The bawdy soldier & the man of the world

In the Belvedere Palace, Józef Piłsudski was Commander and Chief of State. In the Bristol hotel, and later at the Royal Castle, Ignacy Paderewski was a genius-god. Both considered themselves to be saviour figures.

From their childhood years, both Piłsudski and the seven years older Paderewski shared a desire to fight for the independence of their occupied homeland.

Both came from Polish noble families, which were particularly affected by the loss of independence. As members of the political elite of the old Polish Republic, with its downfall they lost not only their status, property and social influence, but their very raison d’être.

In the spirit of mass mobilisation of the old times, the grandfathers of both men had taken part in the November Uprising. Piłsudski’s father fought in the January Uprising, while Paderewski’s father hid insurgents and supplied them with arms – which led to his arrest by the Cossacks in front of his four-year-old son, making an unforgettable impression on him. Paderewski’s mother was born in tsarist exile and his teacher was a former insurgent of the November Uprising.

For both men, family and national martyrdom was closely linked with their love for their lost homeland and their strong motivation to fight for its restoration. Both were raised in the same spirit, with the same literature filled with a romantic cult of the nation. Paderewski writes about himself that he wanted to “be someone” in order to “do something for Poland.”

Confrontation with Paderewski

The physically active and resolute Piłsudski, a man of action who believed in the power of will and determination, began his political activity at the University of Kharkov. Being a cynic, he had no illusions that any country would help the Polish cause without having their own agenda. In his opinion, Poland’s freedom could only be won by the Poles themselves and there was no point in counting on others to do it for them. Operating in the hermetic conditions of tsarist Russia, he was incapable of understanding the reality of broader geopolitics.

Paderewski chose a different path to “becoming someone” and his life experiences led him to an entirely different viewpoint. When he left his native Kurylowka near Zytomierz and the area of Shepetovka, where he had been raised, Kiev, Lviv and Warsaw appeared to be great urban centers, not to mention Paris or London.

While travelling around the world and in his contacts with different people of various nationalities and social strata, he saw how little Poland meant to them (even if they happened to know something about the country), the prejudices held against Poles and the malicious jokes. He was impressed by the affluence and moral and military strength of Western states. In the United States he saw not only the financial power, but also the future. This experience of the world convinced him that waving a sword in Poland would never lead to anything and that in the modern era what counts is the power and influence exerted by a strong economy and finances. At the same time, America, where everyone could dream and sometimes could even fulfil their dreams, strengthened his conviction that nothing was impossible. The thing was to be realistic.

These seemingly different approaches complemented each other perfectly when the two men met. While Paderewski was improving Poland’s image in the world, trying to convince US President Woodrow Wilson, and later the governments of France and the United Kingdom that it is necessary to restore the Polish state, at the same time smoothing out the politically incorrect presentations of Dmowski and calming apprehensions among the Western allies as to the alleged socialist tendencies of Piłsudski, the latter was creating the beginnings of the armed forces in order to seize power at the right moment. This symbiosis greatly facilitated the process of Poland’s rebirth and its acceptance by the Western allies.

Upon Paderewski’s arrival at the Belvedere on January 4th 1919 for the first meeting with Piłsudski, there was a clash of not only two very different personalities, but also two opposites; on one side there was the often bawdy soldier, on the other a refined man of the world, on one side a cynical wheeler-dealer, on the other a diplomat who believed in human kindness. It was also a confrontation of two domineering personalities that were accustomed to the idolatry of the people who surrounded them. In the Belvedere Palace, Piłsudski was the commander and chief, in the Bristol, and later at the Royal Castle, Paderewski was a genius-god.

The saviours

Several days after their first meeting, on January 9th, Piłsudski invited Paderewski to form a government, thereby blocking the hopes of Roman Dmowski, who was the leader of the largest political party in Poland. Paderewski accepted the task and in feverish haste the two men began to build the new state. This unusual task was made difficult not only by differences of opinion, but also their characters. Because both saw themselves as saviours, their exchanges were at times stormy and there were, on occasion, severe clashes of opinion. They didn’t compare views calmly through discussion, take joint action or work systematically – they were simply unsuited to that. Their consultations, held in rooms dense with cigarette smoke, dwelling on matters of great importance, dragged on through the night. In the morning they would sleep late while people waited outside for their scheduled appointments. There were also times when Helena Paderewska joined the discussion uninvited, interfering and scolding ministers who “tired out” her beloved husband (rumours went around Warsaw that in important matters the two men would meet in the bathroom where the pianist was taking his bath to escape from his wife).

Paderewski was not against acting by faits accomplis, which is well illustrated by his arrival in Gdansk on board a British Royal Navy cruiser to mark the Polish rights to the city, and his journey from there to Poznan, provoking the outbreak of the Wielkopolska Uprising. Coming, like Piłsudski, from the eastern lands of the former Republic, Paderewski wanted to incorporate them into the new state. However, he understood that the Polish cause had to be based on a close alliance with the allied Western powers and therefore shielded actions that could appear expansionist to them. In Paris, he promoted the importance of Poland’s fight for Lviv and defended Piłsudski’s attacks on Western critics. He also cleverly blackmailed Western allies who feared the alleged socialist leanings of the head of state and were afraid of him striking a deal with the Bolsheviks or Germans.

A man of the West

Paderewski’s presence was convenient for Piłsudski, all the more so because at home he neutralised the right wing and reinforced Piłsudski’s authority. But Paderewski’s absence when he spent most of 1919 in Paris defending the Polish cause, combined with his meagre home achievements, seriously weakened his authority and his inept exercising of power in Poland resulted in the dissolution of his government towards the end of the year. In December, he resigned altogether.

During the three decades of his activity, Paderewski succeeded in dispelling many prejudices against Poles and revived sympathy for his country throughout the world, having become a kind of image of a civilized Pole in the eyes of the West. His departure from power not only damaged the country’s reputation, but also made the Western allies anxious, as they thought they were losing “their man” in Warsaw. The consequences were to be felt soon.

Without any diplomatic or other preparation, the expedition to Kiev in May 1920 deeply concerned not only governments but also public opinion around the world. For generations, the perception of Poles as an unreliable nation with excessive claims had become firmly rooted – an opinion that would do great harm to Poland between the two wars, both on the economic level as it discouraged investors, and on the diplomatic level with the tragic consequences that were felt throughout nearly the entire 20th century.

Paderewski may have believed too much in the necessity and effectiveness of good international relations and favourable public opinion, but Piłsudski’s scorn for these turned out to be disastrous for Poland. If their partnership had lasted longer, they would have no doubt achieved better borders for the Polish Second Republic, not to mention a better image.

Adam Zamoyski

Source: “Rzeczpospolita”



Although born in New York, in 1949, ADAM ZAMOYSKI was brought up in England and spent much of his youth in other European countries. He was educated at Downside and read History and Modern Languages at the Queen’s College Oxford.

Zamoyski’s family originates in Poland. His parents left the country when it was invaded by Germany and Russia in 1939, and were stranded in exile when the Soviets took it over at the end of World War. Drawn to it as much by the historical processes at work there as by family ties, Zamoyski began to visit Poland in the late 1960s. His interest in the subject is combined with a feel for its connections to the history and culture of other nations, and a deep understanding of the pan-European context.

He is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of the Royal Society of Arts, and of the Royal Society of Literature.