May Coup (Poland)

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May Coup
Przewrót majowy
Part of Interwar period
Pilsudski May 1926.jpg
Józef Piłsudski and other coup leaders on Poniatowski Bridge in Warsaw.
Date12–14 May 1926
Result Sanation victory, President Wojciechowski and Prime Minister Witos resigned
Sanation-loyal army Government-loyal army
Commanders and leaders
Józef Piłsudski Stanisław Wojciechowski
Wincenty Witos
12,000 6,000–8,000
Casualties and losses
Military killed: 215
Civilians killed: 164
Military and civilian wounded: 920
Total: 1,299

The May Coup (Polish : przewrót majowy or zamach majowy) was a coup d'état carried out in Poland by Marshal Józef Piłsudski from 12 to 14 May 1926. The coup overthrew the democratically-elected government of President Stanisław Wojciechowski and Prime Minister Wincenty Witos. A new government was installed, headed by Lwów Polytechnic Professor Kazimierz Bartel.


The events were partly inspired by the need for extraordinary measures in the face of the newly emerging threats to the stability of Poland's independence by Piłsudski's own assessment of the Locarno Treaties signed by Weimar Germany and the French Third Republic in 1925, the latter essentially abandoning Poland, and the German Treaty of Berlin (1926) with the Soviet Union at which Poland had not been invited. [1] [2]

Initially Piłsudski was offered the presidency, but he declined in favour of Ignacy Mościcki. Piłsudski, however, remained the most influential politician in Poland and became the "power behind the throne" until his death in 1935.


In November 1925, the government of Prime Minister Władysław Grabski was replaced by the government of Prime Minister Aleksander Skrzyński, which had received support from the National Democrats and the Polish Socialist Party (PPS). General Lucjan Żeligowski became the new government's minister of military affairs. However, after the PPS withdrew its support, the government also fell and was replaced by that of Prime Minister Wincenty Witos, which was formed by Polish People's Party "Piast" and Christian Union of National Unity ( Chjeno-Piast ). However, the new government had even less popular support than the previous ones, and pronouncements from Piłsudski, who viewed the constant power shifts in the Sejm (Polish Parliament) as chaotic and damaging, set the stage for a coup d'état .

Apart from domestic turmoil, Polish politics were shaken by a trade war with Germany that had started in June 1925. Also, on October 16, the Treaty of Locarno was signed under which the First World War's Western Allies abandoned the new states of Central and Eastern Europe in order to improve their relations with the defeated Germany.

Coup d'état

On 10 May 1926, the coalition government of Christian Democrats and Agrarians (PSL) was formed, and the same day, Józef Piłsudski, in an interview with a newspaper, Kurier Poranny ("The Morning Courier"), said that he was "ready to fight the evil" of sejmocracy and promised a "sanation" (restoration to health) of political life. That edition was confiscated by the authorities.

The night of 11-12 May, a state of alert was declared in the Warsaw military garrison, and some units marched to Rembertów, where they pledged their support to Piłsudski. On 12 May, they marched on Warsaw and captured bridges over the Vistula River. Meanwhile, Wincenty Witos's government declared a state of emergency.

Pilsudski (center) on Poniatowski Bridge, Warsaw, 12 May 1926, during the May coup d'etat. At right is General Gustaw Orlicz-Dreszer. Pilsudski on Poniatowski's Bridge.jpg
Piłsudski (center) on Poniatowski Bridge, Warsaw, 12 May 1926, during the May coup d'état. At right is General Gustaw Orlicz-Dreszer.

At about 17:00, Piłsudski met President Stanisław Wojciechowski on the Poniatowski Bridge. Piłsudski demanded the resignation of Witos's cabinet, but the President demanded Piłsudski's capitulation. With no result in negotiations, fighting erupted about 19:00 hours.

The next day, a new round of negotiations began mediated by Archbishop Aleksander Kakowski and Marshal of the Sejm Maciej Rataj. The negotiations, however, brought no change to the stalemate.

On 14 May, the Polish Socialist Party declared its support for the rebels and called for a general strike, supported by the Railwaymen's Union (Związek Zawodowy Kolejarzy). The strike by socialist railwaymen paralyzed communications and prevented pro-government military reinforcements from reaching Warsaw. [3]

Eventually, to prevent the Warsaw fighting from turning into a full civil war, Wojciechowski and Witos resigned their offices.

During the events, 215 soldiers and 164 civilians were killed, and some 900 people were wounded.

A new government was formed under Prime Minister Kazimierz Bartel, with Piłsudski as minister of military affairs. On 31 May, the National Assembly ( Zgromadzenie Narodowe ) nominated Piłsudski to be president, but he declined. Eventually Ignacy Mościcki became the new president, but Piłsudski wielded much more de facto power than his military ministry nominally gave him.


Piłsudski initiated a Sanation government (1926–1939) directed at restoring moral "health" to public life. Until his death in 1935, Piłsudski played a preponderant role in Poland's government, but his formal offices, apart from two stints as prime minister, in 1926–1928 and 1930, were for the most part limited to those of minister of defence and inspector-general of the armed forces.

The adoption of a new Polish constitution in April 1935, the April Constitution, 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.


  1. Rafal Jankowski. "Coup d'état of May 1926". The Interwar Period (1918-1939). Archived from the original on November 28, 2010 via Internet Archive. The Archives of Modern Records in Warsaw, Prezydium Rady Ministrow, catalogue no. 33, p. 330.
  2. Peter D. Stachura (2004). Poland, 1918-1945: An Interpretive and Documentary History of the Second Republic. Psychology Press. p. 65. ISBN   0415343585.
  3. Norman Davies (1982). God's playground: a history of Poland. The origins to 1795. Columbia University Press. p. 422. ISBN   978-0-231-51479-8 . Retrieved 11 March 2013.

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