Ukrainer auf dem Erinnerungsfad erzwungener Migrationen Kozaki –Pyrzany. Polifonia pamięci o przymusowych migracjach we wspomnieniach Polaków, Niemców i Ukraińców, Skórzyn 2011, p. 29.
[6] Dariusz Matelski, Mniejszość niemiecka w Wielkopolsce w latach 1919-1939, Poznań 1997, p. 28.
[7] Rogers Brubaker, Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe, Cambridge University Press,1996, p. 118.
[8] Chu, op. cit., note 2 above, p. 2.
[9]  John J. Kulczycki, Belonging to the Nation: Inclusion and Exclusion in the Polish-German Borderlands, 1939-1951, Cambridge 2016, p.11.
[10]  Jannis Panagiotids, The resettlement of ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe in both German states (1950s-1980s).
[11] Kulczycki, op. cit., note 9 above, p. 299.

Author: Dr. habil. Beata Halicka is a professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Adam Mickiewicz in Poznań, Poland.

Image: © Andrzej Tichomirow

Share this post