Josef Piłsudski

Dictator or the saviour of Poland?



Josef Piłsudski is definitely a figure of great controversy. Some see him as a national hero, others a militaristic dictator. Certain however is the fact that Piłsudski remains one of the most important Poles in history.


He was born in 1867 in a minor town within the Russian annexed territories of former Poland. This factor greatly contributed to his deep antipathy towards the Russian aggressor. At the age of seventeen Josef joined one of many students’ independence movements, which proved to be the spark of his patriotic ambitions. Shortly after graduation the young Piłsudski was arrested and falsely accused of collaboration in the unsuccessful assassination of the Russian tsar. For the alleged crimes he was sent to Siberia for three years. The difficulties of prison did not quell his determination of rebuilding the Polish state and so upon his return Piłsudski made a name for himself by gathering and managing multiple opposition groups - not only in Poland but in Western Europe and even Japan. This allowed him to travel west to seek allies in the upcoming revolution against Russia, which Piłsudski foresaw happening within a few years’ time.


Piłsudski visiting Poznań (October 1919)

During WW1 he managed to form the Polish Legions, a new independence army under the supervision of the Central Powers. Soon Piłsudski abandoned the alliance, deciding to battle against Russia independently in a guerrilla war. The campaign turned out to be an overall success, though brought no long-lasting effects for the Polish general. All changed towards the end of the war due to the breakout of civil conflict in Russia. Afraid of populist ideology spreading westward the German government decided to separate itself from the chaotic Bolshevik revolution by supporting a rebirth of the state of Poland. And so Piłsudski, in spite of past misconceptions, was designated to bring the plan to life as the first Chief of State. His arrival in Warsaw on the 11th of November 1918 marks Independence Day for Polish citizens.


Piłsudski's gravest concern from that point was the build up of influence in the East. With civil war still raging between the tsar and revolutionary forces, the Polish leader was now faced with forming a strategy against Russian expansion. He decided to push far into enemy territory and captured paramount political strongholds such as Wilnus and Kiyev. Unfortunately for him, those actions only allowed the Bolsheviks to dominate the conflict. What ensued was a massive offensive towards Warsaw and the whole of Europe. Having retreated to Warsaw Piłsudski along with his generals prepared for a final stand against an overpowering Russian force. Miraculously, thanks to the strategic genius of Polish commanders and some cleverly deployed misinformation, on August 15th 1920 the defenders were victorious in one of the most significant battles in modern history. This triumph not only saved the newly forged state of Poland but also prevented the Communist all-out invasion of Europe.


Piłsudski leads departure of his troops (1913)

Peace was finally restored and Piłsudski withdrew from the political world allowing Poland to reconstruct. The odds against the newly created independent state were enormous. Not only was it put together from formerly disjointed territories under the Russian, Prussian and Austrian rule, but the retreating armies took away most valuable property, including infrastructure. Whole railway lines and coal mines were stripped of machinery amenities. The new independence brought poverty and growing discontent. Six years on, the government - although democratic - appeared inefficient and unstable. What with constant economic crises , public opinion grew consistently weary of the new rulers. Finally, in 1926 Josef Piłsudski, determined to preserve the stability and independence of Poland returned to Warsaw and organised a coup d'etat, that lead to several hundred dead and the rise of authoritarian rule in the country. Up until today it is considered a highly controversial topic. Piłsudski's plan of action was radical, but was it justified? All that can be said is that, within a few months, stability seemed to return, backed by Pilsudski’s unshakeable authority and a new impetus to bolster economic development.


As marshal of national forces he represented the interests of the Polish Republic both domestically and internationally. He showed a penetrating insight when he proposed to France and UK a military intervention against the Nazi Germany in order to prevent a wider or even global conflict. His proposal was turned down, because after the horror of the trenches of WW1 the Western Powers were unable to resort to another military action. History has shown that the decision to ignore Piłsudski's advice proved to be fatal and resulted in the deaths of millions.


Josef Piłsudski died in 1935 from liver cancer and was buried in the royal cathedral in Krakow, which in Poland is regarded as as the ultimate honour and gesture of appreciation and respect.



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