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 Battle for the Italianisation of Space

The Italian assimilation of South Tyrol did not only mean the transformation (or for the fascist regime rather the ‘redemption’) of the local German-speaking population into ‘true’ Italians, but also the Italianisation of the space. It thus comes with little surprise that, as shown in the public announcement pictured below, one of the first measures undertaken by the fascists consisted in prohibiting the use of the German terms Süd-Tirol, Deutschsüdtirol, Tirol, Tiroler and equivalent. The Italian appellation Alto Adige (Upper Adige, from the name of the river crossing it) was imposed instead. The main issue was not so much the language used to name the region, since, albeit only as a ‘temporary’ measure and for reasons of ‘tolerance’, the German equivalent of Alto Adige, Oberetsch,was allowed. It was rather a matter of perspective.

The imposition of the term “Alto Adige”, the temporary tolerance of the terms “Oberetsch” and “Etschländer” as well as the prohibition of the use of the names “Süd-Tirol”, “Deutschsüdtirol”, “Tirol” and “Tiroler” are highlighted in red. The document is held in Archivio Storico Diplomatico, Affari generali 1919-31, Austria, Box 835.

Imposing the name of Alto Adige meant enforcing the Italian view of the province as inherently Italian, since it visually stressed the stretching of Italian territory from South to North along the river Adige and therefore emphasised the continuity of Italian ownership of the land. At the same time, forbidding the use of the name Süd-Tirol aimed at severing any link between North and South Tyrol, thus erasing by fiat several centuries of common history of the two areas on each sides of the Alps.

The measure was consistent with fascist thinking about the region. South Tyrol was considered as being historically Italian. The German-speaking population inhabiting it was the result of the ‘wicked’ Germanisation policies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Hence, German-speakers had to be brought back to their Italianness, restored to their original ethnic state. As Mussolini asserted in a speech in Parliament in May 1927:

up there [in South Tyrol] there is a minority of Italians who speak a German dialect as their language of use, and they have been speaking it only for a century…we have established the province of Bolzano in order to more quickly Italianise that region. No other policy can be adopted. This does not mean that we have to oppress the inhabitants of Alto Adige, whom we consider as Italian citizens who must rediscover themselves’.

Mussolini, B. (1963). Opera omnia: 27 maggio 1927 – 11 febbraio 1929. 23: Dal discorso dell’Ascensione agli Accordi del Laterano (2a ristampa). Firenze: La Fenice.
Above in red are the total number of hectares (8,933) and farmsteads (325) acquired by the Ente per le Tre Venezie. These were later attributed to 245 families (also in red). The document is to be found in Archivio Centrale dello Stato (ACS), PCM, Gabinetto, 1940-43, Ente Tre Venezie, CMCI, Box 2940, folder 3-1-1.

The Italianisation of the space also meant the conquest of the land. Although they were reluctant to admit it in public, in the early 1930s, fascist authorities began doubting the effectiveness of their assimilative policies, until then mainly pursued through educational policies. The transfer of land from owners of different ethnic origin (called allogeni in Italian) to ethnic-Italians therefore became, at least on paper, a government priority. To this effect, in August 1931, the government founded the Ente di Rinascita Agraria delle Tre Venezie, a body in charge of purchasing land from non-Italian-speaking owners to resell it to ‘true’ Italians. Yet, land acquisition was not very successful. A note to the Duce of October 1938, pictured below, summarised the results of the Ente’s work up to that date in 8,933 hectares of land, transferred to 245 families. That accounted for only 0.6% of the productive agricultural surface of the new provinces. As a comparison, by the end of the 1930s, the redemption of the Agro Pontino in Lazio, the main land redemption project managed by the CMCI, created 2,953 farmhouses and 64,666 hectares of farm parcels.

As shown in the text highlighted in red, the ONC’s Director in charge of the Castel Di Nova-Merano firm asked the management in Rome whether they could ‘look for a local family of allogeni‘ or whether the family to which the farm would be allocated had to come from the old provinces. The document is located in ACS, ONC, Servizio Agrario, Alto Adige, coloni, Box 10, coloni, disdette coloniche 

The Italian authorities had a hard time competing with local landowners and buyers, who were often supported by foreign German capitals. Furthermore, South Tyrolean farms were more capital-intensive than those elsewhere in Italy. Therefore, not only were they more expensive than the Italian average, but they also required specific skills that were hard to find in the old provinces. In addition, some of them were high-mountain farms that provided low margins and required being accustomed to the very harsh environmental conditions. Hence, it was not always easy to find settlers willing to run those farms, so much so that (as shown in the document below), in July 1938, the Bolzano branch of the Opera Nazionale Combattenti (ONC, a fascist organisation of former combatants that was running some farms in the area) asked the leadership in Rome whether they could give one of their high-mountain holdings to a family of non-Italian ethnic origins, which ran totally counter to the goals of the ONC’s farming scheme. Predictably, the answer was negative. The request is one of the many examples showing how the fascist assumption whereby the minorities in the new provinces will be easily assimilated was simply mistaken.