Joseph Pilsudski (1867-1935)

Prof. M.K. Dziewanowski

Joseph Pilsudski was born on December, 5, 1867) (i.e. three years after the suppression of the Polish uprising of 1863) at the family estate of Zulov, near Wilno (Vilnius, Vilna), the second son of an impoverished Polish-Lithuanian family of ancient lineage. The most significant personality in his childhood was his mother, nee Marie Bileviz, who inspired and inculcated him with love of Polish history and literature and with hatred for the oppressive Tsarist regime. These sentiments were enhanced by the young Pilsudski’s own experiences at the Russian high school in Wilno, where speaking Polish was forbidden and native history was treated with contempt by the haughty and often brutal Russian teachers.

After leaving the Wilno school in 1855, Pilsudski went to study medicine at the University of Khrkov but was dismissed in the following year of his political activities. Returning to Wilno he drew closer to the local revolutionary circles and began to study Karl Marx and other Socialist writers.

In 1887 he was arrested and charged with plotting an attempt on the life of Tsar Alexander III. Despite the fact that he was innocent of the accusations Pilsudski was banished for five years to Eastern Siberia. He used the years of the Siberian exile for further study of Socialism, history and politics.

In 1892 he returned to Wilno with the belief that Socialist ideas in order to he effective in captive Poland should he combined with patriotic slogans.

He was determined to work for liberation of Poland end her reconstruction as an independent democratic republic, a stepping stone toward a fully socialist state. He joined the newly established Polish Socialist Party (known in Poland as PPS) and by 1894 had become one of its leaders.

Soon Pilsudski set up a clandestine newspaper called The Worker (Robotnik ) and edited it until 1900 when its operations were accidentally discovered by the tsarist police. Pilsudski, arrested with his first wife, Maria Janoszkiewics, was imprisoned in the Warsaw Citadel. There, in order to secure e transfer to a hospital he feigned insanity. Soon after the transfer occurred he escaped in May 1901.

He settled at Cracow in Austrian Poland , which since 1867 enjoyed a fairly mild, autonomous existence, within the framework of the Hapsburg Empire.

In July 1904 he visited Japan to solicit Japanese assistance for his anti-Tsarist activities. There he clashed with his political rival, the leader of the Polish National Democratic Party, Roman Dmowski, who also went to Japan to frustrate Pilsudski’s plans by persuading the Japanese authorities that his opponent’s plans for an insurrection in Russian Poland were impractical.

Dmowski’s arguments prevailed over those of Pilsudski. There was no large scale uprising in Russian Poland. This did not prevent Pilsudski from taking an active part in the revolution of 1905. He set up the Military Organization of the Polish Socialist Party, which was responsible for numerous sets of  terror and sabotage directed against the Russian authorities in Poland. But on the whole it was the National Democratic Party that was in ascendence from that time until the war.

After the failure of the Revolution of 1905, a split occurred within the Polish Socialist Party (PPS); its left wing, which proposed dropping from the Party platform the slogan of Poland’s independence, seceded from the Party, end formed the PPS-Left bent upon close collaboration with the Russian revolutionaries. In 1918 this splinter would merge with the Social Democratic Party of Poland and Lithuania and set up the Communist Party of Poland.

After the split Pilsudski, still the acknowledged leader of the Right wing of the PPS, known as the Revolutionary faction, settled in Galicia and began to study systematically military subjects strategy, tactics, organization of armed forces, etc. Anticipating a. conflict between the Central Powers end Russia, he concluded that it would be imperative to form Polish military units in order to be ready to take advantage of the opportunities that the future war would provide. He began secretly to organize such units in 1908 in Lwow (Lviv, Lvov), then the capital of Galicia . Soon he received an approval of the Austrian activities for his military preparations.

Pilsudski believed that in the first stages of the future war the Central Powers would beat Russia, while ultimately Frand Great Britain, supported by the United States, would defeat the Central Powers. He tailored his political and military plans in accordance with the anticipation.

During the first two years of the war the three of the Polish legions, organized and trained by Pilsudski, fought alongside the Austro-Hungarian troops with bravery and distinction against the Russians. On November 5, 1916, Germany and Austria short of manpower proclaimed the independence of Poland under their joint protectorate hoping that this move would attract recruits to the Polish army Pilsudski, appointed head of the Military Department of the Polish Council of State, accepted the idea of an enlarged Polish army provided it would be under the command of a sovereign Polish state.

While the Central Powers hesitated the Tsarist regime collapsed in Russia.

The new Provisional Government proclaimed Poland’s independence. When Germany and Austria refused to commit themselves to Poland’s future end insisted that the Polish army units should swear “fidelity in arms with the German and Austrian forces,” Pilsudski refused. In July 1917 he was again arrested end imprisoned by the Germens in Magdeburg on the Oder.

After the German collapse, Pilsudski was released and returned to Warsaw on November 1918 as a popular hero. On November 19, the Council of Regency entrusted him with the office of Head of State and commander -in-chief of the Armed Forces of reborn Poland. In this double task he devoted him self to laying down the democratic foundation of Republic and to protecting its frontiers, mainly in the east, from the menace of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Born in the Eastern borderlands of Poland he underestimated the German danger for Poland. A convinced federalist and always conscious of his mixed ancestry, he tried to carry out the program of his native Polish Socialist Party, and Ukrainians.

These plans brought Poland into u war with Soviet Russia which aimed at not only regaining the lands which the Tsars had once ruled, but at spreading the proletarian revolution to the West. The Russo-Polish war dragged with various intensity from February 1919 until October 1920, was decided by the battle of Warsaw of August 1920. The hostilities ended with the compromise peace of Riga (March 1921).

In May 1923, Pilsudski. ceded his place as temporary head of state to an elected President of the Republic and retired to a country home. He returned to power as a result of coup d’etat of May 1926 and ruled Poland as a virtual dictator . He died of cancer of the liver in Warsaw on May 12, 1935 and was buried in the cathedral of the royal castle of Wawel in Cracow among the remains of Polish kings and great poets.

Wojciech Kossak –  Józef Piłsudski on Kasztanka,

 Józef Piłsudski on Kasztanka is one of the most famouspictures by Wojciech Kossak (1856–1942), Poland’sforemost painter of history and battle scenes.


The Russo -Polish War.

D’ Hbernov, Viscount, The Eighteenth Decisive Battle of the World, 1931. 

Dabski Jan , The Riga Peace Treaty ( in Polish), 1931

Dziewanowski, M.K. , Joseph Pilsudski, 1918-1922, 1969

Kakurin, N.F. & Melikov, V.A. , The War against the White Poles, ( in Russian), 1925

Kutrzeba, Tadeusz, The Kiev Campaign (in Polish), 1937.

Wandycz, Piotr, _ The Polish -Soviet Relations, 1917 -1921, 1969