In the languages of the inhabitants of those parts of Europe that were once part of the Roman Empire, the days of the week usually have names that originate from the names of ancient deities. Hence, for example, we have the French lundi, from Luna, the goddess of the moon, and the English Monday, on a similar principle. The Slavs did not have their own calendar; it was introduced by Christian monks who, to overcome paganism, numbered the days of the week. Thus, the Polish for Monday, poniedziałek, actually translates as ‘after Sunday’; Tuesday, wtorek, means ‘second day’ and so on. Sunday, niedziela, is literally ‘do-nothing day’ or ‘no-work day’, since it is a holy day, which must be observed as a day of rest. On Sunday 10 November 1918, however, work was performed to rebuild Poland – although only one thing took place, it was very important.
On this day, Józef Piłsudski, recently released from prison in Magdeburg, arrived in Warsaw; it was an opportune moment. As a socialist and man of exemplary military experience, surrounded by an aura of indefatigability – he had refused to swear allegiance to Kaiser Wilhelm II – Piłsudski had the majority approval of society and of political organizations. As Bohdan Skaradziński wrote: “Piłsudski was worth more than a division of trained soldiers or a reasonably politically seasoned government.” Piłsudski was greeted with enthusiasm and high hopes. In December 1917, the Regency Council had called on the eminent historian Jan Kucharzewski to lead the first Polish government, and on 11 November 1918, they officially transferred supreme military command to Piłsudski, along with command of the as-yet-non-existent Polish Army. Three days later, the Council dissolved itself.
On 22 November, Piłsudski assumed the title of Provisional Chief of State, until such time as the first Sejm (Parliament), of the independent Republic of Poland could be selected and gathered. These actions may have been unconstitutional, but did this matter? There was no constitution yet. A working version, known as the Small Constitution, was adopted in February 1919; it confirmed Piłsudski’s leading role as Chief of State (no longer ‘Provisional’). An actual constitution was not forthcoming until March 1921.
As can be seen, 11 November 1918, which we celebrate today as Independence Day, was not especially significant, but it was the product of a certain string of events, since more important events took place before and after this date. Nonetheless, it has become entrenched in Polish consciousness most probably because on this day, at 11am (the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month) the armistice was signed that ended all hostilities on the Western Front. Germany had been defeated by the Entente Powers. Contrary to popular belief, this was not the formal end of the First World War. The actual end of the war was the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919, and definitively only in 1920, with the signing of a peace treaty with Turkey. For Poland, it would not end until 1921.
The Poles were now faced with a difficult task. They had to consolidate the lands of the three former Partitions under which the country had fallen for 123 years. This was a significant amount of time – about four generations that never knew a free Poland – and actually more because, counting from the time of the Silent Sejm in 1717, an independent Commonwealth existed only on paper. Three different regions saw three different types of national characteristic evolve, a fact that can sometimes be observed to this day. The old saying was that if you needed to deal with an issue in the Russian Partition, you should take as much money as possible with you, since everyone knew that all officials were ‘on the take’; in the Prussian Partition, none were open to bribery. The worst situation was in the Austrian Partition, where some officials were corrupt, and others were not, and you never knew who you were going to get. There were three different legal systems. Even the railway network was not, in modern parlance, compatible, because the former Russian territories used a broad gauge, wider than the standard gauge used in most of the rest of Europe. How was all this to be brought together? Initially, the reborn Poland faced two major tasks: creating the most advantageous borders, and the establishment of a strong army to defend them. Fortunately, our forebears were able to catch their breath for a moment, since this was the time when the ‘great powers slept’. In Germany, a red-inspired revolution broke out among the workers, mainly in Berlin and Cologne; in Russia, the Bolshevik regime was defending itself desperately against the Whites, while Lenin was plagued by fears that he might lose power; and the Habsburg monarchy dispersed, just as a noxious substance left on the pavement by a dog is dispersed under the shoe of an unwary passer-by.
In 1920, Piłsudski wrote: ‘We have the White Eagle, flying over our heads, we have a thousand reasons for our hearts to be glad. Yet we beat our breasts! Are we internally strong enough? Do we have enough strength of spirit? Do we have sufficient material power to withstand the tests that await us? Poland is faced by a great question; is it to be a nation that is the equal of the great powers of the world, or is it to be a small country, dependent on the protection of the mighty’?