The Iron Man The Iron Man

The very embodiment of Polish manhood, the Insider explores the life of the national hero Józef Piłsudski… (By Stuart Dowell) 

Józef Piłsudski, the Iron Marshall, Commander of the Polish Legions, Head of State, Prime Minister and consummate chain-smoker, was quite simply the Daddy of Polish political and national life in the first half of the twentieth century. He was the man who regained Poland’s independence, fought a victorious war against Soviet Russia, and then got the country back on track by introducing a system of dictatorship-lite.

Piłsudski’s whole life was spent in the service of his nation, though, like many great Poles, he was actually born in Lithuania. After having Polish patriotic values instilled in him as a child, he set off to university in Kharkhiv, from which he was promptly expelled for attending revolutionary meetings. Things took a turn for the worse, when, back in Vilnius in 1887, he was arrested for aiding an attempt on the Tsar’s life.

After surviving internal exile, Piłsudski operated a secret printing workshop in Łódź and was arrested again by the Russians in 1900. He was held in Warsaw’s Citadel and after pretending to be mad he was moved to a hospital in St. Petersburg, from which he escaped. When the First World War broke out Piłsudski was ready. Having already set up paramilitary associations in Lwów and Kraków, he formed the famous Polish Legions, a Polish army under Austrian command, the officers of which would go on to become the backbone of the Polish Army.

In 1917, Piłsudski, seeing that Russia was doing badly in the war, seized his chance to assert Poland’s claim for independence by refusing to swear allegiance to the Central Powers. The Germans arrested him, but fearing a Bolshevik revolution in their own country, he was released in the hope that he would form a buffer in the shape of a newly independent Poland. Piłsudski spent the next three years securing the borders of the fledgling Polish state, which culminated in defeating the Red Army at the gates of Warsaw in 1920, which some historians believe stopped the Bolsheviks from marching on to the shores of the English Channel.

After having withdrawn from public life, the Marshall felt compelled to return after seeing the economy in shambles and political life in chaos. A coup d’état took place in May 1926 in Warsaw and Piłsudski’s new regime placed limits on parliamentary government in favour of a presidential system and he introduced a new constitution, which served the country up to the outbreak of WWII.

Piłsudksi died of liver cancer on 12 May 1935. His body, after being on public display for two years in Wawel Cathedral, was finally laid to rest in the crypt underneath. His heart was interred in his mother’s grave in Vilnius and his brain was bequeathed to Stefan Batory University for scientists to study as part of pseudo-scientific research into ‘elite’ brains that was so popular in the 1930s.

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