Jósef Klemens Pilsudski
Robert Pearce introduces the man who has been called ‘the George Washington of Poland’.
Poland’s great national hero, Jósef Pilsudski, was born in the right place at the right time.
The place of his birth was Zulowa, north of Vilna (‘Wilmo’ in Polish, now Vilnius in Lithuania), in Russian Poland. Poland had been partitioned in 1792-95 between Prussia, Austria and Russia, but notions of Polish nationality had been kept alive, first by Napoleon Bonaparte’s (unfulfilled) promises of future independence and then by romantic memories of Polish exploits in his Grande Armée on battlefields all over Europe. Over the next decades, however, the Polish minorities in Austria-Hungary seemed too backward and in Germany too wealthy and culturally too German to spearhead Polish reunification. If there was hope for a reconstituted Polish homeland, it lay with the Russian Poles.
The date of his birth was 5 December 1867, during a period of resurgent Polish nationalism. Tsar Alexander II may have liberated the serfs in 1861, but he had not agreed to grant the Poles a constitution. A secret national Polish government engaged in guerrilla warfare with the Russian authorities. Just a few years before Pilsudski was born, the State asserted itself: in 1863 a number of rebels were executed and a total of 80,000 Poles were sent to Siberia. The young Jósef Pilsudski was forbidden to speak Polish at school and was forced to attend the Russian Orthodox church services, but he was far from Russified. At home his mother and father – respected members of the gentry though they were – read him Polish works officially banned by the censors. He imbibed romantic notions of Polish nationalism. Poland was a cause to live for.