Pilsudski, Józef (1867–1935)

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PILSUDSKI, JÓZEF (1867–1935)


The most important Polish statesman of his era.

Józef Klemens Pilsudski was born in historical Lithuania, in the Russian Empire, to a Polish noble family. He attended Russian high school in Vilnius, taking part in conspiratorial reading circles that transmitted Polish ideas such as Romanticism and positivism. In the Polish context, the former meant an attachment to the old, easterly, noble Poland before its partition in the eighteenth century as well as a belief in the special mission of individuals in the salvation of Poland and of Poland to the future of Europe. Positivism emphasized the importance of legal work to create a literate and active society. Pilsudski later spoke of a "Romanticism of plans" combined with a "positivism of means." The circles also transmitted new political ideas—socialism and nationalism—from Europe and Russia. Pilsudski, like others of his generation, tried to find some way to reconcile these two versions of mass politics.

In 1887 Pilsudski played a limited and unknowing role in a plot to assassinate Tsar Alexander III and was sentenced to five years of exile in Siberia. There he met Russian and Polish revolutionaries and intellectuals, including exiles of 1863. Upon his return to Vilnius, Pilsudski returned to illegal political work. In 1893 he joined the new Polish Socialist Party, which promulgated both socialism and national independence. He quickly became one of its leaders and published its organ, Robotnik (The worker). Arrested in 1900, Pilsudski escaped Russian prison by feigning madness. He settled in Kraków, Austrian Galicia, in 1902. In 1904, after the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese war, he traveled to Tokyo to negotiate with the Japanese. During the Revolution of 1905 Pilsudski wished to prepare a Polish uprising, while comrades expected the revolution itself to liberate their country.

After 1905 Pilsudski built a Polish paramilitary in anticipation of the next European war. When World War I came in 1914, his Union of Riflemen formed the core of Polish legions incorporated by the army of Austria-Hungary. Pilsudski resigned from Austrian collaboration in 1916, then joined a German-sponsored national council. After refusing to swear loyalty to the Central Powers, he was imprisoned by the Germans in 1917. The defeat of Austria and Germany liberated Pilsudski, and the Entente victory opened the way to Polish independence. Pilsudski assumed the role of head of state and commander in chief, defining Poland's frontiers in a series of wars, including the Polish-Bolshevik War. He led the counterattack that defeated the Red Army in August 1920. He held power through 1922, when he resigned after judging that the powers of the president were too limited. He was also disappointed by the popularity of his rivals, the National Democrats.

Pilsudski's "retirement" was active, involving much speaking and writing, including a history of the Polish-Bolshevik War. He maintained influence within the foreign and defense ministries. Pilsudski returned to power by military coup in 1926. He complained of the corruption of parliamentarians but had no clear alternative to parliamentary democracy. In 1928 he created a "non-party bloc" to control parliament and in 1930 arrested leading opposition politicians. After serving as prime minister in 1926–1927, he contented himself with the positions of minister of war and general inspector of the armed forces. He governed by way of trusted men in important positions, concerned with restraining the National Democrats on the right as well as the communists and other radicals on the left. In this his regime succeeded, although at the cost of corrupting democracy. In foreign affairs Pilsudski steered a middle course between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, signing nonaggression pacts with each.

Pilsudski's governments announced a policy of toleration to national minorities, more than a third of the population. Jews were granted equal civil rights. Ukrainians, the largest national minority, were offered concessions in Volhynia. In Galicia, Pilsudski answered terrorism by Ukrainian nationalists with pacification. Belarusian organizations connected to the Far Left were banned. On the national question, his regime left a mixed record but no taint of chauvinism. Pilsudski died in 1935, leaving behind an authoritarian constitution designed for him personally. The collective dictatorship that followed embraced Polish nationalism. It was discredited by the defeat of 1939. The communists who ruled postwar Poland portrayed Pilsudski as a fascist. Two of his ideas informed elements of the Polish opposition to communism: that in domestic affairs loyalty to the state is a higher value than feeling for the nation; and that in foreign affairs the just treatment of the peoples between Poland and Russia was the key to security.

See alsoPoland.


Garlicki, Andrzej. Józef Pilsudski 1867–1935. Edited and translated by John Coutouvidis. Brookfield, Vt., 1995.

Jędrzejewicz, Waclaw. Pilsudski: A Life for Poland. New York, 1982.

Rothschild, Joseph. Pilsudski's Coup d'Etat. New York, 1966.

Snyder, Timothy. Sketches from a Secret War: A Polish Artist's Mission to Liberate Soviet Ukraine. New Haven, Conn., 2005.

Timothy Snyder