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Biography[edit]

Early life[edit]

Wacław Biernacki was born September 28, 1884 in Lublin, then in Russian-held part of partitioned Poland. He started his gymnasium there, but already in 1895 he was briefly arrested by the Okhrana for taking part in an anti-Russian demonstration. Around that time he started cooperating for the - illegal in Russia - Polish Socialist Party and the Polish National League, initially mostly as a leaflet courier. In 1902, at the age of 18, he organised a city-wide riot against forcing the school pupils to sing the Russian national anthem, for which he was finally dismissed from his school and forced to leave Lublin. He crossed the border with Galicia, where he settled in Brzeżany and finally passed his matura exam.

His parents sponsored his further education in Lwów (modern L'viv, Ukraine, then a predominantly Polish city and the capital of Galicia). In 1903 he joined the medical faculty of the John Casimir University and at the same time started studies at the Imperial Polytechnical Academy. There he met some of the main politicians of the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) who were at that time residing in relatively peaceful Galicia, including PPS's chief Józef Piłsudski. Under their influence Biernacki became actively involved in party's underground activities in all three partitions. By 1905 he devoted himself solely to party activities and abandoned his university career without a diploma. Within the structures of the Combat Organization of the Polish Socialist Party he adopted a nom-de-guerre of Kostek (diminutive of the given name of Konstanty), which he later added to his surname.

For his actions against Russian authorities, many of which were bordering modern terrorism, Kostek-Biernacki was frequently arrested by tsarist authorities, but he was never caught red-handed and was usually released soon afterwards. Among the most notable of his actions was an armed train robbery in Sławków and numerous assaults on tsarist officials in Warsaw. He was arrested in Piotrków in 1906, and again in Warsaw in 1907. Released, he returned to his duties within the PPS in Dąbrowa Górnicza, Radom, Warsaw and Lublin. In 1907 he was yet again arrested and imprisoned in the heavy prison at the Lublin Castle. However, already on May 25, 1907 he staged a successful escape together with 20 other political prisoners.

Constantly risking arrest and life imprisonment or forced resettlement to Siberia (a common penalty in Russia until the mid-20th century), he once again fled to Galicia, this time settling in Kraków, where he requested political asylum. Under pressure from Russian diplomats the authorities of Austria-Hungary refused and Kostek-Biernacki had to flee to France, where he joined the French Foreign Legion. Already in 1908 he was dispatched to Algeria, where he took part in fights against the natives in the vicinity of Sidi Bel Abbès. However, the following year he restored contacts with Walery Sławek, his former colleague and collaborator from the PPS. The latter helped him defect the Foreign Legion and return to Poland.

World War I and military career[edit]

His terrorist past and military training in France and Algeria made Wacław Kostek-Biernacki one of the best-trained military leaders the PPS and its leader Józef Piłsudski had at their disposal. After his return to Poland he joined the Union of Active Struggle (ZWC), where he became the main instructor of infantry tactics. He also closely cooperated with the structures of the then-legal Riflemen's Association. He also returned to the John Casimir University to finish his medical studies and underwent the officers' military training within the Austro-Hungarian Army. After the outbreak of World War I, already in July 1914, Kostek-Biernacki joined the Polish Legions. He served initially as a chief of military police of the 1st Brigade (en cadre). On November 9 of that year he was promoted to the rank of podporucznik (2nd Lieutenant).

Beloved by his fellow soldiers of the Legions, Kostek-Biernacki became also somewhat feared by the civilian population of the formerly Russian part of Poland. As chief of military police he presided the court martial and signed most sentences, often as high as capital punishment, for treason, collaboration with the Russians or attempts at harming the Austro-Hungarian war effort. At the same time he also became known as the author of a popular song on Józef Piłsudski entitled "Song of the dear commander" (Polish: Pieśń o wodzu miłym), popular in Poland even in the 21st century. Following the Oath Crisis of 1917 and Legions' switching sides, Biernacki was interned in Beniaminów together with a large group of former soldiers of the Legions. In the prisoner of war camp he founded a camp library, satirical journal Sprzymierzeniec (Ally) and a prisoner theatre.

In November 1918 Poland regained her independence and Kostek-Biernacki was released from the POW camp. He moved to Kraków, where he immediately joined the Polish Military Organisation, the predecessor of Polish intelligence services. Mobilised into the Polish Army, in early 1919 he was attached to the Siedlce-based 22nd Infantry Regiment. He officially served as an officer in that regiment during the Polish-Bolshevist War of 1920, he did not take part in the fights however. In early 1921 he became a deputy commander of the 43rd Infantry Regiment, and then briefly served as a company leader within the 4th Infantry Regiment. In that role he took part in the infamous riots in Kraków on November 6, 1923. Factory workers' demonstration turned into a riot and city fights erupted, leaving 31 dead and more than 100 civilians wounded. While Kostek-Biernacki argued he was in Kraków on vacations and did not take part in the riot, he was openly accused by some members of parliament and the press of attempting to start a workers' revolution with the aim of overthrowing the government. Because of that he was discharged from the army and arrested by the military police - a force he himself created within the Polish Army.

It was not until April 1925 that his trial before a military tribunal finally started. However, due to political reasons the tribunal never discussed his true involvement in the Kraków riots two years before and instead acquitted him of all charges based on procedural reasons. He was again accepted into the army in the rank of Major, initially within the 78th Infantry Regiment, and then as the commanding officer of the Przemyśl-based 38th Infantry Regiment.

Political career[edit]

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