Here's What You Need to Know: Pilsudski was a figure of truly epic proportions.
”The subject of Poland is by far the most complex of all the problems to be considered,” the American delegation to the Paris Peace Conference at Versailles was told in 1919, as it was preparing to sort out the incredible mess in European affairs following the end of World War I.
Indeed, it was. Partitioned, carved up would be a better description, by neighboring Prussia, Russia, and Austria in 1772, again in 1793 (by the first two powers only), and by all three yet a third time during 1795-1796, the once formidable Polish state had ceased to exist by the time of the Napoleonic Wars.
For the next century plus, Polish patriots— from the famous Polish Legions that served in the French emperor’s armies to the Polish troops who fought for both the Allies and the Central Powers during the Great War of 1914-1918—fought to free their nonexistent country from foreign occupiers.
Jozef Kiemens Pilsudski: A Dictator De Facto
Between these colossal, continentwide conflagrations a century apart, ever-resilient, struggling Poles conducted numerous and always brutally suppressed uprisings against their all-time, permanent betes noires, the Russians. Through unceasing warfare, the dream of the Polish eagle, still seen today in the red-and-white national colors, emblazoning a Polish flag flying over a free, united Polish state never died.
It was into this churning milieu of fierce patriotism that Jozef Kiemens Pilsudski was born in 1867. A native Lithuanian, the nobleborn Pilsudski was the person who, more than anyone else, was responsible for the re-creation of an independent Poland in 1919, when the new Polish state emerged from the Allied postwar deliberations at Versailles.
Pilsudski, whose name today is known to few non-Polish Americans, was a figure of truly epic proportions. His pre-1914 career included being a Socialist editor of an anti-Russian underground newspaper in Warsaw. He forged the modern Polish Army during and after World War I and led it to the greatest victory in Polish history when he defeated the Red Army outside Warsaw in 1920.
Between 1914 and his death at age 68 in 1935, Pilsudski’s titles changed many times— commandant, first marshal, president, chief of state, and minister of war—but always he was the guiding light of Poland’s national life.
Despite the fact that he helped maintain Poland as a democratic republic, Pilsudski was, in actuality, its virtual dictator, especially after 1926, when he launched a successful military coup to overthrow the legally constituted but, in his view, ineffective government.
Like General Dwight D. Eisenhower later, Pilsudski considered himself above politics, and, like France’s Charles de Gaulle, who was an adviser to the embryonic Polish Army during 1920-1921, he haughtily disdained politicians themselves.
Pilsudski was a complex man whose burly-browed, walrus-moustached countenance continued to dominate his associates long after his death and, indeed, until the demise of the Pilsudskiite state itself in 1939. That demise came in a war he knew would someday be started by Adolf Hitler, whom Pilsudski wanted to crush in a preemptive strike soon after the Nazi leader came to office in 1933. But his French allies balked.
The secondary figures during this crucial period in Poland included the marshal’s civilian counterpart in creating the Polish state, the famed, quirky pianist, Ignace Padrewski, and Pilsudski’s ill-fated foreign minister, Colonel Jozef Beck, along with General Eduard Rydz-Smigley, whose post-Pilsudski policies helped destroy Poland a mere 21 years after its tormented rebirth.
Collapse of Pilsudski’s Poland
In a very real sense, the newly reconstituted Poland was doomed from its inception. Created out of lands confiscated from the earlier partitionist German and Russian powers, the fate of the new Polish state was constantly in a precarious balance. Beset by enormous domestic problems such as abysmal poverty, lack of land reform, an inexperienced parliamentary system characterized by corruption, and an army based on infantry and Napoleonic-era cavalry, Poland’s existence depended on external factors.
These were a strong alliance with France and Great Britain, both of which militarily deserted Poland in 1939 despite their declarations of war on Hitler; some sort of understanding with the neighboring Versailles-created state of Czechoslovakia (which nevertheless included a dispute over the small, adjoining Duchy of Teschen); and keeping Russia and Germany apart at the end. It was this apparently unlikely German-Russian détente, as formalized in the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939, that wiped out Poland. Quite simply, the Polish eagle was crushed in the Hitler-Stalin nutcracker.
When a new Poland emerged in 1945, the Pilsudskiite eagle was gone forever, and in its place was a communist puppet. During the intervening years, Poland suffered more than any other nation proportionate to its wartime population—Auschwitz, the Warsaw ghetto and uprising revolts, as well as the Katyn Forest massacre mark its tragic tombstones.
In 1939, Hitler offered Colonel Beck an anti-Russian alliance. When the Poles refused, the Führer switched gears and concluded an anti-Polish pact with the Kremlin’s Josef Stalin instead. The rape of Poland followed within a week. All this, though, was in the future during Pilsudksi’s own career, but this was his extended legacy to Poland nonetheless.
A Rabid Nationalist
Pilsudski was first a medical student who became a socialist at age 19, as well as being a rabid Polish nationalist, for which the Russians sent him into exile in Siberia for four years. His escape electrified the Polish masses: a “doctor” entered a psychiatric ward for madmen where the future first marshal was being held, then strolled out with a “friend” in tow. The patient had exchanged his hospital garb for civilian clothes brought in the “doctor’s” medical bag!
The man who would be a chain smoker by age 40 then organized a terrorist group of bank robbers who also freed imprisoned gunmen, and in 1908 he made off with a purloined $100,000. This was used to help finance the creation of a Polish national army during 1910-1912 to fight in the coming general European war, which young Pilsudski accurately predicted would occur.
The first action of this new Polish Legion occurred on August 6, 1914, when Pilsudski staged a coup that left him as the commandant of all Polish forces. Ironically, though, more Poles joined the Russian and German forces in World War I than the official Pilsudskiite legion.
When his troops refused to take a loyalty oath to the German kaiser, Pilsudski was again arrested, but he survived this as well. After 15 months, he was released from prison and returned to Warsaw during the German revolution that overthrew the Hohenzollern dynasty in late 1918. Pilsudski took over supreme power in Poland on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918.
A man always meticulous about his dress, Pilsudski refused to appear in public out of uniform and without a dress sword at his side, much as Hitler refused ever to be photographed in a bathing suit as lacking dignity.
At this time, states author Richard Watt, “Strong, silent, having no close friends but many close followers, Pilsudski enjoyed the respect of practically every Pole. Above all, Pilsudski looked the part of a leader. He invariably wore a plain, gray military uniform without insignia. He was a handsome man of medium height, close-cropped gray hair … and piercing blue-gray eyes. His figure was sturdy without being too heavy … Pilsudski was notably reserved and impenetrable … Pilsudski was indisputably Poland’s greatest military hero.”
Within a week of his arrival, Pilsudski had convinced 80,000 German soldiers to leave Poland peaceably and voluntarily and took power during the period of the typhus and Spanish flu epidemics that swept the country along with the rest of Europe. His grand idea was that Poland would one day be Europe’s premier power, but this was never achieved.
First Marshal of the Polish Army
On April 3, 1920, Jozef Pilsudski was created first marshal of the Polish Army, a title he cherished above all others. That same year, he would defeat Soviet Marshal Semyon Budenny’s Cossacks in the first great military victory since the Battle of Vienna in 1683, and return in triumph to Warsaw, a living legend among his people and throughout Europe.
Hitler was wary of the marshal in 1933, and the following year he concluded his very first non-aggression pact—with Poland. It would last for more than four years after Pilsudski’s death.
By 1923, Poland was the sixth-largest state in Europe, a fact due mainly to Pilsudski’s efforts. The previous year, he had declined to run for the presidency of the Polish republic, despite the fact that he would have won overwhelmingly, as German Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg did in 1925.
“For Pilsudski not to have been elected President would have been considered a national scandal,” notes Watt.
The elected Polish president was assassinated five days after his inauguration, and there were rumors that the first marshal was a target as well. By age 58, the commandant was in retirement. His language was coarse, and he was also susceptible to flattery as a good orator, author, and lecturer. It seemed that there was nothing he could not do, and do well.