Jozef Pilsudski: A Giant of Polish History

February 13, 2021 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IWorld War IIPolandJozef PilsudksiLeadershipNationalism

Jozef Pilsudski: A Giant of Polish History

Marshal Jozef Pilsudski recognized the threat the Nazis posed to peace in Europe and sought to protect his country from a coming war.

Taking the Palace

Pilsudski came out of retirement in 1926 to lead a coup that floundered at a bridge in Warsaw named for the drowned marshal of the Napoleonic Wars, Poniatowski. The first marshal lost his nerve after he was fired upon by troops loyal to the government, but he rallied his forces in time to take over the government’s Belvedere Palace headquarters and so win the day after all.

His wife later wrote, “I was appalled at the change in him. In three days, he had aged 10 years…. Only on one other occasion did I ever see him look so ill, and that was within a few hours of his death.”

In the early 1930s, the first marshal’s health steadily deteriorated; he was a victim of the flu he suffered annually since his youthful exile in Siberia. Still he ruled Poland from the confines of the Belvedere, where he played his endless, but famous, card games of solitaire.

Notes Watt, “Pilsudski now took frequent and lengthy vacations for his health. With a very small entourage, usually only his doctor and an adjutant, he visited Madeira, Rumania, and Egypt. He stayed in rented villas and occupied himself by writing short works on military history. When he was in Warsaw, he no longer attended cabinet meetings. It became increasingly difficult for his subordinates to meet with him….They generally lacked initiative—they were terrified of inadvertently displeasing the marshal. Many of them simply took refuge in craven subservience.”

He was notorious for the abruptness of his governmental appointments. Once he told a summoned general, who found him playing solitaire alone in a massive ballroom of the Belvedere, “Now, then, you will become minister of the interior,” in charge of all the police.

Colonel Beck and the Wicher Affair

One of these appointments was 38-year-old Colonel Jozef Beck as the new Polish foreign minister on November 2, 1932. Pilsudski, like the Pope, felt himself infallible in his judgments and hated all criticism. His appointment of Beck he felt was inspired. The colonel in 1914 had enlisted in the Polish Legion, was interned by the Germans, escaped, and went underground in Ukraine. After the war, he served as an artillery battery commander and then was appointed to the Polish General Staff.

After service as the military attaché in Paris, Beck was sent to the Polish War College, from which he graduated with distinction. As a lieutenant colonel close to the first marshal, Beck played a prominent role in the May 1926 coup d’état and served in the War Ministry and later as Pilsudski’s deputy prime minister in the cabinet. In late 1930, he was sent to the Foreign Ministry as deputy minister before receiving the top post.

This was the man the first marshal had placed in charge of Poland’s foreign affairs, who had to deal with the governments of Hitler and Stalin over the next seven years. Arrogant, he acted superior to the other members of the cabinet and was disliked by many foreign diplomats as well. His appointment, however, was seen to herald a new course in Polish diplomacy, one that had the marshal’s personal stamp of approval.

Typical of the new Pilsudski-Beck approach was the Wicher affair of June 1932, which had been planned and executed by Deputy Foreign Minister Beck with the first marshal’s blessing. A squadron of three British Royal Navy destroyers was set to visit the free city of Danzig (today’s Gdynia) that had been contested by both Germany and Poland since 1919. The incident occurred six months before the Nazis took control of the German government and was designed by Poland to send a message.

The Poles suggested to London that the visit was inopportune. The suggestion was ignored. Pilsudski thereupon ordered the Polish destroyer Wicher to enter Danzig harbor on the day the British squadron arrived. The Wicher was not to request permission from the free city to enter the port, and its captain was to exchange courtesy calls only with the Royal Navy vessels; further, the captain of the Wicher was secretly instructed that, in the event the Polish flag was in any way insulted by Danzigers while he was in the harbor, he was immediately to open fire upon the closest public building.

This didn’t happen, as it turned out, but the visit of the Wicher caused a public furor both in Danzig and in Germany, as Pilsudski intended, with the free city also protesting to the League of Nations that its sovereignty had been violated by her cruise there.

Ironically, it was also at Danzig seven years later that the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein fired the opening salvo of World War II by shelling the Polish fortress of Westerplatte. In the 1980s, the city also spawned the Solidarity movement that eventually overthrew communism in Poland, but this was all in the future as the first marshal entered the last phase of his eventful life.

Pilsudski’s Peculiar Office Hours

Like Hitler later, Pilsudski maintained bizarre working hours, attending to government business from noon to 3 am daily, with even the last constitution of his lifetime tailored to meet his particular needs and habits.

“The Marshal was no longer the person he had been during the Polish-Soviet War in 1920,” noted Watt. “Pilsudski had always loathed detail, despised political conflict, and deeply disliked dealing with people whose duty it was to bring these matters before him. Over the years, the necessity of performing distasteful bureaucratic tasks had made him extremely nervous, impatient, and sometimes very unreasonable. He was not emotionally equipped to deal with the demands of the day-to-day business of government. Pilsudski realized this.”

His office desk was perennially a mess, and the man who had been twice elected president of Poland virtually ignored domestic affairs altogether, interested as he was only in foreign and military matters, such as the buildup of the Polish Army by 1926 to a strength of 300,000 men with 18,000 officers, three times that of Weimar Republican Germany at that time. Fair-minded, Pilsudski refused to purge it of the anti-coup officers that he had defeated that year. His moral authority and public esteem was such that he needed no bodyguards during his later years, and no known assassination was ever attempted, even by his direst enemies.

“An Immense Hole in Polish Political Life”

The Great Depression hit Poland particularly hard, but still the regime overcame it, with a single concentration camp for political prisoners appearing only in 1934, in the final year of Pilsudski’s life. He chose to ignore, not persecute, opponents, unlike his contemporary dictators Hitler, Stalin, and Benito Mussolini.

Asserts Watt, “It goes without saying that Pilsudski’s death tore an immense hole in practically every part of Polish political life,” after he fell victim to a sudden coma on May 12, 1935. “Even though at the time of his death he occupied only two official posts—Minister of War and Inspector General of the Armed Forces— Pilsudski had provided a sort of supreme moral authority that was basic to the organization of the government of independent Poland.

“Regardless of how great or how little a role he played in day-to-day affairs, Pilsudski was the cement that held the whole structure of government together. Now he was gone, and the Polish leaders left behind were devastated.”

Even his greatest real enemy, Hitler, both recognized and publicly acknowledged his foe’s place in history from afar, as noted by German author Max Domarus in his epochal 1992 compilation Hitler: Speeches and Proclamations 1932-45: “In response to the news of Marshal Pilsudski’s death, Hitler sent the following telegram to his widow, Alexandra Pilsudski, on May 13th: ‘The sad news of the decease of your dearly beloved spouse, His Excellency Marshal Pilsudski, has pained me to the quick. I may bid you, my dear madam, and your family accept my offering of deeply felt sympathy. My thoughts of the departed will always be those of gratitude. Adolf Hitler, German Reich Chancellor.’

“[Hermann] Göring was sent to attend the funeral services in Warsaw and Krakau as Hitler’s proxy, while the dictator himself went to a requiem mass held for Pilsudski in the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Hedwig’s in Berlin.”

Destruction Under New Leadership

One of the distraught post-Pilsudski era leaders left behind in Warsaw was his inspector-general of the Army, 49-year-old General Eduard Rydz-Smigley, a Polish peasant born in the former Austrian Galicia. A penniless orphan, he had great charm and an ability to paint and draw. He joined the Polish Legion in World War I and was then designated by the commandant as its leader while Pilsudski languished in German jails. After the war, he held senior commands under the first marshal during the Polish-Soviet War.

Totally uninterested in politics, the pleasant Rydz-Smigley rose to top command mainly through the marshal’s favor, although his peers felt he was an able corps commander but out of his depth as commander in chief of the entire Polish Army in wartime, as proved to be the case in practice against the Germans in September-October 1939.