A man for the Chief's special tasks

Over the next few days in 1918, Boerner became the "chief fireman of Warsaw", extinguishing fires between Poland and Germany. He cooled down the hot heads of Wehrmacht soldiers from the Central Council, who, hearing about the alleged murders of Germans, allegedly committed by Poles, wanted to take armed revenge.

Proponents of alternative history claim that Poland would have regained independence in November 1918 regardless of whether Józef Piłsudski, Roman Dmowski or Wincenty Witos had taken power. According to this narrative, the reins of government could be taken over from the invaders by everyone and their mother.. Russia was engulfed in civil war, and Germany and Austria-Hungary were ending their lives as monarchies.

The only problem is that even in the face of the agony of the Second Reich, the Germans were able to take care of their interests in the occupied territories. In the Baltic countries, for example, soldiers and officials reporting to Berlin stayed until the fall of 1919, taking and exporting whatever they could: food, farm animals, cultural goods, industrial equipment, etc. It is also difficult to talk about a fully free Latvia or Estonia, as foreign troops still stationed on their lands for many months after the end of World War I.

The German command in Warsaw had similar plans, especially since railway lines to Germany ran through central Poland, including the General Government of Warsaw (GGW) established by the occupiers. They could accommodate transport of not only tons of potatoes or cabbage, but also thousands of soldiers. A staff officer in the capital of the GGW wrote in his diary on November 10, 1918: 'They [Poles] lack weapons... they have neither a single machine gun nor a single cannon. They have 10-20 bullets per rifle. […] I'm calm. We, the Germans, must persevere here the longest of all eastern formations, so that the troops from Ukraine and northern Russia can return home safely.

Like the sword of Damocles, a scenario hung over the territory of GGW (from Łomża through Warsaw to Kalisz) in which the transition period between the General Government of Warsaw and independent Poland would last at least several months. Importantly, the Germans have taken practical steps to show that they are the masters in Warsaw. At the beginning of November, they reinforced the Citadel with two artillery batteries and armed the most important buildings to the teeth: for example, the Royal Castle was surrounded by part of a regiment of officer aspirants from Jabłonna, soldiers placed rifles at dozens of windows and grenades on the windowsills. Even military hospitals received reinforcements in the form of additional batches of rifles and grenades.

The plans were somewhat thwarted by the Soldiers' Councils that were established en masse on November 9 in Warsaw units and took the Governor's Palace (now the Presidential Palace) as their headquarters. Radom was much less interested in robbing the dying GGW of all its supplies than the command. The most important thing for them was the efficient and quick evacuation of the German garrison from Warsaw. Józef Piłsudski took advantage of this.
November 1918. Disarming Germans in Warsaw. Photo Wikimedia
The future Commandant returned from Magdeburg to the capital on the morning of November 10, and in the evening he met the delegation selected by the Central Soldiers' Council. Short but intense negotiations resulted in an agreement on the conditions for German soldiers to leave the city. According to it, they had, among others: give away weapons and military equipment, railway rolling stock and means of communication to Poles, as well as refrain from violence within their own ranks. In return, Piłsudski declared that the Polish side would provide trains that would take the Germans back to the Reich.

How Saxon colonists became Poles

The later Marshal made Ignacy Boerner, a subordinate in the Legions and the Polish Military Organisation, as well as his man for special tasks, an intermediary between himself and the Central Council. Where did this choice come from? And who was the man who is remembered today - if he is at all - rather as the patron of the Boernerowo estate in Warsaw?

  His great-grandfather, Jerzy Karol, settled with his family in Płock at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, after the fall of the First Polish Republic. The Boerners came from Saxony and came to this area as part of the Prussian colonisation campaign, so they had no reason to have any special sentiment for Poland. Over time, the borders changed and Płock found itself in the Kingdom of Poland, subordinated to Russia, but Jerzy Boerner was still far from Polish. He was more suited to be a loyal subject of the tsar. However, he raised his son Ignacy Karol, if not as a Polish patriot, then at least as a person who sympathised with Poles. And although the Russians honoured Ignacy with hereditary nobility, he supported the freedom aspirations of Poles, including the January Uprising.

Edward, Ignacy's son, who continued the family clerical traditions (just as his father was a pastor), was already fully Polish. Not only did he participate in the independence conspiracy, but he also took part in the January Uprising as the civilian chief of Zduńska Wola. His brother also fought in one of the units.

In such an environment and in such a family, our hero was doomed to be Polish.

President of the Republic of Ostrowiec

As Ignacy Boerner's biographer, Jerzy Kochanowski, writes, "the future 'president', colonel and minister was brought up [...] with respect for knowledge and respect for others, in the atmosphere of both the romantic cult of the recent uprising [he was born in 1875] and Protestant rationalism”.

Let us add that Boerner's biography could successfully serve as a typical biography of a representative of the rebellious generation that did not accept the partitions of Poland. He fell foul of the authorities while he was still at the Russian junior high school in Kalisz, among others. for speaking Polish in public and was expelled from school. Then came the fascination with socialism (to learn more about the life of workers, he worked for a year in a foundry and machine factory in Wałbrzych), studies at the Higher Technical School in Darmstadt, and finally work as an engineer in Warsaw and Ostrowiec Świętokrzyski.

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At the same time, Ignacy continued to work for Poland. Initially completely legal: in Darmstadt, he co-founded a section of the Red Cross that provided assistance to Polish prisoners and political emigrants. He also became the head of the Polish Reading Room, but he was drawn to conspiracy. In 1899, he joined the Polish Socialist Party ("I became a member of a secret organisation, already covered by the halo of some 'unknown greatness', 'sacrifice', 'heroism'"), where he became known as an efficient organizer, able to cope with difficult, if not extreme conditions.

Examples? Here we go: from conducting a May 1 demonstration in Ostrowiec with several thousand people, through coordinating local PPS combat actions (e.g. stealing dynamite from the warehouses of the "Zygmunt" mine or the district cash register heist in Opatów), to leading the so-called Republic of Ostrowiec.

This particular creation was organised by PPS members, who temporarily took over government in Ostrowiec Świętokrzyski and the surrounding area. They established Polish authorities in the "republic", introduced the Polish official language, and did not forget to support those in need, to whom they provided coal and food.

The rebels were not allowed to enjoy their successes for long: in mid-January, two tsarist infantry regiments pacified the revolt, and Boerner ("President of the Ostrowiec Republic") had to escape to Galicia. He remained there, with visits to Germany and Switzerland, until the outbreak of World War I, enjoying relative stability in life (he had a son, Włodzimierz with his wife Zofia) and professionally (he ran a technical office in Lviv).

When the invaders were at each other's throats, he interrupted his promising engineering career to serve in the Polish Legions and the Polish Military Organisation.

Under the Red Banner

Interestingly, Boerner did not always get along with Piłsudski, whom he met at the beginning of the 20th century. He remained faithful to socialism much longer, and when the Commander and his closest collaborators focused on building cadres for the armed struggle for independence (first in the Union of Active Struggle, then in the Riflemen's Union), Boerner criticised them for marginalising the red banner.

The two men's paths, at least politically, diverged so much that in 1912 Boerner left the PPS and joined the so-called PPS-Opposition. This party took the position that taking care of workers' interests could not be a a mere background for paramilitary activities (Boerner sarcastically called "marauders") and should be at least as important.

In 1914, splitters from the PPS-Opposition returned to the parent formation. Boerner himself, in the face of the approaching war, revised his views and completed a non-commissioned officer course as part of the "Rifleman". Immediately afterwards he went to the front and fought in a Polish Legion uniform, among others. near Limanowa, Łowczówek and Kostiuchnówka.
August 1914. Józef Piłsudski with his staff in Kielce. Among the officers stands Ignacy Boerner. Photo Marian Fuks/Polona
In the meantime, he became Piłsudski's trusted man, used by him for various secret missions. The following episodes testify to their relations at that time: in 1915, when the Commander was looking for an emissary who would appear in Warsaw before the German troops entered and provide his people in the capital with instructions, he chose Boerner. In turn, when in December 1915 the Austrians expelled Ignacy from the army for his involvement in politics, the brigadier defended the subordinate and had his dismissal withdrawn. So when Piłsudski inspired the so-called oath crisis (July 1917), Boerner knew well which side to side with. Like others, he was interned by the invaders in Beniaminów. Moreover, he received a dubious honor (although he would probably be proud of it) and the German and Austro-Hungarian military placed him on a blacklist of dangerous officers. As a result, he stayed behind the barbed wire until June 1918.

Mr. Lieutenant Peace

And it was him, whom in November 1918 Piłsudski appointed as a liaison officer for contacts with the Central Soldiers' Council. Because not only was Boerner his proven emissary (with time they got onto first-name terms; Piłsudski allowed at most a dozen or so people to become so intimate), but he also spoke German without a trace of a foreign accent and knew how to talk to Germans - he was aware that they wanted to go home as soon as possible. And above all, Boerner "had incredible self-confidence, could speak as if there was an immense power behind him, and was not easily disconcerted by any arguments."

Boerner coped smoothly with the first task that Piłsudski set before him - ensuring peace between the Council meeting in the Governor's Palace and the crowd of Poles outside. On his order, several dozen students formed a cordon around the palace. Boerner gave them weapons (the Central Soldiers' Council gave him 20 rifles), and at the end he went out to the crowd and appealed for an end to bloodshed. People dispersed.

Over the next few days, Boerner became the "chief fireman of Warsaw", extinguishing fires between Poland and Germany. On the one hand, he had to cool down the hot heads of the soldiers from the Central Council, who, hearing about the alleged murders of Germans allegedly committed by Poles, wanted to take armed revenge. On the other hand, it paralysed the intrigues of the German command, aimed at overshadowing Central Council and regaining control over the Warsaw garrison.

He also participated in Polish-German negotiations on the launch of railway transport, which had been suspended by the occupiers. Without this, there was no way to evacuate approximately 30,000 foreign soldiers and officials staying in the capital...

And what did November 11 look like from the perspective of Boerner himself? He spent the entire day, today considered symbolic of regaining independence, in the Governor's Palace, calming down German soldiers. He recalled: 'Every now and then someone would drop in [to the Palace], mostly officers dressed in civilian clothes, telling tall stories about the murders committed over the Germans. […] Every now and then I had to turn to them [Central Council soldiers] with the words: “Meine Herren! Blos Ruhe, Ruhe und nochmals Ruhe” (German: My Lords! Only peace, peace and once again peace). Due to this, he was nicknamed "Mr. Lieutenant Peace" among the Germans.

So much for the humorous accents, because when the sounds of shooting reached the building in the evening, part of the Council supported the immediate sending of a delegation to the Citadel with a request to the units stationed there to "come out and start bringing order with the force of bayonets and bullets." Boerner managed to nip the rebellion in the bud - he traveled around Warsaw with three members of the council to see for themselves that the Germans were safe in the city and any exchanges of fire were accidental.

A few days later, on the evening of November 16, upon hearing the news of the massacre in Biała and Międzyrzecz Podlaski, where several dozen POWs and Polish civilians died at the hands of German soldiers, he realised that it could be an introduction to the march of troops stationed beyond the Bug River (Ober-Ost) to Warsaw. He did not intend to wait for them: after Piłsudski's approval and with the participation of a representative of the Central Soldiers' Council, he began telephone negotiations with the Soldiers' Council in Brest (where the Ober-Ost headquarters were located).

All-night talks brought results: the Germans stopped the advance of their troops. And the threat was real - as the representative of Brest argued: "You [Germans] in Warsaw are in danger, so we decided to come to your aid. […] The railway lines will be staffed again. If the Poles agree, fine, if not, we will take it by force...

Years later, Boerner recalled November 1918 as the most important month of his life.

Let the words of General Stanisław Szeptycki, then chief of the General Staff of the Polish Army, serve as a summary. In 1921 he stated: "It was Mr. Major Boerner who, with his efficiency, tact, calmness, energy, in words - his entire personality, led to the peaceful evacuation of German troops from Warsaw - which success contributed in these difficult times to the possibility of starting work on the organisation of the state, the government and the army.

– Tomasz Czapla

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

-translated by Maciej Sienkiewicz
Main photo: Year 1931. Warsaw. Ignacy Boerner, Minister of Posts and Telegraphs at the shooting range. Photo IKC/NAC
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