Polish Army General, Poland Prime Minister. He is largely responsible for Poland regaining her independence following World War I, after being controlled and occupied for 123 years. Some historians have considered him as a Polish Oliver Cromwell, a comparison that has drawn both intense praise and controversy. Born the second son at his family estate in the small village of Zulovo (now Zalavas, Lithuania), then a part of the Russian Empire, the family considered themselves Polish and brought up their children in Polish traditions, familiar with Polish history that had been banned by the Russians. He attended Russian gymnasium (high school) in Vilnius. In 1885, he began to study medicine at the University of Kharkov, and two years later, was arrested for plotting to assassinate Tsar Alexander III, for which he was sentenced to five years in prison in Siberia. His prison term was extended for causing problems with prison authorities; he was released in 1892, and returned to Vilnius where he became active in the Polish Socialist Party (PPS). Arrested again by Russian authorities in 1901, he feigned mental illness and escaped from the mental hospital to continue working against the Russian occupation of Poland. In 1904, when Japan went to war against Russia, he traveled to Japan to offer assistance to the Japanese, suggesting they raise a Polish legion to fight the Russians, made up of Polish born Russian Army prisoners of war captured by the Japanese. The Japanese refused the offer, yet Pilsudski formed an underground military unit of the PPS to fight the Russians, mostly in Warsaw. Other than occasional assassinations of Russian officials the PPS military unit accomplished little. In 1910, Pilsudski founded a series of "sporting clubs" which served as a cover for training his military force. Four years later, as war clouds gathered over Europe, Pilsudski stated that in order for Poland to become independent, first Russia must be defeated by Germany and Austria-Hungary, after which France and Britain must defeat the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary). When War was declared in August 1914, Pilsudski formed the First Polish Legion, under the control of the Austrian Army, to fight against the Russians, while secretly informing the British and French that his Army was only against the Russians to seek Polish independence and would never fight against the Western Allies. In 1916, by manipulating the Central Powers, Pilsudski obtained "independence" for Poland with himself as Minister of War. The Central Powers hoped to have the "independent Poland" keep the Russian Army in check, freeing up German troops to fight the British and French. In 1917, revolution took Russia out of the war, and Pilsudski refused to have the Polish troops transferred to the western front, a decree that got him imprisoned by the German occupation forces. Pilsudski's stand gained him much support inside Poland as a patriot, willing to take on all powers in the quest for true Polish independence. In November 1918, Pilsudski was released from prison and returned to Poland, which the provision government promptly made him Commander-in-Chief of all Polish forces. On November 14, 1918, he was made Provisional Chief of State of the independent Poland, and set about setting up a coalition government. He would admit to using the Socialists as a means to gain Polish independence, but once independence was achieved he preferred coalition government as a means of ruling Poland. Pilsudski held the office of Chief of State through the harrowing days of government organization following the end of the World War and the recognition of Poland by the Allied Powers, until December 9, 1922, when the first President of Poland, Gabriel Narutowicz, took office. During the period from 1919 to 1921, as Chief of State, he led the Polish Army in a series of small battles against the Lithuanians, Ukrainians, and the Russian Bolsheviks, over border disputes, winning the battles and once fighting was over, winning friendship for Poland with the other countries. In 1926, he used his status as Minister of Defense to overthrow the weak Polish government following the assassination of President Gabriel Narutowicz. He placed Ignacy Moscicki as the new president, with himself as Premier (with powers similar to a Prime Minister), although he would keep most of the real political power in his hands. His original belief in democracy had been shattered by the assassination of his close friend, President Gabriel Narutowicz; following the assassination, Pilsudski believed that Poland would have political peace only with near dictoritorial power in his hand. Over the next ten years, he would use his powers to institute many popular reforms, including eliminating graft and corruption from the government, and enforcing the rights of minorities as Polish citizens. He did not hesitate to jail political opponents if he felt that they were immoral or corrupt, to protect both the government and the Polish people. Although he transformed the government from a parliamentary system to a presidential system, with stronger power in the hands of the President, he opposed totalitarianism and refused to become President when he had Poland adopt a new constitution in April 1935 with strong powers reserved to the Executive branch. Wary of both Germany and the Soviet Union, Pilsudski would sign non-aggression pacts with both countries, 1934 and 1932, respectively, honoring the existing boundaries and respecting the rights of German and Russian minorities within Poland. But he warned his countrymen that these pacts would not protect Poland forever and would eventually fail. Unknown to the general public, Pilsudski had been in failing health for several years, and on May 12, 1935, he suddenly died of liver cancer at Warsaw's Belweder Palace. After a two year display at St. Leonard's Crypt in Krakow's Wawel Cathedral, Pilsudski's body was placed in the Wawel Cathedral's crypt, with the exception of his brain, which he had willed for study to Stefan Batory University, and his heart, which he directed was to be interred in his mother's grave in the Rasu Cemetery in Vilnius, Lithuania.
Bio by: Kit and Morgan Benson