Second Polish Republic

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Republic of Poland
Rzeczpospolita Polska
Mazurek Dąbrowskiego
Poland Is Not Yet Lost
Location and extent of the
Second Polish Republic in Europe (circa 1930).
Capital Warsaw
Languages Polish (official),
Ukrainian, Yiddish,
Belarusian, Russian
Lithuanian, German
Religion Roman Catholic
Government Republic
 •  1918–1922 Józef Piłsudski (military dictator)a
 •  1922 Gabriel Narutowicz
 •  1922–1926 Stanisław Wojciechowski
 •  1926–1939 Ignacy Mościcki
Prime Minister
 •  1918–1919 (first) Jędrzej Moraczewski
 •  1936–1939 (last) Felicjan S. Składkowski
Legislature Sejm
 •  Upper chamber Senate
 •  Lower chamber Sejm
Historical era Interwar period
 •  End of World War I 11 November 1918
 •  German invasion 1 September 1939
 •  Soviet invasion 17 September 1939
 •  Fall of Warsaw 28 September 1939
 •  Complete occupation 6 October 1939
 •  1921 387,000 km2 (149,000 sq mi)
 •  1931 388,634 km2 (150,052 sq mi)
 •  1938 389,720 km2 (150,470 sq mi)
 •  1921 est. 27,177,000 
     Density 70/km2 (182/sq mi)
 •  1931 est. 32,107,000 
     Density 83/km2 (214/sq mi)
 •  1938 est. 34,849,000 
     Density 89/km2 (232/sq mi)
Currency Marka (until 1924)
Złoty (after 1924)
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Kingdom of Poland
German Empire
Russian SFSR
Republic of Zakopane
Ukrainian PR
West Ukrainian NR
Komancza Republic
Lemko-Rusyn Republic
Galician SSR
Galicia and Lodomeria
Republic of Tarnobrzeg
Central Lithuania
Belarusian DR
Nazi Germany
Military Administration in Poland
Soviet Union
Slovak Republic
Polish Underground State
Polish-govt in exile
Today part of  Poland
 Czech Republic
a. As Chief of State (Naczelnik Państwa).

The Second Polish Republic, also known as the Second Commonwealth of Poland or interwar Poland, refers to the country of Poland between the First and Second World Wars (1918–1939). Officially known as the Republic of Poland or the Commonwealth of Poland (Polish: Rzeczpospolita Polska), the Polish state was recreated in 1918, in the aftermath of World War I. When, after several regional conflicts, the borders of the state were fixed in 1922, Poland's neighbours were Czechoslovakia, Germany, the Free City of Danzig, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania and the Soviet Union. It had access to the Baltic Sea via a short strip of coastline either side of the city of Gdynia. Between March and August 1939, Poland also shared a border with the then-Hungarian province of Carpathian Ruthenia. Despite internal and external pressures, it continued to exist until 1939, when Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and the Slovak Republic, marking the beginning of World War II in Europe. The Second Republic was significantly different in territory to the current Polish state. It included substantially more territory in the east and less in the west.

The Second Republic's land area was 388,634 km2, making it, in October 1938, the sixth largest country in Europe. After the annexation of Zaolzie, this grew to 389,720 km2. According to the 1921 census, the number of inhabitants was 27.2 million. By 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II, this had grown to an estimated 35.1 million. Almost a third of population came from minority groups: 13.9% Ukrainians; 10% Jews; 3.1% Belarusians; 2.3% Germans and 3.4% percent Czechs, Lithuanians and Russians. At the same time, a significant number of ethnic Poles lived outside the country borders, many in the Soviet Union. The Republic endured and expanded, despite a variety of difficulties: the aftermath of World War I, including conflicts with Ukraine, with Czechoslovakia, with Lithuania and with Soviet Russia and Ukraine; the Greater Poland and Silesian uprisings; and increasing hostility from Nazi Germany.

Poland maintained a slow (see: trade embargo) but steady level of economic development. The cultural hubs of interwar Poland – Warsaw, Kraków, Poznań, Wilno and Lwów – became major European cities and the sites of internationally acclaimed universities and other institutions of higher education. By 1939, the Republic had become "one of Europe's major powers".[1]


Second Polish Republic between 1921 and 1939 (light beige)
Physical map of the Second Polish Republic (1939)


Germany gained dominance on the Eastern Front of World War I as the Russians fell back. German and Austro-Hungarian armies seized the Russian-ruled part of what became Poland. Berlin set up a German puppet state on 5 November 1916, with a governing Council of State and (from 15 October 1917) a Regency Council (Rada Regencyjna Królestwa Polskiego). The Council administered the country under German auspices (see also Mitteleuropa), pending the election of a king. A month before Germany gave up and ended the war on 7 October 1918, the Regency Council dissolved the Council of State and announced its intention to restore Polish independence. With the notable exception of the Marxist-oriented Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL), most political parties supported this move. On 23 October the Council appointed a new government under Józef Świeżyński and began conscription into the Polish Army.[2]

In years 1918-1919 over 100 workers' councils sprung up on Polish territories;[3] on 5 November 1918, in Lublin, the first Soviet of Delegates was created. On 6 November the Communists announced the creation of a Republic of Tarnobrzeg. The same day, a Provisional People's Government of the Republic of Poland was created in Lublin under the Socialist, Ignacy Daszyński. On Sunday, 10 November at 7 a.m., Józef Piłsudski, newly freed from 16-month imprisonment by the German authorities at Magdeburg, returned by train to Warsaw. Piłsudski, together with Colonel Kazimierz Sosnkowski, was greeted at Warsaw's rail station by Regent Zdzisław Lubomirski and Colonel Adam Koc. Next day, due to his popularity and support from most political parties, the Regency Council appointed Piłsudski Commander in Chief of the Polish Armed Forces. On 14 November, the Council dissolved itself and transferred all its authority to Piłsudski as Chief of State (Naczelnik Państwa). After consultation with Piłsudski, Daszyński's government dissolved itself and a new government was created under Jędrzej Moraczewski. In 1918, Italy was the first country in Europe to recognise Poland's sovereignty.[4]

Centers of government that were at that time created in Galicia (formerly Austrian-ruled southern Poland) included National Council of the Principality of Cieszyn (created in November 1918), Republic of Zakopane and Polish Liquidation Committee (created on 28 October). Soon afterward, a conflict broke out in Lwów between forces of the Military Committee of Ukrainians, and the Polish irregular units made up of students known as the Lwów Eaglets, who were later supported by the Polish Army (see Battle of Lwów (1918), Battle of Przemyśl (1918)). Meanwhile, in western Poland, another war of national liberation began under the banner of the Greater Poland Uprising (1918–19). In January 1919, Czechoslovakian forces attacked Polish units in the area of Zaolzie (see Polish–Czechoslovak War). Soon afterwards, the Polish–Lithuanian War began, and in August 1919, Polish-speaking residents of Upper Silesia initiated a series of three Silesian Uprisings. The most important military conflict of that period, however, was the Polish–Soviet War, which ended in a decisive Polish victory.[5] In 1919, the Republic of Tarnobrzeg and the workers' councils were suppressed by the government.

German-Soviet invasion of 1939

The beginning of the Second World War put an end to the sovereign Second Polish Republic. The Invasion of Poland began 1 September 1939, one week after the signing of the secret Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. On that day, Poland was attacked by Nazi Germany and Slovakia, and on 17 September, the Soviets attacked eastern Poland. Warsaw fell to the Nazis on 28 September after a twenty-day siege. Organized Polish resistance ended on 6 October 1939 after the Battle of Kock, with Germany and the Soviet Union occupying most of the country. The area of Wilno was annexed by Lithuania, and areas along southern border were seized by Slovakia including Górna Orawa and Tatranská Javorina which Poland had annexed from Czechoslovakia in October 1938. Poland did not surrender, but continued fighting as the Polish government-in-exile and the Polish Underground State. After signing the German–Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Demarcation, Polish areas occupied by Nazi Germany were either directly annexed to the Third Reich, or became part of the so-called General Government. The Soviet Union, following rigged Elections to the People's Assemblies of Western Ukraine and Western Belarus, annexed eastern Poland either to Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, or Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Between 1939 and 1990, the Polish government-in-exile operated in Paris and later London, maintaining that it was the only legal and legitimate representative of the Polish nation. In 1990, the last president in exile, Ryszard Kaczorowski handed the insignia to Lech Wałęsa, signifying continuity between the Second and Third republics.

Politics and government

Józef Piłsudski, Chief of State (Naczelnik Państwa) between November 1918 and December 1922

The Second Polish Republic was a parliamentary democracy from 1919 (see Small Constitution of 1919) to 1926, with the President having limited powers. The Parliament elected him, and he could appoint the Prime Minister as well as the government with the Sejm's (lower house's) approval, but he could only dissolve the Sejm with the Senate's consent. Moreover, his power to pass decrees was limited by the requirement that the Prime Minister and the appropriate other Minister had to verify his decrees with their signatures. Poland was one of the first countries in the world to recognize women's suffrage. Women in Poland were granted the right to vote on 28 November 1918 by a decree of Józef Piłsudski.[6]

The major political parties at this time were the Polish Socialist Party, National Democrats, various Peasant Parties, Christian Democrats, and political groups of ethnic minorities (German: German Social Democratic Party of Poland, Jewish: General Jewish Labour Bund in Poland, United Jewish Socialist Workers Party, and Ukrainian: Ukrainian National Democratic Alliance). Frequently changing governments (see Polish legislative election, 1919, Polish legislative election, 1922) and other negative publicity the politicians received (such as accusations of corruption or 1919 Polish coup attempt), made them increasingly unpopular. Major politicians at this time, in addition to Piłsudski, included peasant activist Wincenty Witos (Prime Minister three times) and right-wing leader Roman Dmowski. Ethnic minorities were represented in the Sejm; e.g. in 1928 – 1930 there was the Ukrainian-Belarusian Club, with 26 Ukrainian and 4 Belarusian members.

Edward Rydz-Śmigły receiving a Marshal's buława from then-President of Poland Ignacy Mościcki, Warsaw, 10 November 1936

After the Polish – Soviet war, Marshal Piłsudski led an intentionally modest life, writing historical books for a living. After he took power by a military coup in May 1926, he emphasized that he wanted to heal the Polish society and politics of excessive partisan politics. His regime, accordingly, was called Sanacja in Polish. The 1928 parliamentary elections were still considered free and fair, although the pro-Piłsudski Nonpartisan Bloc for Cooperation with the Government won them. The following three parliamentary elections (in 1930, 1935 and 1938) were manipulated, with opposition activists sent to Bereza Kartuska prison (see also Brest trials). As a result, pro-government party Camp of National Unity won huge majorities in them. Piłsudski died just after an authoritarian constitution was approved in the spring of 1935. During the last four years of the Second Polish Republic, the major politicians included President Ignacy Mościcki, Foreign Minister Józef Beck and the Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Army, Edward Rydz-Śmigły. The country was divided into 104 electoral districts, and those politicians who were forced to leave Poland, founded Front Morges in 1936. The government that ruled Second Polish Republic in its final years is frequently referred to as Piłsudski's colonels.[7]


Main articles: Polish armaments 1939–45 Polish army order of battle in 1939

Prior to the 1939 invasion, Poland had a considerably large army of 283,000 soldiers on active duty: in 37 infantry divisions, 11 cavalry brigades, and two armored brigades, plus artillery units. Another 700,000 men served in the reserves. At the outbreak of the war, Polish army was able to put in the field almost one million soldiers, 2,800 guns, 500 tanks and 400 aircraft.[8]

The training of the Polish army was thorough. The N.C.O.s were a competent body of men with expert knowledge and high ideals. The officers, both senior and junior, constantly refreshed their training in the field and in the lecture-hall, where modern technical achievement and the lessons of contemporary wars were demonstrated and discussed. The equipment of the Polish army was less developed technically than that of the enemy and its rearmament was slowed down by a recrudescence of optimism in western Europe and the usual budget difficulties.[9]

Sadly, war plans (Plan West and Plan East) failed as soon as Germany invaded in 1939, Polish losses in combat against Germans (killed and missing in action) amounted to ca. 70,000. 420,000 were taken prisoners. Losses against the Red Army (which invaded Poland on 17 September) added up to 6,000 to 7,000 of casualties and MIA, 250,000 were taken prisoners. Although the Polish army – considering the inactivity of the Allies – was in an unfavorable position – it managed to inflict serious losses to the enemies: 14,000 German soldiers were killed or MIA, 674 tanks and 319 armored vehicles destroyed or badly damaged, 230 aircraft shot down; the Red Army lost (killed and MIA) about 2,500 soldiers, 150 combat vehicles and 20 aircraft. The Soviet invasion of Poland and lack of promised aid from the Western Allies, contributed to the Polish forces defeat by 6 October 1939.


Polish pavilion at expo in Paris 1937.

After regaining its independence, Poland was faced with major economic difficulties. In addition to the devastation wrought by World War I, the exploitation of the Polish economy by the German and Russian occupying powers, and the sabotage performed by retreating armies, the new republic was faced with the task of economically unifying desperate economic regions, which had previously been part of different countries.[10] Within the borders of the Republic were the remnants of three different economic systems, with five different currencies (the German mark, the Russian ruble, the Austrian crown, the Polish marka and the Ostrubel)[10] and with little or no direct infrastructural links. The situation was so bad that neighboring industrial centers as well as major cities lacked direct railroad links, because they had been parts of different nations. For example, there was no direct railroad connection between Warsaw and Kraków until 1934. This situation was described by Melchior Wańkowicz in his book Sztafeta.

On top of this was the massive destruction left after both World War I and the Polish–Soviet War. There was also a great economic disparity between the eastern (commonly called Poland B) and western (called Poland A) parts of the country, with the western half, especially areas that had belonged to the German Empire being much more developed and prosperous. Frequent border closures and a customs war with Germany also had negative economic impacts on Poland. In 1924 Prime Minister and Economic Minister Władysław Grabski introduced the złoty as a single common currency for Poland (it replaced the Polish marka), which remained a stable currency. The currency helped Poland to control the massive hyperinflation. It was the only country in Europe able to do this without foreign loans or aid.[11] The average annual growth rate (GDP per capita) was 5.24% in 1920–29 and 0.34% in 1929–38.[12]

GDP per
Year Int$.
1922 1,382
1929 2,117
1930 1,994
1931 1,823
1932 1,658
1933 1,590
1934 1,593
1935 1,597
1936 1,626
1937 1,915
1938 2,182

Hostile relations with neighbours were a major problem for the economy of interbellum Poland. In the year 1937, foreign trade with all neighbours amounted to only 21% of Poland's total. Trade with Lithuania (0% of total) and the Soviet Union (0,8%) was virtually nonexistent. Czechoslovakia accounted for 3,9% of Polish foreign trade, Latvia for 0,3%, Romania for 0,8%, and Germany, Poland's most important neighbour, for 14,3%. By mid-1938, after the Anschluss, Greater Germany was responsible for as much as 23% of Polish foreign trade.

The basis of Poland's gradual recovery after the Great Depression was its mass economic development plans (see Four Year Plan), which oversaw the building of three key infrastructural elements. The first was the establishment of the Gdynia seaport, which allowed Poland to completely bypass Gdańsk (which was under heavy German pressure to boycott Polish coal exports). The second was construction of the 500-kilometer rail connection between Upper Silesia and Gdynia, called Polish Coal Trunk-Line, which served freight trains with coal. The third was the creation of a central industrial district, named COP – Central Industrial Region (Centralny Okręg Przemysłowy). Unfortunately, these developments were interrupted and largely destroyed by the German and Soviet invasion and the start of World War II.[14] Other achievements of interbellum Poland included Stalowa Wola (a brand new city, built in a forest around a steel mill), Mościce (now a district of Tarnów, with a large nitrate factory), and the creation of a central bank. There were several trade fairs, with the most popular being Poznań International Fair, Lwów's Targi Wschodnie, and Wilno's Targi Północne. Polish Radio had ten stations (see Radio stations in interwar Poland), with the eleventh one planned to be opened in the autumn of 1939. Furthermore, in 1935 Polish engineers began working on the TV services. By early 1939, experts of the Polish Radio built four TV sets. The first movie broadcast by experimental Polish TV was Barbara Radziwiłłówna, and by 1940, regular TV service was scheduled to begin operation.[15]

Interbellum Poland was also a country with numerous social problems. Unemployment was high, and poverty was widespread, which resulted in several cases of social unrest, such as the 1923 Kraków riot, and 1937 peasant strike in Poland. There were conflicts with national minorities, such as Pacification of Ukrainians in Eastern Galicia (1930), relations with Polish neighbors were sometimes complicated (see Soviet raid on Stołpce, Polish–Czechoslovak border conflicts, 1938 Polish ultimatum to Lithuania). On top of this, there were natural disasters, such as 1934 flood in Poland.

Major industrial centers

Warsaw in 1939

Interbellum Poland was unofficially divided into two parts – better developed "Poland A" in the west, and underdeveloped "Poland B" in the east. Polish industry was concentrated in the west, mostly in Polish Upper Silesia, and the adjacent Lesser Poland's province of Zagłębie Dąbrowskie, where the bulk of coal mines and steel plants was located. Furthermore, heavy industry plants were located in Częstochowa (Huta Częstochowa, founded in 1896), Ostrowiec Świętokrzyski (Huta Ostrowiec, founded in 1837–1839), Stalowa Wola (brand new industrial city, which was built from scratch in 1937 – 1938), Chrzanów (Fablok, founded in 1919), Jaworzno, Trzebinia (oil refinery, opened in 1895), Łódź (the seat of Polish textile industry), Poznań (H. Cegielski – Poznań), Kraków and Warsaw (Ursus Factory). Further east, in Kresy, industrial centers were scarce, and limited to two major cities of the region – Lwów and Wilno (Elektrit). Besides coal mining, Poland also had deposits of oil in Borysław, Drohobycz, Jasło and Gorlice (see Polmin), potassium salt (TESP), and basalt (Janowa Dolina). Apart from already-existing industrial areas, in the mid-1930s, an ambitious, state-sponsored project of Central Industrial Region was started under Minister Eugeniusz Kwiatkowski. One of characteristic features of Polish economy in the interbellum was gradual nationalization of major plants. This was the case of Ursus Factory (see Państwowe Zakłady Inżynieryjne), and several steelworks, such as Huta Pokój in Ruda Śląska – Nowy Bytom, Huta Królewska in Chorzów – Królewska Huta, Huta Laura in Siemianowice Śląskie, as well as Scheibler and Grohman Works in Łódź.[16]


Industry and communications in Poland before the start of World War II

According to the 1939 Statistical Yearbook of Poland, total length of railways of Poland (as for 31 December 1937) was 20 118 kilometers. Rail density was 5.2 km. per 100 km2. Railways were very dense in western part of the country, while in the east, especially Polesie, rail was non-existent in some counties. During the interbellum period, the Polish government constructed several new lines, mainly in the central part of the country (see also Polish State Railroads Summer 1939). Construction of extensive Warszawa Główna railway station was never finished due to the war, and Polish railroads were famous for their punctuality (see Luxtorpeda, Strzała Bałtyku, Latający Wilnianin).

In the interbellum, road network of Poland was dense, but the quality of the roads was very poor – only 7% of all roads was paved and ready for automobile use, and none of the major cities were connected with each other by a good-quality highway. In the mid-1930s, Poland had 340,000 kilometers of roads, but only 58,000 had hard surface (gravel, cobblestone or sett), and 2,500 were modern, with asphalt or concrete surface. In different parts of the country, there were sections of paved roads, which suddenly ended, and were followed by dirt roads.[17] Poor condition of roads was the result of both long-lasting foreign dominance and inadequate funding. On 29 January 1931, the Polish Parliament created the State Road Fund, the purpose of which was to collect money for construction and conservation of roads. The government drafted a 10-year plan, with road priorities: a highway from Wilno, through Warsaw and Cracow, to Zakopane (called Marshall Pilsudski Highway), asphalt highways from Warsaw to Poznań and Łódź, as well as Warsaw ring road. However, the plan turned out to be too ambitious, with insufficient money in the national budget to pay for it. In January 1938, the Polish Road Congress estimated Poland would need to spend three times as much money on roads to keep up with Western Europe.

In 1939, before the outbreak of the war, LOT Polish Airlines, which was established in 1929, had its hub at Warsaw Okęcie Airport. At that time LOT maintained several services, both domestic and international. Warsaw had regular domestic connections with Gdynia-Rumia, Danzig-Langfuhr, Katowice-Muchowiec, Kraków-Rakowice-Czyżyny, Lwów-Skniłów, Poznań-Ławica, and Wilno-Porubanek. Furthermore, in cooperation with Air France, LARES, Lufthansa, and Malert, international connections were maintained with Athens, Beirut, Berlin, Bucharest, Budapest, Helsinki, Kaunas, London, Paris, Prague, Riga, Rome, Tallinn, and Zagreb.[18]


In the Second Polish Republic, the majority of inhabitants lived in the countryside (75% in 1921), and their existence depended on land. Farmers made up 65% of the population, while about 1% were landowners. In 1929, agricultural production made up 65% of Poland's GNP.[19] After 123 years of partitions, regions of the country were very unevenly developed. Lands of former German Empire were most advanced; in Greater Poland and Pomerelia, crops were on Western European level.[20] The situation was much worse in former Congress Poland, Kresy, and former Galicia, where agriculture was most backward and primitive, with a large number of small farms, unable to succeed in either the domestic and international market. Another problem was the overpopulation of the countryside, which resulted in chronic unemployment. Living conditions were so bad that in several regions, such as counties inhabited by the Hutsuls, there was permanent starvation.[21] Farmers rebelled against the government (see: 1937 peasant strike in Poland), and the situation began to change in the late 1930s, due to construction of several factories for the Central Industrial Region, which gave employment to thousands of countryside residents.

German trade

Beginning in June 1925 there was a customs' war with the revanchist Weimar Republic imposing trade embargo against Poland for nearly a decade; involving tariffs, and broad economic restrictions. After 1933 the trade war ended. The new agreements regulated and promoted trade. Germany became Poland's largest trading partner, followed by Britain. In October 1938 Germany granted a credit of Rm 60,000,000 to Poland (120,000,000 zloty, or £4,800,000) which was never realized, due to the outbreak of war. Germany would deliver factory equipment and machinery in return for Polish timber and agricultural produce. This new trade was to be in addition to the existing German-Polish trade agreements.[22][23]

Education and culture

Prime Minister Kazimierz Bartel, also a scholar and mathematician

In 1919, the Polish government introduced compulsory education for all children aged 7 to 14, in an effort to limit illiteracy, which was widespread especially in the former Russian Partition and the Austrian Partition of eastern Poland. In 1921, one-third of citizens of Poland remained illiterate (38% in the countryside). The process was slow, but by 1931, the illiteracy level had dropped to 23% overall (27% in the countryside) and further down to 18% in 1937. By 1939, over 90% of children attended school.[16][24] In 1932, Minister of Religion and Education Janusz Jędrzejewicz carried out a major reform which introduced the following levels of education:

  1. common school (szkoła powszechna), with three levels – 4 grades + 2 grades + 1 grade,
  2. middle school (szkoła średnia), with two levels – 4 grades of comprehensive middle school and 2 grades of specified high school (classical, humanistic, natural and mathematical). A graduate of middle school received a small matura, while a graduate of high school received a big matura, which enabled them to seek university-level education.

Before 1918, Poland had three universities: Jagiellonian University, University of Warsaw and Lwów University. Catholic University of Lublin was established in 1918; Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, in 1919; and finally, in 1922, after the annexation of Republic of Central Lithuania, Wilno University became the Republic's sixth university. There were also three technical colleges: the Warsaw University of Technology, Lwów Polytechnic and the AGH University of Science and Technology in Kraków, established in 1919. Warsaw University of Life Sciences was an agricultural institute. By 1939, there were around 50,000 students enrolled in further education. Women made up 28% of university students, the second highest proportion in Europe.[25]

Polish science in the interbellum was renowned for its mathematicians – see Lwów School of Mathematics, Kraków School of Mathematics, and Warsaw School of Mathematics. There were well-known philosophers (see Lwów–Warsaw school of logic), Florian Znaniecki founded Polish sociological studies, Rudolf Weigl invented a vaccine against typhus, and Bronisław Malinowski was among the most important anthropologists of the 20th century. In Polish literature, the 1920s were marked by the domination of poetry. Polish poets were divided into two groups – the Skamanderites (Jan Lechoń, Julian Tuwim, Antoni Słonimski and Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz) and the Futurists (Anatol Stern, Bruno Jasieński, Aleksander Wat, Julian Przyboś). Apart from well-established novelists (Stefan Żeromski, Władysław Reymont), new names appeared in the interbellum – Zofia Nałkowska, Maria Dąbrowska, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, Jan Parandowski, Bruno Schultz, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, Witold Gombrowicz. Among other notable artists there were sculptor Xawery Dunikowski, painters Julian Fałat, Wojciech Kossak and Jacek Malczewski, composers Karol Szymanowski, Feliks Nowowiejski, and Artur Rubinstein, singer Jan Kiepura. Theatre was very popular in the interbellum, with three main centers in the cities of Warsaw, Wilno and Lwów. Altogether, there were 103 theaters in Poland and a number of other theatrical institutions (including 100 folk theaters). In 1936, different shows were seen by 5 million people, and main figures of Polish theatre of the time were Juliusz Osterwa, Stefan Jaracz, and Leon Schiller. Also, before the outbreak of the war, there were about a million radios (see Radio stations in interwar Poland).

Administrative division

The administrative division of the Republic was based on a three-tier system. On the lowest rung were the gminy, local town and village governments akin to districts or parishes. These were then grouped together into powiaty (akin to counties) which, in turn, were grouped as województwa (voivodeships, akin to provinces).

Administrative map of Poland (1930)
Polish voivodeships 1922–39
Polish voivodeships during the interbellum
(data as per 1 April 1937)
Car plates
(starting 1937)
or city
Capital Area (1930)
in 1,000s km2
Population (1931)
in 1,000s
00–19 City of Warsaw Warsaw 0.14 1,179.5
85–89 warszawskie Warsaw 31.7 2,460.9
20–24 białostockie Białystok 26.0 1,263.3
25–29 kieleckie Kielce 22.2 2,671.0
30–34 krakowskie Kraków 17.6 2,300.1
35–39 lubelskie Lublin 26.6 2,116.2
40–44 lwowskie Lwów 28.4 3,126.3
45–49 łódzkie Łódź 20.4 2,650.1
50–54 nowogródzkie Nowogródek 23.0 1,057.2
55–59 poleskie Brześć nad Bugiem 36.7 1,132.2
60–64 pomorskie Toruń 25.7 1,884.4
65–69 poznańskie Poznań 28.1 2,339.6
70–74 stanisławowskie Stanisławów 16.9 1,480.3
75–79 śląskie Katowice 5.1 1,533.5
80–84 tarnopolskie Tarnopol 16.5 1,600.4
90–94 wileńskie Wilno 29.0 1,276.0
95–99 wołyńskie Łuck 35.7 2,085.6

On 1 April 1938, the borders of several western and central voivodeships were revised.

Largest cities in the Second Polish Republic

Contemporary map showing language frequency in 1931 across Poland; red colour: more than 50% native Polish language speakers; green colour: more than 50% native language other than Polish, including Yiddish, Hebrew, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Russian and less frequent others
City Population Voivodeship
1 Herb Warszawy Warsaw 1,289,000 Warsaw Voivodeship
2 Herb Łodzi Łódź 672,000 Łódź Voivodeship
3 Herb Lwowa Lwów 318,000 Lwów Voivodeship
4 Herb Poznania Poznań 272,000 Poznań Voivodeship
5 Herb Krakowa Cracow 259,000 Kraków Voivodeship
6 Herb Wilna Wilno 209,000 Wilno Voivodeship
7 Herb Bydgoszczy Bydgoszcz 141,000 Poznań Voivodeship
later Pomeranian Voivodeship
8 Herb Częstochowy Częstochowa 138,000 Kielce Voivodeship
9 Herb Katowic Katowice 134,000 Silesian Voivodeship
10 Herb Sosnowca Sosnowiec 130,000 Kielce Voivodeship
11 File:POL Lublin COA 1.svg Lublin 122,000 Lublin Voivodeship
12 Herb Gdyni Gdynia 120,000 Pomeranian Voivodeship
13 Herb Chorzowa Chorzów 110,000 Silesian Voivodeship
14 Herb Białegostoku Białystok 107,000 Białystok Voivodeship
15 Herb Kalisza Kalisz 81,000 Poznań Voivodeship
16 File:POL Radom COA.svg Radom 78,000 Kielce Voivodeship
17 Herb Torunia Toruń 62,000 Pomeranian Voivodeship
18 Herb Stanisławowa Stanisławów 60,000 Stanisławów Voivodeship
19 Herb Kielc Kielce 58,000 Kielce Voivodeship
20 Herb Włocławka Włocławek 56,000 Pomeranian Voivodeship
21 Herb Grudziądza Grudziądz 54,000 Pomeranian Voivodeship
22 Herb Brześcia nad Bugiem Brześć nad Bugiem 51,000 Polesie Voivodeship
23 Herb Piotrkowa Trybunalskiego Piotrków Trybunalski 51,000 Łódź Voivodeship
24 Herb Przemyśla Przemyśl 51,000 Lwów Voivodeship


Historically, Poland was a nation of many nationalities. This was especially true after independence was regained in the wake of World War I and the subsequent Polish–Soviet War ending at Peace of Riga. The census of 1921 shows 30.8% of the population consisted of ethnic minorities.[26] According to the 1931 Polish Census: 68.9% of the population was Polish, 13.9% were Ukrainians, around 10% Jewish, 3.1% Belarusians, 2.3% Germans and 2.8% – others, including Lithuanians, Czechs, Armenians, Russians, and Gypsies. The situation of minorities was a complex subject and changed during the period.[27]

Poland was also a nation of many religions. In 1921, 16,057,229 Poles (approx. 62.5%) were Roman (Latin) Catholics, 3,031,057 citizens of Poland (approx. 11.8%) were Eastern Rite Catholics (mostly Ukrainian Greek Catholics and Armenian Rite Catholics), 2,815,817 (approx. 10.95%) were Greek Orthodox, 2,771,949 (approx. 10.8%) were Jewish, and 940,232 (approx. 3.7%) were Protestants (mostly Lutheran).[28]

Poland's population density in 1930

By 1931 Poland had the second largest Jewish population in the world, with one-fifth of all the world's Jews residing within its borders (approx. 3,136,000).[26] The urban population of interbellum Poland was rising steadily; in 1921, only 24% of Poles lived in the cities, in the late 1930s, that proportion grew to 30%. In more than a decade, the population of Warsaw grew by 200,000, Łódź by 150,000, and Poznań – by 100,000. This was due not only to internal migration, but also extremely high birth rate.[16]

Prewar population density

Date Population Percentage of
rural population
Population density
(per km2)
30 September 1921 (census) 27,177,000 75.4% 69.9
9 December 1931 (census) 32,348,000 72.6% 82.6
31 December 1938 (estimate) 34,849,000 70.0% 89.7


Pillar near the summit of Popadia in Gorgany. During the Second Republic, this marked the Polish-Czechoslovak border.

The Second Polish Republic was mainly flat, with average elevation of 223 m above sea level (after World War II and its border changes, the average elevation of Poland decreased to 173 m). Only 13% of territory, along the southern border, was higher than 300 m. The highest elevation was Mount Rysy, which rises 2,499 m in the Tatra Range of the Carpathians, 95 km south of Kraków. Between October 1938 and September 1939, the highest elevation was Lodowy Szczyt (known in the Slovak language as Ľadový štít), which rises 2,627 meters above sea level. The largest lake was Lake Narach.

The country's total area, after annexation of Zaolzie, was 389,720 km2, it extended 903 km from north to south and 894 km from east to west. On 1 January 1938, total length of boundaries was 5,529 km, including:

  • 140 kilometers of coastline (out of which 71 kilometers were made by the Hel Peninsula),
  • 1412 kilometers with Soviet Union,
  • 948 kilometers with Czechoslovakia (until 1938),
  • 1912 kilometers with Germany (together with East Prussia),
  • 1081 kilometers with other countries (Lithuania, Romania, Latvia, Danzig).

Among major cities of the Second Polish Republic, the warmest yearly average temperature was in Kraków (9.1 °C in 1938) and the coldest in Wilno (7.6 °C in 1938).

Extreme points

  • Northernmost point: N55*51'8,45" (N55,852250*); Przeświata River in Somino, located in the Braslaw county of the Wilno Voivodeship
  • Southernmost point: N47*43'31,8" (N47,725492*); spring of Manczin River located in the Kosów county of the Stanisławów Voivodeship
  • Easternmost point: E28*21'44,3" (E28,362371*); Spasibiorki (near railway to Połock) located in the Dzisna county of the Wilno Voivodeship
  • Westernmost point: E15*47'12,4" (E15,786773*); Mukocinek near Warta River and Meszyn Lake located in the Międzychód county of the Poznań Voivodeship


Almost 75% of the territory of interbellum Poland was drained northward into the Baltic Sea by the Vistula (total area of drainage basin of the Vistula within boundaries of the Second Polish Republic was 180,300 km2), the Niemen (51,600 km2), the Odra (46,700 km2) and the Daugava (10,400 km2). The remaining part of the country was drained southward, into the Black Sea, by the rivers that drain into the Dnieper (Pripyat, Horyn and Styr, all together 61,500 km2) as well as Dniester (41,400 km2)

See also


  1. The End, TIME Magazine, 2 October 1939
  2. Richard M. Watt, Bitter Glory: Poland and Its Fate, 1918–1939 (1998)
  3. "Rady Delegatów Robotniczych w Polsce". Internetowa encyklopedia PWN. Retrieved 30 July 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Andrzej Garlicki, Józef Piłsudski, 1867–1935 (1995)
  5. Norman Richard Davies, White Eagle, Red Star: the Polish-Soviet War, 1919–20 (2nd ed. 2003)
  6. A. Polonsky, Politics in Independent Poland, 1921–1939: The Crisis of Constitutional Government (1972)
  7. Peter Hetherington, Unvanquished: Joseph Piłsudski, Resurrected Poland, and the Struggle for Eastern Europe (2012); W. Jędrzejewicz, Piłsudski. A Life for Poland (1982)
  8. David G. Williamson (2011). Poland Betrayed: The Nazi-Soviet Invasions of 1939. Stackpole Books. p. 21.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Walter M. Drzewieniecki,"The Polish Army on the Eve of World War II," Polish Review (1981) 26#3 pp 54–64 in JSTOR
  10. 10.0 10.1 Nikolaus Wolf, "Path dependent border effects: the case of Poland's reunification (1918–1939)", Explorations in Economic History, 42, 2005, pgs. 414–438
  11. Godzina zero. Interview with professor Wojciech Roszkowski, Tygodnik Powszechny, 04.11.2008"Także reformę Grabskiego przeprowadziliśmy sami, kosztem społeczeństwa, choć tym razem zapłacili obywatele z wyższych sfer, głównie posiadacze ziemscy."
  12. 12.0 12.1 Stephen Broadberry, Kevin H. O'Rourke. The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Europe: Volume 2, 1870 to the Present. Cambridge University Press. 2010. pp. 188, 190.
  13. (1929-1930) Angus Maddison. The World Economy Volume 1: A Millennial Perspective Volume 2: Historical Statistics. Academic Foundation. 2007. p. 478. [1]
  14. Atlas Historii Polski, Demart Sp, 2004, ISBN 83-89239-89-2
  15. 70 years of television in Poland, TVP INFO, 26.08.2009
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 Spłata długu po II RP, by Witold Gadomski
  17. Piotr Osęka, Znoje na wybojach. Polityka weekly, July 21, 2011
  18. Urzędowy Rozkład Jazy i Lotów, Lato 1939. Wydawnictwo Ministerstwa Komunikacji, Warszawa 1939
  19. Sprawa reformy rolnej w I Sejmie Âlàskim (1922–1929) by Andrzej Drogon
  20. Godzina zero, interview with Wojciech Roszkowski. 04.11.2008
  21. Białe plamy II RP, interview with professor Andrzej Garlicki, December 5, 2011
  22. Wojna celna (German–Polish customs' war) (Internet Archive), Encyklopedia PWN, Biznes.
  23. Keesing's Contemporary Archives Volume 3, (October 1938) p. 3283.
  24. Norman Davies (2005), God's Playground A History of Poland: Volume II: 1795 to the Present. Oxford University Press, p. 175. ISBN 0199253390.
  25. B. G. Smith. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History: 4 Volume Set. Oxford University Press. 2008 p. 470.
  26. 26.0 26.1 Joseph Marcus, Social and Political History of the Jews in Poland, 1919–1939, Mouton Publishing, 1983, ISBN 90-279-3239-5, Google Books, p. 17
  27. Norman Davies, God's Playground, Columbia University Press, 2005, ISBN 0-231-12819-3, Google Print, p.299
  28. Powszechny Spis Ludnosci r. 1921

Further reading

  • Davies, Norman. God's Playground. A History of Poland. Vol. 2: 1795 to the Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981. pp 393–434
  • Latawaski, Paul. Reconstruction of Poland 1914–23 (1992)
  • Leslie, R. F. et al. The History of Poland since 1863. Cambridge U. Press, 1980. 494 pp.
  • Lukowski, Jerzy and Zawadzki, Hubert. A Concise History of Poland. Cambridge U. Press, 2nd ed 2006. 408pp. excerpts and search
  • Pogonowski, Iwo Cyprian. Poland: A Historical Atlas. Hippocrene, 1987. 321 pp. new designed maps
  • Stachura, Peter D. Poland, 1918–1945: An Interpretive and Documentary History of the Second Republic (2004) online
  • Stachura, Peter D. ed. Poland Between the Wars, 1918–1939 (1998) essays by scholars
  • Watt, Richard M. Bitter Glory: Poland and Its Fate, 1918–1939 (1998) excerpt and text search, comprehensive survey

Politics & diplomacy

  • Cienciala, Anna M. "The Foreign Policy of Józef Pi£sudski and Józef Beck, 1926–1939: Misconceptions and Interpretations," The Polish Review (2011) 56#1 pp.111–151 in JSTOR; earlier version
  • Cienciala, Anna M. Poland the Western Powers, 1938–1939. A Study in the Interdependence of Eastern and Western Europe (1968) online
  • Cienciala, Anna M., and Titus Komarnicki, From Versailles to Locarno, Keys to Polish Foreign Policy, 1919–1925, (Kansas U. Press 1984) online
  • Drzewieniecki, Walter M. "The Polish Army on the Eve of World War II," Polish Review (1981) 26#3 pp 54–64.
  • Garlicki, Andrzej. Józef Piłsudski, 1867–1935 (New York: Scolar Press 1995), scholarly biography; one-vol version of 4 vol Polish edition
  • Hetherington, Peter. Unvanquished: Joseph Pilsudski, Resurrected Poland, and the Struggle for Eastern Europe (2012) 752pp excerpt and text search
  • Jędrzejewicz, W. Piłsudski. A Life for Poland (1982), scholarly biography
  • Polonsky, A. Politics in Independent Poland, 1921–1939: The Crisis of Constitutional Government (1972)
  • Riekhoff, H. von. German-Polish Relations, 1918–1933 (Johns Hopkins University Press 1971)
  • Rothschild, J. Piłsudski's Coup d'État (New York: Columbia University Press 1966)
  • Wandycz, P. S. Polish Diplomacy 1914–1945: Aims and Achievements (1988)
  • Wandycz, P. S. Soviet-Polish Relations, 1917–1921 (Harvard University Press 1969)
  • Wandycz, P. S. The United States and Poland (1980)
  • Zamoyski, Adam. Warsaw 1920: Lenin's Failed Conquest of Europe (2008) excerpt and text search

Social and economic topics

  • Abramsky, C. et al. eds. The Jews in Poland (Oxford: Blackwell 1986)
  • Blanke, R. Orphans of Versailles. The Germans in Western Poland, 1918–1939 (1993)
  • Gutman, Y. et al. eds. The Jews of Poland Between Two World Wars (1989).
  • Landau, Z. and Tomaszewski, J. The Polish Economy in the Twentieth Century (Routledge, 1985)
  • Moklak, Jaroslaw. The Lemko Region in the Second Polish Republic: Political and Interdenominational Issues 1918–1939 (2013); covers Old Rusyns, Moscophiles and National Movement Activists, & the political role of the Greek Catholic and Orthodox Churches
  • Olszewski, A. K. An Outline of Polish Art and Architecture, 1890–1980 (Warsaw: Interpress 1989.)
  • Roszkowski, W. Landowners in Poland, 1918–1939 (Cambridge University Press, 1991)
  • Staniewicz, Witold. "The Agrarian Problem in Poland between the Two World Wars," Slavonic and East European Review (1964) 43#100 pp. 23–33 in JSTOR
  • Taylor, J. J. The Economic Development of Poland, 1919–1950 (Cornell University Press 1952)
  • Wynot, E. D. Warsaw Between the Wars. Profile of the Capital City in a Developing Land, 1918–1939 (1983)
  • Żółtowski, A. Border of Europe. A Study of the Polish Eastern Provinces (London: Hollis & Carter 1950)

Primary sources


  • Kenney, Padraic. “After the Blank Spots Are Filled: Recent Perspectives on Modern Poland,” Journal of Modern History (2007) 79#1 pp 134–61, in JSTOR
  • Polonsky, Antony. "The History of Inter-War Poland Today," Survey (1970) pp143–159.

External links

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