Childhood & Early Life
Józef Piłsudski was born on December 5, 1867, into a noble Polish family that hailed from Lithuania. He was born at Zulow in the Vilna District of Russian Poland.
At the time of his birth, his village was under the rule of Russia. After ‘World War I,’ it again became a part of Poland.
The harassment inflicted by Russian rule pervaded deep inside Józef and he was inspired from his early youth to throw away the Russian Empire from Poland.
He attended a secondary school in Wilno (modern-day Vilnius). He then studied medicine at the ‘University of Kharkov,’ Ukraine, in 1885. At the university he got involved in the activities of ‘Narodnaya Volya’ ((a revolutionary political organization in the Russian Empire which aimed at putting an end to the autocratic rule). In 1886, he was suspended for taking part in student demonstrations.
Thereafter the ‘University of Dorpat’ refused to enrol him as the university authorities had come to know about his political affiliation.
In 1887, he was arrested on charges of planning to assassinate Tsar Alexander III. He was then exiled to Siberia for 5 years. In his exile, he was allowed to work as a tutor to local children.
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Early Political Career
Józef returned home in 1892 and decided to work toward Poland’s freedom from the Russian rule. As the first step toward this mission, he joined the ‘Polish Socialist Party in 1893. Two years later, he became the leader of the Party. He also worked as the editor of ‘Robotnik,’ the party’s underground newspaper.
The newspaper printing press was discovered by the Russian authorities in 1900 and he was arrested and imprisoned at the Warsaw Citadel. He feigned mental illness and escaped from a mental hospital and managed to reach London.
In 1904, after the outbreak of the ‘Russo-Japanese War,’ Józef travelled to Tokyo to get Japan’s help in planning an uprising in Poland. Unfortunately, his arch-rival, Roman Dmowski, too, travelled to Tokyo to convince the authorities that Józef’s plans weren’t feasible enough to hold an uprising in Poland. Dmowski remained one of the arch enemies of Józef for a long time. He was in Japan to argue against Józef’s plan, which he almost did since Józef received very little help from Japan, related to purchasing weapons and ammunition.
In 1904, he founded the ‘Combat Organization of the Polish Socialist Party.’ Its purpose was to create an armed resistance movement against the Russian rule.
In October 1904, this paramilitary unit opened fire on Russian police and military. In 1905, Józef called for a general strike, which involved more than 400,000 workers and lasted for two months.
In 1906, following an attempt to boycott the elections to the ‘First Duma,’ his Party split in two - ‘Old Faction’ or ‘Revolutionary Faction’ and ‘Young Faction’ or Moderate Faction.’ No prizes for guessing, Józef belonged to the ‘Old Faction.’
His party’s main focus was on the freedom of Poland whereas the other party wanted to de-emphasize things with Russia. In 1908, Józef started working on creating a force that eventually became the ‘Polish National Army.’
During ‘World War I,’ he led the ‘1st Brigade of the Polish Legion.’ In 1916, he was also the chief of military of the ‘Polish state Council.’
On November 5, 1916, the central government proclaimed the independence of Poland. Józef took the responsibility of ministry of war. However, after the ‘Central Powers’ refused to accept the ‘Polish Army’ as a part of the state, Józef rebelled. He was arrested by the Germans in 1917.
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After his release in 1918, Józef returned to Warsaw, and was immediately made the Head of the State as well as the Commander-in-Chief of the independent Polish Armed Forces. In 1921, after the introduction of the new Constitution, which exhibited a limited number of executive powers, Józef resigned as the Head of the State but continued as the army chief.
In 1923, after the conservative government took over, he resigned from the post of the army chief as well. He decided to stay away from politics for a while.
Meanwhile, seeing the political and economic condition of the country, he came back to power through a coup d'état (the May 1926 Coup). During the coup, more than 200 soldiers and 160 civilians were killed. Overall, around 900people were wounded even though Pilsudski was hoping for a bloodless coup. In 1926, he was offered the position of the President of Poland, but he refused to accept it.
However, he continued as the Minister of Defence until his death. In 1926, he was elected as the Prime Minister of Poland.
During his leadership, any member of the ‘Sejm,’ who opposed his rule, was arrested. He served as the Prime Minister from 1926 to 1928 and 1930.
He continued serving as the minister of military affairs and chairman of the war council. His main goals continued to be transforming the parliamentary system into presidential system. He, however, was opposed the totalitarianism. He believed that stability of the nation was of utmost importance and left no stone unturned to achieve it.
Awards & Achievements
During his break from politics for three years, he wrote memoirs on political and military history. One of his most popular books was ‘Rok 1920’ (The Year 1920) and his autobiography, ‘Joseph Pilsudski: The Memories of a Polish Revolutionary and Soldier’ (transl. 1931).’
’Józef Piłsudski Institute of America,’ a New York-based research center and museum is named after him. The ‘Józef Piłsudski University of Physical Education in Warsaw’ is also named in his honor.
‘MS Piłsudski,’ a passenger ship, ‘ORP Komendant Piłsudski,’ a gunboat, and ‘Pilsudski,’ a racehorse were all named after him. There are several statues of Pilsudski standing tall all across Poland.
He has also been painted by artists, such as, Jacek Malczewski (1916) and Wojciech Kossak. He has also been a subject of the TV documentary titled ‘Marszałek Piłsudski’ (2001).
He won many prestigious national and international honors. Some of these include Order of the White Eagle (1921), ‘Cross of Valour’ (4 times), ‘Order of Leopold,’ and ‘Legion of Honour.’
Family, Personal Life & legacy
on July 15, 1899, he married Maria Juszkiewiczowa, in a Protestant Church. Maria was earlier married to a Polish civil engineer before marrying Pilsudski. The couple moved to Lodz after their wedding. This marriage started deteriorating later when he started an affair with Aleksandra Szczerbińska. Maria died in 1921, and he got married the same year.
He couldn’t marry Aleksandra earlier as his first wife, Maria, refused to divorce him. He already had two daughters, Wanda and Jadwiga, with Aleksandra at the time of their marriage.
He died on May 12, 1935, due to liver cancer. He was buried in the ‘Wawel Cathedral Crypt,’ a place where remains of national heroes are preserved.