When Wladyslaw Sikorski was born in the town of Tuszów Narodowy, Poland had been partitioned by Austria, Prussia, and Russia. Sikorski was born in an area controlled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire , and he would spend much of his life working to create an independent Polish state.
After training as an engineer in Lwów, Sikorski served a brief stint in the Austrian military before joining underground groups striving for Polish independence; he also founded a group in 1908. He continued his military career in the newly-formed Polish Legions during World War I, after which the 1919 Treaty of Versailles reconstituted Poland. Sikorski commanded forces during the Polish-Soviet War and, after the Polish victory, was renowned as a war hero. As a result, in 1921 he was appointed chief of the Polish general staff. He briefly became prime minister the following year, but soon shifted into the role of minister of military affairs. By 1928, his fortunes had changed; he was dismissed from public service by Józef Piłsudski, who took control of the Polish government through a coup d’état in 1926.
As Poland was crushed by Nazi and Soviet forces in September 1939, Sikorski worked to organize a Polish resistance army in France. By September’s end, he was the prime minister of Poland’s government-in-exile , and he soon became the commander-in-chief of the Polish armed forces in France, as well as the minister of war. After Adolf Hitler invaded the USSR, the Poles found an unexpected ally in their old foe, the Soviet Union. On July 30, 1941, Sikorski signed the Polish-Soviet Treaty, establishing an alliance between the two countries. Relations between Poland and the USSR were strained, but Sikorski did negotiate with the Soviets, meeting personally with Joseph Stalin in Moscow in December 1941.
In April 1943, German forces uncovered mass graves in the Katyn forest near Smolensk in Soviet territory. Sikorski suspected the bodies were those of missing Poles he had asked Stalin about in December 1941. After he pressed for an independent investigation, Stalin broke off diplomatic relations with the Polish government. A few months later, on July 4, 1943, Sikorski perished on his way to England when his plane from Gibraltar crashed into the ocean. Sikorski’s death sparked rumors of foul play and, in late 2008, his body was exhumed to determine if he had been murdered. His injuries were found to be consistent with a plane crash, although it was not determined if the plane had been sabotaged.