Piłsudski Seizes Power in Poland

Incapable of sharing power, Polish political parties fought bitter campaigns from 1919 until 1926, when a coup orchestrated by Józef Piłsudski ended right-left conflicts, instituted the “sanacja regime,” and shaped Poland until the nation’s second partition at the start of World War II.

Summary of Event

“Turmoil” might serve as a good one-word synonym for interwar Poland. Starting in 1914 as a critical theater of World War I and continuing through the Polish-Soviet War Polish-Soviet War (1919-1921)[Polish Soviet War] (1919-1921; also known as the Russo-Polish War), the nation suffered tremendous human and financial losses. Although foreign conflict ended in 1921, the newly created Second Republic Second Republic (Poland) did not enjoy peace. Rather, five years of intense political struggles split Poles into contentious factions that were unwilling to compromise on any issue. The end result was the May Coup of 1926, which ended this turmoil and shaped Polish politics for the next thirteen years. [kw]Piłsudski Seizes Power in Poland (May 12-15, 1926)
[kw]Poland, Piłsudski Seizes Power in (May 12-15, 1926)
Piłsudski’s coup d’état[Pilsudskis coup detat]
Poland;Piłsudski’s coup d’état[Pilsudskis coup detat]
[g]Poland;May 12-15, 1926: Piłsudski Seizes Power in Poland[06640]
[c]Government and politics;May 12-15, 1926: Piłsudski Seizes Power in Poland[06640]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May 12-15, 1926: Piłsudski Seizes Power in Poland[06640]
Piłsudski, Józef
Dmowski, Roman
Witos, Wincenty

Józef Piłsudski (center).

(Library of Congress)

The coup’s antecedents date back to the early twentieth century, when stateless Poles argued how best to regain their independence. Of the many who raised their voices, two shouted louder than the rest: Józef Piłsudski and Roman Dmowski. These men were polar opposites. The former, a charismatic revolutionary, admired Poland’s past as a multiethnic federation and socialism as a political force to unite his people. The latter dismissed Polish history for role models and advanced modern nationalism, with its undercurrent of racism, as the proper tool for building a new Poland. Piłsudski and Dmowski could avoid each other during the war years of 1914-1921, when the possibility of any kind of Polish state was very much in the balance. When the fighting ended, however, and both were viewed as key players in the rebirth of Poland, they initiated a bitter political struggle.

Piłsudski, promoted to marshal for his success in creating a Polish army and leading it to victory over Soviet invaders at the Battle of Warsaw (1920), Warsaw, Battle of (1920) at first seemed the more powerful. His revolutionary past, however, was centered more in conspiracy than in politics, and he was unable to dominate the constituent Sejm (parliament) that designed the constitution of March 17, 1921.

Dmowski, a consummate politician, influenced the Sejm through his National Democrats. National Democrats (Poland) Often referred to as Endecs (an acronym derived from the group’s Polish name, Narodowa Demokracja), they were Polish chauvinists, very Catholic, and often fascistic. National Democrats tended to distrust Piłsudski for his previous support of socialism and his willingness to work with minority groups. Piłsudski dismissed Endecs as small-minded bigots who were incapable of protecting Poland’s newly gained independence.

Piłsudski had already shown a strong interest in becoming Poland’s president. He intended to use that position to direct a transformation of the Polish army and prepare the nation for future conflicts. Fearing his already powerful hold over Polish soldiers, Endecs and other anti-Piłsudski forces tailored the new constitution to make this unlikely. Article 46 of the constitution prohibited the president from serving as commander in chief of the armed forces during wartime. Given Piłsudski’s strong interest in military affairs, this was seen as a means of keeping him out of the government.

As expected, Piłsudski refused to run for office. Instead, he supported the campaign of an old friend, Gabriel Narutowicz, Narutowicz, Gabriel who managed to win election by a very small margin in December, 1921. As Narutowicz gained office with the support of Piłsudski and minority political parties, Endec extremists claimed he was “president of the Jews.” This started a campaign of lies and slander that culminated in Narutowicz’s assassination in January, 1922.

Saddened by the death of his friend, Piłsudski blamed Endec leaders but maintained his position as Poland’s leading military man and worked to reorganize the armed forces. He believed that a future war with the Soviet Union or Germany was very likely, and Poland’s military needed the ability to make rapid decisions in case of friction with these powerful neighbors.

Neither Piłsudski nor his army reorganization was ever accepted by the right-center coalitions that governed Poland in the early 1920’s. When Endecs combined with the Peasant Party Peasant Party (Poland) to form yet another cabinet in 1923, Piłsudski refused to serve the men he held responsible for the murder of Narutowicz, and he resigned. Control of the military went to his old rivals, mainly veterans of the Austrian army such as General Stanisław Szeptycki Szeptycki, Stanisław and General Józef Haller de Hallenburg Haller de Hallenburg, Józef —dull men with lackluster records, but politically acceptable to the right.

With Piłsudski went his reorganization scheme, which opponents claimed was a vehicle through which he intended to dominate the government. This was countered by his allies, who argued that he was the only logical choice as Poland’s military leader, and as such should be allowed to establish a personally acceptable command structure. Although unable to implement his plans, Piłsudski had enough political influence to keep any alternative system in limbo. He maintained his military and political contacts, and through newspaper articles and his own publications, he skirmished with what he called the “Viennese War Academy”—men like Szeptycki and Haller de Hallenburg—claiming that it was mismanaging Poland’s defenses. To a public very aware of Piłsudski’s considerable qualifications for making such claims, these were unsettling accusations.

Poles also worried about their struggling republic. From 1921 to 1926, unstable coalitions created ten different cabinets. In addition to a rapid turnover of ministers, these governments produced scandals that easily rivaled the early 1920’s Teapot Dome scandal in the United States. Simultaneously, Poland went through a period of hyperinflation during which its currency, the mark, which exchanged nine to one U.S. dollar in 1919, reached an all-time low of fifteen million to one U.S. dollar in 1923.

Many Poles viewed the government as incapable of defending the new nation, managing the economy, or creating much-needed stability. Piłsudski watched from the sidelines, publishing arguments for change, maintaining contact with an extensive network of serving military officers, and reconnecting with some of his old left-wing political allies of pre-World War I days. He made no secret of his complete disgust with Polish politics, referring to the Sejm as a “house of prostitutes” and as a “locomotive pulling a pin.”

A showdown started on May 10, 1926, with a new alliance between Endecs and the Peasant Party. Their combined strength made Wincenty Witos prime minister and allowed for the appointment of General Juliusz Malezewski Malezewski, Juliusz as minister of war. An archrival of Piłsudski, the general made it clear that he would purge the army of all officers supporting the marshal.

On the same day, Piłsudski told newspaper reporters he was ready to fight the new government. On May 11, the Warsaw garrison was placed on alert as surrounding military units began an unauthorized concentration near the suburb of Rembertow. There, under the direction of Piłsudski, Polish soldiers were preparing to overthrow the government.

Piłsudski’s coup started on May 12 as rebel forces captured bridges across the Vistula River and Witos declared a state of emergency. A last-minute meeting between Piłsudski and President Stanisław Wojciechowski Wojciechowski, Stanisław brought no concessions from either side, and fighting started that evening. It continued for two days and included artillery and even aerial bombardment.

Although Piłsudski was in command of some of the best local forces, government reinforcements could have tipped the balance. This became less likely after May 14, however, when socialists came out in favor of the coup and ordered a general strike, effectively shutting down the rail system. This critical delay convinced Witos and Wojciechowski that they could not prevail, and both resigned. The fighting ended on May 15. In all, 390 had died and another 900 had been wounded.


The May Coup allowed Piłsudski to create his “sanacja regime,” Sanacja regime (Poland) which would rule Poland until October 1939. Sanacja was defined as a “return to political health”—thus reminding everyone of the venal officials who had controlled government agencies before the coup. Piłsudski’s political opponents countered that sanacja “blended the philosophies of Nietzsche and Kant”; in Warsovian slang, nietzsche implied rubbish and kant meant swindle.

Although a new government formed under Prime Minister Kazimierz Bartel, Bartel, Kazimierz with Piłsudski as minister of military affairs, the divisive nature of Polish politics continued, and what Piłsudski himself first saw as a corrective effort for better government soon evolved into an authoritarian regime. After Piłsudski’s death in 1935, sanacja perpetuated itself through his lieutenants—the triumvirate of Ignacy Mościcki Mościcki, Ignacy as president, Józef Beck Beck, Józef as foreign minister, and Edward Rydz-Smigły Rydz-Smigły, Edward as commander of the armed forces.

The Polish armed forces were directly affected by the May Coup. Piłsudski pushed rapidly for the re-creation of the military committees he had established before 1923. Adding refinements to the old ideas, he introduced the complex “two-track system” of command and control. His reorganization of the Polish high command brought much-needed stability to the army. Hand in hand with the creation of the new command system, however, came a purge of army officers who had sided with the government during the May Coup. These men were either removed from the military (zmajowany, or “Mayed”) or not considered for promotions. This reduced the talent pool from which the armed forces could draw and helped to continue political divisions right up to the time of the Nazi invasion of September 1, 1939, which ended Poland’s Second Republic. Piłsudski’s coup d’état[Pilsudskis coup detat]
Poland;Piłsudski’s coup d’état[Pilsudskis coup detat]

Further Reading

  • Garlicki, Andrej. Jozef Piłsudski, 1867-1935. London: Scolar Press, 1995. Important biography of a complex man. Condensed translation from the original Polish.
  • Jachymek, Jan, and Waldemar Paruch. More than Independence: Polish Political Thought, 1918-1939. Lublin, Poland: Marie Curie-Sklodowska University Press, 2003. Useful look at the ideologies, methods, and goals of the political right, center, and left in interwar Poland.
  • Rothschild, Joseph. Piłsudski’s Coup d’État. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966. One of the best scholarly works on the May Coup in any language.

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