150th Anniversary of the Polish Gymnastic Society “Sokół”

“It was assumed that if an opportunity to regain Polish independence arose, those who were able-bodied and patriotic would stand up to fight for it,” said Professor Andrzej Chwalba of the Jagiellonian University. The Polish Gymnastic Society “Sokół” (i.e. “Falcon”), an organisation with a sport and educational character, was established in Lwów 150 years ago on 7 February 1867.

Polish Press Agency: The first “Sokół” nest in Poland was established at the same time as the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Can it therefore be regarded as the first harbinger of the freedoms that Poles enjoyed in Galicia?

Professor Andrzej Chwalba: Despite this similarity, the timing is coincidental. The development of “Sokół” and other organisations of its kind was connected to the introduction of constitutional laws, which Emperor Franz Joseph awarded to all subjects in all the countries of his monarchy. They allowed the establishment of an array of societies, associations, clubs and political parties. This made it possible to bring societies promoting physical activity, developed in German countries and the Benelux states, to Polish territories. Similar associations developed in Bohemia somewhat earlier.

The idea found fertile soil in the capital city of Galicia, Lwów. From that hub, hundreds of others developed. Between the First and Second World War, there were more than 1,000 in operation.

What were the goals of “Falcon” during its initial period of operation? Was it the development of national awareness, or rather the promotion of physical culture?

Sokół rally - Katowice 1937 The two goals were treated with equal importance. The statute of the organisation didn’t place any clear emphasis on patriotic goals and focused on outdoor physical activity. In Galicia, “Falcon” laid the foundations for the development of social activity, and gradually national themes increased in importance. Members of “Falcon” celebrated the important anniversaries of Polish history, especially the events of May 3. Polish national heroes were commemorated during evening ceremonies organised in their honour. They particularly emphasised the significance of physical fitness for the political and military success of Polish heroes and rulers.

It was assumed that if an opportunity to regain independence arose in Poland, those who would stand up to fight for it would need to be physically fit and patriotic, not weak and physically unfit. In the long term, therefore, the goal was to prepare a military corps.

Were the future soldiers of an independent Poland recruited from all social strata of Galicia?

“Falcon” was the first social movement of a supra-estate nature in the Polish lands. Anyone who wanted to train physically could become a member, regardless of social class. Initially, “Sokół” offered only gymnastic training, but other sections developed in time for other sports. The equestrian and rowing sections involve to a large extent landed gentry and intelligentsia, while others, such as wrestling, cycling, and track and field attracted artisans and craftsmen, workers and even peasants.

Besides National Democracy members, which strongly connected the operation of “Falcon” nests with political activity, the organisation also attracted many activists of the Polish Peasant Party (PSL), which is why “Sokół” nests opened even in the small towns of Galicia. This proves how deep the process of democratisation and citizen development was. In time, Polish-speaking “Falcon” members became Poles. We know of many cases where this kind of mature national awareness was developed.

In August 1914, many members of “Falcon” nests joined the Legions…

Early in August 1914, the Eastern Legion was set up in Lwów, organised by National Democracy. That is why it wasn’t based on the Riflemen’s Associations (Związki Strzeleckie), as was the case in Krakow, but rather on Field Falcon Teams (Polowe Drużyny Sokole) developed a number of years before the outbreak of World War I. At the time, weapons were already being bought, young people were taking part in drills, and military exercises were organised. Captain Józef Haller was connected with them.

National Democracy was not a pro-Austrian option, which is why a few weeks later the Eastern Legion was disbanded. A small group of soldiers, irrespective of their political views, joined the Polish Legions. They included Józef Haller, who was the only general of the Polish legions who fought against all three of the powers partitioning Poland.

Without Haller and his experience as part of the Austrian Imperial and Royal Army, the militarisation of “Falcon” would perhaps not have been possible…

He was one of the younger officers by rank and age. The higher ranking and older officers who were to command the Eastern Legion did not perform that well, so drafting the troops fighting in the Carpathians became Haller’s task; with time he rose to be number two in the Polish legionary movement.

The commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Grunwald in July 1910 was a “Falcon” success before the outbreak of World War I.

The commemoration of the Battle of Grunwald could not take place in Germany. Similarly, Austrian authorities had long resisted attempts to permit such a great commemoration. Finally they did, yet the main financial burden fell on Ignacy Jan Paderewski. The famous pianist financed the construction of the Grunwald Monument in Krakow’s Matejko square. Over 100,000 people representing all estates participated in the Krakow rally; they came from all the partitions and represented many organisations. The anti-German character of the celebration was very strong. The famous Wagon of Drzymała, symbolising the fight against the partitioning powers, was put up in the vicinity of the Barbican.

The meeting became an opportunity to organise the greatest gathering of Polish Falconry before the outbreak of World War II. Peasant and national circles connected to “Falcon” contributed to the success of that festivity. It was a significant moment in the development of the riflemen, Falconry and scouting movements. The latter phenomenon would not have been possible without the Falconry traditions. This is where the scouting greetings (czuwaj and czołem) as well as the uniforms worn by the Field Falconry Teams come from. All of these organisations were closely linked and provided a powerful civil and moral force.

How did these traditions spread to the other partitioned areas and continue in the subsequent decades?

Henryk Chmielewski “Falcon” was also set up in Germany. Its oldest nest operated in Wrocław. During World War I, “Sokół” was in practice delegalised there. In the Russian Partition, the semi-legal operation of “Falcon” was possible only after the revolution of 1905. Thus, Galicia was the bastion of “Falcon” before 1914. The interwar period was a time of enormous organisational development, although this dynamic was not as strong as in Galicia before 1914. This resulted from the presence of many other organisations. Moreover, the role of National Democrats in the Falcon movement weakened as those of the Piłsudski camp grew. The clash between these two forces dominated the operation of “Sokół” until 1939. After the war, “Falcon” was branded as illegal by the communist authorities and could only be reborn in 1989. Obviously, the time of its greatest power was gone forever, much like in other European countries. Time spent on physical education, as well as its means and character, are entirely different today.

It is also worth recalling that many of Poland’s finest athletes during the interwar period hailed from “Falcon”. They included track and field athlete Jadwiga Wajsówna, wrestler Stanisław Cyganiewicz, boxer Henryk Chmielewski and long distance runner Józef Noji. “Sokół” also played a major role in the development of sport infrastructure.


The Sejm observed the 150th anniversary of the oldest Polish youth patriotic and sports organisation – Polish Gymnastic Society “Sokół”. The organisation helped raise young Poles “in the spirit of patriotism and civil attitudes,” the Sejm act reads.

The unanimously approved act stated that “the development and promotion of Polish sport was the purpose of the Society established in Lwów on 7 February 1867. With time, the Society also assumed a nationalist and patriotic character”. It also mentions that “Sokół” activists took part in insurrections and war-time groupings such as the Polish Legion, General Haller’s Blue Army, and participated in the Wielkopolska and Silesia uprisings. The act also includes information that after the war, members of “Sokół” contributed to the establishment of numerous sport clubs, many of which had sections for women. “Honorary members of “Sokół” included Ignacy Jan Paderewski and John Paul II.”

Moreover, the act emphasised that the communist authorities repeatedly refused to register the society after World War II, which is why it operated overseas. It restarted its operation immediately after the fall of communism in 1989, playing an active role in Poland and abroad in the fields of education, sport, culture and defence.

“On the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the “Sokół” Polish Gymnastic Society, the Sejm of the Republic of Poland expresses its respect for all the activists of the Polish “Falconry” movement who contributed to the education of successive generations of Polish youth in the spirit of patriotism and civil attitudes,” the act continues.

During World War II, its members fought on all fronts, and after the war the Society only operated as an émigré organisation in the UK, France and the US. The first societies to reopen in Poland after 1989 were in Warsaw, Inowrocław, Gniewków, Bydgoszcz and Poznań.

Source: Polish Press Agency (PAP)