Józef Piłsudski was born December 5th, 1867 in a small Lithuanian town north of Vilnius to Polish parents. Piłsudski’s family had been very active in the January Uprising of 1863 against the Russian Empire. The Piłsudski family home had housed and cared for wounded rebels during the fighting and Piłsudski’s mother had spent time in prison for her part in the insurrection. After a fire destroyed their estate, the Piłsudski family moved to
Vilnius, which had a great impact on Józef. In a speech he gave in Vilnius in 1928, Piłsudski remembered his childhood in the city fondly: “A dear town: there are the walls which caressed me as a child and which taught me to love the greatness of truth” (Gillie, 10). His mother taught her children the “necessity of a further struggle with our countries enemies” (Gillie, 11). Mrs. Piłsudski let her children know how disappointed she was that the Uprising of 1863 had failed; she passed her revolutionary spirit on to her children.
While his mother read him the poetry of Krasinski and Slowacki, Piłsudski became engrossed in books about Ancient Greece and Rome. The heroism and patriotism of ancient figures grabbed his imagination and he confessed later that “All my dreams were then concentrated round an armed struggle with the Muscovites, whom I hated with my whole soul, and every one of whom I considered to be a scoundrel and a thief” (Gillie, 12). Though his schooling was in Russian with teachers “whose system was to crush as much as possible the independence and personal dignity of their pupils” (Gillie, 12), Piłsudski’s worldview went unchanged. He was bright and performed well in school, but he despised his school’s administration and their “degradation of all that I had been accustomed to respect and love” (Gillie, 13). His experiences at school only bred more contempt for the tsarist regime. Piłsudski wanted to lead a revolution against the Russian Empire on the scale of the French Revolution. He often pondered “why we Poles did not achieve such revolutionary energy” (Gillie, 13). The failure of the insurrection of 1863 had seemingly scared Poland into apathy.
When Piłsudski arrived at the University of Kharkov in 1885, he was a budding socialist hoping to find others who shared his political views. He was disappointed to find that the young Poles “were almost entirely Russified” (Gillie, 15). Just two years into his studies, Piłsudski was suspended from the University for participating in student demonstrations. Piłsudski used his time off to form a socialist organization with his childhood friends in Vilnius. He devoured socialist brochures and read through the first volume of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, which had just recently been translated into Russian. While Piłsudski struggled at first to understand Marx’s “abstract logic” (Gillie, 16), he appreciated Marx’s emphasis on social equality. Piłsudski and his circle began to publish a periodical expressing the need for Polish independence. But Piłsudski’s progress in the name of socialism was cut short by the tsarist authorities. Józef’s older brother, Bronislaw, had been involved in a circle of Polish socialists that had attempted to assassinate Tsar Alexander III. Early in 1887, Józef was arrested along with Bronislaw and exiled to Irkutsk Prison in Eastern Siberia for five years. Maltreatment at the hands of the Irkutsk Prison guards only strengthened Piłsudski’s beliefs about tsarism, which he called an “Asiatic monster under a European varnish” (Gillie, 27). While imprisoned, Piłsudski planned for his future once he left Siberia and vowed to continue rallying Polish socialists to the nationalist cause.
When Piłsudski returned home to Vilnius in the fall of 1892, he returned to a booming industrial city. The rise of industry both created a large working class open to socialist ideas and produced a new middle class of Jews and Germans who were mostly indifferent to the cause of Polish nationalism. The growing Jewish nationalist movement, born of Jews expelled from Russia proper, complicated the Polish national movement. Poland suffered under regulations imposed after the 1863 insurrection. The educational system became increasingly Russified; the tsarist administration even reduced the number of schools, thereby reducing the number of educated Poles. While those who had lived through the 1863 Uprising were reluctant to challenge the Russian Empire again, their children began to organize themselves into socialist organizations. Piłsudski spent his first few months home making contacts in different political organizations that had sprung up in his absence. He soon joined the Central Workers’ Committee (C.K.R) and became instrumental in the circulation of its newspaper, the Robotnik (“The Workman”). Piłsudski travelled widely, not only around Russian Poland, but also to St. Petersburg, Moscow, and other major Russian cities to distribute the Robotnik. In 1894, the tsarist authorities arrested the three leaders of the C.K.R, leaving Piłsudski responsible for the entire organization. Five years later, Piłsudski was arrested while engaged in printing the thirty-sixth edition of the Robotnik. He managed to escape from prison in Galicia in 1903 and began to write for the Cracow socialist paper, Naprzod, which was a detailed account of the Polish Socialist Party’s (P.P.S) illicit activities in Russian Poland.
To continue his activities on behalf of the P.P.S, Piłsudski relocated to London and set up the organization’s headquarters at Seven Beaumont Square, Mile End. Luckily for the P.P.S, Austria was becoming increasingly liberalized to the point that Piłsudski was recalled from London to Cracow. Relocation to Cracow made it easier to smuggle pamphlets and other publications into Russian Poland. Piłsudski played a leading role in the Party, often accepting dangerous missions into Russia itself. He wanted the P.P.S, now Poland’s largest revolutionary organization with 4,500 members, to take direct action against Russia in the form of revolution. The outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in February of 1904 provided the P.P.S with an opportunity, although any action beyond pamphlets was nearly impossible. On November 13, 1904, enormous crowds swarmed the Plac Grzybowski in Warsaw to protest being drafted into the tsar’s army and to pledge their support for the P.P.S. The police tried to suppress the protest almost immediately, but were met with gunfire. Eleven protestors were killed and more than forty were wounded (Gillie, 158). This protest, the first revolution in Russian Poland since 1863, was widely publicized. The insurrection also deepened the political divide between the P.P.S and the National Democrats, who favored cooperation with the Russian Empire.
In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1905-1906, Piłsudski devoted himself to creating an army to fight Russia while it was in the midst of social upheaval. Early in 1905, he traveled to Tokyo, Japan to ask for Japanese support in an insurrection against Russia. Though unsuccessful in Japan, Piłsudski was successful in creating the Militant Organization, the military arm of the P.P.S, once back in Poland. This organization both confiscated funds belonging to the Russian government to support P.P.S endeavors and executed Russian officials and policemen attempting to carry out tsarist orders. Piłsudski was convinced that the Militant Organization was the first step towards a national uprising. Though too well-known to the Russian authorities to take part in active military service, Piłsudski was responsible for paper work and for training the army for guerrilla warfare. As the revolution continued, the number of enrolled members in the P.P.S grew from 4,000 to 40,000 (Gillie, 161). But many of the new recruits were unreliable and made it nearly impossible for the P.P.S to direct their actions. Random acts of banditry were perpetrated in the name of Poland’s various political groups. Divides between Polish political organizations kept all Poles from uniting behind one banner against Russia.
Piłsudski quickly lost control of the P.P.S to the younger “left wing” of the party, who favored autonomy to independence and sought cooperation with the Russian Socialists. The Militant Organization remained loyal to Piłsudski and the P.P.S old guard, but the party was now deeply divided. At the eighth annual Party Congress held in Lwow in February of 1906, Piłsudski’s hopes were dashed when the question of independence was postponed to the Greek Kalends. Despite a passionate plea for independence by Piłsudski, the Party decided upon cooperating and collaborating with the Russian Socialists. The following year, the ninth Part Congress in Vienna saw the passage of a resolution denouncing the Piłsudski faction and the Militant Organization. Piłsudski and his followers decisively split with the P.P.S and formed the “P.P.S Revolutionary Fraction”. Many members of this splinter group eventually found their way into the communist party.
As confusion ran rampant among Polish political groups, revolutionary fervor died down in Russia. On principle, the P.P.S boycotted the elections to the first Duma in May and June of 1906 and watched thirty-six National Democrats win seats to represent Poland. Soon after the first Duma elections, reactionary revisions reduced the number of Polish seats from thirty-six to twelve (Gillie, 162). As the Socialist movement became even more divided and suppressed by the police, the National Democrats floundered and failed to achieve any concessions for Poland. By the end of 1908, the cause of the Militant Organization was looking increasingly hopeless. Tsarist power had made a resurgence and the militants were either in jail, in exile in Austrian Poland, or dead. Cooperation with Russia seemed to be Poland’s best option. There would be no hope for political concessions, but Russian markets were important for the Polish economy. The National Democrats called for Poland to stand on guard against Prussia, Poland’s eternal enemy. The “Russophil” faction gained many followers. The “Austrophil” faction argued that Austrian dominion would guarantee the reunion of Galicia with the Kingdom and would also promise political freedoms like those Hungary enjoyed. But the Danubian monarchy was weak and many Poles disliked Austria’s alliance with Germany, thus the “Austrophil” faction did not gain many followers. An alliance with Prussia was out of the question as Prussian Poles suffered greater denationalization more so than Poles in either Russian or Austrian Poland.
Though Poland’s political situation seemed unpromising, external factors gave some hope to the Piłsudski faction. The Bosnian crisis between Austria and Russia was the first of many flashpoints leading to the First World War. The Russo-Japanese War had exposed the weaknesses of the tsarist regime and shown that the current liberal parties, both Russian and Polish, were ill-prepared to replace Tsar Nicholas II. Piłsudski would be ready when he felt the next rumblings of a crisis. In 1908, the Lwow branch of the Militant Organization, headed by Kazimierz Sosnkowski, decided to train its recruits for both guerilla war and traditional tactics. “The Union of Active Resistance” (Z.W.C) had to be ready to fight for the future Polish revolutionary government. The P.P.S proper did not approve of Sosnkowski’s unauthorized military forces and passed a resolution banning P.P.S members from joining Z.W.C. Piłsudski was traveling when the Party had passed the resolution. Furious at the lack of commitment to the revolutionary cause, he resigned from the Party. From the twelve original men of Z.W.C training secretly in backyards, the Union of Rifle Men developed. From there stemmed the Polish Legion, which would eventually become the Polish Army. Piłsudski became the undisputed leader of the Union of Rifle Men. Polish uprisings had been plagued by two faults: a hope that the nations of Western Europe would intervene on their behalf and poor timing. In 1910, Piłsudski wrote, “A capacity for foresight has never been duly developed amongst us, neither prior to 1863, nor indeed during the past revolution” (Gillie, 180) in a pamphlet entitled “The Practical Tasks of a Revolution in Russian Poland”. The Polish uprisings of 1830 and 1863 had both happened when the full force of the Russian Army could crush any rebellion. Piłsudski was determined to strike while Russia dealt with other crises and refused to wait for help from Western Europe that would never come.
While he desired a massive uprising, Piłsudski knew that his avid followers were only a small fraction of the Polish population. He lamented his nation’s apathy, “Discontent is general in the country, but there is no corresponding will to change out disgraceful circumstances. The will to drive out the invader is weak because the nation does not believe in the possibility of victory” (Gillie, 181). Piłsudski was depending on internal tension and political infighting to weaken Russia. At the first sign of weakness, he hoped to rally his troops and drive the Russian Army out of Poland. To prepare for battle, Piłsudski studied military history and theory. He examined the uprising of 1863 in detail and all attempts at improvised military forces over the last hundred years. He fervently believed that the difference between success and failure was high morale. Piłsudski attributed a soldier’s morale to three factors: patriotism, discipline, and belief in his commander. The commander’s power was absolute: “A soldier must know how to accept a decision and feel respect for the decision of others” (Gillie, 182). The Balkan Wars inspired Piłsudski to take the next step. In 1910, Piłsudski legalized the “Union of Riflemen” under the writ of a new Austrian law that encouraged the creation of patriotic societies of sportsmen. Under this law, Piłsudski could obtain one old government rifle for every twenty men for drilling practices. To further his claims to legitimacy, Piłsudski and his staff began wearing military uniforms instead of traditional Polish mufti. Despite inadequate supplies, Piłsudski rigorously trained his makeshift army. On top of military exercises and summer camp, N.C.O’s and officers were made to attend lectures on military tactics, history, and all subjects that could prepare soldiers in the mindset of fighting for independence.
Piłsudski’s small army inspired the formation of rival groups. The “Riflemen’s Companies” differed from the “Union of Riflemen” in their political conservatism, but they promised Piłsudski that they would join with him when the revolution took place. The National Democrats also formed a military branch, but they were not concerned with issues beyond Galicia. On the eve of the Balkan War, the “Union of Riflemen” and the “Riflemen’s Companies” boasted 20,000 members. Once the war broke out, the representatives of Polish revolutionary organizations formed “The Provisional Committee of Confederated Independantist Parties” (K.T.), which provided the revolutionaries with a political organ and financial backing. The K.T. attempted to draw attention to the Polish question at the Conference of London, which had been called to re-establish peace in the Balkans, but their efforts went unnoticed. Again, the pleas of Poland had fallen on deaf ears in Western Europe.
When the First World War broke out in the summer of 1914, Piłsudski ordered his troops to be ready to march at any moment. He had 4,000 willing soldiers ready to march, but the Austrian authorities could not spare them any weapons. Nonetheless, Piłsudski and his forces crossed into Russian territory on August 6th, 1914. Among Piłsudski’s three companies, only one was supplied with modern repeating rifles. Piłsudski had nothing to go on but faulty rifles, the Austrian Army could not spare any men to support the Polish insurrection. Marching northeast, the Polish revolutionaries reached Kielce, which the Russians had recently evacuated, on August 12th. Piłsudski’s boldness encouraged Austrian-Polish parties in Cracow to form Polish Legions to serve under the Austrian High Command. On September 5th, some 5,000 Legionaries joined Piłsudski’s forces in Kielce to swear the military oath. The Chief National Committee (N.K.N) had formed two legions, a “Western” one with “Austrophil” leanings centered in Cracow and an “Eastern” one sympathetic to the National Democrats in Lwow. Lwow fell to the Russians in September, but the National Democrats did not support Piłsudski’s revolution. They did not rally volunteers, thus only 1,500 from Lwow joined the Legions. By 1917, there were 14,000 Legionaries, 6,000 Russian Poles and 8,000 Austrian Poles (Gillie, 187). From 1915 on, Austrian Poles were banned from enlisting in the Legions as it sapped Austria of manpower.
Tensions between Piłsudski and the N.K.N were high from the beginning. Professor Jaworski, who headed the N.K.N, was a conservative who was more loyal to Austria than to Poland. Piłsudski, on the other hand, refused to accept anything less than Polish independence. He was insistent that cultural differences, such as the style of saluting, between his battalions and the Austrian regulars remain distinct. Piłsudski never failed to remind the Austrian authorities that he was fighting for a Polish cause with Austrian help. Despite early optimism, Piłsudski’s revolution faced obstacles from the beginning. He could not hope to recruit more men behind Russian lines and Austrian forces suffered massive defeats against the Russians until November f 1914. Piłsudski was insistent that his Legions stand their ground and bring independence to Poland; he even considered a mass immolation of his detachment if all hope was lost. Martyrdom would keep the dream of independence alive for future generations should Piłsudski’s forces fail. Inwardly, Piłsudski was plagued with self-doubt. He had never before served in a regular army and much of he taught his troops were lessons in self-confidence. His army had to learn the art of war in the midst of battle.
For the duration of the First World War, the Polish Legions fought with the Central Powers. Piłsudski secretly promised Britain that his Legionaries would never attack France or Britain, only Russia. He believed that Russia was Poland’s mortal enemy and had no interest in defending Austria or Germany. Piłsudski believed the N.K.N to be a puppet of the Austrian government; they were too Austrian to fully support his Legionaries. He and his followers produced their own propaganda to recruit men to join the Legions, but their ideology often brought them into conflict with the N.K.N. Desiring to run an organization independent of the Central Powers, Piłsudski created the secret Polish Military Organization (P.O.W). To finance this new organization, officers in Piłsudski’s brigade reduced their pay to 100 crowns per month (Gillie, 349). The Central Powers had little interest in helping Poland achieve independence and finding recruits proved difficult, especially after Russian forces were driven out of Poland. Piłsudski saw the new German occupying forces to be as dangerous as Russian invaders. On August 15th, 1915, Piłsudski met with his political associates in Warsaw to discuss insurrections against the Germans. The ambivalent attitudes of the Central Powers enraged him. Piłsudski began to question whether or not Poland could achieve independence without the help of the Central Powers. Despite some military successes, Piłsudski gave his resignation to the Austrian authorities in July of 1917. After Piłsudski resigned, the war proceeded in such a way that Central Powers were forced to consider the Polish question. The German and Austrian forces needed Polish recruits, and for that they needed to create a Polish state. On November 5th, the Central Powers proclaimed an independent Polish Kingdom partitioned three ways whose borders were malleable. The Poles understandably had mixed feelings about their newfound independence as they were still divided into three zones.
Following the Central Powers’ declaration of Polish independence, they made a grave mistake. On November 9th, the Central Powers issued a declaration asking for manpower with no provisions for the creation of a Polish government. Furthermore, the Central Powers informed the Poles that they would be occupying Poland until further notice. The Polish response was that only a Polish government could recruit Polish men into an army. A Provisional Council of State was assembled on January 14th, 1918, with Piłsudski as one of its members. He was swiftly appointed head of the Military section of the Council. The Council had representatives from both the “activist” parties, who favored cooperation with Austria and Germany, and the independentists. Despite its good intentions, the Council was powerless against the Central Powers. Piłsudski proposed that the Council use the P.O.W instead of the Legions, who were dependent on the Austria General Staff. But his proposal was shouted down by supporters of the occupying forces. In July of 1918, the Council agreed to swear an oath of allegiance to Kaiser Wilhelm II. In protest, Piłsudski and 5,200 Legionaries refused to take the oath and were deported immediately to internment camps. Piłsudski and Sosnkowski were sent from there to a prison in Danzig on July 22nd, when they were separated from one another so they could not scheme together. Both men were sent separately to Spandau prison, then to Wesel, and finally to Magdeburg, where they were reunited again the fall of 1918.
While Piłsudski toiled in Magdeburg, his Legionaries were sent to fight for Austria on the Eastern Front. There, they fought until Austria and Germany concluded the Treaty of Brest Litovsk in February of 1918. Austria recognized the province of Chelm, once part of the Kingdom of Poland, as part of the Ukraine. This concession incited a mutiny amongst the Legionaries, who promptly marched across the front to join the Polish Corps in Russia. Half of those who made it to Russia eventually made their way to France to join the Polish force being created there. This force was a product of the French government’s cooperation with the National Democrats, who had recently relocated to Paris. In April of 1919, this force, now 100,000 strong marched home to Poland. Even without Piłsudski’s leadership, his Legionaries took it upon themselves to continue the fight for Polish independence. Two weeks before his scheduled release from Magdeburg, Piłsudski’s jailers handed him a copy of Die Woche newspaper in which there was a photo of Piłsudski and an article announcing his selection as the new Polish Minister of War in the Council of Regency, which had replaced the Provisional Council of State.
Upon returning home, Piłsudski discovered that he was no longer the leader of a small splinter group, but was now the leader tasked with rebuilding a stable Poland amidst the collapse of three empires which all encompassed Eastern Europe. The Council of Regency could not legally form a government nor raise an army to combat the recent formation of the Socialist Republic in Lublin. On November 14th, the Council of Regency dissolved itself and gave dictatorial powers to Piłsudski. A week later, Piłsudski declared himself Chief of State until a Diet was convened. He shortly thereafter passed a law granting universal suffrage to both men and women. On February 10th, 1920, the Diet convened in Warsaw. The Diet faced a number of problems. As soon as Austria collapsed, a bloody civil war between Poles and Ukrainians had broke out in Eastern Galicia. Poles were at war with Czech battalions in Austrian Silesia and the Bolshevik threat loomed large in the East. Poland needed an army immediately to protect its independence.
As promised, Piłsudski surrendered his power to the Diet, which had asked him to remain in office until a President could be constitutionally elected. On February 20th, the Diet drew up an ambiguous provisional constitution which subordinated the executive branch to the legislative arm. The following four months were tense for the infant government. The National Democrats showed no interest in cooperating with Piłsudski or any leftist factions. The Diet was insistent upon being the final judge of all political decisions. Drawing up a finalized constitution was delayed by the war with Russia, which was only ended by the Treaty of Riga in March of 1921. A new Diet convened in the fall of 1922 elected Gabriel Narutowicz as the first President on December 9th. Narutowicz was a good friend of Piłsudski and sympathized with the parties of the left. The National Democrats were not pleased, as they preferred a centralized government with a strong legislature and a weak President. Marshal Piłsudski favored a strong President and, because he found no supporters on the right, based his power as Chief of State on his leftist supporters. The divide between the conservative parties of the right and the revolutionary socialist and peasant parties on the left grew even wider.
The Russo-Polish War of 1919 to 1921 further complicated Poland’s precarious situation. Marshal Piłsudski’s plans for an offensive into the Ukraine in April and May of 1920 had coincided with a Ukrainian uprising against the Bolsheviks. Though Petlura, leader of the Ukrainian national movement, had called upon his countrymen to rise up and help Poland, the Ukrainians were exhausted after three bloody years of civil war and failed to join the struggle in droves. In June of 1920, Polish forces were driven out of Kiev and the Soviets broke through the Polish northern front the following month. By August, the Red Army was closing in on Warsaw. Marshal Piłsudski secretly amassed five divisions of infantry and some cavalry just south of Warsaw, with which he attacked the Red Army. Piłsudski’s forces decimated Bolshevik forces and the Poles took 66,000 prisoners of war (Gillie, 364). By the fall, the Red Army had retreated far back into Russian territory.
Marshal Piłsudski desired above all to create a confederation consisting of Poland, Ukraine, and White Russia that could serve as a buffer against Bolshevism. But Piłsudski’s political opponents aimed at discrediting him and attributed the Polish victory to divine intervention, the French Military Mission, and the brilliance of other generals. The National Democrats refused to credit Piłsudski with the triumph. In the summer of 1922, there was a heated debate between the right and center parties in the Diet and the Chief-of-State over how much influence the Diet should have in nominating the President. The new constitution drawn up that fall diminished the President’s power, which outraged Marshal Piłsudski. In the new Diet, the National Democrats formed the largest party. The Presidential election took place amidst heated debate. Gabriel Narutowicz won the election, but only with the votes of the minority political parties. Narutowicz was immediately slandered in the National Democrat press and National Democrat supporters threw snowballs at his carriage as he traveled to take the oath of office. A week after taking office, Narutowicz was assassinated by a deranged writer named Eligiusz Niewiadomski. When questioned, Niewiadomski stated that would have preferred to have assassinated Marshal Piłsudski.
This tragedy formed a dark cloud over Poland; foreign powers predicted a civil war. As Chief-of-Staff, Marshal Piłsudski was determined to maintain order and he threw his energies behind the new government of General Sikorski. After just six months, the Sikorski government was replaced by a right-of-center government. Piłsudski believed the new cabinet to have been responsible for the murder of Narutowicz and the Marshal resigned from both the army and the government. He retired to a small house in Sulejowek, near Warsaw, a gift from his soldiers.
- M.K. Dziewanowski, Joseph Piłsudski: A European Federalist, 1918-1922, (Stanford, California: Hoover Institution Press, 1969).
- D.R. Gillie, Joseph Piłsudski: The Memories of A Polish Revolutionary and Soldier, (London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1931).
- Alexandra Piłsudska, Piłsudski: A Biography by His Wife, (New York City: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1941).
- Joseph Rothschild, Piłsudski’s Coup D’État, (New York City and London: Columbia University Press, 1966).