Józef Pilsudski, Aristocrat-Revolutionary


IN one of the famous philippics of 1840, when the Chartists were instituting the first Labor march on London and well-to-do citizens were enrolling themselves as special constables, Disraeli said in the House of Commons: —

The time will come when Chartists will discover that in a country so aristocratic as England, even treason, to be successful, must be patrician. They will discover that great truth, and when they find some desperate noble to lead them, they may perhaps achieve greater results. Where Wat Tyler failed, Henry Bolingbroke changed a dynasty; and (this with Lord John Russell listening on the benches in front of him) although Jack Straw was hanged, a Lord John Straw may become Secretary of State.

But the country of the aristocrat-revolutionary par excellence is Poland. The most popular man in Poland today is Józef Pilsudski who, before becoming chief of the Polish State, had been in succession an exile in Siberia, a political prisoner in Russia, a brigadier-general in the Austro-Hungarian army, and a prisoner in a German fortress. He is the founder, and the hero, of the Polish Socialist Party; and he is by birth a country gentleman.

It is maliciously reported that he once told a foreign diplomat that there were two decent families in Poland, the Czartoryski and his own. But that is a story which might be told of any Pole. Pilsudski came, in fact, of an old Samogitian family of szlachta (country gentry), settled in Lithuania. They lived, when Pilsudski was born, on an estate called Zulów, which had been inherited by his mother, in an old Polish wooden house, low but roomy, full of old furniture and shadows and political legends. It was the very setting for the youth of a Polish patriot; and the turn for conspiracy, which is innate in every Polish schoolboy, had ample and delightful scope. He was born in 1867, and the memories and the wounds of the rising of 1863 were fresh and bleeding. His father, under the insurrection government, — or rather one of the insurrection governments, for the insurgents unfortunately could not agree on a single one, — had held the post of Civil Commissioner for Samogitia. When the rising failed, he had to flee, and lost his own family estate.

The house was a large one. There were a number of useless but devoted family servants, and some of the married children of the family lived there, on the patriarchal model. There were governesses and tutors for the children, so that they should not go to the Russian school. But there were other inmates as well. There were proscribed insurgents, who had returned to Poland under assumed names, and lived for months on end in semiconcealment in houses like that of the Pilsudscy.

There was a sliding panel and a secret chamber, and there may well have been nights when young Józef woke, like Harry Esmond, to find some Father Holt whispering, ‘Silentium! ‘t is I, my boy!’ from the window sill.

The father of Pilsudski was described by one of his sons as ‘a many-sided encyclopædic mind, but unfitted forpractical work.’ He had wished to become a professor, but had been obliged to take over the family estates, as there was no one else to manage them. He wrote occasional articles on agricalture in technical journals, and he built a turpentine factory and a brickkiln at Zulów; but they did not pay.

The mainstay of the household was Pilsudski’s mother. Of a family of Samogitian marshals, a Bilewiczówna, of the type described by Sienkiewicz in Potpie — she was an only daughter, delicate, aristocratic, fearless, and truthful. She was only forty when she died; but before that she had borne a family of ten, six sons and four daughters. The children, as in most large families, were very independent and got their education largely from one another. But all looked to their mother as to an ultimate authority and a source of inspiration.

Józef has himself written of his mother in his book Walka rewolucyjna w zaborze rosyjskim (Cracow, 1902). In the evenings, he says, she used to assemble the family in her room, where she would produce from some hidingplace, known only to her, forbidden Polish books, out of which she would read to the children, making them learn certain episodes by heart.

In the summer of 1874, in the space of two hours, a fire destroyed the house and farm at Zulów and two kilometres of forest: and the Piisudsey, who had of course omitted to insure their property, found themselves very greatly reduced in circumstances. They moved from the country to Vilna, the nearest town; and the boys were sent to the Russian secondary school. Here Józef Pilsudski came for the first time face to face with the hated Muscovite. At Zulów his mother had never received even the highest Russian officials; and there were no Russians other than officials outside the towns. Contact with the ruling race did not modify the youthful patriot’s views. He is said to have been threatened with expulsion for ‘writing in Polish on the walls of the school.’ We are not told what the writing was.

When he reached the higher classes, he formed a secret society, which combined with the study of Polish history discussions of the social question. Socialism was treated by the boys, says Bronislaw Pilsudski, as ‘the great ethical basis of the new life and of patriotism.’ The Russian influence was very strong in the early eighteeneighties in young Poland. The contemporaries of the Pilsudscy used to come down from the universities in vacation, with secretly printed copies of the works of Hertzen, Bakunin, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Dostoevsky. They affected the ‘struggle against prejudices,’ and ‘theed’ and ‘thoued’ and ‘Littlebrothered’ one another after the Russian manner, instead of speaking to one another, as the Poles do, in the third person. The members of Pilsudski’s secret society set its face against this tendency, and took their Socialism with a strong dash of Polish nationalism.

Józef was completing his studies at the secondary school when his mother died. Soon afterward he was sent to the University of Kharkov to study medicine. He was expelled, before his first year was completed, for taking part in student disturbances. There were several others of the expelled ones in Vilna; and as usual they formed a secret society. This time the society was to be not merely for debate and conspiracy: it was to devote itself to ‘educational work’ as well. They taught one another, and also, when they could get them, workmen, craftsmen, and young sempstresses.

In the winter of 1887 a delegate of the Russian terrorists visited Vilna, and endeavored to induce the young Poles of the Pilsudski group to join in a projected attempt on the life of the Tsar. Józef Pilsudski was opposed to the suggestion. It was Russia’s business, he argued, to change her form of government, if she wished. One of the group, however, Tytus Paszkowski, though he did not tell his companions, was convinced by the Russian’s arguments, and promised — he was a chemist by profession — to help the terrorists to procure explosives. When Paszkowski’s activities later were discovered by the police, Józef Pilsudski was involved. He was arrested and sentenced to five years’ exile in Siberia.


In Siberia his outlook widened. His exile brought him in contact with Russians of classes with which he had hitherto had little to do — peasants, religious sectaries, merchants, and criminals. But a Muscovite was always a Muscovite to Pilsudski. ‘They are all,’ he once wrote, ‘more or less disguised Imperialists, not excluding the Revolutionaries. An elemental centralism characterizes all their speculations. They hanker perpetually after absolutism. They do not brook differences. They cannot reconcile contradictions. Perish everything if only the machine is preserved! That is the cleverest solution according to them, for it is the most downright and the easiest. That is why there are so many Anarchists among them. It is a remarkable thing that I have never once found a Russian who was a Republican.’

In 1892 he returned from exile with the martyr’s halo, and was warmly welcomed by his relations. His brotherin-law, a doctor with a large practice in Vilna, was ready to find him well-paid work; and his sisters and aunts had carefully matured a rich marriage for the martyr’s approval. But he proved refractory. The lure of politics was still too strong.

Vilna was in those days a great rallying-ground for political outcasts. They formed a social circle, where they could talk politics. But they did not do much else besides talk. After his exile Pilsudski found them dull. He turned to Warsaw, and visited the Warsaw politicians of that date, among whom was Roman Dmowski. But he ‘ found something lacking in them all, something of which they found I had too much.’ He fell back on Socialism, and founded the P.P.S. (Polish Socialist Party), which is to-day one of the principal parties in the Warsaw Diet, and with certain scissures and secessions has always remained the faithful exponent, as it has been the principal instrument, of its founder’s nationalistic ideas.

In the nineties of the last century, of course, under the Russian rule, a Polish Socialist party could not show its head above ground. The P.P.S. accordingly confined itself to ‘educational work,’ by which was meant in this case the production of a clandestine newspaper. The newspaper, which was called Robotnik (The Worker), was entrusted to Pilsudski and Alexander Sulkiewicz: and later on an additional editor was appointed in Stanislaw Wojciechowski, the present President of the Republic. But Pilsudski was the heart and soul of the paper, especially in its earlier years. He was, in fact, at once editor, publisher, manager, printer, and news-agent. It was produced on a hand-press, which he kept hidden in a cupboard in his room in Vilna, and later in Lódz. He used to make long journeys as far as Moscow, Petrograd, Kiev, and Odessa, distributing copies. He had very little money in those days, and used to sleep in carts, and public parks, and on the benches of churches which opened early. In I896 he married Marya Juszkiewiczowa, the widow of an engineer; and she helped him with the work of the paper.

The writer has in his possession an early number of Robotnik (No. 6, of 24 December, 1894). It is well printed and, except for an abnormal number of divisions of words at the end of the line, does not seem to betray the amateur compositor. It contains articles by the German Socialist leaders Bebel and Bernstein, some verse, paragraphs on recent arrests, a review of current events in Austria and France, and a long article (which from the style looks as if it had been written by Pilsudski) on the recent death of the Tsar Alexander and the accession of Nicholas II. In short, it resembles very closely other clandestine newspapers appearing in Russia at this time.

The next episode reads as if it came straight from the film. One morning the police, making one of their periodical surprise visits to Pilsudski’s flat, discover the hand-press in the cupboard. He is arrested and imprisoned in ‘Pavilion X ‘ of the Citadel at Warsaw. Here he feigns madness, rejecting food, cutting extraordinary antics, and so forth. The doctors watch him carefully, but are not convinced. After some weeks he gives it up, and begins to take food again. This, as luck — Pilsudski’s luck — would have it, convinces the doctors: for such lucid intervals are common in this kind of malady!

Instead of transferring him to the local asylum, however, the Warsaw authorities sent him to the Military Hospital of St. Nicholas in Petrograd. Alexander Sulkiewicz traveled to Petrograd by the same train, and there arranged that a young doctor belonging to the Petrograd branch of the party, Bronislaw Mazurkiewicz, should be given a post at St. Nicholas.

Preparations were then made for the escape. One morning — it was May 13, 1901 — the young doctor sent for the patient Pilsudski for private examination in his room. The examination lasted an inordinately long time, and no response came when the hospital attendants knocked at the door. The door was broken open, and doctor and patient were found to have decamped.

They made their way to Reval, Riga, and from there southwards to Kiev. From here Pilsudski went to a Polish estate in Podolia, where he met his wife who had been released on ticket of leave. Together they made their way into Austria, crossing the Russian frontier at a point in the vast forests owned by the Zamoyski family.


After a short visit to London and Paris, he returned to Austria in 1902 and settled down in Cracow. He was warned by the Galician authorities that, if he interfered in the slightest degree in Galician politics, he would be expelled from Austria. But the tortuous internal politics of the Austrian Poles did not interest him. His mind was still concentrated on the main issue, which he saw always as a common uprising of Austrian and Russian Poland, the signal to be given by a European war. The conservative Galician Poles, whose horizon was bounded by the Austrian Reichsrath, laughed at such visionary ideas. But he found friends among the weak but growing Socialist Party of Galicia, notably Ignaz Daszynski, whom he first met at this time; and for the rest, like Louis Napoleon in his English exile, he believed in his star.

When the Revolution of 1905 was on the point of breaking out in Russia the P.P.S. organized a demonstration in the Place Grabowski in Warsaw, which the Russian Government was too timid to suppress. Pilsudski argued hotly for a general rising; but he was opposed by every element outside, and by some elements inside, the party. The Poles accordingly made no distinctive national move in 1905; the Tsarist Government got the better of the Revolution, and Pilsudski retired to Galicia, conscious of failure and convinced of the impotence of improvised Revolution.

From this time on, till the war of which he had dreamed came, he devoted himself to what he called Organizacya Bojowa, the organization for war. His idea was to found rideshooting clubs, in which young Poles would learn the elements of military training, and the use of the rifle. When the war came, the clubs would form the cadres of the Polish legions, which he then meant to create as the nucleus of an army for the future Polish State. Of the vast amount of material and organization that is required to make an army, he knew little.

Rifle-clubs had long been an institution in Austria, and there was little difficulty in obtaining government sanction for their institution. The difficulties came, as with most Polish institutions, from within. The P.P.S. was more than suspicious of the nationalism of the clubs, and eventually endeavored to suppress them. The bourgeois elements were continually breaking off and starting new organizations of their own, while the extremists of the Left were anxious to divert the young men to the work of political assassination in Russia. Pilsudski, who wished to include all classes in the movement, steadily endeavored to hold the balance between the bourgeois and Socialist elements; and the tact and impartiality which he developed in the process gradually won for him a position which left him, when the crisis of war came, the almost universally acknowledged leader of the movement.

But few persons in Galicia at this time shared his belief in the coming war, and recruits were not plentiful. The Bosnian crisis and the part mobilization of Austria-Hungary in 1912 swelled the numbers. In 1912 there were estimated to be some 600 to 800 members of the rifle-clubs, of all parties. But they fell off again; and when the war came at last, it took the leaders completely by surprise.

All through these years of waiting, Pilsudski’s house in Cracow, 16 Ulica Topolowa, was a centre for Polish revolutionaries and exiles of all shades, while Finns, Caucasians, and even Russians, of the same way of thinking, would frequently turn up to see how the Organizacya Bojowa worked. It was rare that a night passed without beds being improvised on sofas, tables, or the floor. And with the daylight began again the babel of young voices discussing politics. Conspiracy of this sort is meat and drink to a large class of Polish intelligentsia. But with Pilsudski it was only a means to an end.

He was in Paris early in 1914, and the following extract, from an address which he delivered in the hall of the French Geographical Society on February 21, 1914, will serve to give the note on which he always harped. After saying that there was a Cretan question, and a Macedonian question, and an Irish question, but no Polish question, he continued: —

‘The world has given up considering us in international calculations and combinations. The military movement brings the Polish Question back on to the European chess-board. . . . Since 1904 we have witnessed a whole galaxy of conflict and upheaval, in which the decisive rôle has been played by armed force. The sword alone weighs to-day in the balance of the destiny of nations. A people which should shut its eyes to this evidence would compromise its future irretrievably. We must not be such a people.’

The last annual camp of the Strzelcy (riflemen) was in June 1914. When it was over, instructors and volunteers dispersed. The treasury of the movement was nearly exhausted. The stocks of arms and ammunition were very low; and there was practically no other equipment. Under these conditions the alarm of war was sounded, and the whole problem of the recruiting took on a new aspect. Subscriptions and recruits began to pour in. The Socialist and bourgeois elements in the movement sank their differences, and for a time — a very short time — even the pro-Russian National Democrats, of whom Roman Dmowski was then the most prominent leader, were cowed and fell into line. Michal Sokolnicki, one of the founders of the movement, hurried to Lemberg to organize mobilization and to smooth over the differences between the various organizations. Pilsudski went to Vienna, to find out what would be the attitude of the Austrian Government toward the proposal to create legions.

He returned from Vienna at three o’clock in the afternoon of August 5. (The Austrian declaration of war on Russia was dated the following day.) The Strzeley (Socialist riflemen) and Druzyny (bourgeois riflemen), who had collected in Cracow, were drawn up to meet him. Pilsudski, wearing a strzelecki cap and carrying a whip, inspected and then addressed them. He said: —

‘From this time on there are neither Strzelcy nor Druzyny! All of you here are Polish soldiers! Particular emblems henceforth disappear. Your only emblem is the white eagle. Until, however, new emblems can be issued, it is my order that you should exchange one with the other the white plate of the Druzyny for the eaglet of the Strzelcy, and vice versa, as a sign of the brotherly unity which must rule amongst Polish troops. You will shortly, it may be, proceed to the field of battle, where I trust that the last, traces of differences between you will disappear.’

As he spoke, Pilsudski handed the emblem on his own cap to the chief of the Druzyny, and pinned the emblem from the latter’s cap on his own. All present followed suit, embracing one another with tears in their eyes. Pilsudski gave a short order to one of the officers, who came forward and called the roll. About one hundred of those present were then told off, amid intense excitement, for active service.


The romance of those hot still nights in Cracow in the first week of August. 1914, will not readily be forgotten by any who lived through them. It was the lull before the storm. The Austrian and Russian mobilizations were still proceeding, and the armies had not yet been launched. The boy volunteers paraded the streets of the ancient Polish town, singing ’Jeszcze Polska nie zginela’ (Poland is not yet lost), and the rest.

At three o’clock in the morning of August 7, the first, company of the legions left Cracow for Krzeszowice, the frontier station. They were 160 strong, and they had with them five men with horses and three carrying saddles, for which they were proposing to requisition horses, as soon as they got across the border. They were followed by a second company the next night, with which Pilsudski himself went; and other detachments with more mounted men followed. The total number of the Legionaries at the end of August, 1914, was 1982 men.

They got as far as Kielce, rather over sixty miles from the Austrian frontier, practically unmolested. In Kielce they set up a provisional government, removed all the Russian lettering from the shop signs and street corners, and beat a Jew or two as occasion offered. Then there was a pause, till the Austrian armies of Dankl and Auffenberg developed their offensive (10-31 August), received their check (1-3 September), and were forced to retreat. Pilsudski’s two thousand Legionaries were of course involved in the retreat. They were led by Pilsudski himself, and his mounted men did excellent reconnaissance work, which the Austrian corps commander, to whom they were — loosely — attached, warmly appreciated. The aeroplane had not come into its own in those early days of 1914.

From this time on they were merged in the Austro-Hungarian army. The Austrian Government had informed the Headquarters of the Legions in Cracow, through the Viceroy of Galicia, on August 10, 1914, that the Minister of War recognized the formation of a corps of Polish Strzelcy, would provide it with arms and equipment, and facilitate the transfer to its ranks of the Polish conscripts from the rest of the army. On September 5, 1914, after a solemn open-air Mass, celebrated by a Capuchin chaplain of the Legions, the Legionaries swore that they would ‘ keep faith and obedience to His Apostolic Majesty, our Most Illustrious Monarch and Lord, Francis Joseph I, by God’s Grace Emperor of Austria, King of Bohemia, etc., Apostolic King of Hungary, Polish King.’ They then went into camps in Galicia for serious military training. Pilsudski was made an Austrian brigadier-general.

By the beginning of 1915 three brigades had been formed: and the number of the Legions remained for some time at about 30,000 men. That was approximately the number of Napoleon’s Polish Legion. The Legions took part in most of the Austrian fighting in Galicia and in Russian Poland in 1915 and 1916, and greatly distinguished themselves as fighters. After the occupation of Warsaw by the Austro-German armies, they became restive. The German Governor-General von Beseler, was prepared to recognize them as ‘the nucleus of a future Polish army’; but required them to take an oath of allegiance. At Pilsudski’s instigation the majority refused to take it, and were accordingly interned in a camp on the borders of the kingdom. Pilsudski himself was arrested and imprisoned at Magdeburg, where he remained until the Armistice.

That was the end of the Legions: and to all outside observers their record was a record of failure. Save for a few weeks at the outset of the war, they never represented more than a section of the Polish people. Their strength, first and last, was in Galicia (Austrian Poland). In the kingdom (Russian Poland) they were received, even in the early days when the enthusiasm was at its height, at best with indifference and often with dislike. In Kielce, when they occupied it in August 1914, they were attacked in the local (Polish) newspapers, and their meetings were interrupted. And in the country it was worse. The peasants viewed them with profound suspicion; and only the presence of priests as chaplains with the Legionaries was able to convince them that the Legions were not bands of robbers. To political propaganda the peasant remained, as in 1830 and in 1863, deaf in both ears. There is a proverb in Poland, of the truth of which the peasant has had ample occasion to convince himself in the last few hundred years; and it is likely to take as many hundred years before he will unlearn it. The proverb is, ‘ Czego panowie nawarza tem sie poddani poparza’; which means ‘The lords make the soup, but the peasant’s lips are scalded.’

Nothing is impossible in Poland; but it is highly improbable that, if the first Austrian offensive, in August 1914, had succeeded, the Legions would ever have formed the nucleus of a general rising in Russian Poland. Later they were swamped in the vast masses of the Austro-German armies. And in the end, when the Muscovite evacuated Warsaw, it was to the German invader that Poland owed her freedom. And yet, when all this has been said, nothing has been said. Pilsudski’s ‘Invasion ‘ of Russia is on a par with Garibaldi’s descent on Sicily with the Thousand. The significance of such actions is not to be sought in their success.

Three years before the war, Trevelyan wrote in his Garibaldi and the Making of Italy:

Garibaldi is not to be judged as a professional soldier leading modern armies, but as the greatest master of that special department of human activity known as revolutionary war. . . . Owing to the size and efficiency of modern conscript armies, there cannot be another revolutionary war precisely of the Garibaldian type in the Europe of the coming era. . . . But Garibaldi’s claim on the memory rests on more than his actual achievements. It rests on that which was one part of his professional equipment as a soldier of revolution, but which surpasses and transcends it — his appeal to the imagination.

It is here that the secret of Pilsudski’s significance is to be sought. The soil over which the handful of his Legions marched was sacred with memories of past Polish insurrections. In Miechów, halfway to Kielce, Langiewicz, the Dictator of the 1863 rising, had fought with the Russians; and Kosciusko and Poniatowski had watered their horses in the streams which the Legionaries passed. There were other Polish legions formed in the war — in the Far East, to fight under Koltchak, and with the French army in France. All these were better equipped and better trained and better paid; and doubtless they fought with equal distinction. But they were not treading, like the Strzelcy, in the footsteps of the heroes of the past; and romance was not with them. Their record will find a place in the war histories of the Allied victors, whose cause they elected to support, and will be forgotten. But the record of Pilsudski’s Strzelcy is preserved among the memories of the Polish people; and the passage of time will not affect its lustre. ‘The history of events is ephemeral and for the scholar; the poetry of events is eternal and for the multitude.’


When the German resistance finally collapsed under the Allied pressure in 1918, Pilsudski was released. There was a Council of Regency at this time in Warsaw, consisting of two large landowners and the Archbishop of Warsaw, who had been set up by the Germans to represent the Supreme Power pending the appointment of a future king. As soon as Pilsudski reached Warsaw, the Regents hastened to hand over their powers to him: and from this time on he ruled, or reigned, down to the end of 1922, with (for the greater part of the time) the title of Chief of State. His personal prestige appreciably increased during his tenure of this office, while most of his adversaries, and notably Roman Dmowski, who bulked so largely at the Peace Conference, receded into comparative obscurity. To the Socialists of his old party, the P.P.S. (outside of an extreme Left wing and a small but growing group of Communists in communion with Moscow) nothing he could do was wrong. His personal demeanor was admirable. Though he lived in the Belvedere Palace, and was surrounded by a considerable staff, mostly in military uniforms, he never tolerated the rigid protocol and super-regal splendor which many of the presidents of the new European republics affect. A student of foreign politics will find it easier to interview the King of Spain than to be admitted to President Masaryk. But Pilsudski has always been approachable. It is one of the advantages perhaps of not being born bourgeois. To the whole of Poland, irrespective of class and party, he is known by the petit nom, dating from his revolutionary period, of ‘Ziuk.’

At the close of 1922, he laid down the post of Chief of State, to enable the lirst President of the Republic to be elected. Pilsudski did not himself stand; but a candidate whom he supported was elected — only to be assassinated a couple of weeks after taking office by a Pole of the Conservative Right. Pilsudski took over the post of Chief of Staff of the Army, the previous Chief of Staff conveniently becoming Prime Minister! These things happen in Poland. As Chief of State, Pilsudski had always carefully cultivated his influence with the army by close personal control of promotions and appointments. As Chief of Staff, he is able to continue this policy. So long as peace is preserved in Poland, he is not likely to lose his popularity with the army.

But the marshal is no longer a militarist. The years have begun to tell on him; he is very bent; and his health is anything but satisfactory. More than that, he has tried the intoxication of militarism with disastrous results; et il s’est dégrisé In 1920 he seized a favorable moment to invade Russia, and captured Kiev. The entry to Warsaw on his return was like a Roman triumph. Among the booty was a contingent of camels from a Turkestan unit of the Russian army. They were led in procession through the streets behind the marshal’s carriage; and two of them were kept permanently on view in his gardens at the Belvedere. That was in the spring of 1920. Before the summer was out, the Soviet armies were almost within gun-shot of Warsaw, and were arrested only as by a miracle.

The average Conservative in Poland detests Pilsudski, and has consistently accused him of being ‘sold’ — first to the Austrians, then to the Bolsheviki, and latterly to the Jews. To an outside observer it seems that, if the Polish Conservatives had rather more political sense than they commonly have, they would realize that Pilsudski has really been fighting their battle in the critical years which have followed the Peace Conference of Paris.

It was said of Kosciusko — with very limited truth — that he brought the peasant for the first time into Polish politics. Pilsudski has brought the worker into Polish politics. He has not solved the internal problems, with which the new Poland is confronted. The Land question, the reform of the State finances, and the problem of the development of the new industrial territories in Silesia and of the port of Danzig, all loom for settlement in the future. But at a critical period Pilsudski’s influence has steadily held the safety valve open and barred the door to a reaction. The Fates, who are never so ironical as when they are dealing with Poland, have made of the old militant and revolutionary the strongest element of stability in the flux and welter of the new Eastern Europe.