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The conflict in Upper Silesia (1921)


At the end of World War I the Polish and German communities in Upper Silesia – a region lying between the two countries – began fighting over their future status. This led to the ICRC’s involvement as a neutral intermediary, despite the absence of a legal framework.

A Commission established by the Allied powers tried to restore order but was unable to settle the humanitarian problems that arose, notably the plight of prisoners held by each side and the uncertain fate of civilians cut off by the fighting.

Both the Commission and the two factions agreed to the ICRC’s intervention; the ethnic German and Polish commanders agreed, moreover, to respect the terms of the Geneva Convention even though they were not strictly bound to do so.

Two delegates were sent to the region and were able to visit prisoners, including ethnic Polish captives who had been transferred to Germany. They were found to be held in such poor conditions that the ICRC called for their release; because the Commission – for legal reasons – could not become involved, the ICRC organised a series of releases that covered about 1,800 prisoners on each side.

The ICRC delegates also worked with the Polish and German Red Cross societies on tracing requests concerning prisoners or missing persons. Of more than 5,600 cases, over 5,000 were resolved successfully.

To ease the plight of German civilians who were cut off from food supplies, the ICRC delegates arranged the evacuation of women and children, as well as the sick and elderly, by special trains.

The ICRC’s intervention in Upper Silesia, although short-lived, was prophetic in outlining the kind of activity that the organization would increasingly be called on to carry out, in situations of internal conflict that ever more affected the civilian population.