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Józef Piłsudski's cult of personality

Piłsudski on Horseback, astride Kasztanka, an iconic painting by Wojciech Kossak

A cult of personality developed around the figure of Józef Piłsudski, Polish military commander and politician, starting with the interwar period and continuing after his death in 1935 till the present day. At first it was propagated by Polish state's propaganda, describing Piłsudski as a masterful strategist and political visionary. It has survived decades of repression during the communist rule of Poland. In modern Poland, Piłsudski is recognized as an important and largely positive figure in Polish history.


Piłsudski's popularity, described as cult of personality,[1] was tied with his role in regaining Polish independence following World War I,[2][3] and his leadership in the following Polish–Soviet War.[1] He was, however, already a popular figure even before the start of World War I.[4]

Piłsudski seized power in Poland again in 1926, following his May Coup.[5] Piłsudski was not primarily interested in cultivating the cult himself, as this was done by others, particularly after his death.[2][6][7] His funeral in 1935 became a major state ceremony, and it became a sign of things to come, as Piłsudski's followers, known as Piłsudskiites,[3][6] attempted to turn his legend into one of the basis to legitimate their grip on the power in the Polish state.[4][7] Numerous initiatives honoring Piłsudski's name were created; there were so many that the Main Committee for Commemorating the Memory of Marshal Józef Piłsudski had to rein some of the more outlandish initiatives (such as the proposal to rename Wilno to Piłsudski's child nickname, Ziuk).[4] In 1938 the Polish parliament passed a decree criminalizing any defamation of Piłsudski.[8]

Piłsudski's cult is tied with the Polish Independence Day, as the date of November 11 was also the date of Piłsudski's seizing the power for the first time in newly independent Poland.[2] In 1937 Polish parliament officially declared November 11 as a national holiday celebrating regaining independence and stated that "for all time [it should be] associated with the great name of Józef Piłsudski"[9] Initially this celebration of Poland's regaining statehood was also a celebration of Piłsudski and the Polish Army, through that relation has lost some of its strength with the progression of time.[3][10]

Despite those efforts his cult began to wane shortly after his death, according to some, as early as 1937.[9]

Piłsudski's cult was not universal, and it was opposed by several factions from the very first days of its emergence; most notable of its early opponents included the endecja political faction, opponent of pro-Piłsudski sanacja faction. Critics of Piłsudski did face some persecution from the state and its supporters.[11]

In spite of his special sympathy for Piłsudski, Hitler sent Ribbentrop to represent the Reich instead of attending Piłsudski's funeral himself. Hitler had an honour guard set at Piłsudski's grave by the Wehrmacht after it took Kraków. He would later say, after attacking Poland, that things wouldn't have turned out that way had old Piłsudski still been alive. He had earlier been, to his excitement, congratulated by Piłsudski on winning the 1933 elections.[12]

The cult was particularly strong in the Polish Army. During World War II the Polish Armed Forces in the West continued this tradition, with Piłsudski's memory being highly celebrated,[13] even though many leaders of the Polish government in exile, such as Władysław Sikorski, were opposed to it.[14]

Józef Piłsudski became (still in his lifetime) to a namesake of the Polish Navy's gunboat ORP "Komendant Piłsudski" and of the motor transatlantic liner "Piłsudski" - the latter, built in Italy, was the first Polish modern transatlantic liner, launched in December 1934 and put to service in September 1935.

Later yearsEdit

Piłsudski's cult was suppressed during the time of communist Poland when the authorities attempted to portray him as a fraud, egoist and even a fascist, responsible for much of the Poland's ills.[14][15] The fond memory of Piłsudski persisted among the segments of Polish population nonetheless, and he became an important figure for many Solidarity activists, including Lech Wałęsa.[16] Piłsudski was also respected abroad.[14] By the late 1980s the Polish communists changed tack and attempted to integrate Piłsudski's popularity into their own propaganda but to little effect.[14]

At the time of the fall of communism in Poland in 1989, Polish parliament in February that year restored 11 November as the Polish holiday (it was abolished during communist period).[14] In modern Poland Piłsudski is recognized as an important and largely positive figure in Polish history, a patron of numerous streets and institutions.[17] He has been often recognized by Polish public in national surveys as the most influential Polish historical figures since the 1980s (prior data from communist era is not representative), through since the late 1990s he has been supplanted in this ranking by Pope John Paul II.[18] Paweł Kusiak argues that it is the 1990s which represent the Golden Age of Piłsudski's popularity.[19] Piłsudski's cult and legend is still present in Polish political and cultural discourse; for example Piłsudski was declared as the most influential politician by both Donald Tusk and Lech Kaczyński in the 2005 Polish presidential election,[20][21] and he was positively referenced by Polish president Bronisław Komorowski in his electoral campaign in 2010.[22] Despite that, there are groups in the modern Polish society who are highly critical of Piłsudski and his legacy.[23]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Lee 2012, p. 313.
  2. ^ a b c Wróbel 2010, p. 118.
  3. ^ a b c Biskupski 2012, pp. 33–34.
  4. ^ a b c Kusiak 2010, p. 243.
  5. ^ Hahn 2002, p. 64.
  6. ^ a b Plach 2006, pp. 73–74.
  7. ^ a b Kusiak 2010, p. 254.
  8. ^ Kusiak 2010, p. 244.
  9. ^ a b Biskupski 2012, p. 93.
  10. ^ Biskupski 2012, p. 40.
  11. ^ Kusiak 2010, pp. 244–246.
  12. ^
  13. ^ Biskupski 2012, pp. 114, 117.
  14. ^ a b c d e Kusiak 2010, p. 247.
  15. ^ Biskupski 2012, p. 123.
  16. ^ Biskupski 2012, p. 141.
  17. ^ Kusiak 2010, p. 241.
  18. ^ Kusiak 2010, pp. 252–253.
  19. ^ Kusiak 2010, p. 255.
  20. ^ Kusiak 2010, p. 249.
  21. ^ Pankowski 2010, p. 20.
  22. ^ Kusiak 2010, p. 250.
  23. ^ Kusiak 2010, pp. 251–252.
Biskupski, M. B. B. (2012). Independence Day: Myth, Symbol, and the Creation of Modern Poland. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-965881-7.
Hahn, Paul N. (2002). A Low, Dishonest Decade: The Great Powers, Eastern Europe, and the Economic Origins of World War II, 1930–1941. Continuum. ISBN 978-0-8264-1449-6.
Kusiak, Paweł (2010). "Legenda i kult J. Piłsudskiego. Jak w Polsce doby integracji europejskiej interpretować postać Marszałka?" [The legend and cult of J. Piłsudski: How to interpret the figure of Marshal in the day of European integration] (PDF). Colloquium Wydziału Nauk Humanistycznych i Społecznych AMW (in Polish). 2: 241–258.
Lee, Stephen J. (2012). European Dictatorships, 1918–1945. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-135-69011-3.
Pankowski, Rafal (2010). The Populist Radical Right in Poland: The Patriots. Abingdon and New York, NY: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-47353-8.
Plach, Eva (2006). The Clash of Moral Nations: Cultural Politics in Piłsudski's Poland, 1926–1935. Ohio University Press. ISBN 978-0-8214-1695-2.
Wróbel, Piotr J. (2010). "The Rise and Fall of Partliamentary Democracy in Interwar Poland". In M. B. B. Biskupski, James S. Pula and Piotr J. Wróbel, eds., The Origins of Modern Polish Democracy, pp. 110–164. Ohio University Press. ISBN 978-0-8214-4309-5.

Further readingEdit