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Modernism: The Creation of Nation-States

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter IV. Federalism and the decline of the empires

Address delivered in Vilnius

Józef Piłsudski
Traduction de Zuzanna Ładyga

Texte intégral

1Title: Przemówienie w Wilnie 20 kwietnia 1922 roku (Address delivered in Vilnius, 20 April, 1922)

2Originally published: Pisma-mowy-rozkazy, vol. V, Warsaw, Instytut Józefa Piłsudskiego, 1933, pp. 255–260.

3Language: Polish
The excerpt used is from the original

About the author

4Józef Piłsudski [1867, Zułów (in the district of Święciany, Lit. Zalave/Švenčionys, present-day Lithuania) – 1935, Warsaw]: politician. Piłsudski was born to a family belonging to the Polish-speaking gentry in the Lithuanian part of the Russian Empire. After his brother’s imprisonment for participating in an anti-tsarist conspiracy, Piłsudski, who was also suspected of having participated in the attempt at killing the tsar Alexander III, spent the years between 1887 and 1892 in Siberia. Immediately after his return, he joined the Polska Portia Socjalistyczna (Polish Socialist Party, hereafter PPS) and soon became one of its most prominent ideologues. Between 1894 and 1900, he published Robotnik (Worker), an illegal gazette which, for many years, was considered to be an example of successful underground activity. Between 1905 and 1908, as the leader of an armed PPS squad, he organized and participated in violent political demonstrations against Russian administration. During the First World War, Piłsudski joined the Austro-Hungarian Army, becoming the leader of the Polish military units, the Legiony. In 1917, he was arrested by the Germans, to whom he refused to subordinate. He was released from prison in November 1918, and became the head of state and commander of the embryonic Polish armed forces. Piłsudski encouraged military cooperation between Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and the Ukraine, and worked for their political unification. His federalist program was opposed by the ‘National Democrats’ led by Roman Dmowski, who advocated the partial annexation of the lands of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to Poland and the assimilation of their inhabitants. The program was also rejected by the political elites of the Eastern European nations. In the Polish-Soviet war (1919–1921) Piłsudski led the army to a victory in the Battle of Warsaw, which made him a national hero. However, he had also earned the distrust of the political elite, who saw in him a dangerous potential dictator. After declaring his withdrawal from politics, Piłsudski retired to his house in Sulejówek (near Warsaw). In 1926, he came back as the organizer of a coup d’etat which led to a process of political ‘restoration’ (the so called sanacja). In 1930, Piłsudski dissolved the Parliament and imprisoned the agrarian, socialist and nationalist political leaders. His foreign policy focused on the dual threat of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. His funeral in 1935 was among the most lavishly celebrated official ceremonies of inter-war Poland. It also enhanced the officially administered cult of Marshall Piłsudski, who remained to be one of the most celebrated and controversial figures in twentieth-century Polish history.

5Main works: Rok 1920. Z powodu pracy M. Tuchaczewskiego Pochód za Wisłę” [Answer to M. Tukhachevski’s “The Vistula offensive”] (1924, English ed. 1972); The Memoirs of a Polish Revolutionary and Soldier (1930); Pisma-mowy-rozkazy 9 vols. [Writings-speeches-orders] (1930–1936); Pisma Zbiorowe, 10 vols. [Collected writings] (1937–1938).


6The simultaneous collapse of three East-Central European powers (Austria-Hungary, Russia and Germany) released the suppressed national movements in the area. Obviously these nationalities shared the same experiences and in many ways similar problems of underdevelopment and unstable international status. What divided them sharply were their territorial ambitions, inevitably leading to conflicts. The Republic of Poland reestablished in 1918 was in fact involved in armed conflicts with almost all her neighbors. Particularly complicated was the interethnic structure in the East, where the bigger cities such as Wilno (Lit. Vilnius) and Lwów (Ukr. Lviv) inhabited by Poles and Jews were surrounded by territories with predominantly non-Polish populations.

7It is striking that one of the most common themes in the vision of renewed Polish statehood was the idea of national and ethnic multiplicity, which, in its most elaborate form, took the shape of political federation. This entity was usually envisaged as reuniting all nationalities of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, comprising predominantly Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and Belarusians. Furthermore, according to many authors, this political conglomeration was to bind together some other nationalities that were perceived as close relatives and ‘younger brethren’ of Poland. Interestingly enough, such a (predominantly) Slavic federation was promoted at the same time by those Polish authors who rejected the very project of revitalizing Polish statehood. We can easily find federalist motifs used by conservatives, pro-Russian Slavophiles, socialists with national and internationalist predilections, and liberals.

8The Polish federalist idea shared by Józef Piłsudski was informed by several intellectual sources. One of the pioneers of Polish federalism was Adam Czartoryski, the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the court of tsar Alexander I. Czartoryski aimed at reconstructing Europe as a peaceful union of free states. Subsequently, the Polish federalist idea incorporated the Hegelian philosophy of history, which is particularly visible in the texts of August Cieszkowski and Stefan Buszczyński, and in conservative Habsburg federalism (represented by Michał Bobrzyński, Paweł Popiel, Wladysław Studnicki).

9Józef Piłsudski, being a socialist, the political and military leader of a new state, tried to turn federalist ideas into political reality. He counted on the support of the Prime Minister and famous musician Ignacy Jan Paderewski, whom Piłsudski used to call in his letters, a “furious federalist.” Paderewski presented his political program in 1917, proposing to President Woodrow Wilson that “the form of a re-established Poland ought to be the United States of Poland” comprising Lithuania, Belarus and the Ukraine. During the First World War, the idea was shared by Polish, Lithuanian and Jewish organizations from Vilnius and from other parts of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania, who saw their future in a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which they considered, a credible bulwark against Russia. Piłsudski’s federalism also aroused strong opposition. Roman Dmowski and his National-Democratic party advocated the annexation of parts of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as the basis of a future Polish national state. An additional threat derived from the encroachment of Soviet Russia through its alternative federalist structure, as well as from Lithuanian and Ukrainian nationalism.

10Józef Piłsudski tried to enhance the federalist idea through facts. Immediately after the Poles took over Vilnius from the Bolsheviks, he published ‘The address to the citizens of the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania’ (Vilnius, 22 April 1919), where he promised to give the inhabitants “an opportunity to settle the internal, ethnic and religious matters in a manner of [their own] choice, free of any oppression or violence on the part of Poland,” and to organize a government run by local politicians. The most striking feature of this short text is that it addresses the inhabitants of the former Grand Duchy as a whole, without taking into account ethnic, national or cultural divisions. This political experiment had little chance of success as the Red Army not only soon re-conquered Vilnius, but also reached the suburbs of Warsaw. The political atmosphere in East-Central Europe had changed following the final victory of the Polish defenders of the capital city. Ukraine and Belarus were divided according to the Polish-Soviet treaty, and Lithuania was declared an independent state. The federalists were by no means among the dominating political forces in Poland and Lithuania. As a matter of fact, Pilsudski’s idealist federalism no longer corresponded to the political reality.

11In 1920, Józef Piłsudski organized the so called ‘riot of General Lucjan Żeligowski,’ whose military units consisted of Poles from Lithuania and Belarus. Żeligowski conquered Vilnius and its environs and formed the semi-independent state of Central Lithuania. The Lithuanian forces immediately counterattacked, but without success. The case of Central Lithuania was examined by the League of Nations. Vilnius and its area belonged essentially to Poland until 1939, and later was conquered by the Red Army and transferred to the Lithuanian state, which itself soon became part of the Soviet Union.

12Both Żeligowski and Piłsudski were born in Lithuania. They represented the archaic state patriotism of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, being at the same time army commanders and politicians of the ‘modern’ Polish state. The original idea of Piłsudski was to reformulate the long tradition of the Commonwealth and Polish federalist ideology into a new form of a federated anti-Soviet block, consisting not only of the former lands of the Grand Duchy but also of the Polish Crown as well as Latvia. Piłsudski did not leave any detailed political account of his federalist ideas. However, among his writings one can easily find traces of this political program. His speech, given in Vilnius in 1922, when Central Lithuania was incorporated into the Polish state, is the final expression of the multinational and multicultural tradition of Rzeczpospolita against both the Polish ethno-nationalism of Roman Dmowski and Lithuanian nationalism.

13This however did not amount to the end of the Polish federalist idea, which was regenerated in the inter-war period as well as under occupation and in exile. Thus Piłsudski’s federalism is a representative example of modern Polish political discourse. It shares all its weaknesses, foremost of which was the subordination of federalism itself to the prevalent objective of the nineteenth century national movement, namely the reestablishment of Polish statehood. The idea to reestablish a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth always appears to have been tricky, with the border between internationalism and imperialism being very thin. The ‘democratic’ traditions of the early-modern Polish political system had apparently lost their meaning long before the moment when they could be fulfilled.


Address delivered in Vilnius, 20 April, 1922

  • 1 The Polish form Wilno seems to be more appropriate than Vilnius, taking into consideration the tim (...)

I address you as the Head of State and Supreme Commander of Poland and as a Vilnian. I must confess I find these functions inseparable: and as I speak to you here, I can safely say that I would not be the Head of State and Supreme Commander of Poland were I not born in Wilno.1 Whether as a good Vilnian I managed to fulfill my duty as the Head of State and Supreme Commander well, I leave for history to judge.

16I will concentrate mainly on the past. I believe that if one does not respect and value one’s past, one is not worthy of respect in the present and has no place in the future.

  • 2 Witold (Lit Vytautas) (1350–1430): Grand Duke of Lithuania, one of the emblematic figures of Lithu (...)
  • 3 Władysław Jagiełło (Lit. Jogaila): Grand Duke of Lithuania and, after being baptized in 1386, king (...)

17Gentlemen! Scattered all over the world are the remnants of mankind’s progress, the vestiges of immense work and effort of individuals and communities that merit our admiration and respect regardless of our opinion of them. These vestiges are small and insignificant marks on the map, which have become the focal points of history, and where the sacrifice of the numberless dead and rivers of blood spilt bespeaks the great historical revolutions that often decide the fate of great empires and nations. All capitals past and present are such vestiges. Huge effort of will and immense amounts of work, often without respect for the laws of God and Man, would be concentrated in one place to build those monuments of human spirit and determination that we call capital cities. Whether we take the example of St. Petersburg, the capital the tsars built with tremendous human effort and creativity in the midst of a muddy and desolate northern landscape by the powerful will of the remarkable emperor Peter the Great, or the city of Rome, which is like no other, the symbol of eternity, or any other capital, all of them epitomize those grand historical enterprises whose purpose remains a great existential mystery beyond our comprehension. The one capital that stands out in my mind is my beloved Wilno, elevated to the status of capital not by Polish hands, I hasten to add, but as a result of the tremendous effort of Lithuanian people at the time when they were in open conflict with the entire world, Poland included. It was the unswerving determination of the great heroes of pagan Lithuania, whose country stretched from sea to sea, from the walls of the famed Moscow all the way to the banks of the grey Vistula River, and it was the will of great knights, which were displayed in historical disputes between Witold2 and Jagiełło3, that erected these walls and laid the foundations of our city as their capital. Then came the time of the great historical achievements of the Jagiellons, when the two countries formed a union and it was this city—the capital whose status was equal to that of Cracow—that became the emblem of power, strength, culture and civilization in its successful conquest of the then barbarous East.

18For three years now I have been the Head of State and Supreme Commander of a country with a population of up to thirty million. My position has allowed me to watch the endeavors of thousands and millions of people; I realize therefore what a challenge they have presented historically. When I see that in the age of steam engine and electricity, the efforts of modern-day Poles fall short of building a simple tenement house in Warsaw or Wilno that would crumble into ruin within twenty years time, I cannot help but pay tribute to the dexterity that, before the technological advancements of today, allowed people to construct soaring towers lasting for centuries and to build walls the sight of which prompts me to say with pride rather than melancholy: “The land was here before us, and it will outlast us.”

  • 4 Wilja – (Lit, Vilnele, present-day Lithuania).
  • 5 Lublin (nowadays in Poland): a city, where, in 1569, a Polish-Lithuanian union was decided upon by (...)

19I also remember from historical accounts that when the Jagiellons, during their reign as kings of Poland, were involved in long-lasting disputes, they were reluctant to leave their beloved Wilno for Krakow. The last king from the Jagiellon dynasty, who, when involved in his famous love adventures on the banks of Wilja River4, had the courage to stand up to the entire Polish nation when it tried to deny him his right to love, made the eternal union between the two nations his crowning achievement. I am happy to welcome the representative of Lublin5, whose presence at this occasion is a reminder of that great historical act.

20Later, there came a period of turbulence for Poland and both nations. The end of a long and fierce struggle saw the efforts of so many generations come to nothing. Our capitals, the historical symbols and the monuments of our fate and power, lost their significance. But even then it was here that the flame of patriotism, whose warmth kept the whole of Poland alive, was rekindled. If you look at the poetry of our bard Mickiewicz, whose name is familiar to every Polish child, three quarters of it is concerned with the history of Lithuania, its battles, its suffering and its defeats. And for every child in the far reaches of western Poland that poet’s genius is deeply associated with names that have a foreign ring to them, names like Grażyna, Aldona, Wallenrod and so on.

  • 6 Kowno – Lit. Kaunas.
  • 7 Żmudź – Samogytia.

21Allow me, gentlemen, to recall one more memory from those troubled times, one that has the greatest personal significance for me. When I was born, not far from Wilno, and my mother, who was mourning, shed tears over my cradle, the creak of ropes could still be heard from gallows erected not only here, on Łukiszki Square, but also in the distant Kowno.6 I cannot but mention that the fighting in that region was even fiercer, bloodier and more determined. Even when the fighting stopped, not only here, but also in the Kingdom, in Warsaw, the uprising in Zmudz7 continued at the cost of the lives of hundreds of people who did not even speak Polish.

22As I am addressing you here, paying tribute to our great past, I cannot wave aside those tremendous efforts of both nations that made the beloved Wilno the capital and the symbol of that heroic past. I cannot but pay homage to the blood spilt in the common cause.

23Gentlemen! Wilno is today on the brink of a new era, an era radically different from the one known in its history. I do not know and do not wish to know what our children will think and feel in the future. I want to believe that they will be better, smarter and happier than we are, simply because they will grow up in less cruel circumstances. However, out of respect for the past events and the blood spilt in the common cause, on this day of great Polish triumph which all those gathered here are so deeply aware of, I cannot help but reach out, despite our differences, to the people in Kowno, who probably regard our triumph as their defeat and a reason for mourning. I cannot help but reach out with a message of love and reconciliation. I cannot think of them as anything but brothers.

24I should like to end my speech as a Vilnian would. At my age one looks calmly in the direction from which, as they say, there is no return. I realize that after so many profound moments in my turbulent life, so many ovations and jeers, I am not likely to live through many more experiences of similar emotional intensity. There are, however, emotions so pure and innocent that they are childlike in nature—and those will certainly yet be my lot. Today is one of such emotional days. I feel like a child on the anniversary of his mother’s birth. A child’s undiminished admiration takes no notice of his mother’s imperfections. Whether others find her attractive or not, she is always beautiful and admired, and on her anniversary, her child’s heart is filled with joy. Like that child overcome by emotion I say, “Long live Wilno!”


1 The Polish form Wilno seems to be more appropriate than Vilnius, taking into consideration the timbre of Piłsudski’s speech. However in this text it is used only in the nominative. Other forms, such as Vilnian, refer to the Lithuanian name of the city.

2 Witold (Lit Vytautas) (1350–1430): Grand Duke of Lithuania, one of the emblematic figures of Lithuanian history. He extended the borders of Lithuania in the east and supported the Polish king Władysław Jagiełło in the war against the Teutonic knights.

3 Władysław Jagiełło (Lit. Jogaila): Grand Duke of Lithuania and, after being baptized in 1386, king of Poland.

4 Wilja – (Lit, Vilnele, present-day Lithuania).

5 Lublin (nowadays in Poland): a city, where, in 1569, a Polish-Lithuanian union was decided upon by the representatives of the gentry and the king Zygmunt August.

6 Kowno – Lit. Kaunas.

7 Żmudź – Samogytia.

© Central European University Press, 2010

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