Józef Piłsudski

 

One of the most important figures in Polish history, Jozef Pilsudski was born on December 5, 1867 in Zulow, near Wilno (now Vilnius). For indirect involvement in the plot against the life of Tsar Alexander III, he was exiled to Siberia for five years. On his return he began working for the socialists and became the most important activist in the Polish Socialist Party, the publisher of Robotnik, its periodical, and the author of the party’s programs and policies. Arrested in February 1900, he succeeded in escaping from the St. Petersburg prison hospital. To take advantage of the impending war between Russia and Japan, Pilsudski decided to build up the military wing of the Polish Socialist Party and to appeal for the help of Japan, which led to his trip there in 1904. In 1908, Pilsudski encouraged the formation of the Organization for Armed Struggle and other paramilitary organizations to take advantage of the coming conflict between Austro-Hungary and Russia. He planned to provoke an anti-Russian uprising by invading with his riflemen the kingdom of Poland, then a Russian province.

On September 3, 1914 the first cavalry patrol entered Poland, followed three days later by the riflemen who crossed the Russian border near Kielce. In the middle of August, his military unit was converted under Austrian pressure into the Polish Legion, in which he became the commander of the First Brigade. Dissatisfied by the Austro-Hungarian failure to make a commitment to the future of the Polish lands, Pilsudski organized the opposition against the Central Powers in the Legion, the Polish Supreme National Council and in the communities in Austrian Galicia and the Kingdom. In the summer of 1916, he resigned the command of the Legion and ordered the legionaries not to swear allegiance to the Central Powers in July of 1917 as they requested. Arrested on July 22, 1917, he was imprisoned by the Germans in Magdeburg. On his return to Warsaw on November 10, 1918, Pilsudski took command of the Polish military forces and four days later, the civil government as Temporary Head of State. Within a few weeks he organized a national election and in February 1919, the newly elected Seym met to begin its work of creating a progressive new state after over 100 years of partitions. Pilsudski also began to organize a new national army in extremely difficult circumstances created by Germans, Bolsheviks, Ukrainians and even Czechs who were hostile to the newly independent Poland. Pilsudski pursued his goal of creating a federation of states positioned between Russia and Germany; he sought an alliance with Lithuania (1918-1920), and formed a political and military alliance with the Ukrainian Peoples’ Republic (1920). Pilsudski succeeded in saving the country from a Bolshevik deluge after a victorious battle at the gates of Warsaw (August 16-18, 1920), a battle he planned and executed as commander of the counterattack.

After the war, Pilsudski declined to be a candidate in the presidential election in December 1922, and in 1923 he retired from political life. He returned to the scene three years later in an armed takeover on May 12-18, 1926, directed against excessive political struggles, corruption and general weakening of the state. After the coup d’etat he refused the presidency but continued as Inspector General of the Armed Forces until his death on May 12, 1935. He influenced Poland’s foreign policy by seeking to maintain the alliance with France and a new alliance with England. He concluded a non-aggression treaty with Russia in 1932. After the failure to organize a preventive war against Hitler’s Germany in 1933, Pilsudski signed in 1934 a non-aggression treaty with Germany as well. He secured for the newly reborn Polish Republic its rightful place in the family of European nations. 

Pilsudski continues to be a symbol of the uncompromising struggle for independence and the sovereignty of Polish foreign policy. The historical institute founded in Warsaw in 1923, and recreated in New York in 1943, is dedicated to the memory of his achievements.

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