Suvarna Garge (Editor)

Upper Silesia plebiscite

Updated on
Share on FacebookTweet on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Reddit
Start date
March 1921

Upper Silesia

Upper Silesia plebiscite httpsuploadwikimediaorgwikipediacommonsthu

The Upper Silesia plebiscite was a plebiscite mandated by the Versailles Treaty and carried out on 20 March 1921 to determine a section of the border between Weimar Germany and Poland. The region was ethnically mixed with both Germans and Poles; according to prewar statistics, ethnic Poles formed 60 percent of the population. Under the previous rule by the German Empire, the Poles had faced discrimination and racism, making them effectively second class citizens. The period of the plebiscite campaign and interallied occupation was marked by violence. There were two Polish uprisings, and German volunteer paramilitary units came to the region as well.


The area was policed by French, British, and Italian troops, and overseen by an Interallied Commission. The Allies planned on a partition the region, but a Polish uprising took control of over half the area. The Germans responded with volunteer paramilitary units from all over Germany, which fought the Polish units. In the end, after renewed Allied military intervention, the final position of the opposing forces became, roughly, the new border. The decision was handed over to the League of Nations, which confirmed this border, and Poland received roughly one third of the plebiscite zone by area, including the greater part of the industrial region.

Ethnolinguistic structure before the plebiscite

The earliest exact census figures on ethnolinguistic or national structure (Nationalverschiedenheit) of the Prussian part of Upper Silesia, come from year 1819. The last pre-World War I general census figures available, are from 1910 (if not including the 1911 census of school children - Sprachzählung unter den Schulkindern - which revealed a higher percent of Polish-speakers among school children than the 1910 census among the general populace). Figures (Table 1.) show that large demographic changes took place between 1819 and 1910, with the region's total population quadrupling, the percent of German-speakers increasing significantly, and that of Polish-speakers declining considerably. Also the total land area in which Polish language was spoken, as well as the land area in which it was spoken by the majority, declined between 1790 and 1890.

The plebiscite

The Paris Peace Conference at the end of World War I placed some formerly German territory in neighboring countries, some of which had not existed at the beginning of the war. In the case of the new Polish state, the Treaty of Versailles established some 54,000 square kilometers of formerly German territory as part of newly independent Poland. Many of these areas were ethnically mixed. In three of these ethnically mixed areas on the new German-Polish border, however, the Allied leaders provided for border plebiscites or referenda. The areas would be occupied by Allied forces and governed in some degree by Allied commissions. The most significant of these plebiscites was the one in Upper Silesia, since the region was a principal industrial center. The most important economic asset was the enormous coal-mining industry and its ancillary businesses, but the area yielded iron, zinc, and lead as well. The "Industrial Triangle" on the eastern side of the plebiscite zone—between the cities of Beuthen (Bytom), Kattowitz (Katowice), and Gleiwitz (Gliwice) was the heart of this large industrial complex. The Upper Silesia plebiscite was therefore a plebiscite for self-determination of Upper Silesia required by the Treaty of Versailles. Both Germany and Poland valued this region not only for reasons of national feeling, but for its economic importance as well.

The area was occupied by British, French, and Italian forces, and an Interallied Committee headed by a French general, Henri Le Rond. The plebiscite was set for 20 March 1921. Both Poles and Germans were allowed to organize campaigns. Each side developed secret paramilitary forces—both financed from the opposing capitals, Warsaw and Berlin. The major figure of the campaign was Wojciech Korfanty, a pro-Polish politician.

The Poles carried out two uprisings during the campaign, in August 1919 and August 1920. The Allies restored order in each case, but the Polish insurrectionists clashed with German "volunteers," the Freikorps.

A feature of the plebiscite campaign was the growing prominence of a strong autonomist movement, the most visible branch of which was the Bund der Oberschlesier/Związek Górnoślązaków. This organization attempted to gain promises of autonomy from both states and possible future independence for Upper Silesia.

There were 1,186,758 votes cast in an area inhabited by 2,073,663 people. It resulted in 717,122 votes being cast for Germany and 483,514 for Poland. The towns and most of the villages in the plebiscite territory gave German majorities. However, the districts of Pless (Pszczyna) and Rybnik in the southeast, as well as Tarnowitz (Tarnowskie Góry) in the east and Tost-Gleiwitz (Gliwice) in the interior showed considerable Polish majorities, while in Lublinitz (Lubliniec) and Groß Strehlitz (Strzelce Opolskie) the votes cast on either side were practically equal. All the districts of the industrial zone in a narrower sense - Beuthen (Bytom), Hindenburg (Zabrze), Kattowitz (Katowice), and Königshütte (Chorzów) - had slight German majorities, though in Beuthen and Kattowitz this was due entirely to the town vote (four fifth in Kattowitz compared to an overall 60%). Many country communes of Upper Silesia had given Polish majorities. Overall, however, the Germans won the vote by a measure of 59,4% to 40,6%. This meant that a large percentage of persons of Polish heritage or ethnicity voted for Germany. The Interallied Commission deliberated, but the British proposed a more easterly border than the French, which would have given much less of the Industrial Triangle to Poland.

In late April 1921, when pro-Polish forces began to fear that the region would be partitioned according to the British plan, elements on the Polish side announced a popular uprising. Korfanty was the leading figure of the uprising, but he had much support in Upper Silesia as well as support from the Polish government in Warsaw. Korfanty called for a popular armed uprising whose aim was to maximize the territory Poland would receive in the partition. German volunteers rushed to meet this uprising, and fighting on a large scale took place in the late spring and early summer of 1921. Germanophone spokesmen and German officials complained that the French units of the Upper Silesian army of occupation were favoring the insurrection by refusing to put down their violent activities or restore order.

Twelve days after the start of the uprising, Wojciech Korfanty offered to take his Upper Silesian forces behind a line of demarcation, on condition that the released territory would not be occupied by German forces, but by Allied troops. On July 1, 1921, British troops returned to Upper Silesia to help French forces occupy this area. Simultaneously with these events, the Interallied Commission pronounced a general amnesty for the illegal actions committed during the recent violence, with the exception of acts of revenge and cruelty. The German defense force was finally withdrawn.

Because the Allied Supreme Council was unable to come to an agreement on the partition of the Upper Silesian territory on the basis of the confusing plebiscite results, a solution was found by turning the question over to the Council of the League of Nations. Agreements between the Germans and Poles in Upper Silesia and appeals issued by both sides, as well as the dispatch of six battalions of Allied troops and the disbandment of the local guards, contributed markedly to the pacification of the district. On the basis of the reports of a League commission and those of its experts, the Council awarded the greater part of the Upper Silesian industrial district to Poland. Poland obtained almost exactly half of the 1,950,000 inhabitants, viz., 965,000, but not quite a third of the territory, i.e., only 3,214.26 km² (1,255 mi²) out of 10,950.89 km² (4,265 mi²) but more than 80% of the heavy industry of the region.

The German and Polish governments, under a League of Nations recommendation, agreed to enforce protections of minority interests that would last for 15 years. Special measures were threatened in case either of the two states should refuse to participate in the drawing up of such regulations, or to accept them subsequently. In the event, the German minority remaining on the Polish side of the border suffered considerable discrimination in the subsequent decades.

The Polish Government, convinced by the economic and political power of the region and by the autonomist movement of the plebiscite campaign, decided to give Upper Silesia considerable autonomy with a Silesian Parliament as a constituency and the Silesian Voivodship Council as the executive body. On the German side the new Prussian province of Upper Silesia (Oberschlesien) with regional government in Oppeln was formed, likewise with special autonomy.


According to Article 88 of the Treaty of Versailles all inhabitants of the plebiscite district older than 20 years of age and those who had "been expelled by the German authorities and have not retained their domicile there" were entitled to return to vote. This stipulation of the Treaty of Versailles allowed the participation of thousands of Upper Silesian migrant workers from western Germany (Ruhrpolen). Hugo Service regards the transport of these eligible voters to Silesia, organized by German authorities, "a cynical act aimed at boosting the German vote", in his opinion it was one of the reasons for the overall result. As Service writes, despite the fact that almost 60% of Upper Silesians voted for their region to remain part of Germany it would be dubious to claim that most of them were ethnically German or regarded themselves as Germans. Voting for Germany in the 1921 vote and regarding oneself as German were two different things. People had diverse, often very pragmatic reasons for voting for Germany, which usually had little to do with a person regarding him or herself as having a German ethnonational identity.

Settlements which voted to secede for Poland

In the 1921 plebiscite 40.6% of eligible voters (people over 20 years old - a high minimum age that favoured the German-speaking part of the population, whose median age was greater than that of Polish-speakers in Upper Silesia, according to censuses of 1900-1910) decided to secede from Germany and become Polish citizens.

In total over seven hundred towns and villages voted in majority to secede from Germany and become part of Poland, especially in the counties of Pszczyna, Rybnik, Tarnowskie Góry, Toszek-Gliwice, Strzelce Opolskie, Bytom, Katowice, Lubliniec, Zabrze, Racibórz, Olesno, Koźle and Opole.

Hlučín region

The Hlučín Region, the southern part of Ratibor district shown in lilac in the map, had a Czech-speaking majority. On February 4, 1920 it had been handed over without a referendum to Czechoslovakia, according to Article 83 of the Treaty of Versailles. It was not involved in the plebiscite.


Upper Silesia plebiscite Wikipedia

Similar Topics