San José State University
Department of Economics
& Tornado Alley
Józef Piłsudski was a Polish patriot and statesman who devoted his life to the realization of an independent Polish nation but ultimately could not tolerate independent Poles. His career was a triumph of ability and will against tremendous odds. He did not choose to become the leader of Polish independence; that role was thrust upon him.
Józef Klemens Piłsudski was born in the Russian-controlled portion of Poland in 1867. His family was poor but aristocratic, being descended from Lithuanian princes, but thoroughly Polish. He attended secondary school in what is now Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. After secondary school he enrolled in 1885 in a medical school in Kharkov in the Ukraine. The school authorities became aware of his hatred for the Russian Empire and suspended him in 1886 as being politically unreliable. He returned to Vilnius and became acquainted with political radicals there. He read the socialist literature, including Marx's writings.
The Czarist police uncovered a plot among some of the Vilnius radicals to assassinate Czar Alexander III. Piłsudski was not part of the plot but the authorities found him guilty by association and sentenced him to five years of exile in Siberia.
He left for Siberia a disgruntled medical student and returned in 1892 a dedicated Polish nationalist revolutionary. He joined the newly formed Polish Socialist Party (PPS) and rose to the leadership level. He founded an underground newspaper called Robotnik (The Worker). Seven years later he married and moved to the city of Łodź, a Polish city once under Prussian control but at that time under Russian control. He continued to edit and publish Robotnik. In 1900 the Russian authorities arrested him and imprisoned him in the escape-proof Warsaw citadel.
Despairing of ever getting out of the Warsaw citadel Piłsudski faked insanity so convincingly that he was transferred to a hospital in St. Petersburg. From there he was able to escape and make his way to Cracow, then in the Austrian-contolled part of Poland. Soon however he returned to Russian Poland to organize a rebellion.
When Japan carried out a surprise attack on the Russian fleet on the east coast of the Russian empire and soon defeated the Russian military Piłsudski thought there was a possibility of Japanese aid for revolutions in the peripheral parts of the Russian Empire. He journeyed to Tokyo to establish such an arrangement but the Japanese saw no merit in Piłsudski's plan. Revolutions occurred throughout the Empire in 1905 but they were effectively suppressed. In the aftermath the Polish Socialist Party split over the issue of Polish political independence. Piłsudski insisted that Polish independence was an essential part of the party's objective.
Convinced that the Russian Empire would eventually collapse Piłsudski began in 1908 to organize the nucleus of a Polish Army. He called this the Union of Military Action. He utilized funds gained in a robbery to establish this army. Austria, which saw Piłsudski and his embryonic army as a threat to its enemy, the Russian Empire, helped create a legal organizational shell called the Union of Riflemen. In 1914 Piłsudski was predicting that a European war involving the empires of Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany was imminent. Piłsudski's plan was to side with Germany and Austria-Hungary in driving out the Russians from Poland and then turn against Germany to gain Polish independence.
Piłsudski organized three brigades of the Polish Legion which fought with the Austrian-Hungarian army against the Russians.
In 1916 Germany and Austria-Hungary proclaimed Poland independent. This was to mobilize the Poles more effectively against the Russians thereby relieving Germany and Austria-Hungary of some of the fighting against the Russians. This would allow German and Austrian-Hungarian troops to be transferred to the western front.
Piłsudski accepted the idea of a Polish army fighting with the German and Austrian-Hungarian army against the Russians but Piłsudski insisted that such an army had to be recognized as the army of a Polish state. The German governmment refused to accept this formal recognition of a Polish state and insisted that the Polish troops take an oath of fidelity with the German and Austrian-Hungarian forces. Piłsudski refused to accept this condition and the Germans imprisoned him. The Russian Revolution broke out about that time and Russia sued for peace.
In 1918 after the German forces in the west collapsed Piłsudski was released from prison and traveled to Warsaw where he was hailed as a national hero. Almost immediately Piłsudski was made head the Polish state and commander of the Polish Army.
The was an immediate threat of the Red Army of the Bolsheviks marching into Germany to promote a worker's revolution there. Piłsudski went on the offensive capturing areas that once were Polish territory. He believed that a confederation of Poles, Lithuanians and Ukrainians could be created. The Red Army counter-attacked in 1920 and drove into Poland nearly to Warsaw. Driven back, Piłsudski then executed a defense that defeated the Red Army and it withdrew back into Russian territory.
Free of the Bolshevik threat the Poles started to make a state. A democratic constitution was adopted and an election held. The winner of that election however was assassinated within two days of taking office. Another government was selected and Piłsudski served only as the chief of staff of the army. In 1923 he retired from politics.
Although Piłsudski was not formally the head of government he was the one who made the decisions. He called his program Sanacja, the cleansing or sanitizing. When his Polish Socialist Party gave up on him as a socialist and began to work toward his overthrow Piłsudi had 18 of these socialists arrested and imprisoned. His rule had become a dictatorship, but not a particularly efficient one.
When Adolph Hitler came to power in Germany Piłsudski sent an emissary to Paris to discuss a joint French-Polish attack against Germany to stop the rearmament that Hilter was carrying out in violation of the Versailles Treaty. France declined to take such a bold step and Piłsudski accepted that nothing could be done to stop Hitler. Hitler proposed a ten-year German-Polish nonagression agreement in 1934 and Piłsudski accepted. To make sure the Soviet Union did not see this as a threat Piłsudski sent another emissary to Moscow to arrange a similar long term nonagression pact. Later Hitler sought to meet with Piłsudski to strike a German-Polish alliance against the Soviet Union but Piłsudski refused to meet with him. Piłsudski believed that Poland would sometime in the future have to fight a war and should prepare for that eventuality. Piłsudski died however in 1935 of liver cancer at age 67. The military figures who ruled afterwards made the government more and more authoritarian until they were destroyed in the German and Soviet invasions of Poland in 1939.
As to Piłsudski's socialism: He remarked that he had
taken the red streetcar as far as the stop called
Independence and gotten off.
Although Piłsudski lost contact with the socialism of his youth there were still nominal elements of socialism in Poland in the late 1930's. For example, the Polish govenment formulated a Five Year Plan in 1939. Needless to say the plan did not have any relevance to what actually took place in Poland in the five years after 1939.
(To be continued.)
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