Józef Klemens Piłsudski was a Polish statesman; he was Chief of State (1918–22), "First Marshal of Poland" (from 1920), and de facto leader (1926–35) of the Second Polish Republic, Minister of Military Affairs. From mid-World War I he had a major influence in Poland's politics, and was an important figure on the European political scene.
Józef was born on 5 December 1867 to the medieval noble family Piłsudski, at their manor named Zułów near the Zułowo village (now Zalavas, Švenčionys district municipality, Lithuania), in the Russian Empire since 1795 on the territory of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth,. The estate was part of the dowry brought by his mother, Maria, a member of the wealthy Billewicz family. The Piłsudski family, although pauperized, cherished Polish patriotic traditions and has been characterized either as Polish or as Polonized-Lithuanian. Józef was the second son born to the family.
In 1885 Piłsudski started medical studies at Kharkov University (now Kharkiv, Ukraine), where he became involved with Narodnaya Volya, part of the Russian Narodniki revolutionary movement. In 1886, he was suspended for participating in student demonstrations. He was rejected by the University of Dorpat (now Tartu, Estonia), whose authorities had been informed of his political affiliation. On 22 March 1887, he was arrested by Tsarist authorities on a charge of plotting with Vilnius socialists to assassinate Tsar Alexander III. In fact, Piłsudski's main connection to the plot was his elder brother Bronisław's involvement in it. Bronisław Piłsudski was sentenced to fifteen years' hard labor (katorga) in eastern Siberia.
In 1892 Piłsudski returned from exile and settled in Adomavas Manor near Teneniai (now in Šilalė district). In 1893 he joined the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) and helped organize its Lithuanian branch. Initially he sided with the Socialists' more radical wing, but despite the socialist movement's ostensible internationalism he remained a Polish nationalist. In 1894, as its chief editor, he began publishing an underground socialist newspaper, Robotnik (The Worker); he would also be one of its chief writers, and, initially, a typesetter. In 1895 he became a PPS leader, and took the position that doctrinal issues were of minor importance and that socialist ideology should be merged with nationalist ideology, since that combination offered the greatest chance of restoring Polish independence.
On the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), in the summer of 1904, Piłsudski traveled to Tokyo, Japan, where he tried unsuccessfully to obtain that country's assistance for an uprising in Poland. He offered to supply Japan with intelligence in support of its war with Russia, and proposed the creation of a Polish Legion from Poles,conscripted into the Russian Army, who had been captured by Japan. He also suggested a "Promethean" project directed at breaking up the Russian Empire a goal that he later continued to pursue. Meeting with Yamagata Aritomo, he suggested that starting a guerrilla war in Poland would distract Russia, and asked that Japan supply him with weapons. Although Japanese diplomat Hayashi Tadasu favored the plan, the Japanese government, including Yamagata were more skeptical.
Piłsudski's arch-rival Roman Dmowski, traveled to Japan, where he argued against Piłsudski's plan, endeavoring to discourage the Japanese government from supporting at this time a Polish revolution which Dmowski felt would be doomed to failure. Dmowski, himself a Polish patriot, would remain Piłsudski's political arch-enemy to the end of Piłsudski's life. In the end, the Japanese offered Piłsudski much less than he had hoped for; he received Japan's help in purchasing weapons and ammunition for the PPS and its combat organisation, while the Japanese declined the Legion proposal.
In the fall of 1904, Piłsudski formed a paramilitary unit (the Combat Organization of the Polish Socialist Party, or bojówki) aiming to create an armed resistance movement against the Russian authorities. The PPS organized an increasing numbers of demonstrations, mainly in Warsaw; on 28 October 1904, Russian Cossack cavalry attacked a demonstration, and in reprisal, during a demonstration on 13 November Piłsudski's paramilitary opened fire on Russian police and military. Initially concentrating their attention on spies and informers, in March 1905 the paramilitary began using bombs to assassinate selected Russian police officers.
During the 1905 Russian Revolution, Piłsudski played a leading role in events in Congress Poland. In early 1905 he ordered the PPS to launch a general strike there; it involved some 400,000 workers and lasted two months until it was broken by the Russian authorities. In June 1905, Piłsudski sent paramilitary aid to an uprising in Łódź. During the "June Days", as the Łódź uprising came to be known, armed clashes broke out between Piłsudski's paramilitaries and gunmen loyal to Dmowski and his National Democrats. On 22 December 1905, Piłsudski called for all Polish workers to rise up; the call went largely unheeded.
In 1908 Piłsudski transformed his paramilitary units into an "Association for Active Struggle" (Związek Walki Czynnej, or ZWC), headed by three of his associates, Władysław Sikorski, Marian Kukiel and Kazimierz Sosnkowski. One of the ZWC's main purposes was to train officers and noncommissioned officers for a future Polish Army.
In 1910 two legal paramilitary organizations were created in the Austrian zone of Poland one in Lwów (now Lviv, Ukraine) and one in Kraków to conduct training in military science. With the permission of the Austrian authorities, Piłsudski founded a series of "sporting clubs", then the Riflemen's Association, which served as cover to train a Polish military force. In 1912 Piłsudski (using the nom de guerre, "Mieczysław") became commander-in-chief of a Riflemen's Association (Związek Strzelecki) that grew by 1914 to 12,000 men. In 1914, Piłsudski declared that "Only the sword now carries any weight in the balance for the destiny of a nation."
At a meeting in Paris in 1914, Piłsudski presciently declared that in the impending war, for Poland to regain independence, Russia must be beaten by the Central Powers (the Austro-Hungarian and German Empires), and the latter powers must in their turn be beaten by France, Britain and the United States. By contrast, Roman Dmowski, Piłsudski's rival, believed that the best way to achieve a unified and independent Poland was to support the Triple Entente against the Central Powers.
At the outbreak of World War I, on 3 August in Kraków, Piłsudski formed a small cadre military unit, the First Cadre Company, from members of the Riflemen's Association and Polish Rifle Squads.
Piłsudski's strategy was to send his forces north across the border into Russian Poland, into an area which the Russian Army had evacuated, in the hope of breaking through to Warsaw and sparking a national uprising.Using his limited forces, in those early days he backed his orders with the sanction of a fictitious "National Government in Warsaw", and bent and stretched Austrian orders to the utmost, taking initiatives, moving forward and establishing Polish institutions in liberated towns, while the Austrians saw his forces as good only for scouting or for supporting main Austrian formations. On 12 August 1914 Piłsudski's forces took the town of Kielce, of Kielce Governorate, but Piłsudski found the populace less supportive than he had expected.
Soon afterward he officially established the Polish Legions, taking personal command of their First Brigade, which he would lead successfully into several victorious battles. He also secretly informed the British government in the fall of 1914 that his Legions would never fight France or Britain, only Russia.
That week, too, Piłsudski also negotiated the evacuation of the German garrison from Warsaw and of other German troops from the "Ober Ost" authority. Over 55,000 Germans would peacefully depart Poland, leaving their weapons to the Poles. In coming months, over 400,000 total would depart Polish territories.
On 14 November 1918 Piłsudski was asked to provisionally supervise the running of the country. On 22 November he officially received, from the new government of Jędrzej Moraczewski, the title of Provisional Chief of State (Naczelnik Państwa) of renascent Poland.
In the aftermath of World War I, there was unrest on all Polish borders. Regarding Poland's future frontiers, Piłsudski said, "All that we can gain in the west depends on the Entente on the extent to which it may wish to squeeze Germany", while in the east "there are doors that open and close, and it depends on who forces them open and how far." In 1918 in the east, Polish forces clashed with Ukrainian forces in the Polish-Ukrainian War, and Piłsudski's first orders as Commander-in-Chief of the Polish Army, on 12 November 1918, were to provide support for the Polish struggle in Lviv.
On 1 July 1920, in view of the rapidly advancing Soviet offensive, Poland's parliament, the Sejm, formed a Council for Defense of the Nation. It was chaired by Piłsudski and was to provide expeditious decision-making and temporarily supplant the fractious Sejm. The National Democrats, however, contended that the string of Bolshevik victories had been Piłsudski's fault and demanded that he resign; some even accused him of treason. Their 19 July failure to carry a vote of no-confidence in the council led to Roman Dmowski's withdrawal from it. On 12 August Piłsudski tendered his resignation to Prime Minister Wincenty Witos, offering to be the scapegoat if the military solution failed, but Witos refused to accept his resignation. The Entente pressured Poland to surrender and enter into negotiations with the Bolsheviks. Piłsudski, however, was a staunch advocate of continuing the fight. As Norman Davies noted, at that time, especially abroad, "Piłsudski had nothing of his later prestige. As a pre-war revolutionary he led his party to splits and quarrels; as a general in World War I he led his legions to internment and disbanding; as a marshal of the Polish Army he led it to Kiev and Vilnius, both now lost to Poles. He left the Polish Socialist Party and his Austro-German allies; refused to ally himself with Entente. In France and England he was considered a treasonous ally who leads Poland into destruction; in Russia he was seen as a false servant of the allies, who will lead imperialism to ruin. All from Lenin to Lloyd George, from Pravda to Morning Star considered him a military and political failure. In August 1920 all were in agreement that his catastrophic career will be crowned with the fall of Warsaw."
By 1935, unbeknownst to the public, Piłsudski had for several years been in declining health. On 12 May 1935, he died of liver cancer at Warsaw's Belweder Palace. The celebration of his life began spontaneously within half an hour of the announcement of his death. It was led by military personnel — former Legionnaires, members of the Polish Military Organization, veterans of the wars of 1919–21 — and by his political collaborators from his service as Chief of State and, later, Prime Minister and Inspector-General.
Piłsudski's religious views are matter of a debate. He periodically changed his religious affiliation from Catholicism to Lutheranism and vice versa. After the May coup, Piłsudski considered himself a Roman Catholic, but he didn't appear to be religious and often used religion as public tool. Piłsudski was quoted saying:
“ Religion is for brainless people. ”
After the coup and Piłsudski's reign as dictator, he often clashed with Catholic leaders but nevertheless, enjoyed good working relationship with Cardinal Aleksander Kakowski, who subsequently led his funeral mass. In 1937, Archbishop of Kraków, Adam Stefan Sapieha, ordered to move Piłsudski's coffin from St. Leonard's Crypt to Royal Tombs at Wawel. This led to open conflict with the church and the government, which threatened to step down.
In internal politics, Piłsudski's coup entailed sweeping limitations on parliamentary government, as his Sanation regime (1926–1939) at times employing authoritarian methods sought to "restore public life to moral health". From 1928 the Sanation authorities were represented in the sphere of practical politics by the Non-partisan Bloc for Cooperation with the Government (BBWR). Popular support and an effective propaganda apparatus allowed Piłsudski to maintain his authoritarian powers, which could not be overruled by the president, who was appointed by Piłsudski, nor by the Sejm. The powers of the Sejm were curtailed by constitutional amendments introduced soon after the coup, on 2 August 1926. From 1926 to 1930, Piłsudski relied chiefly on propaganda to weaken the influence of opposition leaders.
The culmination of his dictatorial and supralegal policies came in the 1930s with the imprisonment and trial of certain political opponents (the Brest trials) on the eve of the 1930 legislative elections, and with the 1934 establishment of a prison for political prisoners at Bereza Kartuska (today Biaroza), where some prisoners were brutally mistreated. After the BBWR's 1930 victory, Piłsudski left most internal matters in the hands of his "colonels", while he himself concentrated on military and foreign affairs. He came under considerable criticism for his treatment of political opponents, and their 1930 arrest and imprisonment was internationally condemned and damaged Poland's reputation.
In the military sphere, Piłsudski, who had shown himself an accomplished military strategist in engineering the "Miracle at the Vistula", has been criticized by some for subsequently concentrating on personnel management and allegedly neglecting modernization of military strategy and equipment. His experiences in the Polish-Soviet War (1919–21) may have led him to overestimate the importance of cavalry and to neglect the development of armored and air forces. Others, however, contend that, particularly from the late 1920s, he did support the development of these military branches. The limitations on Poland's military modernization in this period may have been less doctrinal than financial.
Under Piłsudski, Poland maintained good relations with neighboring Romania, Hungary and Latvia. Relations were strained with Czechoslovakia, however, and were still worse with Lithuania. Relations with Weimar Germany and the Soviet Union varied over time, but during Piłsudski's tenure could for the most part be described as neutral.
Piłsudski's Promethean program, designed to weaken the Russian Empire and its successor state, the Soviet Union, by supporting nationalist independence movements of major non-Russian peoples dwelling in Russia and the Soviet Union, was coordinated from 1927 to the 1939 outbreak of World War II in Europe by the military intelligence officer, Edmund Charaszkiewicz. In the Interbellum, the Prometheist movement yielded few tangible results.
Piłsudski sought to maintain his country's independence in the international arena. Assisted by his protégé, Foreign Minister Józef Beck, he sought support for Poland in alliances with western powers such as France and the United Kingdom, and with friendly, if less powerful, neighbors such as Romania and Hungary.
A supporter of the Franco-Polish Military Alliance and the Polish-Romanian Alliance (part of the Little Entente), Piłsudski was disappointed by the French and British policy of appeasement evident in those countries' signing of the Locarno Treaties. Piłsudski therefore aimed also to maintain good relations with the Soviet Union and Germany; hence Poland signed non-aggression pacts with both its powerful neighbors: the 1932 Soviet-Polish Non-Aggression Pact, and the 1934 German-Polish Non-Aggression Pact. The two treaties were meant to strengthen Poland's position in the eyes of its allies and neighbors.
On 15 July 1899, while an underground organizer, Piłsudski married a fellow socialist organizer, Maria Juszkiewiczowa, née Koplewska.According to his chief biographer, Wacław Jędrzejewicz, the marriage was less romantic than pragmatic in nature. Both were very involved in the socialist and independence movements.