Primary Documents - French Newspaper Interview with Josef Pilsudski, February 1919

Josef Pilsudski With Germany defeated in November 1918 the path was cleared for a newly constructed Polish republic to be established with Allied backing; this was duly declared on 10 February 1919.  This was however by no means the end of uncertainty for Poland, with the ultimate makeup of Europe yet to be agreed at the Paris Peace Conference, and with military disagreements with Russia, the Ukraine and Czechoslovakia rumbling on.

Click here to read the statement issued by the Polish Regency Council - established by the country's wartime German occupiers - on 11 November 1918 (the date of the armistice) which announced that General Josef Pilsudski, newly freed from German incarceration, was to be appointed to military command of Poland's Army.  Click here to read a subsequent decree, issued three days later, in which the Regency Council formally announced its own dissolution in favour of Pilsudski pending assembly elections.  Click here to read a statement issued by Pilsudski on the same day in which he outlined his immediate plans.

Click here to read an interview conducted with Pilsudski by a French newspaper in February 1919.  Click here to read the text of the U.S. government's formal recognition of the Polish government, by now politically led by Ignace Paderewski (with Pilsudski's blessing while the latter oversaw military matters).  Click here to read an address issued by Paderewski in May 1919 in which he summarised events to date at the Paris Peace Conference.  Click here to read a statement issued by Paderewski in September 1919 in which he expressed his support for Polish entry into the League of Nations.

Click here to read a statement issued by Herbert Hoover - head of the U.S. reconstruction organisation in Europe - dated August 1919 in which he documented his reservations with regard to the speed with which Poland's economic infrastructure could be rebuilt.

French Newspaper Interview with Josef Pilsudski by Charles Bonnefon, February 1919


Poland has placed at the head of its government the man who suffered most for its cause - a man who was a prisoner in Siberia, who was immured by the Germans in the fortress of Magdeburg, who was arrested for conspiracy in 1887, 1900, and 1917.

Josef Pilsudski is a Socialist and a soldier.  In 1894 he founded The Workman, which was printed secretly in Vilna.  He organized the Polish Socialist party, and in 1904 started the uprising that drove the Cossacks from part of Warsaw.

But this Lithuanian and son of a great landed proprietor, has devoted himself first and foremost to arousing the national sentiment of the working classes, and no one knows whether his Socialism is a means or an end.

In 1914 Pilsudski fought Russia at the head of a Polish legion, but when the Germans began to win, he changed his camp.  His legion, which had already mutinied once, just before the Brusilov offensive, refused to take the oath of allegiance to Germany.

On July 21, 1917, Pilsudski was arrested with his faithful companion, Sosukovski, who is now Assistant Minister of War.  On November 10, 1918, after the civil population of Poland had disarmed thirty thousand German soldiers, Pilsudski re-entered Warsaw in triumph.

Since that date he has held the reins of power firmly with that pliable tenacity which is characteristic of him.  He likes to employ a sudden change of tactics to defeat his opponents, and even his most intimate friends cannot read his thoughts.

Two cavalrymen with drawn sabres guard the foot of the staircase leading to his apartments.  When he presents himself on public occasions, or before the assembled diplomatic corps, a herald precedes him, shouting: "Every one uncover and stand silent before the War Lord of the Most Serene Republic!"

Carefully chosen aides-de-camp throw into relief by their brilliant uniforms and glittering deco rations the sober grey garb of the head of the government.  His enemies murmur that he imitates Bonaparte.  His friends insist that he emulates Kosciuszko.

One of his boyhood companions said to me: "I place him in the same group with Clemenceau and Foch.  He will be the greatest man of reborn Poland."  Others mutter that he is an adventurer, an undetected conspirator, a demagogue supporting himself upon the mob.

But while he appears to some people a Louis XI, suspicious and cunning, always on the alert for defence and attack, and to others a charming conversationalist, a profound thinker, a brilliant genius, all agree that he is a man of the highest intellectual ability, with a will of iron.

You can well imagine that my curiosity was piqued by all these characterizations.  When I saw him my preconceptions were overthrown in an instant.

He is a large man, at first glance severe in aspect, with eyebrows that overhang his deep-set and piercing eyes like heavy moustaches.  His nose is long, and the nostrils are sensitive and mobile.  His general aspect inspires you with an impression of honesty and sincerity.

General Josef Pilsudski is the most genial and good-humoured head of a government that I ever met.  His conversation overflows with humour and is punctuated by great roars of laughter.

He said to me: "You have come, sir, at a moment unusually serious and decisive for Poland.  There are questions which, as the head of the government, I cannot answer just now.  For instance, I am unwilling to say what the attitude of Poland will be if the Entente decides either to make peace with the Bolsheviki or to continue the war."

"What I want to state first and most emphatically is that Poland needs to have the decision, whatever it may be, made immediately.  The great evil afflicting our country is the fact that the Allies have no clear and definite program.  We are left to face this big Eastern question all alone, because Europe does not know what it wants.  France and England can afford to wait and make combinations, and see what is going to happen.  Possibly that is to their advantage.  We Poles are next-door neighbours to Russia.  Our success or failure depends on our acting promptly.  We have got to decide 'yes' or 'no,' peace or war.  We cannot wait any longer."

"Do you think," I inquired, "that a protracted war would ruin Poland?"

Poland's master answered: "What weighs upon us even more heavily than a war is the suffering of the last five years and the accumulation of distress they have brought.  Our present military operations are not a serious drain upon us, as we have not been forced to mobilize as many men as would be required in a serious campaign.  Our factories and our farms have plenty of labour.  We have every confidence in our army.  Last winter we were able to test the morale of our soldiers.  Lacking equipment, munitions, and almost destitute of supplies for days at a time, they nevertheless fought admirably."

"We are facing a military organization very inferior to yours.  Modern equipment does not play a decisive role in our campaign.  We have accomplished all that was necessary up to the present by simple manoeuvring.  What we lack particularly is railway supplies, so as to concentrate and manoeuvre our troops more rapidly."

"My long experience with the Bolsheviki makes me confident of the future.  Their soldiers are poorly commanded, poorly led, and irresolute.  Some small advance parties will fight well. The great bulk of the troops behind them are hardly soldiers at all."

"I have studied carefully the tactics and strategy of the Bolsheviki.  This is the result of my experiences so far: When upon the defensive the Bolsheviki will fight until evening; when night comes they light out.  In attacking they will hold out only a few hours.  Then their morale is exhausted and they relax their efforts.  Their troops are very poor in manoeuvring.  So, in all honesty, I do not consider these forces formidable although German officers are instructing them and draw up the plans of their general staff."

"But how about Kolchak?" I objected.

A loud burst of laughter was my answer. "Kolchak was still worse.  His army was made up of officers without soldiers, or mercenaries without patriotism.  Over and above that, it was miserably organized.  His advance guard fought well, but the rank and file of his forces were even worse than the Bolsheviki."

"Neither do I fear the Germans just at present.  A little later they will be a terrible danger.  I was greatly disturbed over the German concentration in Courland.  I know that their troops were well armed, well organized, and provided with everything.  But these forces lacked confidence and enthusiasm."

"So we saw the Letts, poorly equipped, scantily provided with munitions, with no artillery except two little batteries, successfully resist and defeat these great warriors.  That is inexplicable, unless you assume that the Germans lack morale.  They have been defeated.  The oppression of defeat still weighs them down."

"And, with all due respect to Ludendorff and Hofmann, and all those gentlemen who hope to restore the monarchy in their own country by restoring the monarchy in Russia, I am convinced that the Germans will not fight the Bolsheviki.  They are thoroughly war weary.  They would lie down under the task."

"You have just come from Vilna, General.  Would you tell me your impression of the trip?"

The face of Poland's chief magistrate became fairly radiant: "Oh, as for me, I am a child of that country.  Every one has known me all his life, and is fond of me.  I am their local pride out there.  They received me at Vilna like the leading local citizen, who has been the honour of the city."

"Are there as many Jews in Vilna as they say?"

"Their number is greatly diminished.  Before the war Vilna contained 200,000 inhabitants.  Since then they have joined all the suburban districts to the city proper.  In spite of this extension it has not more than 120,000 people today.  Many Jews have gone away."

"What is your policy toward White Russia, Lithuania, and the Ukraine?"

"I am a practical man, without preconceived plans and theories.  I confine myself to figuring out the means at my disposal in advance, and applying them to the best of my ability to the purpose I seek.  The wishes of the people in the territories we have occupied are, in my mind, the only rule to go on."

"I would not for all the world encourage Poland's occupying great regions filled with people at heart hostile.  History has taught us Poles that in the long run such agglomerations of discordant elements are dangerous.  Look at western Russia!  When a country like Poland is in the process of restoration we must not load ourselves with costly embarrassments."

"We have carried liberty to these unhappy countries at the point of the bayonet.  It is a liberty without conditions.  I know perfectly well that many Poles do not agree with me.  They interpret the opposition which certain of our neighbours show to becoming Poles to their 'mental errors and their evil hearts.'"

"Some of our patriots say these people are Poles without knowing it.  That is just what the Russians and the Germans used to say about us.  They used to ascribe our Polish hatred of Russia and Germany to our 'stupid brains and our evil hearts.'"

"I shall esteem it my greatest honour as a statesman and a soldier to have brought liberty to the peoples who are our neighbours.  I know the historical ties that unite them with us.  I know these ties were broken in places by the partition of Poland; but it is my first wish to efface every trace of that partition by liberating these oppressed nations.  However, attach them to Poland by force?  Never in the world!  That would be to substitute the violence of today for the violence of yesterday."

Source: Source Records of the Great War, Vol. VII, ed. Charles F. Horne, National Alumni 1923

The Parados was the side of a trench farthest from the enemy.

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