22 September 1937
General Stanisław Skwarczyński hadn't expected the invitation (which actually amounted to an order, of course) to appear at the Belvedere Palace for an interview with First Marshal Jósef Piłsudski. It was rumored within the Polish Army that Marshal Piłsudski was declining in health, but Skwarczyński hadn't paid much attention to the rumors. After all, how could Marshal Piłsudski be dying? The Marshal was eternal.
Skwarczyński had been to the Marshal's private office on a number of previous occasions, and he found it the same as always, stark and severe. A large plain desk covered with a disorganized mess of papers and a half-finished game of solitaire, a few chairs, some filing cabinets, and the red-and-white Polish flag standing in the corner.
Piłsudski himself, however, was shockingly different. Still in his plain Army uniform, but now hunched over the desk, his hands shaking, his face pale and drawn. It took a moment for Skwarczyński to recover from his surprise, come to attention and salute.
Piłsudski motioned for Skwarczyński to sit down. "No need to stand on formality, my child. I have important things to tell you, and you'll probably wish to be seated when you hear them."
Relief warred with unease within Skwarczyński's breast as he sat. When the Marshal addressed you as "my child" it was a sign that he was in a good mood. And his voice was as strong as ever. But Piłsudski's words struck Skwarczyński as ominous. Unwillingly, he remembered again the rumors about the Marshal's health.
Piłsudski's next words confirmed Skwarczyński's worst fears. "My child, I am dying."
Without conscious thought, Skwarczyński rose to his feet. "Marshal, no!"
Piłsudski motioned Skwarczyński back to his seat. "I'm afraid so. Doctor Sławoj tells me it is a cancer, and incurable. He gives me no more than six months to live."
Skwarczyński, who had led men into battle as recently as a year ago, found himself weeping uncontrollably. "Forgive me, Marshal," he muttered.
"No, no, my friend, go ahead," said Piłsudski. "It is a fitting tribute. And best to shed your tears now, for you will have to face the future with clear eyes. When I am gone, you must lead Poland in my place."
"I, Marshal?" said Skwarczyński, stunned.
"You, my child. There can be no other. The whole nation honors you for your bravery and heroism against the Brownshirts."
Skwarczyński had never quite understood the public fuss that had been made over his role in the war. True, he had led the cavalry charge that had turned back the Brownshirt attack during the Battle of Warsaw. But he had simply been following the Marshal's orders. It was equally true that he had broken through the German siege lines at Berlin, and had stormed the Reichstag building, but again he had simply been doing his duty as a soldier in the Polish Army. And finally, it was true that he had personally planted the Polish flag atop the Brandenburg Gate, a bit of grandstanding which, in retrospect, he found rather embarrassing. But that had been nothing; less than nothing. He still couldn't bear to look at the photograph that had been taken of the event.
"And more important," Piłsudski continued, "you've seen the camps."
Skwarczyński didn't need to ask which camps the Marshal was talking about. He meant the concentration camps that the Brownshirts had set up in Germany. Skwarczyński himself had liberated the Sachsenhausen camp and taken its Commandant, Horst Wessel, prisoner. With his own eyes, he had seen the hideous conditions the inmates had been subjected to, the walking skeletons they had been reduced to, the piles of corpses that they were fated to join. And he had seen the yellow Stars of David sewn onto the prisoners' tattered uniforms. A lifetime of anti-Semitism had died that day. Sachsenhausen had changed him.
"I've always said," the Marshal stated, "that anti-Semitism has no place in a great nation. I've spent the last nineteen years fighting to keep Dmowski and his National Democrat minions from turning Poland into another Imperial Russia. When I am gone, you must take up that fight."
"How can I?" said Skwarczyński. "I'm only a soldier."
"No, my child, you are more than that. You have become the nation's idol. Tomorrow, I will announce that I am resigning as War Minister and Inspector General of the Army, and I shall recommend you for my replacement."
After a time, Skwarczyński said, "Even so, the National Democrats are strong, and determined."
The Marshal chuckled. "Not as strong and determined as they were six months ago. You are not the only man who has been changed by the camps. Many within the National Democrats have found the pictures from the camps disturbing. There is a growing movement within their ranks to disavow anti-Semitism. The National Democratic Party is splitting in two. When it happens, you must be ready to pick up the pieces. The Peasant Party will follow anyone who promises them land, and we now have all the land we need in Germany." Piłsudski chuckled again. "Röhm did all the hard work of breaking up the Junkers' estates, and we get to enjoy the spoils. An unexpected gift from our enemy."
A coughing fit now consumed the Marshal for several seconds, and Skwarczyński sat paralyzed, uncertain what to do. Could Poland's savior being dying even now? But the fit passed, and Piłsudski was able to resume his talk.
"You will have one more set of allies in your task," he said. "The German people themselves."
"What do you mean?"
There was a gleam in the Marshal's eye as he explained. "The National Democrats have been unswerving in their demands. They want the outright annexation of the lands we have conquered in Germany, and I intend to give it to them. Of course," he added, "they haven't yet realized that with the land will come the people living on it. Fifteen million Germans will suddenly become part of the Polish nation. A full third of the population. The National Democrats don't know it, but they've just made the Poles a minority in their own country."
The Marshal's eyes were no longer on Skwarczyński. "All along, I've said that Poland should be a federation. A commonwealth, as it was in the great old days. Now, there is no choice. We cannot subjugate the Germans, and we cannot expel them. We have no choice but to live with them on equal terms. And where the Germans go, the other minorities, the Ukranians and Lithuanians and Jews, will follow. And you must show them the way." With a sudden return to focus, Skwarczyński found himself pinned by the Marshal's gaze. "You, Marshal Skwarczyński! You must finish the task that I have begun! It is my final command to you. Will you obey?"
"Marshal, I will!" Skwarczyński exclaimed.
"Very good, my child, very good. Now go. I must prepare for my speech tomorrow." With one last chuckle, the Marshal added, "And so must you."