Plebiscite Splits Upper Silesia Between Poland and Germany

After World War I ended, the victorious Allies had to redraw Europe’s political map to accommodate the shift in geopolitical power. The designation of Eastern Europe’s boundaries was critical to the endurance of peace.

Summary of Event

In the late summer of 1918, both the Allied and German forces fighting on the front lines in northern France were exhausted. The German government appealed to U.S. president Woodrow Wilson to initiate peace negotiations based on his famous Fourteen Points, Fourteen Points and an armistice was signed between the warring parties on November 11, 1918. Peace negotiations, however, did not begin until the spring of 1919 in Paris. These negotiations were led by the Allied Powers’ Council of Ten, particularly Woodrow Wilson, Prime Minister David Lloyd George of Great Britain, and French premier Georges Clemenceau. Lesser roles were played by the leaders of other powers, such as Italy and Japan. Upper Silesia;division between Poland and Germany
World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];postwar period
[kw]Plebiscite Splits Upper Silesia Between Poland and Germany (Mar. 20, 1921)
[kw]Upper Silesia Between Poland and Germany, Plebiscite Splits (Mar. 20, 1921)
[kw]Silesia Between Poland and Germany, Plebiscite Splits Upper (Mar. 20, 1921)
[kw]Poland and Germany, Plebiscite Splits Upper Silesia Between (Mar. 20, 1921)
[kw]Germany, Plebiscite Splits Upper Silesia Between Poland and (Mar. 20, 1921)
Upper Silesia;division between Poland and Germany
World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];postwar period
[g]Germany;Mar. 20, 1921: Plebiscite Splits Upper Silesia Between Poland and Germany[05410]
[g]Poland;Mar. 20, 1921: Plebiscite Splits Upper Silesia Between Poland and Germany[05410]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Mar. 20, 1921: Plebiscite Splits Upper Silesia Between Poland and Germany[05410]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;Mar. 20, 1921: Plebiscite Splits Upper Silesia Between Poland and Germany[05410]
[c]Government and politics;Mar. 20, 1921: Plebiscite Splits Upper Silesia Between Poland and Germany[05410]
Briand, Aristide
Clemenceau, Georges
Ebert, Friedrich
Lloyd George, David
Wilson, Woodrow
[p]Wilson, Woodrow;Fourteen Points
Korfanty, Wojciech

At the heart of the negotiations were the various territorial adjustments called for in the fifth and thirteenth of the Fourteen Points. The thirteenth point, which called for the establishment of an independent Polish state that included the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations and had access to the sea, was especially important. (These types of territorial changes came to be grouped together under the concept of national self-determination.) Fulfilling the thirteenth point proved to be very difficult, because Eastern Europe’s ethnic distribution was complicated. The Poles, happy to be aligned with the winning side, advanced large territorial claims generally supported by France, which saw Poland as a future ally against a potentially resurgent Germany. The British wanted a fair and lasting peace, and the Americans wanted to fulfill the Fourteen Points.

The parties began determining boundaries in February and March of 1919, when the Allies established commissions of experts to study the details and suggest which parts of Germany should be turned over to Poland. The original proposals for the boundary envisaged transferring the entire (formerly German) province of Upper Silesia to Poland, even though the populace of Upper Silesia was about half Polish and half German. Lloyd George and Wilson strongly objected to this recommendation, and so Wilson proposed using a plebiscite to determine the populace’s wishes. This idea was incorporated into Articles 87 and 88 of the Treaty of Versailles, which prescribed the western boundary of Poland and the eastern boundary of Germany, except for Upper Silesia, where the treaty provided for a plebiscite. Meanwhile, an Allied force, commanded by a French general, was to occupy the territories designated for the plebiscite.

The plebiscite took place on March 20, 1921, and both sides were disappointed by the results. A little more than 700,000 people voted to remain part of Germany; some 433,000 voted to become part of Poland. There were the usual charges of fraud, mostly in the form of accusations that each side had brought in people who were not really residents but could be counted on to vote in a particular way. Germany contended that Upper Silesia had not been part of Poland since the Middle Ages, and because more people in Upper Silesia as a whole had voted to remain German, the entire province should remain in Germany. The Poles countered that the Germans had brought in many more nonresidents than the Poles had. For their part, the Allied position changed from a belief that dividing Upper Silesia between the two contending parties was not viable to one that concluded that such a division was unavoidable.

The vote’s results were problematic for other reasons. The vote in urban areas was strongly German, but the vote in the countryside was predominantly Polish, since Poles provided much of the agricultural labor throughout many parts of eastern Germany. Furthermore, most of Upper Silesia’s mineral wealth lay along its eastern border. Germany relied on Upper Silesia for about one-fifth of the coal used by its industries, and coal was an important part of Germany’s reparations payments (part of which was in-kind). The vote’s relatively inconclusive results led both sides to try to influence the outcome by paramilitary action. In early May of 1921, a Polish invasion led by Wojciech Korfanty, a leading Polish nationalist, sparked a demonstration of Polish allegiance. This outburst caused many German veterans to join paramilitary groups that contested the Polish incursion. The fighting was largely inconclusive, although it appeared that the Germans were more successful than Korfanty’s followers. Technically, the Allied occupation troops were not involved, but many demonstrated their support for the Poles. Although the German government tried to distance itself from the German fighters, the rogue groups were very popular in many parts of Germany.

Faced with the unrest on the ground, the Allied leaders were unable to agree on a solution to the issue of Upper Silesia. Britain and Italy favored keeping most of the area in Germany; France favored turning most of it over to Poland. On August 12, the Allied leaders adopted Lloyd George’s proposal, which suggested that the issue be turned over to the newly established League of Nations. League of Nations Entrusted with this problem, the League’s staff carried out consultations with many prominent local residents, union officials, and industry leaders. As a result, Poland was awarded most of Upper Silesia’s mineral wealth and a significant portion of the processing facilities. Fifty-nine of sixty-seven coal mines went to Poland, and Poland gained control over 97 percent of iron ore deposits, 82 percent of the country’s tin, 71 percent of its lead, and about 50 percent of its sulphur and coke. All thirteen tin- and lead-processing facilities went to Poland, and Poland also gained control over about half of the area’s other industrial plants. To make these decisions more palatable to Germany, the League’s experts also drew up a list of guarantees to ensure that Germany would continue to have access to this industrial wealth and that no German residents would face discrimination.


The League Council passed its recommendations on to the Allied leaders on October 12, 1921, although they were not immediately made public. The French had wanted almost all of Upper Silesia to go to Poland, and they initially resisted. In the end, however, socialist foreign minister Aristide Briand persuaded the French to accept the terms, and a vote approving them took place on October 19, 1921. However, the terms also required both sides to sign a document drafted by the League that made many of the guarantees against discrimination enforceable by law.

Under the League’s guidance, the German and Polish governments began negotiations over what eventually became the Geneva Convention. In addition to the mutual guarantees, the Geneva Convention provided that a League commissioner would supervise its application for fifteen years. The convention was signed by both sides on May 15, 1922. In July, Polish troops marched into the areas assigned to Poland. League supervision appeared to have worked well, but the Geneva Convention was not renewed in 1937; by this time, relations between Germany (then ruled by Adolf Hitler) and Poland had substantially deteriorated.

Despite the apparent equity of the decision to split Upper Silesia between Poland and Germany, the division fueled German resentment toward the Versailles treaty and contributed to the Nazi’s rise to political power in Germany and ultimately to World War II. It also revealed that trusting large foreign policy issues to democratic referenda did not always provide a long-term solution. Upper Silesia;division between Poland and Germany
World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];postwar period

Further Reading

  • Ambrosius, Lloyd E. Wilsonianism: Woodrow Wilson and His Legacy in American Foreign Relations. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. An in-depth analysis of Wilson’s vision and of the concept of national self-determination.
  • Cooper, John Milton, Jr. Breaking the Heart of the World: Woodrow Wilson and the Fight for the League of Nations. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Describes Wilson’s part in the struggle to establish the League of Nations and to gain support for the international body in the United States.
  • Keith, Arthur Berriedale. Speeches and Documents on International Affairs. 2 vols. London: Oxford University Press, 1938. Contains the text of the Fourteen Points and the Versailles Treaty.
  • Nelson, Harold T. Land and Power: British and Allied Policy on Germany’s Frontiers, 1916-1919. London: Routledge, 1963. Links the foreign policy decisions to Europe’s power relationships.
  • Reddaway, W. F., J. H. Penson, O. Halecki, R. Dyboski, eds. The Cambridge History of Poland. 2 vols. New York: Octagon Books, 1971. Despite the prestige of its sponsor, this work is heavily oriented toward the Polish viewpoint, but it does contain some useful details.
  • Schwabe, Klaus. Woodrow Wilson, Revolutionary Germany, and Peacemaking, 1918-1919. Translated by Robert and Rita Kimber. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985. Helps to balance the pro-Polish orientation of much earlier writing on this subject. Also contains some useful details.
  • Walters, F. P. A History of the League of Nations. London: Oxford University Press, 1952. An older but still useful history with many details about the League’s involvement in the decision on Upper Silesia.

Treaty of Versailles

Poland Secures Independence

Piłsudski Seizes Power in Poland

Germany Invades Poland