- December 10, 2012
Józef Piłsudski – friend of the Lithuanians
Another birth anniversary of Józef Piłsudski has passed. To celebrate it, Walenty Wojniłło quoted a fascinating interview given by a Lithuanian historian, Alfredas Bumblaskas, 5 years ago. His utterance aroused much controversy among Lithuanians at the time. I, too, will add fuel to the fire, although this time I might provoke an emotion on the Polish side.
I want to be frank and inform my dear readers that in my capacity as a historian of modernity I am quite critical of Piłsudski, and never have I belonged to the group of his worshipers. I will also admit, that the worship of “the founder of independence and the victorious leader” in several patriotic circles, which often borders on the ridiculous, has always made me feel pity and irritation. These are the reasons why my criticism of Józef Piłsudski, and especially of his attitude towards the new Lithuanian nation from more than 90 years ago, is devoid of patriotic loftiness and claptrap so characteristic of my fellow countrymen.
Without doubt, Józef Piłsudski was a charismatic and talented, maybe even pre-eminent figure. He had a vision of Poland which he tried to realise consistently. The idea of federal states on the territory of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was his political leitmotif. He dreamt of separating Poland from Russia by a chain of buffer states but he did not understand that newly reborn Poland was too weak to realise his plans. Nor did he observe national tendencies of Lithuanians and Ukrainians who had different political ambitions than forming federal states with Poland. He was focused on Polish rebirth with implementation of a modern system and an active participation on the part of Belarus and Ukraine from the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, which was completely unreal. The union had been long dead. The last vestiges of the ancient union were the forest battles of the January Uprising and the gallows on Trzykrzyska Mountain where Poles, Belorussians and Lithuanians were hung by the Moskals.
On his deathbed Piłsudski felt politically defeated. His idea of federation was not realised. Instead, Lithuania with its capital in Kaunas was at its best, realising aggressive policy towards Poland and the Polish. This was his personal failure to which he paradoxically contributed by his own miscalculations and omissions. Maybe the reason also lay in his deep sympathy towards Lithuanians. A sympathy that overrode his mental capacity and awareness.
Let us trace the most important events and decisions made by Piłsudski and picture his attitude towards Lithuania and the Lithuanians themselves.
On 18th December 1918 the Chief of State received a delegation from Lithuania in Warsaw. During the meeting he said that Poland did not oppose the creation of an independent state of Lithuania, but then added that Lithuania might be nationally connected to Poland. It is worth noticing that during his speech Piłsudski emphasised that he was a friend to Lithuanians.
In the spring of 1919 he sent a delegation to Kaunas. On his behalf, its members proposed to renew the Polish-Lithuanian union and to rebuild the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The proposition was promptly rejected by Lithuanian politicians. After taking Vilnius from the Bolshevik faction in April 1919, the undaunted Chief of State made a proclamation to the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania in which he announced that the people would themselves decide about the future, but in the meantime the temporary power would lie in the hands of civil authorities: “I wish to create an opportunity for settling your nationality problems and religious affairs in a manner that you yourselves will determine, without any sort of force or pressure from Poland” (trans. Norman Davies). The proclamation was written in two languages: Polish and Lithuanian. By the way, it is interesting that in the process of writing a document addressed to the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania the Belorussian language was completely omitted. In Vilnius alone there was twice as many Belorussians as there were Lithuanians and they might have had more reason to claim legacy from the former duchy than the Lithuanian dwellers of the city upon Neris, who constituted a minority.
However, Józef Piłsudski addressed his offer to Lithuanians. He wanted an agreement with them. He wanted to revive the union. And although neither Lithuanian politicians nor the Polish majority that lived between Nemen and Daugava were interested in the idea (which was best reflected in the outcome of the 1922 elections to the Polish Sejm in the Republic of Central Lithuania), Piłsudski still tried to implement it on numerous occasions with great stubbornness.
In the summer of 1919 The Polish Military Organisation (PMO) in Kaunas was plotting to overthrow the local government and replace it with a new pro-Polish Cabinet. Piłsudski was aware of PMO’s actions. They were eventually thwarted by a betrayal and exposure of the conspiracy, which was followed by a mass arrest. Repression fell on the Polish population of the Kaunas region. This was a moment in which Poland could easily strike the territory of Kaunas, especially that it would be benefited by a relatively good situation on the Bolshevik front. However, Piłsudski did not opt for military strikes, which would have almost definitely been successful.
Another, even better occasion to sunder and annihilate hostile Lithuania arose in September 1920, after the Battle of Warsaw. However, before the appropriate time came, some events had taken place which are worth reminding of. During the time when Polish troops desperately tried to stop Mikhail Tukhachevsky’s forces approaching Warsaw, the Kaunas government was hosting peace talks in Moscow that resulted in a Lithuanian-Soviet peace treaty. The Bolsheviks were generous in distributing land to their Kaunas allies: Vilnius, Lida, Ashmyany and Grodno. In exchange, Lithuanians agreed to let Red Army forces into its territory. On 13th July 1920 during a battle with Soviets Poles were attacked from behind by Lithuanian troops which in turn took Trakai and Lentvaris. Thus Lithuania broke its former neutrality and sided with the Bolsheviks.
After a stunning reversal of luck, an unexpected Polish victory over the Red Army in Warsaw and a counteroffensive in Grodno, a new plan of attack on the Soviets concentrated between Grodno and Vawkavysk was forged. The Chief of Staff, General Tadeusz Rozwadowski suggested to strike from the south, via Slonim, Lida and Vilnius so that Bolshevik troops were surrounded and pushed to north-west, into Lithuania. According to Rozwadowski the defeated Bolsheviks would be then chased towards Vilnius and Kaunas simultaneously. And it might even have happened if Józef Piłsudski had not “spared” the government in Kaunus once again. He was afraid that a deluge of Polish troops in Lithuania would result in an eternal hatred towards Poland. As a result, a risky manoeuvre was performed in which Polish troops surrounded Soviets from the north. After the victorious Battle of the Neman River and taking over Lida, it was not yet decided what strategies should be used in order to gain Vilnius.
After Vilnius was taken over by “rebellious” troops of General Lucjan Żeligowski, a new formation called the Republic of Central Lithuania was created. The initiator of the creation was Józef Piłsudski, whose decision was dictated by his federal sentiment. He did not want to incorporate the occupied Vilnius Region into Poland. He considered the Republic of Central Lithuania as a certain autonomous organ whose loose connection with Poland was supposed to be an asset during negotiations with Lithuanians. He deluded himself that they would be coerced into federation.
In vain. The Polish people of the Vilnius Region opposed the idea and did not want to hear of any autonomy or Central Lithuania. They made it clear during an election to the Vilnius Sejm, in which they took part on a massive scale. The turnout was 65% of the electorate the majority of which were Poles since national minorities boycotted the election. The national camp won the election and it were the members of National Democracy from Vilnius who decided to incorporate the Vilnius Region into Poland. Piłsudski’s federal plans eventually fell through.
Despite several opportunities, Piłsudski never decided to engage in an armed intervention in Lithuania. He thought that such action would mean a fratricidal war. In 1934 he expressed, in a conversation with Tadeusz Katelbach, that many a time he had opportunities to disrupt the status quo between Poland and Lithuania, but he did not want to widen an already wide gap by spilling blood. Meanwhile, the price that Poles had to pay for his errors and lack of military intervention in Lithuania was high. Polish people of the Kaunas region underwent a brutal lithuanisation and economical pauperism and in due course Polishness was almost completely eradicated in Kaunas, Ukmergė and Lauda.
For years had Piłsudski counted on normalisation of political relations between the two countries. He did not live to experience it. He was bitterly disappointed that his idea of federation with Lithuania was not realised. Indeed, he was disappointed by Lithuanians themselves and their inability to understand that Poland was the only guarantor of their existence. At the end of his conversation with Katelbach Piłsudski said: “So, For the Germans Lithuania is nothing. This has and will always be. And for the Soviets? Truly, the same. In this large-scale European settling of accounts, which is already taking place, Lithuania is of no significance to Germans and Russians alike. None! So let them be tardy if they want to. But excessive tardiness may be catastrophic to them. Yes, particularly catastrophic” (my own translation). These words – uttered a year before his death – turned out to be prophetic. Nowadays, it behoves us to consider if Lithuanian politicians should not think them over.
Tłumaczenie Aleksandra Christ w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, www.efhr.eu. Translated by Aleksandra Christ the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.