Header image. Derivative work. Original work: Polish customs post and tram stop at the Polish-German Border in Łagiewniki. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
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This article is about pre World War II historical aspects of the Upper Silesian tramway network.
Find out about the little known history (in English) of cross-border and transit tram journeys in Upper Silesia and how these troublesome journeys affected economic and social life in the region.
Image attribution: NAC – Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe (National Digital Archive of Poland)
Partition of Upper Silesia after World War I
Following Poland’s emergence as an independent nation after the First World War, the highly industrialised region of Upper Silesia had an ethnically mixed German and Polish population.
This resulted in much of the area being in dispute and lead to armed violence between the two ethnic communities.
Three Silesian Uprisings occurred between 1919 and 1921, in which ethnic Polish Silesian separatists fought with German police and irregular German forces. The separatists sought to have Upper Silesia transferred into newly independent Poland. The last Silesian Uprising, in which Polish separatists gained large parts of Upper Silesia, was pivotal in shaping the new borders of partitioned Upper Silesia, as was later to be directed by the League of Nations in 1922 .
Upper Silesia Plebiscite
A plebiscite mandated by the Versailles Treaty was carried out on 20th of March 1921. The overall result in Upper Silesia was that the majority of the population voted to be in the German state by a measure of 59.4% to 40.6%.
The German–Polish Convention on Upper Silesia
Since the plebiscite results did not lead to a peaceful solution between the two communities, the Allies passed over the dispute to the League of Nations who decided to partition Upper Silesia. On 15th of May 1922, this resulted in the signing in Geneva of the German–Polish Convention on Upper Silesia (Polish Konwencja genewska o Górnym Śląsku. German Deutsch-Polnisches Abkommen über Oberschlesien). According to the mandate of the convention, on 20th of June 1922, Germany ceded parts of Upper Silesia to Poland.
Consequences of partition for the economic and social life of the region
The new borders resulted in the partition of coal mines, other industrial establishments and transport companies (including tramway, train and bus operators), that had previously been under the ownership of one company. The partition also impacted on agencies that had previously cooperated with these partitioned companies. Sources of supply and financing were separated as were the supply chains of water, electricity and gas. Borders also cut across residential properties, gardens and farms.
Consequences of partition for the tramway system
The partition resulted in the tramway system having to cross international borders in seven places.
This can be seen in the tramway map below. German Upper Silesia is shown to the west and Polish Upper Silesia is shown to the east and south east.
Map attribution: MacQtosh, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Provisions in the convention for operation of the tramway system
The mechanics of how the partitioned tramway system would operate between the two countries were covered by the wording of the convention. The German–Polish Convention on Upper Silesia. Archived at the Silesian Digital Library. In Polish.
Circulation Cards were issued
Residents wishing to travel across the borders now needed to carry a Circulation Card (German Verkehrskarte. Polish Karta Cyrkulacyjna), which in theory would allow unhindered travel across the borders.
A Circulation Card was issued, upon request and residency and personal verification, only to residents who lived within 15 kilometres either side of border within the plebiscite areas.
This Circulation Card was a pass with a photograph and printed in Polish and German. People who wished to travel and who lived more than 15 kilometres away from the plebiscite border areas, had to be in possession of a passport.
An example of a Circulation Card
Images attribution: Paweł Drozd on Wiki Drozdp 20:32, 26 January 2007 (UTC), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The circulation cards enabled cross-border travel for both family and work purposes. Following the partition of the region many people found themselves living in Polish Upper Silesia, yet their work place was in German Upper Silesia, or vice versa. Many lived on one side of the border but needed to visit family and friends who were now in a different country. Travel by foot, car and bus was also hindered by cross-border document and customs checks.
Timetable chaos on the cross-border routes
The problems arose when people wanted or needed to travel using public transport. Travel by tram was especially problematic as the tram tracks crossed international borders in seven places.
Lengthy customs and document checks at border crossings frequently resulted in the tramway timetables descending into chaos. When travelling between Poland and Germany (or vice versa), passengers had to disembark from their tram, go through a document and customs check and then walk across the border to join a different tram in the destination country.
Transit Tram Journeys in Upper Silesia
In some instances, a tram journey could begin in Poland, pass through German territory and then re-enter Poland. Those types of tram journeys took place in transit trams (Polish tramwaje tranzytowe). In such cases, just after crossing the Polish-German border, German border officials would enter the tram at their border post. They would ensure the doors remained closed and no one got on or off the tram while it was passing through in transit. When the tram reached the German border post just before the Polish border, the officials would alight and the tram would continue across the border into Poland.
This 1936 photograph shows a narrow-gauge Polish transit tram on dual gauge tracks on Scharleyer Strasse in the German town of Beuthen. Today, ul. Witczaka, Bytom in Poland. From the publication Schlesiens Ostgrenze im Bild and archived at the Silesian Digital Library.
While the aim of the German–Polish Convention on Upper Silesia was to ease travel between the two countries, the exact opposite happened. The border checks outlined above severely disrupted travel and both the new German and Polish tramway operators systematically liquidated several cross-border tramway crossings that were regarded as being problematic.
The Last Transit Tram Journeys in Upper Silesia
The last transit tram journeys occurred in 1937. The Upper Silesian Mixed Commission (Polish Górnośląska Komisja Mieszana. German Oberschlesische Mischkommission) was set up immediately after the German–Polish Convention regarding Upper Silesia had come into force. The commission, composed of Germans and Poles and under the jurisdiction of a neutral Swiss judge, had the task of an arbitration panel that resolved disputes bought by stakeholders of Germany and Poland. Once the time remit of the commission had passed in 1937, it was considered there were no legal obstacles in place to terminate problematic transit tram journeys.
Photographs from the Polish side of the border crossing point of Łagiewniki near Beuthen, Germany
Gallery One of Three – Cross-border and Transit Tram journeys in Upper Silesia
Click on any image to see a bigger photograph and to cycle through the gallery. If using a mobile phone, please click in the upper unshaded areas.
Images attribution: NAC – Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe (National Digital Archive of Poland)
German-Polish border crossing point at Zaborze-Poremba
This article is from the weekly publication Oberschlesien im Bild, 1924, issue No. 42. The publication is archived at the Silesian Digital Library. Please note that the text below the photographs is also clipped short in the archived version.
Photographs from the German side of the border just north of Łagiewniki, Poland
This photograph dates from between 1930 and 1932. It shows travellers about to undergo document control at the German border post a few metres north of Łagiewniki in Poland.
The image has been provided to Wikipedia by the Federal Archives of Germany.
Image attribution: Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-P012534 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE. Via Wikimedia Commons
The following photographs are from the German book Schlesiens Ostgrenze im Bild by Heinz Rogmann (Silesia’s Eastern Border in Pictures), published 1936. The author has annotated some of the photographs to show the German side of the border as D and the Polish side as P. The publication (in the public domain) is available at the Silesian Digital Library.
Gallery Two of Three – Cross-border and Transit Tram journeys in Upper Silesia
Click on any image to cycle through the gallery. If using a mobile phone, please click in the upper unshaded areas.
Some more border absurdities after the partition of Upper Silesia
More photographs from Schlesiens Ostgrenze im Bild
Gallery Three of Three – Border Absurdities In Upper Silesia
Click on any image to cycle through the gallery. If using a mobile phone, please click in the upper unshaded areas.
YouTube video – Silesia Divided
Silesia Divided (1922 – 1939). Area of today’s Ruda Śląska.
Śląsk podzielony (1922 – 1939). Okolice obecnej Rudy Śląskiej.
Watch an excellent video about the broader social impact of the plebiscite and subsequent partition of Upper Silesia. Details about Transit Tram journeys in Upper Silesia are also covered.
In Polish with subtitles in English.
South Coast View is not affiliated with the author or organisation that produced this video.
Map of the Beuthen region showing tramway, railway and road border crossing points
This is a German map dating from 1927 of Beuthen (today Bytom Poland). The original map is 15000 pixels wide by 10427 pixels high and it is not possible to show you the same sized map on this page. However, you can view the high resolution original sized map at the Polish Digital Library. The legend (bottom left-hand corner) shows tramways marked as a red line.
The idea of frictionless cross-border tram travel as we know it today (for instance in France, Germany and Switzerland within the Schengen area of the European Union), was a concept far removed from the harsh realities of travel between the then divided communities of Upper Silesia. Find out more about cross-border tram travel in our times.
Invasion of Poland by Nazi forces on 1st of September 1939
Following the Nazi invasion of Poland, Polish Upper Silesia (together with other parts of eastern Poland) were annexed by Germany and placed directly under German civil administration. At the same time the two tramway systems were merged into one network.
Since there was no need for transit trams or previous document and customs checks in the now unified area of Upper Silesia, tram services became considerably more reliable and passenger use greatly increased.
The Upper Silesian tramway network after World War II
Following World War II, the whole tramway network of German and Polish Upper Silesia came within the new Polish borders.
In general, the network still exists today and retains many of the tramway routes and route numbering that were present during and before the Nazi occupation.
This can be seen by comparing the tramway network map above, with the current network map shown below.
Map attribution: ES64U4, CC BY-SA 4.0, Via Wikimedia Commons. View the original higher resolution tramway map at Wikipedia.
Please note that words on this page are copyright © 2021 South Coast View
Sources and Links
Partition of Upper Silesia and The Plebiscite. Wikipedia in English. In Polish. In German.
Text of The German–Polish Convention on Upper Silesia. At the Silesian Digital Library. In Polish.
Silesian Interurbans History. Wikipedia. In English. In Polish. In German. In Dutch.
By tram across the border. Not only from Katowice to Sosnowiec. (Tramwajem przez granicę, nie tylko z Katowic do Sosnowca. Dziennik Zachodni). In Polish.
Upper Silesia divided like Berlin during the Cold War. (Górny Śląsk podzielony jak Berlin podczas zimnej wojny). Onet.pl. In Polish.
The game for Upper Silesia in 1922 (Gra o Górny Śląsk w 1922 r.) In Polish.
Border crossing and tram in Zaborze-Poremba. (Przejście Graniczne i Tramwaj w Zaborzu-Porembie – History of Zabrze). In Polish.
National Digital Archive of Poland.
Schlesiens Ostgrenze im Bild (Silesia’s Eastern Border in Pictures) at the Silesian Digital Library. In German.
Oberschlesien im Bild (Upper Silesia in Fotographs) at the Silesian Digital Library. In German