The Czechoslovak-Polish War of January 1919 – a brief clash with lasting consequences

Today it is largely forgotten by Czechs, but the Czechoslovak-Polish War of January 1919 was a more significant conflict than its few hundred casualties suggest. Although the freshly emerged and confident Czechoslovak state largely got what it had wanted out of the war, the subsequent border, coupled with memory of the conflict, contributed to an uneasy relationship that prevented much needed cooperation during the rise of their mutual nemesis in the 1930s. I spoke to historian Jiří Friedl, from the Czech Academy of Sciences about the war and its aftermath.

The causes of the conflict

Czechoslovak legionnaires from France in the Battle of Teschen, photo: Wikimedia Commons, CC0 Public DomainCzechoslovak legionnaires from France in the Battle of Teschen, photo: Wikimedia Commons, CC0 Public Domain Dr. Friedl, both sides were keen to claim Teschen [known in Czech as Těšín and in Polish as Cieszyn] at the negotiations in Versailles. Why was this area of just over 2000 square kilometres so important to both sides?

“It was mainly economic and transport reasons. The Teschen region was very rich in black coal and we have to realise that black coal played the same role in terms of significance as oil does today. That was the first reason. The second reason was the railway station between Bohumín and Košice, which at the time was the only efficient railway connection between the Czech lands and Slovakia.

“Furthermore, Bohumín had the largest cargo railway station in central Europe. Therefore who controlled Bohumín station, could influence international business at least in the central European region. So from an economic and transport point of view Teschen was a very important region that played a significant role in European economics.”

Was this a prepared war, or did both sides enter it by accident?

“On the Czechoslovak side there had been discussions regarding the military occupation of Teschen Silesia already before Christmas 1918, so I don’t think this war happened by accident. We should not forget that there was a provisional agreement signed on November 5 1918. However, that was just made by local authorities and the Czechoslovak government did not recognise this it. Shortly after the agreement was signed both sides were already blaming each other for breaking the treaty, which gave much of the coal fields and the railway station to the Polish side.”

“Teschen region was very rich in black coal and we have to realise that black coal played the same role in terms of significance as oil does today.”

Is it true that at the Conference in Versailles, the Czechoslovaks were invoking historical rights, while the Poles were claiming nationality rights?

“Historical rights yes, but at that time it was clear that historical rights did not have as much weight as economical and transport reasons. Edvard Beneš who was negotiating for his country in France at the time, was fully aware that it was impossible to get the whole of Teschen for Czechoslovakia. That is why he insisted on economic and transport arguments.”

From what I read there was a bit of a misunderstanding between the delegation in Paris and the government in Czechoslovakia. What were Masaryk’s and Beneš’s views on going to war over Teschen. Were they united in this opinion?

“There was some kind of misunderstanding between Prague and Paris. Because, and we know this from the minutes of the Czechoslovak government meetings, President Masaryk persuaded government ministers that Czechoslovakia had the support of the western allies. Beneš was more restrained.”

War breaks out

Map of split Teschen, photo: Museum of TěšínMap of split Teschen, photo: Museum of Těšín What was the spark that set-off the conflict?

“I would say the main reason for military action was the Polish government opening up ballot boxes for the parliamentary elections held in its country. Because elections are a sign of sovereignty over a disputed area and in my point of view Poland broke the November 5 agreement.”

So you could say it was a clever way of trying to claim the region?

“Yes. We can accept the argument that after the election it would have been easier for Poland to claim the region.”

I understand the Czechoslovak side attempted a rouse to gain the disputed territories without bloodshed at first?

“We can say that Poland did not expect the attack. Polish troops were very weak in the region, because most of its units were involved in conflicts with Ukrainians around Lviv and its war with Soviet Russia was also just beginning.

“Edvard Beneš who was in Paris at the time sent a cable to Prague and let his government know that the western powers were upset about the conflict. They found it had made the situation in central Europe much more difficult than it had been before.”

“Czechoslovak commanders led by Lt.-Colonel Šnejdárek tried to persuade his Polish counterpart, General Latinik, to withdraw from the disputed area. He tried to persuade him that the occupation had been approved by western powers. However Latinik did not believe him and called Warsaw to verify if what Šnejdárek had said was true.

“Of course he found out it was a lie, but before he could catch Šnejdárek, the latter managed to escape.”

How did the Entente powers in Paris react to the war?

“Edvard Beneš who was in Paris at the time sent a cable to Prague and let his government know that the western powers were upset about the conflict. They found it had made the situation in central Europe much more difficult than it had been before.”

Military victory but diplomatic defeat

Nevertheless in terms of securing strategic resources it was a Czechoslovak victory?

“From my point of view it was, yes. Czechoslovakia did not get the whole of historical Teschen, but it got all that it wanted - the coal mines and the railway.”

Polish anti-Czech leaflet used during the Teschen dispute, photo: Public DomainPolish anti-Czech leaflet used during the Teschen dispute, photo: Public Domain The conflict is often seen as one of the core reasons behind Czechoslovak-Polish animosity in the interwar years and their inability to work together. Is this true?

“Yes. The dispute over Teschen damaged mutual relations between Czechoslovakia and Poland a lot. The Poles considered the division of the region as an injustice, because the arbitration took place when the Polish state was in a very difficult situation. It was at the time of the Battle of Warsaw against the Red Army, so the Poles regarded this Czechoslovak move as a stab in the back.”

How did the Teschen question affect events leading up to the Munich Agreement of 1938?

“President Beneš did try to reconcile Poland in September 1938. However, it was too late. Those steps should have been made much earlier. Both Beneš and Masaryk did not want to get involved in potential problems between Poland and the Soviet Union or Germany.

“Furthermore, there was not just mutual reluctance on both sides, but also an ongoing rivalry. Both sides considered themselves to be regional powers. We must not forget that this was a time of very strong nationalism and these were obstacles to mutual understanding and empathy. It was very difficult to come to an agreement that would suit both sides.”

“It was at the time of the Battle of Warsaw against the Red Army, so the Poles regarded this Czechoslovak move as a stab in the back.”

Today, there are good relations between the two countries and very few Czechs even remember there ever was a war with the Poles. What do you think made this change in attitude since the interwar era possible?

“After the Second World War both states became members of the Eastern Bloc and it was unthinkable for allies to have a dispute. The USSR exerted great pressure on Poland and Czechoslovakia to form an alliance which was signed in March 1947 and since then relations have got much better.

“On the other hand it should be said that the Poles were disappointed. Poland declared after the end of World War Two that it wanted the disputed region within its borders, so that tension was there, but fortunately without the same consequences as in the period following World War One.”