From Prison to President: Piłsudski’s Experience During the First World War

by Lydia House
“Piłsudski once confided to an admirer that there were two methods of teaching a man to swim: either by constantly supporting him, thus preventing him from swallowing water, or by leading him to the depths and throwing him in.  The second method he thought the only correct one.  It was necessary for Poland to learn to swim again. And Piłsudski pulled her into the depths.”

–          Foreign Affairs, 1935

This story is concerned with Poland’s struggle to establish itself as a sovereign country during the First World War.  Poland had far more agency than previously thought, largely due the efforts of one man: Jozef Piłsudski.  His  navigation of the dark waters of the Polish fight for independence largely accomplished his goals, but his tactics lead to many interpretations of his actions, all painting a slightly different picture of Poland.  This essay will explore and identify the mechanisms by which Piłsudski secured power, and the independent Poland that emerged from his efforts.

Source: Harper's Pictoral History of the World

Source: Harper’s Pictoral History of the World

During the First World War, Poland was a partitioned state; split between Austria-Hungary, Germany, and the Russian Empire.  When these forces began tearing themselves apart, it would have seemed that Poland would be torn apart with them.  Instead, Poland was able, under Pilsudski’s leadership, to capitalize on this discord, organize and mobilize a fighting force, and emerge from this chaos a politically relevant player with great agency.

In 1920, Harper & Brothers Publishers released a pictorial encyclopedia of the First World War, mere two years from its conclusion.  In this four hundred and six-page volume, only six pages are devoted to Poland.  However, those six pages paint a unique picture of the sequence of events.  The encyclopedia outlines the cunning steps Piłsudski took to join the fight, such as his escape from Siberian exile by first faking insanity, and then arranging for a release.  This combination of opportunism and pragmatism followed Piłsudski through all of his actions.

Michael Palij details the events leading up to World War I, in “The Ukrainian-Polish Defensive Alliance, 1919-1921: An Aspect of the Ukrainian Revolution”.  Palij portrays Piłsudski as a strong and pragmatic military man.  For example, in Piłsudski’s opinion, “the nineteenth-century Polish uprisings had failed because of inadequate preparation.”[1]  Realizing that the Polish people had become apathetic, Piłsudski believed that “an army had to precede the Polish state.”[2]

Palij writes how as early as “1910 … he [Piłsudski] took advantage of a new Austrian law … to gain legal status for the Union of Active Struggle as the so-called Riflemen’s Union,.[3] a precursor to the legions Pilsudski would lead when the war broke out. The Austrian state allowed these Poles to use old weapons for training and to start to conduct military exercises, allowing them in effect to create a paramilitary organization that would evolve into a small army.

At the outbreak of the First World War, Piłsudski deconstructed the Riflemen’s Union and transformed it into “a 144-man company of infantry.”[4]  He mobilized his troops and quickly aggregated an army.  Amazingly, the Harper’s Pictorial Library notes, “for the first time since 1863 there was a Polish armed force in the field, with Polish uniforms, Polish words of command, Polish officers.”[5]  This monumental feat required not only years of preparation but also a mastery of command.  Piłsudski had more ambitious plans for his army than for pure political gain.  The officers were “paid an identical salary, while officers and men addressed one another as ‘citizen’.”[6] This suggests clear and comprehensive thought.

Interestingly enough, as Leslie writes in “The Emergence of an Independent State”, the “powers which had portioned Poland now turned to the question of enlisting Polish support in the conflict which was to extend until 1918.”[7] By choosing who to support and when, this fighting force under Pilsudski’s command began the process of establishing nascent agency for the coming post-War Polish state  Furthermore, Piłsudski attempted to establish a ‘National Government’ on his own, but this attempt failed.  In 1914 the Germans retook the Dabrowa basin, a source of Piłsudski’s political support, and Austria demanded a military ultimatum – disband his legions or give them to Austria.[8] As Lesli writes, Pilsudski was always a pragmatist, noting that  “alliance with Austria was purely tactical in character.”[9]  In an incredibly risky political move, Piłsudski gambled the fate of Poland by resigning from his military position, which led to his arrest.  This resignation forced the other power’s hands, taking a situation in which it would seem that Poland had no power, and turning the tables.

Paradoxically, the relative ambivalence of the Allied powers towards Poland regarding aid turn out to be beneficial to the development of independent, post-war Poland. As Biskupski writes in Strategies, Politics, and Suffering: The Wartime Relief of Belgium, Serbia, and Poland, unlike western war-torn countries such as Belgium, “Poland, like Serbia, received very little aid despite its enormous wartime suffering” with the aid to Belgium “running twenty-five to forty times higher than the rates for Poland.”[10]  In this way, Poland was called to shape its own future and to find a way to support itself.  Furthermore, Western Allies had little to no interest in territorial ambitions early in the war regarding Poland. Biskupski notes that, “the Western Allies avoided any actions involving Poland as long as Russia was able to assert its preemptive authority over the region.”[11]

It’s almost as if Poland is protecting Piłsudski.

The article referenced above, Strategies, Politics, and Suffering: The Wartime Relief of Belgium, Serbia, and Poland, 1914-1918, illustrates shocking differences between the treatment of Belgium and eastern European countries.  The aid that Poland and other eastern European countries received, whether in the form of food or medical supplies, came too little too late, leaving many of these states to fend for themselves.   In Poland’s case, this dynamic created a sort of power vacuum into which Piłsudski stepped.  Once there, he masterfully navigated control of the situation.

In an article written by Foreign Affairs upon Pilsudski’s death in 1935, there is a fascinating description of him as “a terse, unyielding figure … Tight, thin lips under thick, militant mustaches.[12] A jutting chin.  A brain only average in many ways.”[13]  The article goes on to describe him as “the most secretive, the most impenetrable, of Europe’s statesmen.”  This obituary serves to portray Pilsudski in a particular light for the audience and the ruminations on his ascent to power after WWI are valuable.  How a person is remembered is just as important as what they have done.

The Foreign Affairs article does not focus on his collusion with Axis powers, but rather his ultimate contribution to the resolution of the war.  The article portrays him as “a second but successful Kosciuszko, the Polish Garibaldi, the Napoleon of the East.”[14] .  This article does not dwell on his temporary alliance with Austria-Hungary, but rather stressed Pilsudski’s end goal of a sovereign Poland.  Merely 18 years after the end of the Great War, Piłsudski’s legacy had been transformed from man into myth.

Piłsudski’s autobiography, “The Memories of a Polish Revolutionary and Soldier” portray him in a unique light.  The tone of his autobiography is warm, and he even remembers his time imprisoned in Madgeburg at the end of the war fondly.  So much is written about him, it is fascinating to read his own words.  He “occupied [himself] in criticizing [himself] and [his] subordinates”,[15] often times fixated on mistakes that he had made.  The intent of this autobiography was likely to act as a justification for his actions after the war.  In the event that he did not survive, Piłsudski wanted his story to be told.  “Self-willed memories pursued another pleasanter course,” he writes of his experience with writing about going into battle, “I was afraid of my own attempts to lead … perpetually hampered by timidity and lack of self-confidence.”[16] His account of his reservations portrays a different side to this famous figure of history, coming across as honest and humble, words that his biographers do not seem to us. In this way, an argument can be made that he held up a mask that he wanted the world to see him through.

Often, nearly 100 years on, Piłsudski’s actions can look like a carefully orchestrated chess game.  However, despite his cunning, he acted irrationally and perhaps irresponsibly. External factors allowed him to do this with impunity, as his actions did not logically seem to have the consequences that they should have.  Piłsudski took major gambles, such as “resigning from his brigadier-generalship to become … military chief.”[17], creating a high-stakes game of “chicken.” This action, among others, would have had far greater consequences if Russia was not busy transitioning from an empire into a communist state, and Germany and Austria-Hungary had not just lost the war.

Piłsudski in Otwock, 1915

Obviously, Pilsudski alone was not responsible for Poland’s emergence as an independent state from the ashes of the First World War.  His embrace of the cult of personality that emerged around him during his lifetime, however, served to mask this obvious fact.  One of Piłsudski’s biographers notes that “ in his later phase he had no friends, only admirers – and a mass of enemies acquired from the ranks of his former friends.”[18] .  Without officers, and certainly without troops, to stand behind him, Pilsudski would never have been able to leverage the upheaval in Europe to advance the cause of Poland.  This essay is for them, the unknown and forgotten soldiers, who fought tirelessly for Poland’s freedom both before and after Pilsudski.




[1]Michael Palij. The Ukrainian-Polish Defensive Alliance, 1919-1921: An Aspect of the Ukrainian Revolution. (Edmonton: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies Press, 1995), 29.

[2] Palij, The Ukrainian-Polish Defensive Alliance, 1919-1921: An Aspect of the Ukrainian Revolution, 30.

[3] Palij, The Ukrainian-Polish Defensive Alliance, 1919-1921: An Aspect of the Ukrainian Revolution, 30.

[4] Palij, The Ukrainian-Polish Defensive Alliance, 1919-1921: An Aspect of the Ukrainian Revolution, 31.

[5] “Paderewski and Pilsudski.” (Harper’s Pictorial Library of the World War. 1st ed. Vol. IX. New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1920), 94.

[6] R. F. Leslie, “The Emergence of an Independent State.” In The History of Poland since 1863. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 115.

[7] Leslie, “The Emergence of an Independent State”, 112.

[8] Leslie, “The Emergence of an Independent State”, 114.

[9] Leslie, “The Emergence of an Independent State”, 115.

[10]M.B.B. Biskupski, Strategies, Politics, and Suffering: The Wartime Relief of Belgium, Serbia, and Poland, 1914-1918. (Rochester NY: University of Rochester Press, 2003), 56.

[11] Biskupski, The Wartime Relief of Belgium, Serbia, and Poland, 53.

[12] It should be noted here that regardless of the source, every description of Piłsudski contains a long and detailed description of either his mustache or his eyebrows.  Clearly I wasn’t the only one really impressed.  Even more impressive is the detail that some statues have in Warsaw.

[13] Victor Chernov. “Joseph Pilsudski: From Socialist to Autocrat.” Foreign Affairs Vol. 14, no. No. 1 (1935): 147

[14] Chernov, “Joseph Pilsudski: From Socialist to Autocrat.”, 152.

[15]Józef Piłsudski and D. R. Gillie, The Memories of a Polish Revolutionary and Soldier. (London: Faber & Faber, 1931.) 356.

[16] Piłsudski, The Memories of a Polish Revolutionary and Soldier, 358.

[17] “Paderewski and Pilsudski.” (Harper’s Pictorial Library of the World War.), 94.

[18] Chernov, “Joseph Pilsudski: From Socialist to Autocrat.”, 155.