Józef Piłsudski was born on 5 December 1867 in Żułów near Wilno (now Vilnius). He came from a wealthy family of gentlemen farmers, who cherished the Polish traditions and patriotic spirit. His father, also named Józef, took part in the January Uprising of 1863, when the people of Poland tried to regain the independence they had lost in the outcome of the partitions by Russia, Prussia and Austria. After finishing school in his home city in 1885, Piłsudski enrolled at Kharkov University to read Medicine, but became involved in a revolutionary socialist movement called Narodnaya Vola. He was sent down after just one year for participating in student demonstrations. He was also rejected by the University of Dorpat (now Tartu), Estonia, whose authorities had been informed of his political affiliation. On 22 March 1887 he was arrested for his involvement in the work of the Vilnian socialists, and charged with conspiracy against Tsar Alexander II. He was tried and sentenced to 5 years' deportation to Siberia - first to Kirinsk on the River Lena, and later to Tunka.
In 1893 the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) was established in Warsaw. Piłsudski, who had returned from deportation a year earlier, joined its Lithuanian branch and, in 1894, became a member of the central workers' committee and the Chief Editor of the "Robotnik" magazine, published by the PPS. Six years later, as one of the party's leaders, he was arrested by the Russian authorities and imprisoned in Warsaw. Yet, during the following year he was transferred to a hospital in St. Petersburg (having simulated madness in prison), from which he escaped with the help of Władysław Mazurkiewicz, one of the hospital doctors. After returning to Galicia (the Austrian zone of partitioned Poland), Piłsudski continued his political activity. In 1904 he left for Japan, which was at war with Russia at the time, where he conducted negotiations with the Mikada government for the creation of a Polish legion with the Japanese army to fight the Russians. However, he only received Japan's help in purchasing weapons and ammunition for the PPS and the combat organisation associated with the party. This organisation became one of the main combat units of the 1905-1907 revolution in Russia. Although the riots and clashes with the police were suppressed, Piłsudski did not cease in his efforts to create a Polish armed force. When the PPS split up in 1906, the group associated with Piłsudski created the revolutionary fraction of the PPS, which was planning a revolution against tsarist Russia.
In 1910 two legal paramilitary organisations were created in the Austrian partitional zone (one in Lwów and the second in Cracow), to conduct training and lectures in military science. In 1912 Piłsudski became the Commander-in-Chief of one of them. At the outbreak of the First World War he set out from Cracow at the head of a well-trained group of units, with which he entered the Russian partitional zone and took a border strip evacuated by the Russians. Next he made an alliance with Austria, and officially established the Polish Legions, taking personal command of its First Brigade. In strict conspiracy, however, he established a Polish military organisation. In 1917 Piłsudski resigned his command, became a member of the Polish provisional council of state and called for the creation of the a national government in Warsaw. When the Legions refused to swear allegiance to Austria and Germany, he was arrested and imprisoned in the Magdeburg garrison, where he remained until November 1918.
After Germany's defeat Piłsudski was released from prison and returned to Warsaw, where he assumed supreme command of the Polish forces and was entrusted with the mission of creating a national government in the newly independent country. On 14 November 1918, he was asked to provisionally supervise the running of the country, and on 22 November he officially received the title of Provisional State Leader. He held this post until 9 December 1922, when Gabriel Narutowicz was elected the first President of the Republic of Poland. Piłsudski personally attended to the defence of Poland's independence. Between 1919 and 1921 he fought a successful war against the Bolsheviks in the East, and as a result of a peace treaty in Riga, Poland was able to sustain eastern Galicia. During this war, in March 1920, the army granted Piłsudski the baton of the First Marshal of Poland.
In 1923 Marshal Piłsudski retired from politics. The immediate reason for this decision was the assassination of President Gabriel Narutowicz by a right-wing fanatic, just one week after his election. Narutowicz was killed by a painter, Eligiusz Niewiadomski, during the opening ceremony of the Zachęta Gallery in Warsaw. Piłsudski found it impossible to work with Prime Minister Wincenty Witos, whom he regarded as morally responsible for the incident. He retired to his country house at Sulejówek near Warsaw, where he settled down to literary work and political writings, especially a series of books of political and military memoirs.
Yet, the situation in Poland forced him to return to politics. Civil unrest, mounting unemployment and economic crisis brought Piłsudski to demand the resignation of the Witos Cabinet. When his appeals brought no results, at the head of military units loyal to him, the Marshal entered Warsaw on 12 May 1926 and after three days of street-fighting he forced both the government and President Stanisław Wojciechowski to step down. However, he did not accept the office of president, aware of its limited powers. Instead, he took the posts of minister of military affairs, chairman of the council of war and general inspector of the armed forces. In addition, he held the office of prime minister twice, in the years 1926-1928 and in 1930.
In reality, this meant the end of parliamentary government in Poland and the start of the Sanacja regime (from the Latin sanare, 'to make wholesome'). Popular support and elegant rhetoric allowed Piłsudski to maintain his authoritarian powers, which could not be overruled by the president, who had been nominated by the marshal anyway, nor by Sejm, whose powers were curtailed in constitutional amendments introduced on 2 August 1926.
In foreign policy, Piłsudski's aim was to maintain good relations with the USSR (a non-agression treaty in 1932) and with Germany (1934). Both treaties were meant to strengthen Poland's position in the eyes of our allies and neighbours.
Marshal Piłsudski's death on 12 May 1935 took the entire nation by surprise. Until the end he managed to keep his terminal illness, cancer of the liver, a secret. His funeral turned into a national tribute to the man who had probably done most in the military sense to restore Poland's independence. His body was buried in St. Leonard's Crypt in Wawel Cathedral, next to the tombs of the kings and queens and the most distinguished personalities of Poland. In accordance with his will, his heart was enclosed in a silver urn and interred in his mother's grave at the Rossa Cemetery, Wilno.