Border on the Olza River
A Town Divided (1920)
When on 28th June 1914 in Sarajevo, on the 14th marriage anniversary of the heir presumptive Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, Gavrilo Princip shot the ducal couple, no one in Cieszyn (a town of 20 000) foresaw that in a few years their river, the Olza, would become a border river.
World War I ended on 11th November 1918 and tired and wounded soldiers returned to their homelands. However, for soldiers from Cieszyn Silesia matters were more complicated.
The Great War, with the partitioning powers opposing each other, opened for the Poles the possibility of regaining their sovereignty. In Cieszyn Silesia the Polish majority counted on returning to the motherland, even though their affiliation with the Austro-Hungarian Empire did not derive from the partitions. At the same time, the Czechs inhabiting the region dreamt of their own national state, which was to include the territory of the former Duchy of Cieszyn. When we take the Germans into account who, especially in urban areas, considered themselves masters and promoters of progress and civilization and saw no reason for leaving Cieszyn Silesian towns, we realize that it was difficult to reach a consensus of all the interested parties.
According to the 1910 census - the last before WW I, Cieszyn had 13,254 (61.5%) inhabitants who spoke German on a daily basis, 6,832 (31.7%) inhabitants who spoke Polish and 1.437 (6.7 %) who spoke Czech, Moravian and Slovak. The survey roughly reflected the ethnic structure of Cieszyn itself. Equally important for the specificity of Cieszyn was its religious makeup. In the above mentioned 1910 census Catholics accounted for 67.3% of the population, Protestants for 23.0% and Jews for 9.4%.
MAP: Polish population spread in the Duchy of Cieszyn, 1919. Prepared by professors Franciszek Popiołek and Tadeusz Golachowski; published by National Council of the Duchy of Cieszyn (Rada Narodowa Księstwa Cieszyńskiego) in 1919 in Cracow. The map presents the results of the last Austrian census supplemented with data on the percentage of Polish inhabitants in individual counties. (Cieszyn Silesia Museum Collection)
In October 1918 the military defeat of the Central Powers and the end of war was more than probable. Each of the interested parties – Poles, Czechs and Germans – had a different vision of the final effects of war operations and tried to actively participate in diplomatic activities aimed at organizing the post-war world. The future of Cieszyn and Cieszyn Silesia was significantly influenced by the Polish-Czech conflict, the origin of which, paradoxically, relates to the signing of an agreement on 5th November 1918. At the signing the Poles were represented by the National Council of the Duchy of Cieszyn (Rada Narodowa Księstwa Cieszyńskiego) and the Czechs by the National Committee for Silesia (Zemský národní výbor pro Slezsko).
The National Council of the Duchy of Cieszyn was a model example of the wisdom of the Poles of that time who, when threatened, were able to forget their differing views and mutual animosities. On October 12, 1918 in the National House (Dom Narodowy), building No. 12 in the Market Square (Rynek) a meeting of political, cultural and social organizations was held. Those present issued a declaration which stated, inter alia, the following: …”as Poles inhabiting Polish land we unconditionally recognize that we and our land are a part of the entire, united and sovereign Poland with an access to the sea,” and later – “Striving for unity and state independence we do not wish to rule over anybody and we will fully support the pursuits of every nation striving for its own statehood; in particular we desire to live in harmony and agreement with the brotherly Czech nation.” When a few days later, on October 16 Emperor Charles I, the successor to Franz Josef I who died in November 1916, issued a manifesto allowing local national groups to exercise self-governance, the Poles in Cieszyn Silesia already had their representation which was constituted on Saturday, October 19, 1918.
The National Council of the Duchy of Cieszyn was de facto an inter-party committee formed by three parties: the Silesian Catholics Alliance (Związek Śląskich Katolików), the Polish National Alliance (Polskie Stowarzyszenie Narodowe) and the Polish Social-Democratic Party of Galicia and Cieszyn Silesia (Polska Partia Socialno-Demokratyczna Galicji i Śląska Cieszyńskiego). The committee consisted of 21 persons and the leaders of the three parties: Rev. Józef Londzin, Dr. Jan Michejda and Tadeusz Reger formed the Presidium of the National Council (Prezydium Rady Narodowej).
On October 30, in Polish Ostrava the Czech community formed its own representation - National Committee for Silesia (Zemský národní výbor pro Slezsko). The interim agreement of 5th November divided Cieszyn Silesia in accordance with ethnographic criteria giving the Poles an area of 1 762 km2 and the Czechs 519 km2. The Polish part of Cieszyn Silesia was inhabited by 207 092 Poles, 63 418 Germans and 16 433 Czechs, and the Czech part by 99 171 Czechs, 26 758 Poles and 13 498 Germans.
Despite the agreement Cieszyn Silesia became a matter of contention for the Poles and the Czechs and even led to an armed conflict over the delimitation. While the Poles based their arguments on national and ethnographic criteria, the Czechs, besides historical concerns, stressed economic and strategic considerations vital to the welfare of their young state. At issue were the coal mines situated around Karvina and the Kosice-Bohumin Railway – a link between Czech provinces and Slovakia.
After Józef Piłsudski became the Chief of State, the new government formed under Jędrzej Moraczewski authorized the National Council of the Duchy of Cieszyn to administer Cieszyn Silesia in its name and set 26th January 1919 as the date for elections to the Legislative Parliament (Sejm). It was then that the Czechs decided on military action. Taking advantage of the difficult situation of Poland, engaged in the east in the war with the Bolsheviks, the 16 000 strong Czech forces under the command of LtCol. Josef Šnejdárek attacked the territory granted to Poland by the 5th November agreement. Poland had at its disposal only 1 500 soldiers and some Militia units. In this situation Col. Franciszek Ksawery Latinik evacuated Polish forces creating a defence line along the Vistula and moved his headquarters to Skoczów. Unimpeded, the Czechs reached the Vistula River. On 28th January near Skoczów fighting erupted between the opposing forces. The three-day battle ended in an armistice. The decision of the Paris Peace Conference ordered the Czechs to withdraw beyond the Olza River, which, in fact, was one of the main objectives of the January aggression. The interim state of affairs, not in accordance with the 5th November agreement, was to be resolved by the above mentioned Paris Peace Conference. Acting in its name the Military Inter-Allied Commission of Control (Międzysojusznicza Komisja Kontrolująca) arrived in Cieszyn on 12th February in order to prepare a report on the situation in Cieszyn Silesia. The Commission’s lack of determination and ineffectiveness brought to Cieszyn representatives of the Warsaw-based Inter-Allied Mission to Poland, who on 25th February succeeded in signing a military agreement setting a line of demarcation between Czech and Polish armies.
The Military Inter-Allied Commission of Control arrived in Cieszyn on 12th February 1919. It was composed of representatives from the United States, Great Britain, Italy, France and Japan. (Cieszyn Silesia Museum Collection)
On September 27 the Supreme Council of the Paris Peace Conference decided that a plebiscite would be held in Cieszyn Silesia and in January of 1920 yet another commission, the Inter-Allied Plebiscite Forces, began work in Cieszyn. Cieszyn Silesia became a territory of ruthless agitation and bloody skirmishes, which – with a pronounced bias of the plebiscite commissioners – did not bid fair for the Poles. In the end the plebiscite was not held and the division of the Cieszyn Silesia was determined at the Spa Conference. The town and the region were arbitrarily divided by its verdict of 28th July 1920. The Olza River marked the boundary between Poland and Czechoslovakia. Counties of Bielsko and Cieszyn up to the Olza River as well as a few districts in the Freistadt County (1009 km2, 43.8% of the area) went to Poland and the rest (1273 km2, 56.2%) to Czechoslovakia.
The Czechs rejoiced but for the Poles the verdict was a bitter disappointment. The partition of Cieszyn was met with disbelief and grief. A member of the National Council of the Duchy of Cieszyn, Zofia Kirkor-Kiedroniowa, noted: “Yes, it was awful… I lay in total prostration for a number of days repeating silently: Karwina, Trzyniec, Frysztad – just as you repeat the names of those dearest who passed away.” The Polish Sejm never ratified the decision of the Conference of Ambassadors.
The Polish part of Cieszyn with an area of 4.4 km2 had a population of 14 000. An over 30% proportion of Germans, enterprising and wealthy, strengthened the economic potential of the town, but its division was met with general dissatisfaction by Poles, Czechs and Germans. Numerous and long-lasting protests did not change the decision of the European coalition.
After centuries of growth, especially intense in the 19th and 20th century, the effectively functioning organism of the town was bisected, which posed a great problem for both the Poles and Czechs.
Map of Cieszyn and Český Těšín 1930. (Cieszyn Silesia Museum Collection)
Once the historic and economic capital of the Duchy of Cieszyn, Cieszyn turned into a borderland town of minor importance divided, moreover, by the Olza River. The town’s serious problem was the absence of the railway station, which was an important communication junction. Its function, to a limited extent, was taken over by the train station Teschen-Boberthal / Cieszyn Bobrówka (since 1925 Cieszyn). After operating for ten years, the tramway, which connected the barracks’ precincts with the railway station during the Austro-Hungarian reign, closed down. Throughout the interwar period the construction of a passenger and freight train station was under consideration. The project was dropped after Poland annexed Zaolzie (lands beyond the Olza River). The difficult transportation problem was partially solved by bus services. In 1927 the company of Molin and Wellner was granted a concession for bus transport connecting Cieszyn with Ustroń, Wisła and Pruchna, and in 1929-1930 with Skoczów, Bielsko and Istebna. The search for water intakes and the construction of a water distribution system was completed only in 1937, when on 15th May Cieszyn received its water from the intake in Pogórze.
The Cieszyn electric power plant came into being in 1910 – an essential element of the town’s dynamic development. The electricity generated by the plant was used, inter alia, to power Cieszyn streetcars. After the division, until 1926, the plant also supplied electricity to Český Těšín. From 1927 it was licensed to build low and high voltage electric grids in all districts of the Cieszyn County. Further growth of the plant at that time was related to the planned electrification of Cieszyn County and subsequently districts of Pszczyna and Rybnik counties.
Intense growth-promoting efforts of the town authorities, such as tax abatements, resulted in the emergence of several factories and service centres necessary for the functioning of the town. Among them were: the distillery “Śląskie Zakłady Spirytusowe”, the wafer factory “Olza”, the knitworks “Lewiński i syn”, the Brown-Boveri firm and its successor Rohr-Zieliński, liquor, watch and flatiron factories. One of the first was the “Dea” chocolate factory founded by Marek Pipes and Michał Śliwka. The first was the father of Richard Pipes, a Cieszyn-born politician and historian specializing in the Soviet era, who in 1994 became an Honorary Citizen of Cieszyn. From the moment of the partition, prevention of town’s deterioration, creation of new workplaces and development of transport were the main concerns of the municipal authorities. The town owed its growth and relative stability during the years of the crisis to the wisdom of such mayors as Jan Michejda (1922-27), Józef Londzin (1927-29), Władysław Michejda (1929-37) and Rudolf Halfar (1937-39).
The Czech part of the town, the boroughs of Saska Kępa, Kamieniec and Brandys, an area of 2.26 km2 was inhabited by 8 000 people (42% Germans, 30.6% Czechs and Slovaks, 10.4% Jews, 6.5% Poles and 0.2% others according to the 1921 Czech census). The Czech authorities made every effort for the newly created Český Těšín to become a modern and functional town. By 1938 a new impressive Town Hall in the Market Square, the County Office building, a bank and a few schools were built. The town also needed a new Lutheran church, a hospital and communal and Jewish cemeteries. Until these were built the facilities in the Polish part of town were used. Apartment blocks sprang up in the center and one-family houses on the outskirts of town. The Polish minority (526 persons in accordance to the Czech census of 1921) gained a Polish primary school, a gymnasium and the building of a Provident Society (Towarzystwo Oszczędności i Zaliczek) with the hotel “Polonia”. All these changes took place while Józef Kożdoń, the former leader of the Silesian People’s Party (Śląska Partia Ludowa) interruptedly held the office of the mayor.
New Town Hall in Český Těšín (Cieszyn Silesia Museum Collection)
From 1934 the foreign policy of the Second Republic of Poland was marked by a firmer course in the matter of Zaolzie. The radicalization of attitudes within Polish communities manifested itself in the activities of the Polish independence organizations calling for revision of the borders and in the appearance of fighting squads. Such sentiments and activities, intensified by the decisions of the Munich Agreement, resulted in an ultimatum Poland gave to Prague in September of 1938 concerning the transfer of Zaolzie to Poland. On 1st October the Czechs agreed to conditions laid by Warsaw.
Makeshift sentry boxes for border guard appeared on the Main Bridge (Most Główny) after the division of the town. (Cieszyn Silesia Museum Collection)
Similar objects appeared on the Jubilee Bridge (Most Jubileuszowy) (Cieszyn Silesia Museum Collection)
Dzieje Cieszyna od pradziejów do czasów współczesnych (History of Cieszyn from Ancient till Present Times), ed. I. Panic, vol. III, Cieszyn 2010.
Śląsk Cieszyński: Granice, przynależność, tożsamość (Cieszyn Silesia: Borders, Nationality, Identity), Muzeum Śląska Cieszyńskiego (Cieszyn Silesia Museum), Cieszyn 2008.
K. Kamiński Konflikt polsko-czeski 1918-1921 (Polish-Czech Conflict 1918-1921), Instytut Historii PAN, Warsaw 2004.
Zofia Kirkor-Kiedroniowa, Wspomnienia (Memories), vol. II, Ziemia mojego męża (The Land of my Husband), WL, Cracow 1986.