Józef Klemens Piłsudski[a] ( 5 December 1867 – 12 May 1935) was a Polish statesman; Chief of State (1918–22), “First Marshal of Poland” (from 1920), and de facto leader (1926–35) of the Second Polish Republic, Minister of Military Affairs.
From mid-World War I he had a major influence in Poland’s politics, and was an important figure on the European political scene.
He was the person most responsible for the creation of the Second Republic of Poland in 1918, 123 years after it had been taken over by Russia, Austria and Prussia. Under Piłsudski, Poland recovered Vilnius from newly born independent state of Lithuania following Żeligowski’s Mutiny but was unable to incorporate most of Lithuania into the newly resurrected Polish State.
Describing himself as a descendant of the culture and traditions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Piłsudski believed in a multicultural Poland – a home of nations, recognizing numerous ethnic and religious nationalities and finally existing in strong historical alliance with independent states of Lithuania and Ukraine.
His main opponent Roman Dmowski by contrast called for an independent state of Poland narrowed to the lands of historical Crown and founded mainly on ethnically Polish demos and Roman Catholic identity.
Early in his political career, Piłsudski became a leader of the Polish Socialist Party. Concluding that Poland’s independence would have to be won by force of arms, he created the Polish Legions. In 1914 he anticipated the outbreak of a European war, the Russian Empire’s defeat by the Central Powers, and the Central Powers’ defeat by the western powers.
When World War I broke out, he and his Legions fought under Austrian army control against Russia. In 1917, with Russia faring badly in the war, he withdrew his support from the Central Powers and was arrested by the Germans.
From November 1918, when Poland regained independence, until 1922 Piłsudski was Poland’s Chief of State. In 1919–21 he commanded Poland’s forces in six border wars that shaped the nation of Poland. His forces seemed almost defeated in the Polish-Soviet War when they fought the battle for Warsaw in August 1920. In the “miracle on the Vistula,” they routed five Russian armies and saved Poland.
In 1923, with the government dominated by his opponents, particularly the National Democrats, he withdrew from active politics.
Three years later, he returned to power with the May 1926 coup d’état, and became the strong man (in practice a military dictator) of Poland. From then until his death in 1935, he concerned himself primarily with military and foreign affairs.
Piłsudski pursued, with varying degrees of intensity, two complementary strategies, intended to enhance Poland’s security: “Prometheism”, which aimed at breaking up, successively, the Imperial Russia and later the Soviet Union into their constituent nations; and the creation of an “Intermarium” federation, comprising Poland and other independent states located in the geographical space between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea and geopolitically placed between Germany and Russia.
The Intermarium main purpose was to guarantee a lasting balance of power in Central Europe and to secure the existence of its nations against both western and eastern imperialisms.
Between 1945 and 1989, Piłsudski’s person and his record were one of the multiple topics forbidden by the Polish communist regime. Wandycz characterizes him as “an ardent Polish patriot who on occasion would castigate the Poles for their stupidity, cowardice, or servility.
He called himself a Polish Lithuanian, and was stubborn and reserved, loath to show his emotions.” Today, although some aspects of his rule remain controversial, Piłsudski’s memory is held in high esteem in Poland. Together with his opponent Roman Dmowski he is regarded as a father of modern Polish nation.
Józef was born on 5 December 1867 to the medieval noble family Piłsudski, at their manor named Zułów near the Zułowo village (now Zalavas, Švenčionys district municipality, Lithuania), on the territory of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, occupied by the Russian Empire since 1795.
The estate was part of the dowry brought by his mother, a member of the wealthy Billewicz family. The Piłsudski’s family although pauperized, cherished Polish patriotic traditions and has been characterized either as Polish or as Polonized-Lithuanian. Józef was the second son born to the family.
Piłsudski as a schoolboy
Józef, when he attended the Russian gymnasium at Wilno (now Vilnius, Lithuania), was not an especially diligent student. One of the younger Polish students at this gymnasium was the future Russian communist leader Feliks Dzierżyński, who later would become Piłsudski’s arch-enemy.
Along with his brothers Adam, Bronisław and Jan, Józef was introduced by his mother Maria, née Billewicz, to Polish history and literature, which were suppressed by the Russian authorities. His father, likewise named Józef, had fought in the January 1863 Uprising against Russian rule of Poland.
The family resented the Russian government’s Russification policies. Young Józef profoundly disliked having to attend Russian Orthodox Church service and left school with an aversion not only for the Russian Tsar and the Russian Empire, but for the culture, which he knew well.
In 1885 Piłsudski started medical studies at Kharkov University, where he became involved with Narodnaya Volya, part of the Russian Narodniki revolutionary movement. In 1886 he was suspended for participating in student demonstrations.
He was rejected by the University of Dorpat (Tartu, Estonia), whose authorities had been informed of his political affiliation.
On 22 March 1887 he was arrested by Tsarist authorities on a charge of plotting with Vilnius socialists to assassinate Tsar Alexander III. In fact, Piłsudski’s main connection to the plot was his elder brother Bronisław’s involvement in it. Bronisław Piłsudski was sentenced to fifteen years’ hard labor (katorga) in eastern Siberia.
Józef received a milder sentence: five years’ exile in Siberia, first at Kirensk on the Lena River, then at Tunka. While being transported in a prisoners’ convoy to Siberia, Piłsudski was held for several weeks at a prison in Irkutsk.
There he took part in what the authorities viewed as a revolt: after one of the inmates had insulted a guard and refused to apologize, he and other political prisoners were beaten by the guards for their defiance; Piłsudski lost two teeth and took part in a subsequent hunger strike until the authorities reinstated political prisoners’ privileges that had been suspended after the incident. For his involvement, he was sentenced in 1888 to six months’ imprisonment.
He had to spend the first night of his incarceration in 40-degree-below-zero Siberian cold; this led to an illness that nearly killed him and to health problems that would plague him throughout life.
During his years of exile in Siberia, Piłsudski met many Sybiraks, including Bronisław Szwarce, who had almost become a leader of the January 1863 Uprising.
He was allowed to work in an occupation of his own choosing, and earned his living tutoring local children in mathematics and foreign languages (he knew French, German and Lithuanian in addition to Russian and his native Polish; he would later learn English). Local officials decided that as a Polish noble he was not entitled to the 10-ruble pension received by most other exiles.
In 1892 Piłsudski returned from exile and settled in Adomavas Manor near Teneniai (now in Šilalė district). In 1893 he joined the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) and helped organize its Lithuanian branch. Initially he sided with the Socialists’ more radical wing, but despite the socialist movement’s ostensible internationalism he remained a Polish nationalist.
In 1894, as its chief editor, he began publishing an underground socialist newspaper, Robotnik (The Worker); he would also be one of its chief writers, and, initially, a typesetter. In 1895 he became a PPS leader, and took the position that doctrinal issues were of minor importance and that socialist ideology should be merged with nationalist ideology, since that combination offered the greatest chance of restoring Polish independence.
On 15 July 1899, while an underground organizer, Piłsudski married a fellow socialist organizer, Maria Juszkiewiczowa, née Koplewska.
According to his chief biographer, Wacław Jędrzejewicz, the marriage was less romantic than pragmatic in nature. Both were very involved in the socialist and independence movement.
The printing press of “Robotnik” was in their apartment first in Wilno, then in Łódź. Having a pretext of regular family life made their accommodation safer from suspicion. The Russian law also protected the wife from prosecution for the illegal activities of the husband.
The marriage deteriorated when, several years later, Piłsudski began an affair with a younger socialist, Aleksandra Szczerbińska. Maria died in 1921, and in October that year Piłsudski married Aleksandra. By then the couple had two little daughters, Wanda and Jadwiga.
In February 1900, after Russian authorities found Robotnik’s underground printing press in Łódź, Piłsudski was imprisoned at the Warsaw Citadel. But, after feigning mental illness in May 1901, he managed to escape from a mental hospital at Saint Petersburg with the help of a Polish physician, Władysław Mazurkiewicz, and others, fleeing to Galicia, then part of Austria-Hungary.
At the time, when almost all parties in Russian Poland and Lithuania took a conciliatory position toward the Russian Empire and aimed at negotiating within it a limited autonomy for Poland, Piłsudski’s PPS was the only political force that was prepared to fight the Empire for Polish independence and to resort to violence in order to achieve that goal.
On the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), in the summer of 1904, Piłsudski traveled to Tokyo, Japan, where he tried unsuccessfully to obtain that country’s assistance for an uprising in Poland. He offered to supply Japan with intelligence in support of its war with Russia and proposed the creation of a Polish Legion from Poles,
conscripted into the Russian Army, who had been captured by Japan. He also suggested a “Promethean” project directed at breaking up the Russian Empire — a goal that he later continued to pursue. Meeting with Yamagata Aritomo, he suggested that starting a guerrilla war in Poland would distract Russia, and asked that Japan supply him with weapons. Although Japanese diplomat Hayashi Tadasu favored the plan, the Japanese government, including Yamagata were more skeptical.
Piłsudski’s arch-rival Roman Dmowski, also traveled to Japan, where he argued against Piłsudski’s plan, endeavoring to discourage the Japanese government from supporting at this time a Polish revolution which Dmowski felt would be doomed to failure. Dmowski, himself a Polish patriot, would remain Piłsudski’s political arch-enemy to the end of Piłsudski’s life.
In the end, the Japanese offered Piłsudski much less than he had hoped for; he received Japan’s help in purchasing weapons and ammunition for the PPS and its combat organisation, while the Japanese declined the Legion proposal.
In the fall of 1904 Piłsudski formed a paramilitary unit (the Combat Organization of the Polish Socialist Party, or bojówki) aiming to create an armed resistance movement against the Russian authorities.
The PPS organized an increasing numbers of demonstrations, mainly in Warsaw; on 28 October 1904, Russian Cossack cavalry attacked a demonstration, and in reprisal, during a demonstration on 13 November Piłsudski’s paramilitary opened fire on Russian police and military. Initially concentrating their attention on spies and informers, in March 1905 the paramilitary began using bombs to assassinate selected Russian police officers.
During the 1905 Russian Revolution, Piłsudski played a leading role in events in Congress Poland. In early 1905 he ordered the PPS to launch a general strike there; it involved some 400,000 workers and lasted two months until it was broken by the Russian authorities. In June 1905, Piłsudski sent paramilitary aid to an uprising in Łódź.
During the “June Days”, as the Łódź uprising came to be known, armed clashes broke out between Piłsudski’s paramilitaries and gunmen loyal to Dmowski and his National Democrats. On 22 December 1905, Piłsudski called for all Polish workers to rise up; the call went largely unheeded.
Unlike the National Democrats, Piłsudski instructed the PPS to boycott the elections to the First Duma. This decision, and his resolve to try to win Polish independence through uprisings, caused tensions within the PPS, and in November 1906 the party fractured over Piłsudski’s leadership. His faction came to be called the “Old Faction” or “Revolutionary Faction” (“Starzy” or “Frakcja Rewolucyjna”), while their opponents were known as the “Young Faction”, “Moderate Faction” or “Left Wing” (“Młodzi”, “Frakcja Umiarkowana”, “Lewica”).
The “Young” sympathized with the Social Democrats of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania and believed that priority should be given to co-operation with Russian revolutionaries in toppling the Tsarist regime and creating a socialist utopia that would facilitate negotiations for independence.
Piłsudski and his supporters in the Revolutionary Faction continued to plot a revolution against Tsarist Russia that would secure Polish independence. By 1909 his faction would again be the majority in the PPS, and Piłsudski would remain one of the most important PPS leaders up to the outbreak of the First World War.
Piłsudski anticipated a coming European war and the need to organize the nucleus of a future Polish Army which could help win Poland’s independence from the three empires that had partitioned her out of political existence in the late 18th century. In 1906 Piłsudski, with the connivance of Austrian authorities, founded a military school in Kraków for the training of paramilitary units.
In 1906 alone, the 800-strong paramilitaries, operating in five-man teams in Congress Poland, killed 336 Russian officials; in subsequent years, the number of their casualties declined, while the paramilitaries’ numbers increased to some 2,000 in 1908.
The paramilitaries also held up Russian currency transports leaving Polish territories. On the night of 26/27 September 1908, they robbed a Russian mail train carrying tax revenues from Warsaw to Saint Petersburg. Piłsudski, who took part in this Bezdany raid near Vilnius, used the funds thus “expropriated” to finance his secret military organization. The take from that single raid (200,812 rubles) was a fortune for the time and equaled the paramilitaries’ entire takes of the two preceding years.
In 1908 Piłsudski transformed his paramilitary units into an “Association for Active Struggle” (Związek Walki Czynnej, or ZWC), headed by three of his associates, Władysław Sikorski, Marian Kukiel and Kazimierz Sosnkowski. One of the ZWC’s main purposes was to train officers and noncommissioned officers for a future Polish Army.
In 1910 two legal paramilitary organizations were created in the Austrian zone of Poland – one in Lwów (now Lviv, Ukraine) and one in Kraków – to conduct training in military science. With the permission of the Austrian authorities, Piłsudski founded a series of “sporting clubs”, then the Riflemen’s Association, which served as cover to train a Polish military force.
In 1912 Piłsudski (using the nom de guerre, “Mieczysław”) became commander-in-chief of a Riflemen’s Association (Związek Strzelecki) that grew by 1914 to 12,000 men. In 1914, Piłsudski declared that “Only the sword now carries any weight in the balance for the destiny of a nation.”