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Map of the plebiscite areas
Pink = Germany
Green = Poland
Lilac = Czechoslovakia (including, without plebiscite, Hlučín)
Pale green = to Poland following plebiscite
Orange = remaining in Germany following plebiscite

The Upper Silesia plebiscite was a border referendum mandated by the Versailles Treaty and carried out in March 1921 to determine a section of the border between Weimar Germany and Poland. The region was ethnically mixed, chiefly among Germans and Poles. According to prewar statistics, ethnic Poles formed 60 percent of the population.[1] 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. But the area was policed by French, British, and Italian troops, and overseen by an Interallied Commission, and the vote came off peacefully. The Allies decided to partition the region, but before they could divide it, local partisans of Poland and forces from Poland launched an uprising and 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.

The plebiscite

A bilingual Polish Propaganda poster: Vote for Poland and you will be free...

...and a competing bilingual German Propaganda poster: We want good work and good money. We miners vote for Germany.

The Paris Peace Settlement at the end of World War I placed much 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 detached some 54,000 square kilometers of territory which had formerly been part of the German Empire in order to revive the state of Poland which had disappeared as a result of the Third Partition of Poland in 1795. Many of these areas were ethnically mixed, including a considerable number of ethnic Germans. 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, governed in some degree by Allied commissions, and made safe for a fair vote. The most discussed of these three plebiscites in the German East was the one in Upper Silesia, since the region was one of Germany's principal industrial centers. 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 then called Beuthen, Kattowitz, and Gleiwitz—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. Eventually, the plebiscite was set for 20 March 1921. Both the Poles and the Germans were allowed to organize campaign organizations. Both sides engaged also in widespread material support as a sign of the good will of the one side or the other. Hence, Polish money helped set up banks which loaned Polish farmers money on easy terms; the German government favored the region with shipments of food and other needed supplies. Each side developed secret paramilitary forces—both financed from the opposing metropoles, Warsaw or Berlin. The outstanding figure of the campaign was, in many ways, Wojciech Korfanty, a Polish politician of the national democratic direction. Korfanty was adept at carrying out an exciting political campaign, based on a populist program consisting of Polish nationalism and cultural Roman Catholicism. The Polish side carried out two uprisings during the campaign, in August 1919 and August 1920. In the heavily Polish areas of the "Industrial Triangle" in particular, ethnic Germans were threatened, driven out, and in some cases killed. The Allies restored order in each case, but eventually these uprisings drew German "volunteers," the notorious Freikorps groups, who thrived on the violent atmosphere, though there is evidence that their post facto accounts may have been exaggerated.[2]

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.[3] There were 1,186,758 votes cast in an area inhabited by 2,073,663 persons.[4] 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%).[5] Many country communes of Upper Silesia had given Polish majorities. Overall, however, the Germans won the vote by a measure of 60% to 40%. 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.

A crowd awaits the plebiscite results in Oppeln (Opole)

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.[6]

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.[7]

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.


County population (1919) registered voters turnout votes for Germany % votes for Poland %
Beuthen (Bytom), town 71,187 42,990 39,991 29,890 74.7% 10,101 25.3%
Beuthen (Bytom) -Tarnowitz (Tarnowskie Góry), district 213,790 109,749 106,698 43,677 40.9% 63,021 59.1%
Cosel (Koźle), district 79,973 51,364 50,100 37,651 75.2% 12,449 24.8%
Gleiwitz (Gliwice) 69,028 41,949 40,587 32,029 78.9% 8,558 21.1%
Strzelce 76,502 46,528 45,461 22,415 49.3% 23,046 50.7%
Hindenburg (Zabrze), district 167,632 90,793 88,480 45,219 51.1% 43,261 48.9%
town 45,422 28,531 26,674 22,774 85.4% 3,900 14.6%
Kattowitz (Katowice), (district) 227,657 122,342 119,011 52,892 44.4% 66,119 55.6%
Königshütte (Chorzów), district 74,811 44,052 42,628 31,864 74.7% 10,764 25.3%
Kreuzburg (Kluczbork), district 52,558 40,602 39,627 37,975 95.8% 1,652 4.2%
Leobschütz (Głubczyce), district 78,247 66,697 65,387 65,128 99.6% 259 0.4%
Lublinitz (Lubliniec), district 55,380 29,991 29,132 15,453 53.0% 13,679 47.0%
Namslau (Namysłów), district 5,659 5,606 5,481 5,348 97.6% 133 2.4%
Neustadt (Prudnik), district 51,287 36,941 36,093 31,825 88.2% 4,268 11.8%
Oppeln (Opole), town 35,483 22,930 21,914 20,816 95.0% 1,098 5.0%
Opole 123,165 82,715 80,896 56,170 69.4% 24,726 30.6%
Pleß (Pszczyna), Pszczyna 141,828 73,923 72,053 18,675 25.9% 53,378 74.1%
Ratibor (Racibórz), town 36,994 25,336 24,518 22,291 90.9% 2,227 9.1%
Ratibor (Racibórz), district 78,238 45,900 44,867 26,349 58.7% 18,518 41.3%
Rosenberg (Olesno), Olesno 54,962 35,976 35,007 23,857 68.1% 11,150 31.9%
RybnikPszczyna, district 160,836 82,350 80,266 27,919 34.8% 52,347 65.2%
Tarnowitz (Tarnowskie Góry), district 86,563 45,561 44,591 17,078 38.3% 27,513 61.7%
Tost-Gleiwitz (Gliwice), district 86,461 48,153 47,296 20,098 42.5% 27,198 57.5%
total 2,073,663 1,220,979 1,186,758 707,393 59.6% 479,365 40.4%


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.

See also

  • Territorial changes of Germany after World War I
  • Territorial changes of Poland after World War I
  • East Prussian plebiscite


  1. T. Hunt Tooley, "National Identity and Weimar Germany: Upper Silesia and the eastern border", University of Nebraska Press, 1997, p. 140
  2. T. Hunt Tooley, "German Political Violence and the Border Plebiscite in Upper Silesia, 1919-1921," Central European History 21 (March 1988): 56-98.
  3. Günter Doose, Die separatistische Bewegung in Oberschlesien nach dem ersten Weltkrieg. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1987
  4. (German)(French)(Polish) Results of the plebiscites in three Prussian districts conducted between July 1920 and March 1921, according to Polish sources. "Rocznik statystyki Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej" (pdf, 623 KB). Główny Urząd Statystyczny Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej GUS, Annual (Main Statistical Office of the Republic of Poland). 1920/1922, part II. Retrieved 2012-06-08.  - Also in HTML
  5. Urban, Thomas (2003). Polen (2 ed.). C.H.Beck. p. 40. ISBN 3-406-44793-7. Retrieved 2008-08-28. 
  6. Edmund Burke, James Dodsley, Annual Register, v. 2 - 1922, Google Print, p.179-180 (public domain text)
  7. Richard Blanke, Orphans of Versailles: The Germans in Western Poland, 1918-1939. Lexington, KY: The University of Kentucky Press, 1993.
  8. Herder Institut (German)

External links


  • Czesław Madajczyk, Tadeusz Jędruszczak, Plebiscyt i trzecie powstanie śląskie ("Plebiscite and Third Silesian Uprising") [in:] Historia Polski ("History of Poland"), Vol.IV, part 1, PAN, Warszawa 1984 ISBN 83-01-03865-9
  • Kazimierz Popiołek, Historia Śląska od pradziejów do 1945 roku ("History of Poland since prehistory until 1945", Śląski Inst. Naukowy (Silesian Science Institute) 1984 ISBN 83-216-0151-0
  • T. Hunt Tooley, National Identity and Weimar Germany: Upper Silesia and the Eastern Border, 1918-1922. Lincoln, NE: The University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
  • T. K. Wilson, "Frontiers of Violence: Conflict and Identity in Ulster and Upper Silesia 1918-1922". London: Oxford University Press, 2010.

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