Pilsudski was imprisoned in Siberia from 1887-1892
because his brother Bronislaw was wrongly accused in a plot to assassinate
Tsar Alexander III. After his release in 1892, he joined an underground
Polish political party (Polish Socialist Party) based in Paris.
This party advocated an independent socialist Poland. (It is not
to be confused with the Bolshevik version of socialism. It is a relative
term when compared to the totalitarian Czarist system.) Starting
around 1894, he actively printed, smuggled and distributed anti-Tsarist
materials. While a medical student at the University of Kharkov, in the
Ukraine, he became noticed for his revolutionary behaviour, for which he
was arrested in 1900. After escaping Russian captivity, he made his
way to Austrian Poland (Galicia) and proceeded to organize a Polish volunteer
fighting force, later (during WW I) to be under Austrian command against
Russia. He became the leader of the military wing of
the Polish Socialist Party in 1904. His primary duty in this post
was to organize protection for party members in Poland who were being persecuted
by the Tsarist secret police, the OKHRANA.
During the pre-war period, Pilsudski attended Jagelleonian University in Krakow. Pilsudski was the founder of the Polish Legions (originally the Societies of TIR) that bore his name, which he used only to promote a free Poland. Starting around 1908, Pilsudski began to build the Legions with Polish volunteers from Galicia, assembling a force which eventually numbered 14,000 men. Pilsudski sided with Austria because of the three occupiers of Poland (Austria, Germany and Russia), it was the only power that even came close to offering any sort of post-war autonomy for Poland. Pilsudski offered intelligence information on Tsarist military movements to Austria and openly campaigned for Poles under Russian domination to rebel. Upon the surrender of Tsarist Russia in 1917, Pilsudski and many leading Legion officers were jailed by Germany, for refusing to allow the Legions to fight against France. The Germans also provided no guarantee of an Independent post-war Poland. This became clear when the German governor of Warsaw, von Bessler, attempted to appoint a German as head of the Legions and thereby strip Pilsudski of control (after the battles had been won with the blood of Poles). In July, 1917, the Legions were supposedly disbanded. The Legionaries did not stop the fight for Independence. Underground para-military cells were formed to continue the fight for Independence for the remainder of WW I. Among the organizations was the POW (Polska Organizacja Wojskowa), which carried out attacks on German, Russian and Austrian targets. They were loyal to Pilsudski, who was at this time imprisoned at Magdeburg Castle.
Upon the surrender of Germany in 1918, Pilsudski was released to take control of the Army of
the newly Independent Poland. The members of the POW (mostly ex-Legionnaires) were already being organized before Pilsudski was released on November 10, 1918. Independence was declared on October 7, 1918 by a Polish National Council in Exile, headed by Roman Dmowski (a National Democrat). He was supported by Ignacy Paderewski, who was then residing in the USA. Paderewski has some influence with American Politicians, including President Wilson. This influence became apparent when the creation of Poland was contained in President Wilson's 14 Points, and later as part of the Treaty of Versailles. The Western powers supported Paderewski in order to gain some influence in the region after WW I. Also on October 7, 1918, a Lublin Socialist named Daszyniski seized government offices in Galicia and became head of a provisory government of the Republic of Poland as of October 12, 1918. Daszyniski then appointed Pilsudski (still in jail) as Minister of War.
On November 2, 1918, Polish Army units went to the area of Lwow to assist the defense of this
predominately Polish city. A heroic defense of this city was accomplished mainly with the help of Polish school children, later to be called ORLETA. This initial battle lasted until November 22, 1918. Poland was officially proclaimed it's Independence on November 3, 1918. Pilsudski was released on November 10 and went to Warsaw. On November 14, Pilsudski was appointed as head of state, and was supported by both the Polish leaders in Lublin and Paris. He was granted dictatorial powers at this time. He named Ignacy Paderewski as Prime Minister. An election was held in January 1919 when Adalbert Trampczynski was named Marshal of the Sejm ( Pilsudski retained Presidential power until 1922), and Paderewski retained the post of Prime Minister.
After the Treaty of Versailles was set into motion, provisions for the German Army to occupy
and maintain parts of Poland, Lithuania and Bialyrussia were agreed upon by the Western powers. This was to ensure stability in the area until the volatile situation in Russia was settled. As the Russian civil war raged on, many western powers had been supporting Russian Tsarist Generals in their bid to retake Russia. The official granting of Polish territory under the Treaty of Versailles was to take place June 28, 1919. When the Germans began to leave the area prematurely, it left the entire region vulnerable to Bolshevik expansionism. This did not sit well, especially with the French. France became a strong supporter of Poland, and sent advisors and military equipment to aid the young Poland. The French hoped that Poland would help the cause of General Denikin, a Russian who was fighting the Bolsheviks. It was also hoped that any Russian lands that Poland took would be held in trust for Denikin.
England, on the other hand, actually tried to impede French efforts to support Poland because
they had just concluded trade deals with the Bolsheviks. Labour Unions in England actually prevented the loading of ships destined for Poland. It was a common belief among the British elite that Poland was incapable of self government and should be administered by Russia. All of Europe was tired of war, and the Bolsheviks were seeding discontent and spreading the word of a proletariat uprising among an the increasingly un-employed in many European nations. It became apparent to Pilsudski that he would have to make a pre-emptive strike to prevent Lenin from igniting revolution with his red army. When the Bolsheviks installed puppet governments in Lithuania and Bialyrussia in January 1919 (the LITBEL Republic), it became apparent that Lenin was systematically retaking territories of the Tsar and making them into Soviet Republics. Pilsudski decided to invade Bialyrussia and Lithuania in February 1919 in order to attack the Red Army before it could gain strength. By April 1919, Pilsudski had overthrown the LITBEL Soviet Republic. The vast majority of the city of Wilno was Polish, and Pilsudski was justified in
taking the area and claiming it for Poland.
Lenin (and still, many modern historians) had mistakenly interpreted France's support of
Pilsudski and saw Poland as a tool of the Western powers (who supported Denikin). In reality, Pilsudski gladly accepted France's aid, but did not support Denikin or any other Tsarist Generals. Pilsudski was content with the Reds and Tsarist weakening each other so he would have an easier time defeating which ever side won the Russian civil war. Both Lenin and Denikin wanted to include Poland in Russia, and Pilsudski would have to fight at least one of them. Pilsudski spent most of 1919 gaining control of much of Lithuania, Bialyrussia and the Ukraine. By December 1919, Denikin had fallen out of the picture, and had been replaced by General Wrangel. France continued to pressure Pilsudski to help the new Tsarist commander, but he refused. Lenin became concerned about the possibility of Poland supporting Wrangel, and decide to sue for peace with Pilsudski. In December 1919 there were peace talks held at Borisov (Pilsudski chose this location to deny access to western journalists, thereby preventing an opportunity for Lenin to use this event for propaganda). The British, under Prime Minister Lloyd George, pressured Pilsudski to accept an agreement on the Curzon Line, which gave an advantage to the Bolsheviks. The British were still interested in the trade agreements they had with Lenin, and it showed. Pilsudski rejected
this proposal. He much preferred allowing Bialyrussia and Ukraine to set up buffer states, which would be teamed with Poland in a defensive alliance. The war continued.
By April 1920, the Bolsheviks were clearly winning the civil war. About this time, Pilsudski
found an ally in the Ukrainian Petlura. Pilsudski sent the Polish army to assist Petlura's Ukrainian force to smash the Red army in the Ukraine, and hopefully install a anti-Bolshevik government in Kiev. Polish and Ukrainian forces reached Kiev on May 7, 1920. This victory postponed Lenin's planed invasion of Lithuania and Bialyrussia. The Red army began to mount several attacks on Poland in July 1920. The Red Army was led by an intelligent General named Tukhachevsky and a cavalry led by Budyenny. Tukhachevsky stated "Over the dead body of Poland shines the road to worldwide conflagration", meaning that if the Reds could reach Germany, it would spark widespread Bolshevik revolution in Europe. Tukhachevsky rapidly began to take Polish territory in the north (Lithuania, Bialyrussia). After being transferred from the Crimea (where he was fighting Wrangel), Budyenny began attacking Polish forces in the south (Galicia, especially in the area of Lwow). By June Petlura was defeated and he became incapable of controlling the Ukraine, allowing it to fall to the Bolsheviks. Pilsudski was in a fight for Poland's very existence, and it started to look very bad.
In July and August, the Western Allies urged Pilsudski to accept peace, and save what was left of Poland. Talks were held in Minsk, but were un-eventful. Lenin only pretended to seek peace, believing that he had already won the war. By mid August, Warsaw was threatened. The French advisor to Pilsudski, General Weygand, advised Pilsudski to abandon Warsaw and take up a defensive position west of the Wistula river. Pilsudski requested volunteers to defend Warsaw, and thousands complied. Pilsudski decided to stand and fight. General Wladyslaw Sikorski was given the responsibility of defending the City itself, while Pilsudski assembled a strike force south of Warsaw. On August 20, 1920, a miracle happened (as it became known, "The Miracle on the Wistula"). The Red army had made a critical mistake, and went north of Warsaw in an attempt to cut off Polish supply routes from the Baltic. Pilsudski, who may have anticipated this maneuver, was ready and launched his counter-attack. The Red Army seemed to disappear as fast as it appeared. Thousands of terrified Russians surrendered, and others ran away so fast, they seemed to vanish. About 100,000 Russians were taken prisoner. Arriving too late, Budyenny became cut off from the main Bolshevik force, and Tukhachevsky was forced to retreat toward Lithuania in order to avoid having a major portion of his forces encircled and captured. Pilsudski again defeated Tukhachevski at the battle of the Neman river.
Pilsudski inflicted defeat upon the Bolsheviks in 1920 at the Battle of Warsaw. His victory and
wisdom kept Bolshevism from spreading west into Europe, and allowed Poland to rise to nationhood after over a century of occupation. This freedom was only to last two decades. The Bolsheviks were defeated soundly and were in full retreat. In a few weeks, Pilsudski had recaptured much of the territory that he controlled until April 1920. In early October 1920, Pilsudski secretly sent General Zeligowski to Wilno to overthrow the Lithuanian government there. The official line was to be that the Polish majority in Wilno requested assistance because they were being persecuted by the Lithuanian minority which governed there. Zeligowski took Wilno and the surrounding area and occupied it until a plebiscite could eventually be held in 1922. The majority decided to join Poland. Lenin became serious about peace, and on October 12, 1920, the treaty of Riga was negotiated, which came into force March 18, 1921. A new Polish Constitution was proclaimed on March 17, 1921. A free Poland became a reality for this first time in over a century.
In November, 1922, Pilsudski resigned as Chief of State, but remained as Commander in Chief of the Army. After the election and formation of a new government under Wincenty Witos (leader of the peasant Party) in May 1926, Pilsudski led a military coup against the government. Although a few Generals opposed him, most welcomed the coup under the circumstances. President Stanislaws Wojciechowski resigned days later. The Parliament elected Pilsudski as President by a majority of the vote in order to gain control of a rapidly deteriorating economic crisis. Pilsudski publicly declined, and appointed Ignacy Moscicki on June 1, but in reality retained actual power for himself. Pilsudski gradually increased his already dictatorial powers over the next few years. In 1927, many opposition leaders were arrested. Elections were held in 1928, and the Socialists gained some influence in the Sejm. Pilsudski, originally a Socialist started to lean to the political right. Bitter fighting between leftists and those on the right ended in 1930 when Pilsudski arrested all the radical leftist leaders. New elections were held in November 1930. In 1932 power was given to the president to rule by decree, which was formalized on April 23, 1935, just before Pilsudski died on May 12. After his death in 1935, General Smigly-Rydz took over as Commander in Chief of the Polish Army, and was the de facto successor to Pilsudski.
Pilsudski has been accused of Anti-Semitism and, in the case of Lithuanians, Ukrainians and
Bialyrussians, ethnic cleansing. Upon closer examination, these accusations have no merit. The Polish Jews that Pilsudski supposedly persecuted turned out to be supporters of Bolshevism. Poland in reality was the most tolerant country toward Jews in Europe at the time. Many of the Bolshevik supporting Jews fled to Russia only to return later as Stalin's hand picked yes-men in the newly formed government of the People's Republic of Poland. The complaints of the ethnic minorities were in part exaggerated by Communist agitators, trying to discredit Pilsudski. The truth is, that even though the minorities experienced some discrimination with regard to language and religious rights, they were allowed much more freedom than the same minorities had on the Russian side. For example, Ukrainians were expected to learn Polish in Poland. In Russia, Stalin expected them to starve. Pilsudski also had to contain Bolshevism from spreading. During the 1918-21 War, some suspected Communists were summarily executed (without trial). It must be remembered that some measures during times of war are hard to understand in peace time. Pilsudski was fighting a war with a very dangerous enemy. The Bolsheviks used every deceptive tactic imaginable. Pilsudski could only succeed in his goal of setting up an Independent Poland if he could irradicate, where ever possible, any support for Lenin's ideas. Communism had very little support in Pilsudski's Poland anyway, and the number of these executions was very small. Almost all of those executed were certainly Communists. The executions were based on political lines, not ethnic ones.
Pilsudski's rise to role of dictator was not based on personal glory. He always had Poland's best
interest as the basis of his actions. Poland was in many difficult situations. It was surrounded by hostile enemies. The post-war European economy triggered massive inflation. The last thing that Poland needed was a weak government that quarreled with itself. Pilsudski's strong leadership was the only thing that kept Poland on the map until Hitler and Stalin partitioned Poland in 1939. In revenge for Pilsudski's 1920 victory, Stalin made Poland pay a heavy price during and after World War II. Stalin was Budyenny's Political Officer during the 1920 Galician campaign. Stalin actually prevented Budyenny from reaching Tukhachevsky in time in order to help in the attack on Warsaw. This interference may have caused the Bolsheviks to lose the entire Polish-Russian war. After Stalin consolidated his power, he went about re-writing history. He heaped much of the blame for losing to Pilsudski on Tukhachevsky and had him and other Bolshevik officers executed in 1938. After Stalin gained control of Poland in 1944-45, he began hunting down Polish veterans of the 1918-21 war. Many were executed or jailed in Siberia.
Stalin then tried to erase any memory of Pilsudski or his defense of Poland from the history books.
KAWALEROWIE VIRTUTI MILITARI vol. 2
DAVIES, Norman. White Eagle, Red Star: The Polish-Soviet War 1919-1920.
Foreword by A.J.P. Taylor. Orbis, London, 1983