This stamp is amongst the first of independent Poland in 1918. It is an Austro-Hungarian stamp overprinted for the new government. Emperor Karl’s face is obliterated by a Polish eagle, which saddens me. Karl, who succeeded to the Austro-Hungarian throne in November 1916, was a sincerely religious man who was appalled by the slaughter of the First World War. Alas, his efforts to bring peace were frustrated: largely by the leaders of Britain and France. Democratic politicians felt a far greater need than the leaders of autocracies to gain popular support for the war, and hence promulgated more lies, and more outrageous lies. Without admitting that they had whipped up hate with their lies since 1914, British and French politicians could not enter peace negotiations. So, to save their wretched skins, they led Europe into the world that would produce Hitler and Stalin.
As it was, the Armistice of November 1918 brought a twenty year peace for France and Britain (as long as we do not include Ireland as part of Britain). But, for years after 1918, terrible conflicts consumed Central and Eastern Europe, Russia as far as the Pacific coast and the Middle East. There was a civil war in Finland, terrible deeds in the Baltic region, the Russian Civil War in which millions died, the Russo-Polish War, the war between Greece and Turkey (marked by much slaughter of civilians and genocide against the Armenians), nor is that the limit of the bloodshed. Eventually, from these dreadful deeds, sprang the Second World War and, indeed, the continuing slaughter in the Middle East. Emperor Karl’s peace, had it been given a chance, would certainly not have been perfect – but it would surely have been better than the bloody history that actually ensued.
To shift back in time, and return to Poland, this banknote was issued during the 1794 Polish insurrection.
During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Poland was a large and powerful kingdom. It included, and extended beyond, Kiev and Minsk which are, in the twenty-first century, the capitals of the Ukraine and Belarus. From 1573 onwards, the Polish kings were elected. That, of course, doesn’t mean that the common folk of Poland had any part in voting for them. Rather, the kings were chosen by the nobility. With the passage of time, the Polish aristocrats grew more powerful at the expense of the king. By the eighteenth century, the kings – and hence their kingdom – had grown weak and ineffectual. It was ill luck for Poland that, during this century of weakness, two neighboring countries were ruled by monarchs dubbed the Great. Rulers do not attain that distinction by nurturing rival states. Frederick the Great ruled Prussia from 1740 to 1786. Catherine the Great was Russian Empress from 1762 to 1796. The first partition of Poland, in August 1772, was instigated by Frederick the Great. One third of Poland was divided between Prussia, Russia and Austria. The second partition was made in January 1793: mostly to the advantage of Catherine’s Russia; Austria received no additional territory. In response, there followed a Polish insurrection in March 1794, under the leadership of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who had fought in the American War of Independence as a Colonel of Engineers. His army defeated the Russians at Raclawice on April 3rd, but was broken outside Warsaw in the autumn. There followed the third partition of Poland in October 1795, dividing the entire country between Prussia, Russia and Austria. Thereafter, Napoleon set up a Grand Duchy of Warsaw in 1807, very much smaller than the pre-partition Poland, and with no coastline. In 1814, the victorious Russian army abolished the Grand Duchy and, in 1815, the Congress of Vienna established the fourth partition. Again, there was no independent Poland. Now, the Russian portion was larger than before – including Warsaw, which had been a Prussian city under the third partition. During the nineteenth century, Prussia became the core of Germany and Austria developed into Austria-Hungary, but the 1815 partition endured until Germany and Russia went to war in 1914. An independent Poland was not reestablished until 1918. There ensued the Russo-Polish War, and it was not until several years later that Poland enjoyed a semblance of peace. In 1939, the Polish Republic was partitioned again: the Germans invading from the west and then the USSR from the east.
The modern Polish Gdansk, then known as Danzig, was annexed by Prussia in 1793 and remained German until 1919. Until 1945, most of the population was both ethnically and linguistically German. In order to give Poland an outlet to the sea, Danzig was constituted as a Free City under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. It was an internally independent state, although Poland was given charge of foreign policy, commerce and customs. From 1933 to 1939, the Danzig Senate was Nazi controlled. On 1st September 1939, Dr Albert Forster, the local Nazi leader, proclaimed the union of Danzig with Germany, precipitating war between Germany and Poland – and, in effect, the Second World War. The Red Army took Danzig in March 1945, and handed the city to Poland in May of that year. The Poles expelled the majority German population amid the under-publicised cruelties which attended the end of the Second World War in Europe. Little, in this (or perhaps any other) history, is unambiguously good.