LOCATION: East Prussia
AREA: 4,457 sq. mi.
POPULATION: 540,000 (1920 est.)
FIRST STAMPS ISSUED: Overprinted Germany 3 April 1920
100 Pfennig = 1 Mark
Allenstein was a district in East Prussia centered upon the city of the same name (currently the Polish city of Olsztyn) which overprinted German stamps in April 1920 to publicize a self-determination vote known as a plebiscite. The name is German for “castle on the Alle River”, construction of which was begun by Teutonic knights in 1347 and completed fifty years later. Since 1999, the city has been the capital of the Warmian-Masurian Voivodeship in northeastern Poland; the river is now known as the Łyna.
The area has changed hands numerous times throughout its history. It was captured by the Kingdom of Poland during the Polish-Lithuanian-Teutonic War in 1410, and again in 1414 during the Hunger War, but it was returned to the monastic state of the Teutonic Knights after hostilities ended. Allenstein joined the Prussian Confederation in 1440 and rebelled against the Teutonic Knights in 1454 upon the outbreak of the Thirteen Years’ War, requesting protection from the Polish Crown. Although the Teutonic Knights captured the town the following year, it was retaken by Polish troops in 1463. The Second Peace of Thorn in 1466 designated Allenstein and the Bishopric of Warmia as part of Royal Prussia under the sovereignty of the Crown of Poland.
The astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus lived at the castle as administrator of both Allenstein and Mehlsack (now Pieniężno) from 1516 to 1521 and was in charge of the defenses of Allenstein and Warmia during the Polish-Teutonic War of 1519–21. Allenstein was sacked by Swedish troops in both 1655 and 1708 during the Polish-Swedish wars, and the town’s population was nearly wiped out in 1710 by epidemics of bubonic plague and cholera.
The town was annexed by the Kingdom of Prussia in 1772 during the First Partition of Poland. A Prussian census recorded a population of 1,770 people, predominantly farmers, and Allenstein was administered within the Province of East Prussia. It was visited by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1807 after his victories over the Prussian Army. The town became part of the German Empire in 1871 during the Prussian-led unification of Germany. In 1905, Allenstein became the capital of Regierungsbezirk Allenstein, a government administrative region in East Prussia. From 1818 to 1910, the community was administered within the East Prussia Allenstein District, after which it became an independent city.
During the latter part of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, Allenstein used stamps of Prussia, the North German Confederation and Germany.
Many inhabitants of the region had Polish roots and were influenced by Polish culture; the last official German census in 1910 classified them ethnically as Poles or Masurians. During the period of the German Empire, harsh Germanization measures were enacted in the region.
Allenstein was captured by troops of the Russian Empire shortly after the start of World War I in 1914, but it was recovered by the Imperial German Army in the Battle of Tannenberg. The battle actually took place much closer to Allenstein than to Tannenberg (now Stębark), but the victorious Germans, having been defeated in the medieval battle of Tannenberg, named it as such for propaganda purposes.
Following World War I, the Polish delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, led by Roman Dmowski, made a number of demands in relation to those areas which were part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth until 1772 and despite their protests, supported by the French, President Woodrow Wilson and the other allies agreed that plebiscites according to self-determination should be held. A number of disputed areas were placed under temporary League of Nations administration, pending plebiscites to determine which nation the populace wished to join.
At the time, Allenstein had a population estimated at 540,000 mixed Germanic and Slavic people. Although Allenstein had a sizable Slavic minority, these people were not Poles. They were Masurians who shared the Lutheran faith with the German-speaking Prussians.
The French and the British were looking for ways to strengthen the new Polish republic as a bulwark against the Soviet threat. The British and French tried to attach Allenstein to Poland, but the Germans objected strongly, so the East Prussian Plebiscite (Abstimmung in Ostpreußen) was called. The vote in Allenstein was scheduled to take place on 11 July 1920 and was conducted by the German authorities.
Many German citizens of Polish ethnicity of the region voted for Germany out of fear that if the area was allocated to Poland it would soon fall under Soviet rule. According to several Polish sources the German side engaged in mass persecution of Polish activists, their Masurian supporters, going as far as engaging in regular hunts and murder against them to influence the vote. Additionally the organization of the plebiscite was influenced by Great Britain, which at the time supported Germany, fearing the increased power of France in post-war Europe.
Articles 94 to 97 of the Treaty of Versailles defined the Allenstein Plebiscite Area as “the western and northern boundary of Allenstein Government Region to its junction with the boundary between the districts of Oletzko and of Angerburg; thence, the northern boundary of the Oletzko District to its junction with the old frontier of East Prussia.”
A five-member Inter-Allied Administrative and Plebiscite Commission for Allenstein was appointed to represent the League of Nations. British and Italian troops under the command of this commission soon after 12 February 1920. The local police forces were placed under the control of two British officers. There was also a battalion from the Royal Irish Regiment and an Italian regiment stationed at Lyck (Ełk). Civil and municipal administration was continued under the existing German authorities who were responsible to the Commission for the duration of the plebiscite period.
On 18 February 1919 the Allenstein-based Commission decreed that the Polish language would gain equal rights to the German language in the region. The Commission had to eventually remove both the mayor of Allenstein and an officer of Sicherheitswehr after a Polish banner at the local consulate of Poland was defaced; the Polish side expressed gratitude for Allied protection of Polish rights and underlined its desire for peaceful coexistence with German-speaking population.
In April 1920 during a Polish theatrical performance in Deuthen (Dajtki) near Allenstein, ethnic Poles were attacked by pro-German activists; on the demands of the Allied Commission, the German police escorted Polish actors but ignored the attackers. There were pogroms against ethnic Poles that month in the towns of Bischofsburg (Biskupiec) and Lötzen (Giżycko), the latter of which saw Italian forces sent to protect the Polish population. In May several attacks on ethnic Poles were reported in Osterode (Ostróda), and included attacks on co-workers of the Masurian Committee.
Shortly before the plebiscite, pro-Polish activists decided to boycott the preparations for electoral commissions to protest unequal treatment of the Polish and German side and pro-German terror. This allowed German officials to falsify lists with eligible voters, writing down names of dead people or people who weren’t eligible to vote.
The plebiscite asked the voters whether they wanted their homeland to remain in East Prussia, which was part of Weimar Germany, or instead become part of Poland (the alternatives for the voters were not Poland / Germany, but Poland / East Prussia, which itself was no sovereign nation). All inhabitants of the plebiscite areas older than 20 years of age or those who were born in this area before 1 January 1905, were entitled to return to vote.
During the plebiscite Germans transported pro-German voters to numerous locations allowing them to cast votes multiple times. In Allenstein, cards with pro-Polish votes were simply taken away by a German official who declared that they were “invalid” and presented voters with cards for the pro-German side. Voters were observed by German police in the polling stations. Pro-Polish voting cards were often hidden or taken away and Polish controllers were removed from polling stations. A large number of ethnic Poles – out of fear of repressions – didn’t attend the plebiscite at all.
The plebiscite ended on 11 July 1920 with a majority of the voters voting for East Prussia with only a small part of the territory awarded to Poland, the majority remaining with Germany. The results were a hugely lopsided 362,209 votes (97.8%) for East Prussia and 7,980 votes (2.2%) for Poland. After the plebiscite, attacks on ethnic Polish population commenced by pro-German mobs saw ethnically Polish priests and politicians driven from their homes.
A total of twenty-eight stamps were issued to publicize the Allenstein plebiscite, with the first appearing on 3 April 1920. These were German stamps overprinted with either of two styles. The first fourteen stamps were overprinted with “PLEBISCITE / OLSZTYN / ALLENSTEIN” while the second fourteen read “TRAITÉ / DE / VERSAILLES / ART. 94 et 95” referring to the Articles 94 and 95 of the treaty. International use of the overprinted stamps ceased from 20 August 1920 and German stamps were used thereafter.
Following the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, the Poles and Jews in Allenstein were increasingly persecuted. The city was made the seat of the Allenstein Militärische Bereich by the Wehrmacht in 1933. It was the home of the 11th Infanterie Division, the 11th Artillery Regiment, and the 217th Infanterie Division. After the German invasion of Poland that started the Second World War, the Wehrmacht established an Area Headquarters for Wehrkreis I on 12 October 1939. It controlled the sub-areas of Allenstein, Lötzen (now Giżycko) and Zichenau (Ciechanów). Beginning in 1939, members of the Polish-speaking minority, especially members of the Union of Poles in Germany, were deported to German death camps.
Allenstein was plundered and burnt by the invading Soviet Red Army on 22 January 1945 as the Eastern Front reached the city. Allenstein’s German population evacuated the region or were subsequently expelled. On 2 August 1945, the city was placed under Polish administration by the Soviets according to the Potsdam Agreement and officially renamed to Olsztyn. Polish stamps replaced those of Germany at that time. In October 1945, the German population of Olsztyn was expelled by Order of the City Commanders of Olszty.
The entire run of Allenstein stamps have a total value of US $49 unused, $105 mint never hinged and $91.90 used, according to the 2009 edition of the Scott catalogue. The two most expensive single stamps are Scott #18 ($20 unused, $35 used) and Scott #4 ($5.50 unused, $9.50 used). This is a 15-pfennig stamp in violet brown in each of the different overprint varieties which was issued some time after the initial 3 April 1920 release, replacing the 15pf dark violet shade.
Scott does list a few minor varieties – double and inverted overprints – and mentions that several other denominations of German stamps received the plebiscite overprints but weren’t actually issued. These appear on the collector market from time to time and the Scott catalogue values them at between $75 hinged and $175 never hinged.
Allenstein was the stamp issuer that first attracted me to early German stamps. I currently have sixteen stamps in my collection, four of which are duplicates. It won’t be difficult to obtain the remaining issues and Allenstein may just be my first “complete country” (Bohemia and Moravia is close behind).