Minority Questions as Complex Objects of Enquiry

On 27-28 February 2020 we organised a workshop on Sovereignty, Nationalism and Homogeneity in Europe between the Two World Wars.

For a day and a half, 18 scholars specialised in different aspects of late 19th and early 20th century European history met at the Graduate Institute Geneva to discuss intergroup relations and, more specifically, minority issues in interwar Europe. The papers presented at the event showcased the complexity of minority questions by using different approaches often emphasising varied aspects of majority-minority relations. While some participants examined majority-minority relations in different European countries from a broad comparative perspective, others looked more closely at specific cases or questioned the appropriateness of using the categories of majority and minority to refer to such groups. Others yet followed minority representatives and other individuals concerned with minority questions across borders and into interwar organisations and networks of activism.

A group picture of the participants taken on the morning of the second day.

The overall result was a rich exchange that highlighted how after Versailles, regardless of whether they lay in the ‘civilised West’ or the still ‘backward East’ (to quote some stereotypical views hegemonic at the time), European states tended to fit the populations living within their borders into neat ethno-cultural categories and, although to different degrees, promoted homogeneity through a wide range of nation-building strategies. Minority representatives and organisations vocally denounced violations of minority rights and fought for better protection of their cultural peculiarities, but, at the same time, often exaggerated the importance of group identity for the wider populations they claimed to speak for and the homogeneity of minorities themselves. At times, ordinary people followed the injunction of minority representatives; sometimes, however, they showed signs of ‘national indifference’ and based their behaviour on considerations and interests not directly linked to their purported national identity—of which in many cases they were not even aware. The rich, and sometimes contradictory, tapestry of perspectives stemming from the different panels highlighted the need for a multi-dimensional approach to interwar intergroup relations; one taking into account different actors, contexts and motivations for action.

Eric Weitz’ lecture on “The Global Struggle for Human Rights in the Age of Nation-States”.

In the evening of the first day, Eric Weitz, Distinguished Professor of History at City College and the Graduate Centre of the City University of New York, broadened the thematic contours of our workshop by presenting his wide-ranging new book, A World Divided: The Global Struggle for Human Rights in the Age of Nation-States. In the talk, Professor Weitz explored the relationship between nation-states, human rights and minority rights in the context of the ’emergence’ of minorities between the late 19th and early 20th century as well as during the process of decolonisation in Africa.

Apart from advocating the ‘multi-dimensional’ approach mentioned above, the workshop also contributed to bridging the East-West divide currently existing in the literature, whereby minority issues are still implicitly considered as a ‘Question of Eastern Europe’ (to quote the title of a famous interwar work on the subject) while the international history of majority-minority conflicts in Western Europe remains in its infancy.

The Myth of Homogeneity Team would like to thank the Swiss National Science Foundation, the Pierre du Bois Foundation, the Graduate Institute and the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy for their kind support as well as all the participants for their insightful contributions.

Below you can listen to the paper given at the workshop by our team members, Emmanuel and Mona, entitled Sovereignty and Homogeneity: A History of Majority-Minority Relations in Interwar Western Europe.

The Pursuit of Polish Homogeneity following World War II

We are proud to publish here the fourth post of our “Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives” series, which looks at majority-minority relations in a multi-disciplinary and diachronic perspective. Today’s contribution, by John Kulczycki (University of Illinois at Chicago), looks at the efforts of post-WW II Poland to homogenize the population of the so-called Recovered Lands in the west of the country. The series is a collaboration with H-Nationalism.

At the Potsdam Conference in 1945, the three Great Powers had the task of demarking Poland’s western border. During the plenary session on 21 July, President Harry Truman decried that the Soviets had already handed over eastern Germany to the Poles.[1] On his insistence, the conference communiqué stated that “the final delimitation of the western frontier of Poland should await the peace settlement.” Yet, a provision approving “the transfer to Germany of German populations” undermined this caveat.[2]

Polish nationalists claimed eastern Germany on historical grounds as part of the Polish kingdom during the tenth to fourteenth centuries.[3] Government officials referred to the territories collectively as the Recovered Lands (Ziemie Odzyskane), an unconscious part of ordinary speech even after the fall of communism.[4] Polish nationalists also claimed the area on ethnic grounds. As the Polish ambassador in Moscow informed his British and American colleagues on 10 July 1945, “Fairly large territories with a preponderating Polish element were not included within the boundaries of Poland in the years 1918-1939.” “[S]he has to return to her primordial lands, and to continue the old political tradition . . . as a national state.”[5] Integration of the Recovered Lands required the “transfer” of Germans, but the retention of “autochthons,” i.e., indigenous German citizens of Polish origin.

Identifying Autochthons

 How to recognize Polish elements who lived under German rule and cultural influence for centuries? Many residents of the Recovered Lands identified primarily with their religion and region and were nationally indifferent or without an irrevocable attachment to a nationality despite the nationalizing efforts of the Nazi regime during the war, when national or ethnic identity could mean the difference between life and death.[6]

 On 19 February 1945 an organization of enthusiasts of westward expansion, the Polish Western Union (Polski Związek Zachodni), advocated “nationality verification” based on a variety of criteria: active participation in the struggle for Polishness and membership in a Polish organization, knowledge of the Polish language and its usage in daily life, and evidence of Polish origin, such as a Polish-sounding surname and Polish family ties and traditions.[7]         

Lacking guidelines from the central government, regional authorities pursued their own approaches.[8] On 22 March 1945 Silesian Governor Aleksander Zawadzki directed officials to protect “Polish souls” by issuing provisional affidavits of Polishness to applicants who “unquestionably belong to the Polish nationality.”[9] These “Polish souls” had to present a document certifying membership in a Polish organization or the testimony of three individuals of unquestioned Polish nationality. A further directive on 7 April 1945 added the use of Polish in the home and in prayer as well as the ability to read and write in Polish and ordered the formation of special commissions of local individuals “of undoubtedly Polish nationality” to decide who should receive Polish citizenship.[10]

In Mazuria, however, Plenipotentiary Jakub Prawin on 24 April 1945 called on Poles of local origin to register for provisional affidavits of membership in the Polish nation.[11] On 26 May 1945 his deputy instructed officials that a lack of documentation of Polish origin, such as a Polish-sounding surname, or an absence of Polish national consciousness, as when applicants declared themselves to be Mazurs, should not prevent certification as members of the Polish nation. Officials could also waive the requirement of a minimal knowledge of Polish in exceptional cases for individuals connected to the Polish nation. Nevertheless, officials were to examine an applicant’s past so as not to protect “foreign elements, enemies of the Polish Nation, or those encumbered with anti-Polish activity.”[12] If approved by a local Polish Nationality Committee, the applicant received a permanent affidavit of Polishness.

Whereas elsewhere the initial directives meant that whoever is not Polish is German, in Mazuria the authorities recognized as Polish all who were not German, requiring little more than a declaration of loyalty. This took into account the region’s unusual character. Mazurs spoke an archaic form of Polish, but unlike most Poles, they were overwhelmingly Protestant. The Nazis classified them as “racial Germans” without a process of individual verification. Indeed, Mazuria was a hotbed of Nazi support. Therefore, Polish activists in Mazuria favored a preemptive collective recognition of Mazurs as Polish citizens instead of individual verification, excluding solely those individuals unquestionably German.[13]

Because of a rigid definition of Polishness as well as the perception of Mazurs as Germans, officials balked at carrying out the directives. On 7 June 1945 Prawin threatened officials with sanctions, admonishing them:

Let the Polish citizen remember that the Kashub, Pomeranian, Warmiak, Mazur—we all, despite these or other religious, political, or social beliefs, are children of one blood of fraternal clans and Polish tribes, and this without regard to whether our closer or more distant compatriots are today conscious of their Polish origin or not. . . . I categorically direct you to register as Poles . . . all individuals identifying themselves as Kashubs, Pomeranians, Warmiaks, Mazurs without demanding of them additional declarations in this regard and to recognize those so registered as Polish citizens.

Revocation of citizenship could only occur after its bestowal: if “it is proven in an administrative and legal way that someone himself consciously of his own criminal instinct acted against Poles and Poland, then of course the Polish citizenship granted him will be withdrawn.”[14]­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­

On 20 June 1945 the Minister of Public Administration, who had jurisdiction over the Recovered Lands, addressed the issue of nationality verification, authorizing governors and plenipotentiaries to issue provisional three-month affidavits of citizenship pending verification to those who inhabited the territory before the war and “belong to the Polish nationality” following a declaration of loyalty. But he did not define the criteria for membership in the Polish nation, except for specifically excluding former members of the Nazi party and “fascist-Nazi criminals.” On 23 June 1945 the director of the Legal Department of the provisional parliament, argued that the criteria should be left to administrative and public security organs, which had the necessary information to separate Poles from Germans, and any regulation should await the peace treaty between Germany and the Allied powers.[15]

Obstacles to Differentiating Germans from Poles

Initially, Governor Zawadzki advocated recognizing only those who “unquestionably belong to the Polish nationality.” By October 1945 he admitted, “No paragraphs and no directives clearly reveal who should be regarded as a Pole and who as a German—in such cases the Polish conscience must decide.”[16] But the officials responsible for verification came mostly from prewar Poland and had no knowledge of conditions under German rule. Furthermore, their competence and integrity frequently declined the lower one went down the administrative hierarchy. Many simply regarded the autochthons as Germans and often targeted for expulsion those with homes and farms that officials could confiscate for themselves or others from prewar Poland. As a result, the mass expulsion from the Recovered Lands that reached its apogee in 1946 included many who qualified for Polish citizenship.

A report on 2 June 1947 of the Department of Inspection of the Ministry of Recovered Lands went to the heart of the matter: “The greatest difficulty in asserting whether a given individual is of Polish origin or not is the lack, or even the impossibility of creating an objective criterion that would differentiate a German from an autochthon.” Furthermore, the decisions concerning verification varied widely. “For some the fact of having a Polish name is enough, and for the authorities to acknowledge the Polishness of others, knowledge of the Polish language and, say, one witness confirming the applicant’s Polish origins is not enough.” “Especially dangerous is the fact that at times individuals already verified are suddenly deprived of their certification of Polish nationality because of a denunciation that the autochthon speaks German at home or has postal contact with Germany and therefore is a German, not a Pole.” Many autochthons “prefer to leave as Germans bearing their Polishness in secret rather than as spurned to whom the right to Polishness was denied and to whom is pinned the mark of treason in the eyes of their fellow Germans.” In addition, “unregulated matters of property” prevent an autochthon deprived of his property from applying for verification: “in practice the greatest number of denunciations is inspired or directed by the current Polish occupants, who in case the autochthon is verified would have to return this property.”[17]

The End of Mass Expulsion

In July 1947 the British refused to accept the last 50,000 Germans that the Poles wanted to expel to the British zone of occupied Germany. In October 1947 the Soviets announced that mass resettlement to their zone would end in November 1947.[18] The imminent halt to mass expulsion focused attention on autochthons who refused to apply for nationality verification. 

In 1947 Silesia, with the largest concentration of autochthons, saw the most vigorous campaign of “re-Polonization,” based on the assumption that autochthons were essentially Polish. Yet, troubling signs of German influence and incomplete re-Polonization persisted. The Ministry of Public Affairs blamed primarily German machinations and falsifications during verification.[19] In the last months of 1947 nationality commissions reversed 1,062 decisions affecting individuals verified as Polish, and 14,650 cases were pending. Contrary to the law, the commissions revoked citizenship without the approval of local officials. The governor, however, saw the expulsion of Germans as more important.[20]

With the end of mass expulsion, the authorities faced the problem of thousands of autochthons not yet verified as Polish. In Olsztyn province, formerly Mazuria, Governor Mieczysław Moczar resorted to repressive measures in the so-called “Great Verification.” On 8 January 1949, he declared, “We desire with all our strength not to lose a single Pole, but we must be very severe in relation to those who are espousing pro-Nazi propaganda,” a reference to those defending Mazurs or resisting verification.[21] The administration mobilized local cadre together with the militia and security forces to target over 20,000 autochthons with various forms of pressure, including physical force.[22] Indeed, on 30 March 1949 the International Committee of the Red Cross informed the Ministry of Public Administration of an increasing number of complaints, mainly from Mazuria, of German citizens forced to request Polish citizenship.[23]

Superficially, Moczar made progress. A report on 1 April 1949 claimed that nearly 19,000 natives were verified in the previous three months.[24] But the use of force and repression strengthened the aversion of Mazurs to Polish officialdom and their existing situation, and they generally continued to identify as Germans.[25]

The Epilogue

Too late for most Mazurs, declarations of regional and national identities became officially possible when the 2011 census allowed inhabitants to indicate one or two national-ethnic identities. No Mazurs identified themselves as such, but 44.4 percent of those who declared a Silesian identity gave it as their sole identity as did 30.4 percent of Germans. Superficially, the postwar nationality policies succeeded: 94.8 percent of Poland’s population declared Polish as its sole identity.[26] This success came in part through the more or less forced departure and alienation of many who could have been loyal citizens contributing to Poland’s reconstruction after the war had these policies and their implementation been different.

John J. Kulczycki is Professor Emeritus in the Department of History of the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he taught East European history and the history of nationalism. His research and publications have focused on Polish-German relations in the 19th and 20th centuries. His most recent publication is Belonging to the Nation: Inclusion and Exclusion in the Polish-German Borderlands, 1939-1951 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), which was awarded “Honorable Mention” as the best book in Polish Studies by the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies in 2017.

The Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspective series is organized by the Myth of Homogeneity Research Project at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva.

Scholars interested in contributing to the series can contact:

Emmanuel Dalle Mulle: emmanuel.dallemulle-at-graduateinstitute.ch

Mona Bieling: mona.bieling-at-graduateinstitute.ch

[1] United States, Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, Diplomatic Papers [hereafter cited as FRUS]: The Conference of Berlin (The Potsdam Conference), 2 vols.(Washington, D.C: United States Government Printing Office, 1960), 2:208-213, 216-221.

[2] Ibid., 357, 480, 1151. The Polish nationalist leader Stanisław Grabski credited Stalin and Molotov with Poland receiving “fully that what we sought,” repr. in Stanisław Kirkor, “Listy Stanisława Grabskiego (1941-1949),” Zeszyty Historyczne 19 (1971): 70.

[3] FRUS, The Conference of Berlin, 1:757-777.

[4] A young Polish historian at the International Congress of Historical Sciences, Montreal, 1995, admitted that he used the term as a matter of habit without being conscious of its political implications.

[5] FRUS, The Conference of Berlin, 1:762, 766.

[6] Recent studies on Central Europe question a natural, progressive nationalization of a people. Most relevant is James E. Bjork, Neither German nor Pole: Catholicism and National Indifference in a Central European Borderland (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2008). Tara Zahra lists other studies, “Imagined Noncommunities: National Indifference as a Category of Analysis,” Slavic Review 69, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 94n2.

[7] Tadeusz Baryła, Warmiacy i Mazurzy w PRL: wbόr dokumentόw: rok 1945 (Olsztyn : Ośrodek Badań Naukowych Im. Wojciecha Ke̜trzyńskiego, 1994), 4-6; Czesław Osękowski, Społeczeństwo Polski zachodniej i północnej w latach 1945-1956: procesy integracji i dezintegracji (Zielona Góra : Wyższa Szkoła Pedagogiczna im. Tadeusza Kotarbińskiego, 1994), 90; Grzegorz Strauchold, Polska ludność rodzima ziem zachodnich i północnych. Opinie nie tylko publiczne lat 1944-1948 (Olsztyn: Ośrodek Badań Naukowych im. Wojciecha Kętrzyńskiego, 1995), 17, 19, 34; Zenon Romanow, “Kształtowanie się polityki władz polskich wobec ludności rodzimej ziem zachodnich i północnych w latach 1945-1946,” unpublished paper [1996?], 1-2.

[8] Grzegorz Strauchold, Autochtoni polscy, niemieccy, czy–od nacjonalizmu do komunizmu (1945-1949) (Toruń : Wydawn. Adam Marszałek, 2001), 37, 45.

[9] Quoted in Romanow, “Kształtowanie się,” 3.

[10] Ibid.; Jan Misztal, Weryfikacja narodowosciowa na Ziemiach Odzyskanych (Warszawa : Panstwowe Wydawn. Nauk., 1990), 192-193, 201; the quote is on 201.

[11] Wojciech Wrzesiński, “Proces zasiedlania województwa olsztyńskiego w latach 1945-1949,” in Problemy rozwoju gospodarczego i demograficznego Ziem Zachodnich w latach 1945-1958, ed. Bohdan Gruchman and Janusz Ziólkowski (Poznań: Instytut Zachodni, 1960),” 177.

[12] Baryła, Warmiacy, 36.

[13] Quoted in Leszek Belzyt, Między Polską a Niemcami: Weryfikacja narodowościowa i jej następstwa na Warmii, Mazurach i Powiślu w latach 1945-1960 (Toruń: Wydawnictwo Adam Marszałek, 1998), 83.

[14] Baryła, Warmiacy, 37-38.

[15] Ibid., 42-44; the quote is on 42.

[16] Quoted in Ingo Eser, “Niemcy na Górnym Śląsku,” in Niemcy, ed. Borodziej and Lemberg, 2 324.

[17] Excerpt, Boćkowski, Niemcy, 403-404.

[18] Włodzimerz Borodziej, “Wstęp: sprawa polska i przemieszczenia ludności w czasie II wojny światowej,” in Niemcy, 1:97-98.

[19] Excerpts, Borodziej and Lemberg, Niemcy, 2:501-503.

[20] Piotr Madajczyk, Przyłączenie Śląska Opolskiego do Polski, 1945-1948 (Warsaw: Instytut Studiów Politycznych  PAN, 1996), 216-217.

[21] Quoted in Belzyt, Między Polską a Niemcami, 163.

[22] Strauchold, Autochtoni, 168; Belzyt, Między Polską a Niemcami, 163-164.

[23] Borodziej and Lemberg, Niemcy, 1:346-347.

[24] Belzyt, Między Polską a Niemcami, 163-168; Claudia Kraft, “Wojewodschaft Allenstein,” in Die Deutschen, ed.Włodzimierz Borodziej and Hans Lemberg, vol. 1, Zentrale Behörden. Wojewodschaft Allenstein, ed. Borodziej and Kraft (Marburg: Verlag Herder-Institut, 2000), 475-476.

[25] Leszek Belzyt, “Zum Verfahren der national Verifikation in den Gebieten des ehemaligen Ostpreussen 1945-1950,” Jahrbuch für die Geschichte Mittel- und Ostdeutschlands 39 (1990): 262; Andzrej Sakson, Mazurzy – społeczność pogranicza (Poznań: Instytut Zachodni, 1990), 128-129.

[26] Główny Urząd Statystyczny, “Przynależność narodowo-etniczna ludności—wyniki spisu ludności i mieszkań 2011,” Materiał na konferencję w dniu 29.01.2013 r., 3, http://www.stat.gov.pl/cps/rde/xbcr/gus/Przynaleznosc_narodowo-etniczna_w_2011_NSP.pdf.

The Jewish Minority in Inter-War Poland

We are proud to publish here the third post of our “Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives” series, which looks at majority-minority relations in a multi-disciplinary and diachronic perspective. Today’s contribution, by Professor Yoav Peled (Tel Aviv University), discusses the difficult situation of the Jewish minority in interwar Poland. The series is a collaboration with H-Nationalism.

Q – “What is Bolshevism?”

A – “A conspiracy by international Jewry against Christian nations.”

Q – “What have the Bolsheviks given the worker?”

A – “The rule of Jewry.”

Q – “What do the communists want from Poland?”

A – “To turn her into a Russian province ruled by Jews appointed by Moscow.”

                            (“A Bolshevik Cathechism,” Gwiazda Poranna, 1921.)

Since its inception in 1918, the Second Polish Republic had to face two daunting tasks: forging a state and a nation out of disparate ethnic elements and solving the country’s acute economic problems. Catholic ethnic Poles made up only 70% of the population of the newly emergent state, with Ukrainians comprising 14%, Jews 10%, and smaller numbers of Byelorussians and Germans making up the rest.[1]

Its 1921 constitution declared Poland to be the state of the Polish nation, with Polish as the sole official language. But it also established a democratic republic, with universal suffrage, a bicameral legislature, and semi-proportional representation. The constitution guaranteed freedom of religion, with the Roman Catholic faith as first among equals. Ethnic minorities were to enjoy equal citizenship rights and the right to organize autonomous institutions, including their own school systems.

Respect for the rights of ethnic minorities was forced upon Poland by the Minorities Treaty it had to sign as part of the Versailles peace agreements. The Allied Powers insisted on this treaty in view of the widespread anti-Jewish pogroms that accompanied the various battles to determine Poland’s eastern borders in 1918-1919 (and again the Polish-Soviet war of 1919-1920), and the treaty included two articles relating specifically to Jews: Article 10 guaranteed autonomous Jewish control over Jewish-language primary schools that were to be set up and paid for by the state, and Article 11 guaranteed that Jews would not be forced to violate their Sabbath, and that no elections would be held on that day. The limitation of Polish sovereignty by the treaty, and the role played by Jewish organizations in bringing it about, were a sore point for Polish nationalists. In response, as long as the right-wing National Democrats (Endecja) were in power, the state dragged its feet in regularizing the citizenship status of non-ethnic Poles, particularly Jews, who resided in territories annexed to Poland from Russia, Germany, and Austria. This delaying tactic ended only in 1930. In 1934, after signing a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, Poland unilaterally abrogated the Minorities Treaty.

Polish politics in the inter-war period fell into three main tendencies: the Endecja, headed by Roman Dmowski; the centrist Sanacja (cleansing), led by Marshal Joseph Piłsudski, the founder of modern Poland; and the Left, centered on the Polish Socialist Party (PPS). The Endecja advocated an aggressive nationalizing policy towards the ethnic minorities, pressuring the Slavic minorities to assimilate and the Jews and the Germans to emigrate, while the Left favored allowing the minorities to develop their own cultures within the Polish nation-state. As for the Jews, the Endecja advocated exclusionary policies, up to and including physical expulsion from the country, while the Left advocated equal protection and uncoerced assimilation.

Piłsudski assumed state power in a coup d’état in 1926. He and his Sanacja successors (Piłsudski died in 1935), who held state power until 1939, gradually came to adopt the aggressive nationalism of the Endecja.  Thus, whether under the Endecja or under the Sanacja, “the Poles were determined to make Poland a homogeneous state in the shortest time possible.”[2]

Of Poland’s ethnic minorities, only the Jews could neither plan to establish their own state on Polish territory nor wish to unite with any foreign country. (Most of them, however, demanded collective rights within the Polish state.) Still, the Jews were viewed by all political tendencies, except the Left, as most threatening, suspected, inter alia, of being Communist agents. This perception placed the Jews, together with the Germans, in the category of inassimilable minorities. However, while assimilation of the Germans into Polish society was seen as unlikely, assimilation of the Jews was seen as undesirable.

The 19th century Polish national movement included two ideological undercurrents with regard to the Jews: an exclusionist, anti-Semitic undercurrent, and an integrationist undercurrent that considered Jews to be part of the Polish nation. The latter view was captured in the slogan of the nineteenth century uprisings against the Romanov Empire, “our freedom and yours.” Moreover, “the most important post-1863 school of Polish social thought … the Warsaw Positivists, condemned and rejected anti-Jewish beliefs, at least until the first decade of the twentieth century.”[3]  

In the inter-war period, the anti-Jewish stance gradually gained the upper hand. One major reason for that was the stunted development of the Polish economy. Dmowski, the most prominent integral Polish nationalist and anti-Semite, set the tone for the public discussion of the national and Jewish questions. In 1934, he wrote: “Even if Jews were morally angels, mentally geniuses, even if they were people of a higher kind than we are, the very fact of their existence among us … is for our society lethal and they have to be got rid of.”[4] To counter this lethal danger, Dmowski called, already in 1912, for an economic boycott against the Jews, and his political program was centered on the need to Polonize the urban economy and induce the Jews to emigrate.

In 1925, Dmowski stated: “The economic and financial crisis is the axis of our present-day politics …”[5] One indication of the crisis was hyper-inflation. The rate of exchange between the Polish mark (in effect until the introduction of the złoty in 1924) and the US dollar was 1:186 in July 1920 and 1:20,000,000 by the end of January 1924.[6] In most areas of industrial and agricultural production the levels of output reached by the end of the inter-war period were lower, in physical terms, than they had been in 1913.[7]

The crux of Poland’s economic problems was in agriculture, which sustained two-thirds of the population. In 1921, 1% of landowners owned close to 50% of Poland’s arable land while almost two-thirds of all farms had less than the minimum required for subsistence – five hectares. In spite of two land reform bills, passed in 1920 and 1925, by 1939 only 15% of the farmland had been reparcelled. The urban economy was not developing nearly fast enough to absorb the surplus rural population, and emigration became increasingly difficult as the inter-war period progressed.

Poland’s economic policies favored agriculture over trade and industry and large farms over small ones. Since Jews held a prominent position in trade and (small) industry, and, in the countryside, depended on the economic fortunes of the peasants, they suffered disproportionately from those policies. Fewer than 6% of the Jews were engaged in agriculture, while in the cities they numbered between one-quarter and two-thirds of the population. In 1921 over 40% of them were engaged in commerce and 34% were engaged in industry, mostly as artisans and handicraft workers. Jews constituted over 60% of all those engaged in trade and commerce, 56% of the medical doctors in private practice, over 40% of the teachers, and one third of the lawyers.[8]

Independent Poland moved quickly to dismiss Jews from their public sector jobs in the formerly Austrian territories, the only areas where Jews had been employed by the state. By 1929, only 1% of central and local government employees were Jews. In 1928, there were only two Jews among the 4,000 workers of the municipal tram system in Warsaw, a city that was 35% Jewish. In addition, Jews were excluded, as employees, suppliers and distributors, from state enterprises, which enjoyed monopoly status in such traditional Jewish industries as tobacco, alcohol, matches and salt. Moreover, unlike their Polish counterparts, few unemployed Jews received any assistance from the state.

In 1919, Sunday was designated by law as a mandatory day of rest for all businesses. This meant that Jews had to either violate their Sabbath or remain idle two days a week, contrary to the spirit, if not the letter, of the Minorities Treaty. Small businesses, which were predominantly in Jewish hands, were discriminated against both by the government’s tax policy (Jews paid between 35% and 40% of Poland’s tax revenue) and by the credit policy of the state-owned banks. These administrative steps were accompanied by a popular economic boycott and occasional bursts of violence against Jewish-owned businesses. Moreover, “ethno-nationalist papers … frequently stressed that ‘eight million Poles are forced to live outside their homeland, while four million Jews occupy Poland’, and that ‘polish peasants, instead of emigrating to foreign countries in search of bread and work, should find such bread and work in towns and cities in their homeland’ [in place of the Jews].”[9]

These measures, however, failed to dislodge the Jews from the urban economy. Between 1921 and 1931, the share of Jews among those active in trade and commerce declined from 62.6% to 52.7%, in industry from 23.5% to 20%, and in public service and the professions from 14% to 13.4%.[10] Jewish petty traders managed to stay competitive throughout the Depression as well, and “apart from a few fanatics, most Polish consumers ignored all other considerations, including pastoral letters instructing them to boycott Jewish traders,” and continued to patronize them.[11]

In 1936, the Sanacja Prime Minister officially endorsed the economic boycott against the Jews, as long as it was carried out without violence. In the same year a bill to outlaw Jewish ritual slaughter (shkhite), modeled after a law initiated by the Nazis in Bavaria in 1930, was introduced in the Sejm. The prohibition of shkhite would have breached the guarantee of the Jews’ religious freedom and undermined their equal status as citizens. For unlike the Sunday rest law, that gave Jews the option to still observe their Sabbath at an economic cost, the shkhite law was intended to forbid them to perform one of the most basic and indispensable rituals of their religion. Incredibly, this issue took up about half of the parliamentary time in the fateful years of 1936-1938, more than any other issue then on the agenda. But the efforts to forbid shkhite were unsuccessful until the German occupation authorities forbade it in October 1939.

In summarizing the dynamics of the Sanacja government (1926-1939) in relation to the Jewish minority, Prof. Jerzy Tomaszewski has concluded that,

The most important changes in the legal status of the Jewish population occurred after the May [1926] coup d’état, when the authoritarian regimes were able to break the resistance of the nationalist right-wing … and purge the local administrative apparatus of its supporters and followers … [However,] at the end of the 1930s the same authoritarian government was able to ignore the democratic opposition and adopt some elements of the nationalist conceptions. Although, before September 1939, Poland avoided the establishment of any openly discriminatory laws, some initiatives born at the beginning of 1939 might well have led in this direction (Tomaszewski 1994:127).[12]

Yoav Peled is Professor Emeritus of political science at Tel Aviv University. He is author of The Challenge of Ethnic Democracy: The State and Minority Groups in Israel, Poland and Northern Ireland (Routledge 2014), co-author, with Horit Herman Peled, of The Religionization of Israeli Society (Routledge 2019), and co-editor, with John Ehrenberg, of Israel and Palestine: Alternative Perspectives on Statehood (Rowman and Littlefield 2016).

The Minorities in Contemporary and Historical Perspective series is organized by the Myth of Homogeneity Research Project at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva. For more information, please visit: https://themythofhomogeneity.org/

Scholars interested in contributing to the series can contact:

Emmanuel Dalle Mulle: emmanuel.dallemulle-at-graduateinstitute.ch

Mona Bieling: mona.bieling-at-graduateinstitute.ch

[1] For detailed references please see my The Challenge of Ethnic Democracy: The State and Minority Groups in Israel, Poland and Northern Ireland, 2014.

[2] Stephan Horak et al., Eastern European National Minorities 1919-1980: A Handbook, 1985.

[3] Joanna Michlic, Poland’s Threatening Other: The Image of the Jew from 1880 to the Present, 2006.

[4] Cited in A. J. Groth, “Dmowski, Piłsudski and Ethnic Conflict in Pre-1939 Poland,” Canadian Slavic Studies 3:69-91, 1969; original emphasis.

[5] Cited in Anthony Polonsky, Politics in Independent Poland, 1921-1939: The Crisis of Constitutional Government, 1972:97.

[6] F. Zweig, Poland Between Two Wars:A Critical Study of Social and Economic Changes, 1944.

[7] Z. Landau and J. Tomaszewski, The Polish Economy in the Twentieth Century, 1985:121.

[8] Mendelsohn, Ezra, The Jews of East Central Europe Between the World Wars, 1983:23-29; R. Mahler, The Jews of Poland Between the Two World Wars: Socio-Economic History in Light of Statistics, 1968 (Hebrew).

[9] Michlic, op. cit:88.

[10] Mahler, op. cit:109, 137, 157.

[11] Joseph Marcus, Social and Political History of the Jews in Poland, 1919-1939, 1983:245.

[12] J. Tomaszewski, “The Civil Rights of Jews in Poland, 1918-1939,” Polin 8, 1994:115-127.