Joseph Pilsudski

The Polish general and statesman Joseph Pilsudski (1867-1935) played a large role in the reestablishment of an independent Polish state and became its first president in 1918.

Joseph Pilsudski was born on Dec. 5, 1867, at Zulow in the Vilna district of Russian Poland, the second son of a family of the lower gentry. The harsh treatment of the Poles under Russian rule and the anti-Russian feeling pervading his environment inspired him with a hatred of Russia and a desire to liberate his country from foreign domination.

Suspended from medical school at Kharkov in 1886, Pilsudski returned to Vilna and was exiled for 5 years to Siberia in 1887 for allegedly conspiring to assassinate Czar Alexander III. Pilsudski returned home in 1892, joined the Polish Socialist party, and became its leader in 1894. He soon became editor of its clandestine newspaper, Robotnik (The Worker), but his press was discovered in Lódz, and he and his wife were arrested in 1900. Pilsudski escaped, however, in May 1901, and he settled in Cracow in Austrian Galicia.

Needing foreign aid for Poland's liberation, Pilsudski went to Japan in 1904 during the Russo-Japanese War, but he met resistance there from Roman Dmowski, who had convinced the Japanese that Pilsudski's projects were not feasible. To assist the spread of the revolutionary movement in Russia, Pilsudski entered Russian Poland at the end of 1904, but after the failure of the revolution in 1905 his Polish Socialist party split; Pilsudski's faction insisted on the party's primary goal of creating an independent Poland, whereas the left faction wished this goal to be deemphasized. In Austrian Poland, Pilsudski began to form a secret force in 1908 that would become a Polish national army. By 1910 Pilsudski was receiving assistance from Austrian military forces.

In World War I Pilsudski commanded the 1st Brigade of the Polish Legion against the Russians under Austro-Hungarian command. In order to free their soldiers for duty on the Western front, the Central Powers proclaimed the independence of Poland on Nov. 5, 1916, and Pilsudski was appointed chief of the military section of the Polish State Council; but when the Central Powers refused to accept the polish army as an organ of a Polish state, Pilsudski was defiant and was arrested by the Germans in July 1917, and jailed in Magdeburg.

Released in the fall of 1918, Pilsudski returned to Warsaw in November 1918, where he was proclaimed head of state and commander in chief of the Polish armed forces. Agreeing with the Polish National Committee, which was supported by the Western powers, he named Dmowski, right-wing leader, as first Polish deputy to the Paris Peace Conference. Poland's first Parliament in 1919 confirmed Pilsudski as chief of state, with Ignace Jan Paderewski as prime minister. Almost immediately, Pilsudski needed to defend Polish territory against attack by the Red Army, and initially he was successful in occupying much territory that had belonged to historical Poland but that had long been under Russian rule. He favored a federal organization of the new state to include these territories, whereas Dmowski favored their outright annexation to the Polish state. A Soviet counteroffensive reached the environs of Warsaw, but Pilsudski, created marshal of Poland on March 19, 1920, repelled it with the assistance of French general Maxime Weygand, ending the Soviet threat by August 1920.

The new constitution of March 1921, which limited executive powers considerably, caused Pilsudski's retirement from the presidency, although he continued as army chief of staff; he resigned this post also on May 29, 1923, when a conservative government took power. Disillusioned with the workings of the parliamentary system, Pilsudski marched with troops on Warsaw on May 12, 1926, and though elected president by the National Assembly on May 31, 1926, he refused the position and served as minister of defense until his death.

From late 1926 to 1928, and again in 1930, Pilsudski served as Polish prime minister, ruling dictatorially and arresting members of the Sejm who opposed his rule. He was the real ruler of Poland, choosing the holders of important offices. His associates August Zaleski and Józef Beck held the foreign office during the period, concluding a nonaggression treaty with the Soviet Union in July 1932 and another with Germany in January 1934, although Pilsudski himself had wanted to oppose Adolf Hitler's entry to power with force. On May 12, 1935, Pilsudski died and was buried in Wawel Cathedral in Cracow. His collected works were published at Warsaw from 1930 to 1936 with selections appearing in English in 1931.

Further Reading on Joseph Pilsudski

Pilsudski wrote Joseph Pilsudski: The Memories of a Polish Revolutionary and Soldier (trans. 1931), which deals with his personal experiences prior to 1923. Alexandra Pilsudski, his wife, wrote Memoirs of Madame Pilsudski (1940). The best biography in English is still William Fiddian Reddaway, Marshall Pilsudski (1939). The definitive account of Pilsudski's seizure of power is Joseph Rothschild, Pilsudski's Coup d'Etat (1966). See also M. K. Dziewanowsk, Joseph Pilsudski: A European Federalist, 1918-1922 (1969).

Additional Biography Sources

Garlicki, Andrzej, Joseph Pilsudski: 1867-1935, London: Scolar Press; Brookfield, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 1995.

Pilsudski, a life for Poland, New York: Hippocrene Books, 1982.