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A former German lieutenant led the Poles

The trigger was a hoax.

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A former German lieutenant led the Poles

The trigger was a hoax. On August 15, 1920, German newspapers circulated the claim that Poland's capital, Warsaw, had been taken by Red Army troops. In the extremely tense situation in Upper Silesia, the south-eastern part of the historical region of Silesia around Oppeln and Kattowitz, which is ethnically strongly mixed, this spark was enough to allow the smoldering conflict to erupt openly.

On August 16, the Polish army began an ultimately successful counter-offensive. But before news of this reached Upper Silesia, pro-German militias were already rioting there in the expectation that the Polish national state they hated would soon collapse.

The seat of the French representative in Kattowitz was also attacked; he was considered an enemy because one of his tasks was to prepare the referendum on the planned division of Upper Silesia into German and Polish parts. His guard force fought back, killing up to ten of the attackers and bystanders. As a "reaction" to this, a mob lynched the well-known Polish doctor Andrzej Mielęcki; he was in the process of tending German wounded.

As a result, on the night of August 18-19, pro-Polish forces decided to risk a second uprising. The first attempt to take power in Upper Silesia and thus create the conditions for incorporation into the resurrected state of Poland had failed almost exactly a year earlier. Back then, too, violent attacks had been the trigger – more precisely against striking Polish workers in the Myslowitz coal mine, which had led to (at least) ten deaths.

As in 1919, the leader of the new, second Silesian Uprising was Alfons Zgrzebniok (1891–1937). The 28-year-old came from a staunchly pro-Polish family. Growing up as the eldest son of the family with three brothers and five sisters, the switch to the (of course German-speaking) high school in Prussian Silesia almost failed due to his insufficient knowledge of German. Only after a year of tutoring he was able to attend the higher school in Raciborz (Ratibor). There he was almost expelled because of his Polish nationalist convictions.

He was spared that, and in 1909 he graduated from high school. Then Alfons was the first in his family to study at the nearby University of Breslau (Wroclaw). He remained true to his innermost convictions and joined a nationalist secret organization that wanted to promote non-violent awareness of a Polish state.

In August 1914 he was drafted into the Prussian army and fought for the next four years in both trench warfare on the western front and mobile warfare in the east. He was wounded three times and promoted from private to lieutenant, a rare career. Shortly after the end of the war he finally sided with the Polish national movement. Using tricks, he procured weapons from German stocks and organized operational squads.

But after a few days, German units, mostly Freikorps made up of officially demobilized but still operational front-line soldiers, crushed the insurgents. However, according to very vague estimates, in 1919 around 23,000 "insurgents" (a term commonly used at the time) under Zgrzebniok's command faced around 35,000 armed Germans in Silesia.

A year later there were far fewer insurgents. But this time the outcome of the fighting, which was once again coordinated by Alfons Zgrzebniok on the Polish side, was more successful for them. Because after only five days, the French-dominated Interallied Commission forced the demobilization of the German units. In order not to jeopardize the promised referendum, Zgrzebniok ended all violent actions. A mixed German-Polish “voting police” was established as a new security force, which actually largely ensured peace in Upper Silesia until March 1921.

According to Polish tradition, the second Silesian Uprising in 1920, which claimed at least 35 lives and injured several hundred, is one of the successful actions within the framework of nation-state formation between 1918 and 1921. This is a view that one does not necessarily have to share.

In the Third Silesian Uprising after the referendum in March 1921, Zgrzebniok was active again, this time as chief of staff of the insurgents. After the outcome, which was unsatisfactory for Poland but nevertheless successful, with the division of Upper Silesia east of Beuthen (Bytom) and Hindenburg OS (Zabrze), the now 31-year-old worked as a teacher for a few years.

But that apparently did not satisfy him, because he left school and became active again for Polish nationalist goals in various positions, including as an intelligence officer in the Free City of Danzig (Gdanzk). Alfons Zgrzebniok died in early 1937 at the age of just 45. The unveiling of a commemorative plaque for him, announced for September 3, 1939, did not take place until more than half a century later, on April 20, 1992.

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