The Anniversary of the Restoration of Independence in the II Republic
11 November 1918 is a symbolic date for every Pole, and one of the most beautiful episodes in Polish history. After 123 years of partition, the longed-for nation came into being as a free and independent entity. As the hour of the defeat of Poland’s oppressors struck, Poles from each of the partitions were able to unite almost instantly, in order to build an independent nation. Today, it is hard to comprehend the significance of this historical moment; how many tears, emotions and hopes must have engulfed the witnesses of those times, and that day, so important for the nation? Even though the Regency Council had formally declared the independence of the Kingdom on 7 October, on 11 November it became fact. Henceforth it was possible to walk the streets and to proudly proclaim that one was a Pole – without fear of reprisal. Piłsudski’s name was on everyone’s lips. Nominated the supreme commander of Poland’s armed forces, he negotiated the evacuation of the German garrison from Warsaw. Two days later, the Polish National Committee in Paris was recognized by France, thereby joining the victorious Entente Powers. However, Poland’s borders were not to be established until another four years of bloodshed and great sacrifice had passed. It could be said that we did not obtain independence – we had to fight for it!
All Polish citizens were aware that such a significant event should be commemorated and celebrated, but it was only from 1920 that the anniversary of the restoration of independence was celebrated in Warsaw as a military ceremony; initially, this took place on the first Sunday after 11 November. In 1919, there was no appetite for a festive celebration of this event, due to the on-going Polish-Bolshevik war. One year later, Poles had more faith in the future, although that optimism was sorely tested: as reported in Kurier Warszawski: “the art of peace turns out to be harder than the art of war”. The date for national celebration was designated as 14 November 1920. The organization of the celebrations was entrusted to the Celebration of the Second Anniversary Committee. A celebratory mass of thanksgiving was held in every Warsaw church, complete with sermons befitting the occasion. At the Jesuit Church on Świętojańska, a plaque commemorating the ‘Miracle on the Vistula’ – the 1920 Battle of Warsaw, was unveiled. The celebrations were accompanied by a demonstration in support of the liberation of Upper Silesia and a collection in support of the planned plebiscite regarding the fate of that region. In Plac Zamkowy (Castle Square), Józef Piłsudski received the marshal’s baton, and the oldest general of the Polish Army, Karol Trzaska-Durski, former commandant of the Polish Legion, delivered a speech. That evening, a gala performance was held at the Grand Theatre for invited guests, delegates from the front, representatives of the army, parliament, the government and foreign missions. The Rozmaitości, Reduta and Praski theatres opened their doors free of charge for patriotic performances. The film ‘Dla Ciebie Polsko’ (For You, Poland) appeared in Warsaw’s cinemas, advertised as a great national epic, which depicted the threat of bolshevism. Discounted screenings were organized for younger cinema-goers, to make them aware of the danger looming to the east. The following year, another patriotic movie, entitled ‘Cud Nad Wisłą’ (the Miracle on the Vistula) was produced, featuring the famous death scene of Fr. Ignacy Skorupka. These films were produced to uplift the heart; they showed the glory of Polish arms, and entrenched a patriotic spirit within Polish society.
On the seventh anniversary of the restoration of independence, 11 November 1925, under the colonnade of the Saxon Palace, the Haller Veterans’ Association paid their respects for the first time at the newly-unveiled Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The remains of an unidentified warrior, interred in this grave, symbolize the sacrifice of the struggle for independence to this day.
After the May Coup in 1926, 11 November was declared a holiday for public officials. That same year, after the demolition of the St Aleksander Nevsky Cathedral, for many a symbol of Russian captivity, in Plac Saski (Saxon Square), it was possible for the first time to stage a military parade. On 3 September 1927, the film adaptation of Andrzej Strug’s novel ‘Mogiła Nieznanego Żołnierza’ (The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) was premiered in three Warsaw cinemas. The film showed the dramatic fortunes of a captain in the Polish Legions at the Eastern Front during the First World War. Documentary scenes at the end showed the 1926 parade in Plac Saski. The film was co-financed by the Ministry of Military Affairs.
To mark the tenth anniversary of the restoration of independence, a military parade was mounted at the race track at Pole Mokotowskie. The parade was headed by the military academies, followed by the infantry and foot services, artillery, motorized units, cavalry with horse-drawn artillery and military association units brought up the rear. Plac Saski (Saxon Square) was renamed Plac Marszałka Józefa Piłsudskiego (Marshal Józef Piłsudski Square). The evening was graced by a historical procession depicting events from the fight for independence, consisting of reconstruction groups wearing period costumes from the Confederation of Bar, the Kosciuszko Uprising, the Napoleonic Wars, and the November and January Uprisings. State celebrations also took place in other Polish cities, including Kraków, Lwów, Poznan and Wilno.
11 November 1932 was declared a school holiday, and the Aviator Monument was erected at Plac Unii Lubelskiej, next to Warsaw’s first airfield. The monument, designed by Edward Wittig, was destroyed by the Germans in 1944 and reconstructed in 1967.
In 1937, Independence Day was awarded the status of a national holiday. For the first time, school children and university students took part in the traditional parade alongside the military. The celebrations were crowned by the unveiling of a statue of General Józef Sowiński, who had met a hero’s death fighting in the Wola district during the November Uprising of 1831. Parades of soldiers and students were also organized in other cities, including Bydgoszcz, Lódź and Kraków.
The last Independence Day before the Second World War was celebrated on 11 November 1938. To mark the twentieth anniversary of the restoration of independence, thanksgiving masses were celebrated in every catholic church within the territory of the Republic. The President of the Republic attended the celebrations in Czeski Cieszyn, while Marshal Edward Śmigły-Rydz represented him in Warsaw.
Under Nazi occupation, celebrations were only possible by means of minor acts of sabotage, or by posting fliers or posters. In 1945, despite the end of the Second World War, the communist authorities abolished 11 November Independence Day celebrations. In this way, they wanted to sever ties to the independence-liberation traditions of the Polish state. The new holiday would be celebrated on the anniversary of the declaration of the PKWN (Polski Komitet Wyzwolenia Narodowego – the Polish Committee of National Liberation) Manifesto. 22 July was declared Rebirth of Poland Day. The patriotic elements of society never accepted this date as the date of the restoration of independence; they rather treated this day as a dismal reminder that Poland had been abandoned by its allies and left within the Soviet sphere of influence.
The national Independence Day holiday, celebrated on 11 November, was not restored until 1989. Polish society had to wait 44 years for a return to independence traditions and the possibility to truly celebrate that which is of utmost importance to every state and nation – independence. In 2018, we were fortunate enough to celebrate the centenary of the restoration of independence. The celebrations of this special anniversary were particularly ceremonial throughout the country, surmounted by a march in the capital in which over a quarter of a million people took part.