Jozef Pilsudski  

                Messiah and Central European Federalist


by Patryk Dole

Of the great men who played major roles in Europe's fate, in the first half of the 20th century, no one is more overshadowed by the likes of Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Churchill, than Pilsudski. Pilsudski is the person who is solely responsible for Poland's semi-resurrection during the years 1918-1939 and for saving Europe from the wrath of Bolshevism at "The Miracle of the Wisla," in 1920. He is the founder of modern Poland, who fought his whole life to reestablish Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine and Byelorussia to their former greatness in the notion of Rzeczpospolita (the 16th-18th Century Polish-Lithuanian Republic). Pilsudski envisioned a Central European Federation, in the times of national self-determination, from Finland to the Black and Adriatic Seas, in order to defend the nations of Central Europe from German Fascism and Russian Communism. Pilsudski's life and death stand as symbol of this idea.

Jozef Klemens Pilsudski was born on the 5, December, 1867, in a manor house at Zulow, Lithuania. He was the second son of a very old Polish-Lithuanian noble family, who lived under austere circumstances, created by the Russian authorities since the end of Rzeczpospolita in 1795, and especially since the 1830-31 and 1863-64 Polish-Lithuanian uprisings. He was strongly influenced by his fiercely patriotic family. His mother was a fanatic who told her children "endless stories about Polish-Lithuanian heroism, and she kept portraits of Polish-Lithuanian patriots locked in secret drawers, which she opened from time to time to show her children." There was an Aunt who lived with the Pilsudskis, who was known as "The General" because of her ruthless Polish-Lithuanian patriotism. Thus, it should be of no surprise that at an early age, Pilsudski rejected the dejection of his compatriots, who where influenced by the aftermath of failed uprisings and who were under great strain of the anti-Polish program of the Tsarist officials. The Russification program was at its peak and it involved erasing all memories of everything Polish. Polish schools were closed down, use of the Polish language in public was forbidden and all Polish literature was banished. Pilsudski recounts his days as a student at Wilno (Vilnius) Gymnasium as some of the worse years of his life.

Pilsudski recalled that 'their system was to crush as much as possible the independence and personal dignity of their pupils [...] My pride was trampled upon listening to lies and scornful words about Poland, Poles and their history.' Pilsudski was himself expelled from school for speaking Polish in class. Considering Pilsudski's childhood and family background it should be no wonder when British historian, Norman Davies, describes Pilsduski as "an Insurrectionary in a generation of Conciliators, a Romantic in the age of Positivism." He was a follower of Polish Messianism; Poland being partitioned by three "evil" empires, in 1795, is comparable to the crucifixion of Christ: "the Christ of Nations."

When Pilsudski was 19-years-old, he was arrested by Tsarist officials and sent to penal exile in eastern Siberia for five years, only for being the brother of Bronislaw Pilsudski, who helped supply Alexander Ulyanov(Lenin's brother) with explosives for a bomb, which was thrown at the Tsar in 1887. Bronislaw was less fortunate than Pilsudski and was sent to Siberia for a longer period with forced labor. Jozef Pilsudski treated his time in Siberia as a vacation, where he enjoyed hunting and fishing in the beauty of the Siberian landscape.

Before the Siberian experience, he had found an interest in socialism and had joined the socialist movement. Although Pilsudski was interested in the well being of the proletarians of Wilno, he was not a typical socialist. He had read Marx, but did not agree with Marx's economic theory, thus he was not a Marxist. He saw the Polish worker's struggle as one against Russia and not one of a class struggle. In other words, Pilsudski used socialism to direct his hatred against the Tsar and Russia. It is obvious that Pilsudski was confused, not being sure of the difference between socialism and nationalism.

On his return from Siberia he founded and became editor of the Robotnik (The Worker), the journal of the Polish Socialist Party(PPS). In the mean time he hid himself from the authorities, since he was regarded as a disruptive element and party organizer. These activities led to him joining other revolutionary exiles in London. In 1900 he was arrested once again, this time for being the editor of Robotnik. At the highly escape proof prison, Pilsudski pretended to be mentally ill in order to be transferred to a mental hospital, in St. Petersburg, where he could escape with the help of a Polish doctor. The doctor who examined him at the prison noticed right away that Pilsudski was a fraud, but the doctor felt sorry for him, due to the stories Pilsudski told him of the great times he had passed in Siberia. Pilsudski was greatly fortunate because the doctor at the prison considered himself Siberian and not Russian.

In 1904-5 Pilsudski was in Japan trying to get support from the Japanese against the Russians, who where at war with Russia. During this time he had set up Bojowki, commandos who set out to carry out acts of diversion and sabotage. The Russians being defeated by the Japanese pleased the Poles, but at the same time made them anxious, due to the thousand of young Polish soldiers being killed in the East. In Tokyo, Pilsudski proposed the creation of a Polish Legion out of Russian prisoners of Polish descent and that a guerrilla war in Poland would deviate the Russian army. In return Japan would supply his men with arms and demand the establishment of an independent Poland at the peace negotiations. The Japanese were very cautious of getting involved. Pilsudski's Japanese plans were destroyed when his life long enemy and rival, Roman Dmowski came to Tokyo in order to stop him.

Roman Dmowski (1864-1939), was the leader the National Democratic Party, known in Polish as the Endeks. In contrast to Pilsudski's PPS, who were of the left, the Endeks were of the right. Dmowski was a so called realist or positivist. He believed that Poland could gain semi-independence through business like means, fatefulness to Russia, aggression towards Germany and by being compliant to the Great Powers. In other words Dmowski was a conformist and non-romantic. He advocated "Polska dla Polakow" which means he wanted a Poland only for Poles. Dmowski's party had a turn the other cheek policy, which was called "superconciliationism." The Endeks sharpened their swords for the internal enemy, while the PPS sharpened their swords against the external enemy. The PPS were advocates of the ideals of tolerance of Rzeczpospolita, the Endeks were not.

The period of the years 1908-1921 mark the second part of Pilsudski's career, where he was forced to advocate brute force, after the revolutionary factions were disbanded by Russia. Pilsudski raised money for his party by highway robbery. In April 1908, at Bezdany near Wilno he successfully completed a mail-train raid. Pilsdudski, threw the bomb which opened the mail car. One soldier was killed and five were wounded. Pilsudski expresses his new ideas and state of mind, in an obituary that he writes to a friend before the raid:

I am not going to dictate to you what you shall write about my life and work. I only ask of you not to make me a 'whiner and sentimentalist.' [...] I fight and I am ready to die simply because I cannot bear to live in this latrine which is what our life amounts to [...] Let others play at throwing bouquets to Socialism or Polonism [...] My latest idea, which I have not yet fully developed, is to create in all parties, and most of all our own, an organization of physical force, of brute force. I have already done much towards its fulfillment but not enough to rest on my laurels. So now I am staking everything on this last card [...] I may die in this 'expropriation' and I want to explain [...] Money [...] may the devil take it! I prefer to win it in a fight than to beg for it from the Polish public which has become infantile through being chicken-hearted. I haven't got money and I must have it for the ends I pursue.

After the raid, Pilsudski had more money than he could have ever imagined. "The total value was 200,812 rubles-or approximately $100,000 in the exchange of that time. In Eastern Europe in 1908 this was an absolute fortune."

Pilsudski's raid and robberies were similar to that of the Bolsheviks, however he differed from them in the fact that he believed Polish patriotism was a better way for rallying the loyalty of his compatriots than "calls for class warfare." From Bezdany Pilsudski did not stop until the gates of independence. Pilsudski did well in predicting that there was going to be a major war between the imperialist powers and that if he played his cards right he would be able to gain Poland's freedom. He had foreseen the whole events of W.W.I. in advance and formed his Legions in Austria under the disguise of 'Riflemen's Clubs.' He was made Brigadier-General and allowed to train his men in the Carpathian Mountains, but only once Pilsudski had convinced the Central Powers that he would be of use in the Great War. He commanded his Legions while they fought on the Eastern Front between 1914 and 1917. Serving as Minister of War in the Regency Government he was arrested by the Germans for not wanting to be their stooge and a week later his legions disbanded after refusing the oath to the Kaiser. He was imprisoned at Magdeburg Castle from July 1917 until November 1918.

Pilsudski's life of pure guts, heart and determination had produced more than anyone had foreseen. The Central Powers being defeated released Pilsudski November 10. When he arrived at Warsaw station, he was in sole control of a state that no one could quite define. He was supreme dictator, for the moment, of a nation, which just a few years previously had disappeared from the minds of most of the inhabitants of Europe. Pilsudski said on the first session of the Polish Parliament(Sejm):

A century and a half of battles, sometimes bloody and sacrificial, has found its victory in this day. A century and a half of dreams of a free Poland have come true at this moment.

Neither the Polish National Committee (KNP) of Roman Dmowski, nor the Allied Powers had anything to do with his appointment. Perhaps pure providence is what brought Pilsudski to power. Dmowski was furious, believing Pilsudski's appointment to be illegal, while the Allies did not trust the former Austrian officer. They wanted to seize control for themselves.

In truth, Pilsudski's appointment was neither 'legal' nor 'illegal'. He had arrived in Warsaw from prison an exile with no precise knowledge of what he would find. Like Lenin in Petrograd in the previous year, he had found power lying in the street.'As he stopped to pick it up, the Polish phoenix fluttered from the ashes of war which lay at his feet.

In order to understand Pilsudski's messianic turn of fate and surge to power, one must understand the complexity of his personality. He was extremely charismatic, very handsome, a conspirator, impulsive, honest, demanding, a moralist, a fighter, and of course a romantic. In contrast to the bureaucratic positivist politicians of Western Europe, he was conditioned by the "realities of the Russian underground." According to Norman Davies, "he possessed all the political vices in full measure: he was wayward, reckless, rude, vindictive, childish, taciturn, and unpredictable." If these are political vices can be argued. Considering Poland's situation at the time, such a strong personality as Pilsudski's, was exactly what Poland needed in order to unshackle its partitioning chains. Davies continues:

But in 1918-21, he played a part in Polish History,which no one can fairly deny. Like that of Churchill twenty years later, his 'Finest Hour' stood in the midst of a lifetime strewn with blunders and failures. Yet such was the force of his personality the force of his nerve, and the obstinacy of his resolution that he imposed his will on the lesser and more cautious men around him. There is no other figure in recent history of Poland to whom Jozef Pilsudski can be compared.

During the years of 1918-1921 Poland filled the vacuum left by the fleeing German forces, which had left the western part of the Russian Empire. Both the Whites and Bolsheviks had no intention of in allowing Poland to be reborn and especially not under the 1772 frontier. It is certain that Pilsudski did not want to see General Denkin in power in Moscow, with the support of the Allies. Thus, Pilsudski avoided any conflict against the Bolsheviks. In spite of demands from Paris and London for him to support Denikin he made a secret peace with Lenin.

Once the Bolsheviks defeated the Whites in the winter of 1919, they prepared to spread their revolution through Poland to Germany and eventually to the rest of Europe. Within five months the Red Army had increased their forces from four to twenty divisions. At the same time Pilsudski was preparing for his life long dream of creating his federation and for going to a showdown with Russia. As a child Pilsudski had fantasies about being Napoleon I. In fact Napoleon I was Pilsudski's life long hero and idol. He knew the Napoleonic wars by heart and of course Napoleon's invasion of Russia, like the back of his hand. Thus, there was no turning back for the man of destiny, who was about to repeat a similar war, to the one that had happened a century earlier.

The Bolsheviks had flooded the Ukraine, forcing Ataman Semyon Petlura(a Ukrainian bookkeeper turned national hero) to sign an alliance with Pilsudski, securing Lwow for Poland and possibly Pilsudski's federation. On 7 May the Polish army liberated Kiev in the intention of giving it to Petlura in a Polish-Ukrainian-Federation. On 5 June the Bolsheviks were back in Kiev. The major problem which prevented Pilsudski from securing Kiev and creating his federation was the unwillingness of the inhabitants of Ukraine, to rush to the aid of Petlura and his Ukrainian nationalist forces. Most Ukrainians had no idea what Bolshevism was and were easily manipulated by the Russians. Besides, many of the Ukrainian peasants were very simple people who still had memories of serfdom, which was imposed on them by the Polish Szlachta (Nobility). They believed Pilsudski to be another Polish Magnate, as from the 18th century. Thus, Petlura could not foster more than 30,000 troops.

The Russian fortunes had changed in late June and early July, when they broke through the Polish lines. As the 27-year-old Russian General, Mikhail Tukhachevsky yelled as he broke through Berezina, on 4 July: " 'To the West!' ran his order of the day. 'Over the corpse of White Poland lies the road to world-wide conflagration!' " From then on the Russians were not to be stopped. The British refused to help. The French did nothing to enforce their miniscule Military Mission. "The dockers in Danzig and Czech railwaymen in Brno contrived to delay the few foreign supplies for which Poland had paid in hard cash" and "a vociferous propaganda campaign, under the slogan 'Hands off Russia,' led world wide opinion astray at a time when Soviet Russia was laying violent hands on its Polish neighbor," but not all was lost, there was still Pilsudski.

Ghai's 'Red Cossacks' crossed the Vistula (Wisla) river near Warsaw on the 10 August. On the 12 August newspapers all over Europe declared the capitulation of Warsaw and Poland. The Reds in Berlin were preparing themselves for the revolution, when "Pilsudski launched a daring flank attack," which he learned by studying the Napoleonic Wars, giving the most sever and only defeat to the Red Army in its history. The Red Army in Poland was destroyed and over 100,000 Russian soldiers were captured. The rest of the Red Army fled to Prussia and through Lithuania to Russia. Europe was saved.

Poland looked ready to march on Moscow, but Lenin sued for peace and the Allies pressured Pilsudski to stop. The treaty of Riga was signed 18 March 1921, finalizing Poland's pre-W.W.II. borders. Pilsudski heavily criticized the Polish delegation at Riga for abandoning federalism. Pilsudski had accomplished half of his federalist dream: half the territory of Rzeczpospolita, of the 1772 frontier, was recovered. The significance of the last cavalry battle to have been fought on the great European Plain: "The Miracle of the Wisla," or The Battle of Warsaw "is well summed up by the British Ambassador in Berlin at the time, Lord D'Abernon, in Gibbonian tones:"

If Charles Martel had not checked the Saracen conquest at the Battle of Tours, the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught at the schools of Oxford, and her pupils might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelations of Mahomet. Had Pilsudski failed to arrest the triumphant advance of the Soviet Army at the Battle of Warsaw, not only would Christianity have experienced a dangerous reverse, but the very existence of western civilization would have been imperiled. The Battle of Tours saved our ancestors from the Yoke of the Koran; it is probable that the Battle of Warsaw saved Central and parts of Western Europe from a more perverse danger-the fanatical tyranny of the Soviet.

In a life of fulfilling dreams and accomplishments Pilsudski utterly failed in regards to his native Lithuania. Instead of bringing Poles and Lithuanians together as they had been for the last five centuries, he had worsened relations between Poles and Lithuanians beyond belief. However, Pilsudski cannot be solely responsible for this cultural catastrophe. The situation was made antagonistic by both the Poles and the Lithuanians:

Although Pilsudski regarded Lithuania as the prime candidate for 'federalization' with Poland, many Poles believed that the federalization of Lithuania would raise that nation to too high a status. They regarded Lithuania as simply a Polish Province in which the few towns and cities were mostly inhabited by Poles, while the countryside was largely populated by backward persons-mostly peasants-who happened to speak a different language. Quite a few Poles believed that Lithuania should simply be annexed to Poland without any special status given to it.

The Lithuanians had forgotten about the old Rzeczpospolilitan proverb: "for your freedom and ours" and avoided the war with the Bolsheviks. Its political leaders had risen from the peasantry, to form nationalistic political organizations with the help of the Germans. Antanas Smetona was Lithuania's anti-Polish leader and future fascist dictator. Thus, it is understandable that Pilsudski had no intention of leaving his beloved native Wilno, to the mercy of a Lithuanian nationalistic regime. Less than 2 percent of the inhabitants of Wilno were Lithuanians, in regards to language.

This is where the tragedy lies. Pilsudski gave secret orders to General Lucjan Zeligowski to march into Wilno. On 8 October, 1920, Zeligowski's Polish-Lithuanian-Byelorussian troops liberated Wilno. "We are not going to fight you, we are simply returning home," Zeligowski told the Lithuanian officers. "The population of Wilno and the Polish soldiers, born in the Wilno region, were a third party which had appeared in the Polish-Lithuanian dispute." Pilsudski's failure was not in claiming Wilno, but rather in him going almost all the way in creating his federation and then stopping. He naively believed that "blood should not separate us." When Zeligowski was on the verge of annexing the whole of Lithuania, Pilsudski told him to stop. Pilsudski believed that once he controlled Wilno, the Lithuanians would compromise for a federation with Poland; Zeligowski's march created the opposite effect.

Pilsudski was a man ahead of his time. When others were playing the nationalistic, fascist, imperialistic ticket, Pilsudski was trying to mend differences, in order to save Central Europe. It is unfortunate that so few others were willing to help themselves by believing in Pilsudski's dream, or better known as "Pilsudski's Great Design." After W.W.II., Hitler, Stalin, the Cold War, and now Globalization (Western-Neo-Colonialism), it seems that Pilsudski is one of the few great statesman, of the 20th Century to have made some sense. For example, he wanted to make a preventative war with France (France preferred to build its famous Maginot Line) against Nazi Germany and constantly complained about the modern build up of arms, but the Eurocentrics of the West would not listen. They liked to treat Pilsudski as some kind of exotic imperialist romantic, not to be listened to, while they themselves were highly civilized and far from being imperialistic. Pilsudski's federalist idea was that Poland, being the largest and most advanced country in East-Central Europe, should associate itself with adjoining nationalities, like the Czechs, Slovaks, Lithuanians, Belorussians and Ukrainians. All these nations would have the same status within one federation. This would have weakened Russia, while at the same time strengthening Poland and the other Central European nations. Today this sounds like a worthy alternative to NATO and the EU, in regards to Central Europe.

In 1935 Jozef Pilsudski died and four years later his apocalyptic warnings proved prophetic, when hell broke lose with the unleashing of Hitler's and Stalin's forces. Appropriately, Pilsudski's heart is buried with his mother in Wilno, while his corpse is buried with the Polish-Lithuanian Kings in Wawel Castle, Krakow. The quotation from the poet Juliusz Slowacki, on Pilsudski's tomb in Rossie (Rasu) Cemetery, displays the spirit of a great man:

Whoever had the choice, would choose an eagle's nest on the cliffs in place of a home. May he know how to sleep, though his eyes be red from the thunder, and listen to the cries of the wild spirits in the murmur of the pines.-That is how I lived.


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