Treasures from the attic: Virtuti Militari

A ribbon of black and blue
Girdles a  silver cross
Virtuti Militari
What does it mean — do you know?

It stands for the virtues of the soldier
The noble ones dream of it
But to obtain  this cross
You must disdain death and blood

He who stands heroic in battle
To be memorialized forever in bronze
To him the motherland gives
The cross of military virtue

Artur Oppman
January 1920

The Cross of Virtuti Military ( Poland’s highest decoration for courage in battle)  was created in 1792 by King Stanislaw  August Poniatowski to commemorate the victory of Josef  Poniatowski  in the Battle of Zielence  over the Russians and the Targowicians.

The first to be awarded the medal were Prince Josef Poniatowski, General Tadeusz Kosciuszko, Major  M. Wielhorski and Brigadier S. Mokronowksi.

At the insistence of  Catherine the Great,  Tsarina of Russia, the cross was banned in 1794.  It was reintroduced upon the establishment of the Duchy of Warsaw  in 1807.  After the uprising of November 1831, Czar Nicholas again abolished the decoration, forbidding it to be awarded to Poles. The cross was once again restored by Josef Pilsudski in 1919.  There were only 6 recipients of the Grand Cross of Virtuti Militari.

The Military Award Virtuti Militari  is the highest military honor in Poland and the oldest in the world.   A new statute passed by the Sejm regarding the reactivated honor in August of 1919 described it as “the highest award for acts of valor and  outstanding bravery and sacrifice, at the risk of life in the field battle for the good of the country.”

Unfortunately, the Polish Communist  government awarded the medal left and right.   The Grand Cross of Virtuti Militari was awarded among others, to  Marshall Konstantin Rokossowski of the Soviet Union, appointed by Russia as the head of the Polish Army.  Leonid Brezhnev, the long time General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union also received the honor as well as many other Soviet generals whose conduct left much to be desired.   The Cross was also awarded to employees of the Polish Ministry of Security – the Public Security Service for their struggle with the underground democratic movement in Poland.  For example, the decoration was awarded to those responsible for the killing of one of the most distinguished leaders of the Polish Home Army,  Marian Barnaciak-Orlik on June 24, 1946.  Five medals of Class V of the Virtuti Militari and seven Crosses for Valor were distributed.

By 1983  the Communist government of Poland awarded  5,167  Virtuti Militari including 13 of the Grand Cross, of which 8 were awarded to politicians and  the Soviet military.   For most of  them, even if it found a space on their chests so heavily laden with medals, this highest military honor of Poland,  had little significance at best.

During the Second Republic of Poland and earlier, the order of Virtuti Militari was awarded  exclusively for outstanding acts of valor and courage on the battlefield in defense of the nation, in the struggle for independence and freedom  as carefully outlined in the statute of 1919.  Another guiding  principle for attaining this award  was the requirement that all  candidates possess an unimpeachable character  exhibiting the  highest of moral standards, and an eagerness to serve, attaining the highest calling of  citizenship and patriotism.

On October 16, 1992 it was resolved to recognize and reinstate these guiding principles restoring the Chapter of the Virtuti Militari which had been abolished by the communist government.  The Medal  is to be awarded by the President of  Poland  in time of war.  A new act of parliament introduced a rule setting the final deadline for awards at “no later than five years after the cessation of hostilities.”  No new awards of Virtuti Militari have been awarded since 1989.

Elzbieta Chalupniczak

Forum, 5/2009