May 12th, 1926: Marshal Józef Piłsudski and his military troops undertake a march in Warsaw, which results with the President – Stanisław Wojciechowski – and the Prime Minister – Wincenty Witos – resigning from their offices. 379 people (164 civilians among them) die and over 900 are injured during bloody fights.

Marshal Józef Piłsudski

Marshal Józef Piłsudski

Even before the whole action Piłsudski announces his plan vaguely in an interview, stating that he is standing up and he will fight with the “evil of this country”. He will put an end to these “rowdy political parties” and their reign over the country.

And he does it well. The list of insults to the people in power at that time, however, seems to have no end. Piłsudski’s aim is now to put pressure on the President and he uses military forces to make his message clear to everyone.

The manoeuvres take place according to plan. The troops on the outskirts of Warsaw are joined within a night by further forces under officers supporting Piłsudski. He himself is to meet the President, Stanisław Wojciechowski. The meeting takes place on the Poniatowski Bridge. After a short conversation and Marshal’s realisation that the legal way to save the country is lost, the fighting in the city begins.

Governmental troops are led by Gen. Tadeusz Rozwadowski and Colonel Władysław Anders, and consist of ca. 1700 soldiers. They retreat, however, pretty soon because they are faced with an army twice as big. Piłsudski’s supporters are led by Gen. Gustaw Orlicz-Dreszer and Colonel Józef Beck. Many citizens also join the forces. The state of emergency is introduced. There is a will to parley with the government, but the Speaker of the Lower House of the Parliament refuses.

On May 13th most of the city is in Piłsudski’s power, although first reinforcements come to help the governmental troops. Apart from civic engagement, Marshal gets some unexpected support from railway workers, who are blocking military transports to the governmental forces.

“Piłsudczycy”, as they are called, launch an attack on Belweder Palace (official residence of the Polsih president) on May 14th. Soon afterwards cease-fire is decided and the old government resigns.

According to the Polish law, in such circumstances it is the Speaker of the Lower House who takes over the presidential power. Józef Piłsudski is nominated to be a president, however, he refuses as he thinks this is a good punishment for the riots. He then becomes the Minister of Military Affairs and he holds this office until the end of his life, and Prof. Ignacy Mościcki is elected President.

Many critical comments about the losses in civilians and not considering peaceful methods to change the political situation have been expressed since then. The most interesting is, however, the dilemma of the soldiers who supported Piłsudski. They vowed not to fight against compatriots and the army of motherland, and they found themselves in that exact situation. On the other hand, they swore never to abandon their commander, so either the former or the latter vow had to be broken. Some officers could not stand the accompanying torments and committed suicides to avoid the inevitably fatal decision.

Therefore, the judgement of the May Coup is an individual matter.


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