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The Plebiscite overprints on German Stamps after World War I

How great it is to be a stamp collector!

Consider the unusual corners of history we can peek into, should the mood take us, simply by glimpsing an interesting stamp.

Such a moment occurred when I saw we were offering a German 1920 50 Pfennig black and purple ‘Germania’ stamp overprinted “Commission Intralliée Marienwerder” (Lot 6479 in our Sandafayre Sale of 16th December).

This elegant little item shows just how postage stamps had a secondary purpose and could be used as a political tool to advertise and encourage people to vote in elections held in the aftermath of World War I.

During the immediate post-First World War period there was an urgent need to re-establish order. Political turmoil followed the collapse of the European empires and was accompanied by the displacement of large groups of people who often became stateless. There were fiercely contested border disputes in regions involved in the conflict that included what had once been East and West Prussia. Why was a vote involving large amounts of people called a ‘Plebiscite’? It seems that under the ancient Roman system there were two distinct social classes who were known as Plebeians and Patricians. Put simply, the former were commoners and the latter were members of the aristocratic families in Roman society. A Plebeian Assembly of ‘common people’ who were citizens of Rome voted and made laws. This then, is the origin of the word ‘plebiscite’. When significant decisions had to be made regarding the future of the territories that had once been part of the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire and the defunct German, Ottoman and Russian Empires the idea of allowing ‘the people to self-determine’ and decide by whom and how they should be governed can be traced to a speech made by President Woodrow Wilson to the US Congress in 1918. The outcome of the Treaty of Versailles 1919 and the Paris Peace Conference 1919 included the appointment of Inter-Allied Commissions that exercised control over the territories. This finally resulted in six Plebiscites taking place between 1919 and 1921. Two of the regions selected for a Plebiscite, as laid down under Articles 94 and 96 of the Treaty of Versailles, were Allenstein and Marienwerder. Both covered areas of territory that had previously been within East Prussia and West Prussia.

With regard to Allenstein, in April 1920 a set of 28 German Empire stamps were issued. Divided equally, with 14 different values overprinted “PLEBISCITE, OLSZTYN, ALLENSTEIN” and the second group with an oval overprint containing the words “TRAITÉ DE VERSAILLES ART.94 et 95”. There are other examples but these two demonstrate the ingenuity of the governing authorities in using stamps to carry a message advertising that a Plebiscite was due to be held. This took place on the 11th July 1920 with the majority of the population preferring to remain part of Germany rather than become a part of Poland. These stamps remained valid until the 20th August 1920.

With regard to the Marienwerder Plebiscite, here a set of 14 German stamps were overprinted with the intention of making people aware of the forthcoming vote. These were issued between March and May 1920. There are a number of different varieties as well as different overprints. These include “Commission/Interalliée” or stamps with “Allied Commission” at the top and “Marienwerder” at the base. As in the German 50 Pfennig example previously described, others were overprinted with the words “Commission/Interalliée/Marienwerder”, descending vertically from the top to the bottom of the stamp. On a very high turn-out the electorate again voted to become part of Germany.

Sadly, the meaning of the word ‘Plebeian’ has been denigrated and shortened over time. To call someone a ‘Pleb’ is an insult suggesting that the recipient is ill educated and of a lower social class. This was certainly never the intention of those instrumental in assisting the Plebiscite States to establish their new identities. A fascinating insight into what was a brief, yet ingenious attempt to use stamps for the dual role of earning revenue at the same to advertising an important event.


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