Magazine Poland

On this Day, in 1926: Józef Piłsudski returned to power after staging the May Coup

On May 14, after three days of fighting, the “May Coup” staged by Marshal Józef Piłsudski overthrew the democratically-elected government of President Stanisław Wojciechowski and Prime Minister Wincenty Witos.

After more than a century of partition between the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia and the Habsburg Monarchy, Poland re-emerged as a sovereign country at the end of the First World War, when the Paris Peace Conference and ensuing Treaty of Versailles formally established the newly-founded Republic of Poland as an independent state.

Under the leadership of its new Chief of State Józef Piłsudski, the young Polish state solidified its independence in a series of border wars that re-defined the country’s borders. The most important of these conflicts, the Polish-Soviet war of 1919 gave Poland an eastern border well beyond what the peacemakers in Paris had envisioned, adding millions of Ukrainians, Jews and Belarusians to Poland’s minority population.

A young and fragile Republic

With the young state facing a host of daunting challenges, from extensive war damage to a ravaged economy, Poland’s formal political life began in 1921 with the adoption of the March Constitution, which designed Poland as a republic, modeled after the French Third Republic, vesting most authority in the legislature, the Sejm, tasked with electing the country’s first president.

Despite calls for him to contend in the Polish presidential election of December 1922, Józef Piłsudsk did not run for president. Instead, he supported the candidature of Gabriel Narutowicz, who became Poland’s first president, thanks to the votes of the minorities coalition, determined to defeat the nationalist and antisemitic National Democracy movement.

But only five days after taking office, Gabriel Narutowicz was shot and killed by painter Eligiusz Niewiadomski, while attending an exhibition at Warsaw’s Zachęta gallery. During his trial, Niewiadomski, who was connected to the National Democratic party, claimed that he originally wanted to kill Piłsudski as “a step in the fight for Polishness and for the nation.”

Piłsudski managed to stabilize the situation, quelling unrest with a brief state of emergency, and new elections were eventually held. Another of Piłsudski’s old colleagues, Stanisław Wojciechowski was elected as Poland’s new president, while Piłsudski, his belief in a democratic Poland shaken, announced his retirement from active politics a few months later.

The May Coup

By 1925, with hyperinflation fueling public unrest, and Prime Minister Wincenty Witos’s government unable to find a quick solution to the mounting unemployment and economic crisis, Piłsudski, who had continued to keep a close eye on political development, became more and more critical of the government and eventually issued statements demanding the cabinet’s resignation.

In the face of the newly-emerging threats to the stability of Poland’s independence following the signing of the Locarno Treaties, in which Germany renounced the use of force to change its western frontiers but agreed only to arbitration as regards its eastern frontiers, Piłsudski began to create a new power base, centred around former members of the Polish Legions.

On May 12, 1926, units who had pledged support to Piłsudski marched on Warsaw and captured bridges over the Vistula River. A state of emergency was declared and Piłsudski met his old friend President Stanisław Wojciechowski on the Poniatowski Bridge, demanding the resignation of Witos’s cabinet. But with no result in negotiations, fighting erupted across the city.

The Polish Socialist Party quickly declared its support for the rebels and called for a general strike, paralyzing communications and preventing pro-government military reinforcements from reaching Warsaw. By May 14, after three days of fighting, Wojciechowski and Witos both resigned their offices, in a desperate attempt to prevent the fighting from erupting into a full civil war.

The legacy of Piłsudski and the May Coup

Following the May Coup, a new government was formed under Prime Minister Kazimierz Bartel and Ignacy Mościcki became the new president, but it was Józef Piłsudski who remained the most influential politician in Poland, playing a preponderant role in government as the “power behind the throne”, until his death in 1935.

The adoption of a new Polish constitution in April 1935, tailored by Piłsudski’s supporters to his specifications by providing for a strong presidency, came too late for Piłsudski to seek that office. However, it would serve Poland until the outbreak of World War II and would carry its government-in-exile through the war and beyond.

Meanwhile, a cult of personality developed around the figure of Józef Piłsudski, particularly after his death, as his followers attempted to turn his legend into one of the basis to legitimate their grip on power. In 1938, the Polish parliament even passed a decree criminalizing any defamation of Piłsudski.

Piłsudski’s cult and legend is still present in Polish political and cultural discourse today, although many Poles remain highly critical of Piłsudski and his legacy, seeing his actions as setting precedents for authoritarian responses to political challenges…

Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.

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