Fathers of Polish independence

Józef Piłsudski

born 5 December 1867 in Zułów, died 12 May 1935 in Warsaw

Polish social and independence activist, soldier, politician, statesman. From 1892 a member of the Polish Socialist Party and its leader in the country, founder of the Battle Organisation PPS (1904). Gradually moving away from socialist ideas, he formed the Polish Army Organisation in 1914 and the Polish Legions – armed units fighting alongside the Austrians, which were intended to become an addition to the reborn Polish army. Head of the Army Commission and the Temporary State Council (1917), from 11 November 1918 Commander of the Polish Army, 1918-1922 Head of State, first Marshal of Poland (1920). During the process of reviving the Republic, he followed the so-called Jagellonian concept – he saw the new nation as a type of multinational federation modelled on the Republic of Both Nations. That is why, for instance, in the face of the Polish-Bolshevik War, he formed an alliance with the head of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, Simon Petlura. This was one of the reasons he remained in constant conflict with supporters of national democracy.

Piłsudski is regarded as one of the most important players in the victory of the Battle of Warsaw in August 1920, the so-called “­Miracle on the Vistula” – according to one British historian this was eighteenth among the most important battles in world history. Moreover, the Polish triumph in this conflict prevented the spread of bolshevism to Western Europe.

Piłsudski gave up power and stepped away from politics after the election by Parliament of the first president of independent Poland, Gabriel Narutowicz, in 1922. President Narutowicz, a world-renowned engineer working in Switzerland on the construction of hydroelectric plants, gave up very prosperous business interests and returned to his homeland in 1919 at the invitation of the authorities in order to build an independent nation. He was appointed Minister of Public Works and Foreign Minister. Shortly after his swearing in he was murdered by a fanatical nationalist for “having been elected by the votes of national minorities”. His successor became associated with the Polish People’s Party “Piast” Stanisław Wojciechowski. Józef Piłsudski, who in the first half of the twenties lived in the small town of Sulejówek, observed events in the country with increasing criticism and mobilised his supporters in order to take back power in 1926 on the way to the May Cup. As the cup was carried out under the motto of healing, or from the French “sanitizing” the nation, the political camp led by Piłsudski is traditionally called sanitization. After the cup, Piłsudski twice fulfilled the function of Prime Minister (1926-1928 and 1930). During the period of sanitization, the Republic gradually became an authoritarian nation, restricting democracy and fighting opposition using the police.

Piłsudski, who throughout the entire twenty-year inter-war period enjoyed a degree of popularity not achieved by any ­other Polish politician in history, exerted a decisive influence on the shape of the internal and overseas politics of the reborn nation. In recognition of his achievements, and despite protests on the part of National Democracy, he was buried in the Silver Bells crypt in Wawel castle.

Roman Dmowski

born 9 August 1864 in Kamionek, died 2 January 1939 in Drozdów

Politician, statesman, political publicist, Foreign Minister, MP in the Legislative Parliament of the Polish Republic, and a deputy to the II and III Russian Duma. Co-founder of National Democracy (so-called endecja). During the First World War, he aimed initially by diplomatic means to unite Polish lands and for autonomy within the framework of the Russian Empire, and then to regain independence based on an alliance with Russia and her Western allies (France and Great Britain – the so-called Entente), and in opposition to Germany and Austria (the so-called Central Nations), which Piłsudski insisted on at that time during his work on regaining independence. In the deciding months, both politicians co-ordinated their efforts – Roman Dmowski was the Polish delegate to the Paris Conference in 1919 and a signatory to the peace treaty signed in Versailles. 

Dmowski was the chief ideologue of nationalism, an advocate of a uniform country nationally, and the creator of the concept of incorporation, establishing the Polonization of the ethnic minorities living within the borders of the reborn nation. Although for most of his life an atheist, he devoted a lot of attention to State-Church relations. For many years, he considered that the Catholic Church in Poland should, based on the English example or that of other Protestant countries, be strictly subservient to the State, but in 1928, in his book The Church, Nation and State he changed his mind, recognizing the Church as an important tool in building national unity (the concept of the Pole-Catholic and the idea of “the Catholic State of the Polish Nation”). His earlier works, especially The Thoughts of a Modern Pole and Polish Politics and the Reconstruction of a State, are excellent examples of Polish political thinking.

Ignacy Jan Paderewski

born 18 November 1860 in Kuryłowiec, died 29 June 1941 in New York

Polish independence activist, statesman and politician, but above all musician – a composer and pianist, one of the most famous virtuosos in the world of his time. He was a graduate of the Music Institute (later the Conservatory) in Warsaw. He gave concerts all over the world, including one for the British Queen Victoria. His American tour was a huge success, and afterwards the artist settled in the US for many years. Paderewski’s only theatrical work – the opera Manru – after its preview in Lwów, landed on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. To date, it is the only work by a Polish composer to have been included in that institution’s repertoire.

He commenced his independence activities in the early years of the 20th century, funding The Grunwald Monument which stands opposite the Barbican in Kraków. The monument was unveiled in 1910 on the 500th anniversary of the victory over the Teutonic Knights. At that time, Paderewski gave a fiery ­patriotic speech in front of a gathering of 150,000 people. During WWl, he committed himself to supporting the activities of those serving the cause of regaining independence. Taking advantage of his popularity in the USA, he exerted pressure on President Wilson to include in his famous speech to Congress the 13th point, demanding the reinstatement of an independent Poland with access to the sea. Thanks to this, the Polish question became one of the most important topics during the negotiation of the treaty setting out the new international order after the Great War. Paderewski represented Poland in these negotiations alongside Roman Dmowski, and additionally in 1919 fulfilled the functions of both Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of the Republic.

In the ensuing years, he retired from everyday politics, but was still committed to important Polish affairs, including representing his country at the League of Nations during the Polish-Bolshevik War. After Piłsudski’s death in 1935, he co-founded the so-called Morges Front, whose name derives from the pianist’s Swiss property. It was an organisation which united right-wing politicians who were opposed to the authoritarianism of the sanitization governments. One of its most important participants was Gen. Władysław Sikorski (a future Prime Minister of the Polish government in London, who was killed in a plane crash in Gibraltar). After the outbreak of WWll, Paderewski became involved in politics again – he headed the National Council of the Republic of Poland in London, which replaced the Parliament in exile.

Among the many honours which were bestowed upon this artist-politician was a title given to him by King George V – he was made a Knight of the Great Cross of the Order of the British Empire.

Wojciech Korfanty

born 20 April 1873 in the Sadzawka Settlement, currently Siemianowice Śląskie, died 17 August 1939 in Warsaw

Leader of the inhabitants of Upper Silesia who opted to join Poland, and connected with Christian Democracy. Born into a nationally uncommitted family, he built up his Polish identity himself as a teenager, suffering the consequences of his wrong thinking during his schooldays and student days. He launched his political career seriously in 1902, when he became chairman of the reactivated ‘Sokół’ ­Gymnastic ­Association in Katowice. Despite the innocent-sounding name, the organisation, which was active during the Prussian and Austrian Partition, played an important role not only in building national consciousness, but also in the work of training officers who in the future would participate in armed conflict for the defence of Poland. He was the editor and publisher of the newspaper ‘Górnoślązak’ and ended up in jail in Wronki for a time for articles published in this publication. From 1903 to 1912 and in 1918 he was an MP in the Prussian Reichstag, where he belonged to the Polish Circle. His speech from 1918 has gone down in history as a speech in which he demanded that all lands remaining within the borders of the Prussian Partition become part of Poland. In 1918-1919, he was a member of the Main People’s Council which was behind the Greater Poland uprising. In 1920, he became Polish Commissioner of Plebiscites in Upper Silesia. Worried about an unfavourable interpretation for Poles of the results of the referendum (which was conducted in an atmosphere of mutual bullying and manipulation) he proclaimed the third Silesian Uprising and stood at its head. Although as a result of the uprising Poland gained about 1/3 of the territory inhabited by less than half the population of Upper Silesia, it was nevertheless a great success – the majority of Upper Silesian industry, 4/5 of the coal mines and 2/3 of iron and tin plants ended up within the Republic’s borders.

From these disputes over uprising tactics was born his conflict with Michał Grażynski, appointed Voivod of Silesia after the May ­Revolution. After the uprising, Korfanty ­became an MP in the Republic’s Parliament, and for many years also sat in the Silesian Parliament (the main organ of authority in the autonomous Voivodship of Silesia). After the 1926 May Cup, Korfanty stood in opposition to the authorities, who fought him fiercely. He was tried on trumped-up charges, imprisoned in Bereza Kartuska, and emigrated in 1935, running self-published influential newspapers from abroad. He collaborated at that time with politicians focused on the Morges Front (Paderewski, Sikorski). In April 1939, expecting war to break out, he returned to Poland – and was placed under arrest for three months. Released under pressure of public opinion, a sick man, he died shortly after his release. His funeral in Katowice was the last patriotic manifestation before the outbreak of the Second World War. A great monument to Korfanty adorns the square in Katowice in front of the headquarters of the former Silesian Parliament built by Grażyński (today the Marshal’s office). 

Wincenty Witos

born 21 January 1874 in Wierzchosławice, died 31 October 1945 in Kraków

Legendary leader of the people’s movement. At the same time as playing a very active role in national public life, he was continuously, from 1909 to 1931, mayor of his family village of ­Wierzchosławice.

He was active in the People’s Party from the end of the 19th century. From 1908, he was an MP in the National Galician Parliament in Lwów, later a deputy to the Austrian State Council in Vienna. From 1914, he belonged to the Polish People’s Party ‘Piast’ (chairman 1918-1931). At the time of regaining independence, he led the Polish Liquidation Commission of Galicia and Cieszyn Silesia (temporary Polish authorities for the Austrian Partition). From 1919, he was an MP in Parliament. He held the function of Prime Minister three times – including at the most dangerous time for the young nation, when in 1920 the Bolshevik armies nearly conquered Warsaw. The third government run by him was overthrown as a result of the May Cup in 1926. As an opposition ­activist he suffered persecution – in 1929-1930 he was one of the leaders of the Centre-Left, an alliance of moderate and left-wing parties fighting the restrictions on democracy of the sanitization. Imprisoned in Brześć Fortress, he was accused in the later trial of preparing a coup d’etat. Faced with this situation, he emigrated to Czechoslovakia. 

He returned to Poland just before the outbreak of WWll. After its commencement, he was interned by the Germans – at the time he rejected a proposal to form a government of collaboration. In 1945, after the war, he became chairman of the newly formed Polish People’s Party in opposition to the communists.