Happy Polish Independence Day! 98 years ago, Poland transformed from a repressed, war-torn territory into a proud and unified nation. But Poland’s independence on November 11, 1918 was just part of a larger story.
On that same day, World War I officially ended when an armistice was signed between the allied and central powers. As the guns quieted down across Europe, the celebratory cries of millions of newly-liberated people rang out.
The age of empires was dead. Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia crumbled into ruin, allowing the people whose voices and cultures they had suppressed for centuries to rise to new life. These people included the Czechs, Yugoslavians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, and Poles.
Poland has more often than not been on the right side of history. In the middle ages, while Jews and other minorities were being banished, tortured and killed by other countries, Poland accepted them, granting them the human rights that all people deserve.
In 1791, when most of Europe was still dominated by kings, Poland signed the second democratic constitution in history (after the United States). The constitution guaranteed greater liberty and equality for all people within the Polish lands. Sadly, just a few years later, Poland was conquered and divided up between the empires of Europe.
When it gained independence in 1918, Poland was, again, on the right side of history. It served as a living example of a people’s natural right to be free in their own country, what Woodrow Wilson called “national self-determination.”
Despite this impressive record, Poland is often known for its inability to stay independent. Indeed, just 21 years after gaining independence in 1918, it lost it when the Nazis invaded. After World War II, it continued to suffer repression by the Soviet Union. For decades, it was trapped behind the communist “iron curtain,” until regaining freedom in 1989. Even now, an increasingly aggressive Russia has Poland once again fearing for its future.
So why is the 1918 independence day particularly important for Poles? Why choose to celebrate something that was so temporary and seemingly meaningless when we look at Poland’s history in the 20th century?
I suppose the technical explanation is that 1918 was the first time that the modern Polish nation was formed. In the past, it had been a kingdom. In the future, it would continue to be a nation, but in a different form.
More importantly, though, it’s an example of how Poles are among the most determined group of people on earth, unwilling to give up even when the sky is collapsing around them. There was no guarantee that the new Poland formed in 1918 would last. The fact that independence had been gained at all after over a hundred years was a miracle, and the future didn’t necessarily look promising.
Still, Poland survived. It didn’t matter what might happen . The main thing was to focus on the here and now. Do your best with what you have, and never EVER give up. Sounds cliché, but it describes the entire Polish experience. No matter how many times it gets knocked down—by the Mongols, the Swedes, the Soviets, the Nazis, etc.—it ALWAYS gets back up to try again. That’s a lesson everyone can learn from Polish independence.
I’m an American. I was born in America, and my primary loyalties are to the red, white and blue. For me, independence day is July 4. But, deep inside me, on a day like today, I feel a proud connection to my Polish ancestors who fought and died for an idea that was Poland. A drum beats in my heart and those famous words from the Polish national anthem echo in my soul: Poland is not yet lost.