Joseph Pilsudski, Resurrected Poland
and the Struggle for Eastern Europe

by Pete Hetherington

It began innocently enough. Having read a great deal about the First and Second World Wars and in some ways considering them a continuum, I became interested in inter-war Europe. Although I was familiar with the rise of the Nazi Party, the policy of appeasement or revisionism adopted by many Western powers, and the establishment of a Stalinist dictatorship in Russia, events in Eastern Europe were less clear to me and, I thought, less important. My first attempt to better understand the region’s history was a more thorough investigation of the Paris Peace Conference, which after the collapse of the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman Empires created a host of “new” nations in Europe. Although the intertwining issues of ethnic versus civic nationalism, self-determination, and legitimacy were complex in the extreme, Western powers were most perplexed by the so-called Polish Question. Rather than involving a minor territorial dispute as I had assumed, it was considered the key to a stable Europe. This revelation piqued my interest, and as I delved into the subject further I was shocked to learn that Poland had dominated and defined the borderlands of Western civilization for centuries, a major continental power that had, on more than one occasion, saved Europe from foreign domination. Yet as a result of a confusing interplay between an over-emphasis of rights over responsibilities, an aversion to central authority, and partisan infighting, Poland lost the ability to defend herself. In 1795, in a third and final partition, she was absorbed by her German (Prussian, Austrian) and Russian neighbors. Poland was resurrected after WWI partially because, as students of history at the 1919 Paris Conference knew, a strong Poland prevented the German march east, as well as the Russian march west, serving as a counterbalance to these congenitally acquisitive empires, and hence contributing to stability in Europe. The Versailles arrangement was of course shattered when Germany and Russia conspired to partition Poland in 1939, the fifth such occurrence in less than 200 years. Communists and Nazis may have been twentieth century phenomena, but in many respects they were simply following the canon of their imperialist ancestors, coveting Poland’s rich resources as a means to achieve great power status.

During my investigations I stumbled upon a fantastic figure named Joseph Pilsudski (1867-1935), leader of the post-WWI Polish state. Rather than a petty dictator of a third-rate power as I had been led to believe from the brief references he is usually afforded in most general texts, Pilsudski was dynamic, eminently interesting, and an important historical figure. Inter-war Poland was largely the handiwork of Pilsudski, whose life can be described as an unlikely combination of Robin Hood and George Washington. Born a Polish patriot at a time when Poland did not exist, he spent the first half of his life as an enemy of the state, and the second as head of state. His life reads like a novel, replete with swashbuckling adventures associated with his experiences as an underground revolutionist, Siberian exile, prison escapee, and train robber, to name a few. He began WWI as an officer in the Austrian Army and ended it in a German prison, released just in time to found a new Polish republic in November 1918. He brilliantly defended the new state against a Bolshevik onslaught in 1920, not only preserving Polish sovereignty but arguably saving Europe from Communist takeover. After establishing himself as the foremost Polish hero, statesman, and military authority, he handed power to a democratically elected government and retired in 1923, only to seize control of the state three years later in a military coup d’état. His subsequent authoritarian rule, while never as oppressive as those of his totalitarian neighbors, seemed a betrayal of his “romantic” youth, but can be understood properly only in the context of Poland’s complex history and geopolitical situation. As a tactical realist, Pilsudski crafted a muscular foreign policy that returned Poland to the forefront of international diplomacy and was the only man to successfully stare down both Stalin and Hitler. Before he died in 1935, he predicted the coming war and its outcome, just as he had predicted WWI and its results, but his prescience was not sufficient to save Poland from another half century of foreign rule.

Having “discovered” Pilsudski, I looked forward to reading a biography, but was dismayed to discover that available works were neither as comprehensive as I desired nor written for an audience unfamiliar with Polish history. While there are a number of Pilsudski biographies, they are often highly subjective, perhaps reflecting the fact that, like most great men, he was either loved or hated, rarely eliciting emotions between the two extremes. Efforts by Pilsudski’s admirers often border on hagiographic hero worship and tend to gloss over his character flaws. Books written by his enemies, particularly those Russians who never forgave him for handing the Red Army its only unredeemed defeat, tend to overlook or understate his achievements. In my opinion, the best pro-Pilsudski contemporary biography is Pilsudski: A Biography by his Wife, which while naturally emphasizing his more positive attributes, illuminated his life with numerous interesting vignettes. Wladyslaw Jedrzejewicz’s Pilsudski, A Life (1982) is perhaps the best pre-existing Pilsudski biography. But the book spends very little time on his formative years, and the complexities of the Polish-Soviet War, his ambitious federation scheme, and the coup, are revealed only in summary (perhaps a reasonable compromise between thoroughness and page count). Andrzej Garlicki’s Josef Pilsudski 1867-1935 (1988- an abridged version of his four-volume history), while providing a wealth of details concerning Pilsudski’s life and giving insight into many of his policies, appears to be slanted towards a Soviet viewpoint. As an example, the book spends only a few paragraphs on the Red Army’s improbable and devastating defeat during the 1920 “Miracle on the Vistula.” This victory was the most significant Polish military accomplishment since Sobieski’s lifting of the 1683 Siege of Vienna, and may have been Pilsudski’s most important achievement.

Although certain aspects of Pilsudski’s life are chronicled by superb books like Adam Zamoyski’s Warsaw 1920 (2008), Norman Davies’ White Eagle, Red Star: The Polish-Soviet War 1919-20 (2003), M.K. Dziewanowski’s Joseph Pilsudski, A European Federalist (1969), Joseph Rothschild’s Pilsudski’s Coup d’état (1966), and Richard Watt’s Bitter Glory (1979), these publications are focused on specific topics and are not intended as biographies.

A major obstacle for general readers is that extant Pilsudski biographies do not include, at least from my perspective, a sufficient background in Polish history, partly because in many cases they were written for a Polish audience well acquainted with the subject. But to understand Pilsudski, one must understand Polish history. President Ignacy Moscicki recognized this essential relationship when, upon announcing Pilsudski’s death in 1935, he stated, “This man who is the greatest in the whole stretch of our history derived the strength of his spirit from the depths of past history.” While there are several excellent histories of Poland, such as Adam Zamoyski’s Polish Way (2006) and Norman Davies’ two volume God’s Playground, A History of Poland (2005), this complex background is not included, except in an extremely abbreviated fashion, in prior Pilsudski biographies. Placing his life in a proper context requires a significantly longer book than prior biographies, but I believe this background makes the story more understandable, interesting, and interconnected with more well known historical events.

Out of a combination of curiosity, frustration, and ignorance of what such an effort entailed, I set about to write a comprehensive, one-volume Pilsudski biography, as unbiased as possible and placed in a historical context understandable to those relatively uninformed of Eastern European and Polish history. The fact that I knew little about Pilsudski and Poland before I embarked on the project is perhaps beneficial, as I had no strong prejudices or established viewpoints. Five years, hundreds of references, and two trips to Poland later, Unvanquished emerged.

Unvanquished is not only a biography of an interesting historical figure, but also a vehicle to understand one of the most fascinating, and misunderstood, elements of European history, providing an enhanced appreciation of the causes of WWII and insights into contemporary issues in Europe. For example, those familiar with the history of Russian-Polish conflict and the unreliability of prior Western alliances find it is easy to understand why Poles were upset with the cancellation of the missile shield in 2009. As another illustration of how history intrudes on the present day, after the April 2010 plane crash that killed ninety-six Polish dignitaries on their way to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre, Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin expressed his condolences, but then rather undiplomatically added that the incident at Katyn may have been an act of revenge for Polish atrocities committed during the 1920 Polish-Soviet War. While large numbers of Soviet troops died during the war, they were not executed as at Katyn, but were killed in battle. Most of these causalities occurred during a dramatic flanking maneuver personally led by Pilsudski, which turned the tide of the war and likely prevented Communist revolution in Europe in the aftermath of WWI. The Soviets, particularly Stalin who was personally involved in the defeat, never forgave Pilsudski or Poland for this heroic feat. This animosity, which may have contributed to the 1939 invasion that initiated WWII, is apparent even today, decades after the fall of Communism.

Although lacking formal training as a historian, I have always been deeply interested in history, and as a geologist am accustomed to evaluating large volumes of information and creating an internally consistent, coherent interpretation within the bounds of the data. In geology, there is a premium on being correct, not just creative, and I tried to apply this philosophy to my book. Although not of Polish ancestry, I have come to appreciate Pilsudski and the Polish people with the zeal of a convert, and hope that in some small measure this book will increase awareness of Poland’s rich cultural heritage and her important contributions to Western civilization.

Hetherington presents sweeping accounts of Polish history and Joseph Pilsudski, a major figure in the struggle for Polish independence. Hetherington warrants praise for the thoroughness of his research and the consistently engaging quality of his prose. His ability to sift through the lion’s share of Polish history (from the country’s founding until the rise of its neighbor, Nazi Germany, in the 1930s), and interweave that history with the singular life of freedom fighter, and eventual dictator, Joseph Pilsudski, is a remarkable feat… That Hetherington should maintain control over his material and tell this grand tale with obvious narrative flair renders his book a doubly significant achievement. -Kirkus

Unvanquished is the epic story of Joseph Pilsudski (1867-1935), the father of Polish independence. Poland was once one of the most powerful, prosperous, and progressive states in the world. But at the time of Pilsudski’s birth, Poland did not officially exist, as the country had been partitioned by its German (Prussian, Austrian) and Russian neighbors in 1795. Although a consequential historical figure who saved Europe from foreign invasion, he is largely unknown or misunderstood in the West. These statements also generally apply to Poland, which was a dominant power in Eastern Europe for hundreds of years that on more than one occasion helped save Western civilization.

What is well known is that the invasion of Poland by Germany in September 1939 initiated WWII. That Soviet Russia, in an unlikely partnership with the Nazis, also attacked Poland is often overlooked. What is virtually unknown, at least outside of Europe, is that this invasion was the fifth time in the last two centuries that Germans and Russians had successfully combined to partition Poland.

Joseph Pilsudski’s biography serves as a fascinating bridge between these historical facts. To understand Pilsudski is to understand Polish history, and to understand Polish history is to understand the struggles in the Eastern European lands between the congenitally acquisitive German and Russian empires, in whatever forms they have happened to assume.

The story is not only important, but it is imminently interesting. Pilsudski’s life reads like a novel, and includes swashbuckling tales of his involvement in a plot to kill the czar, Siberian exile, life in the underground, and a dramatic prison escape. He led one of the most successful train robberies in European history, and used the money to prepare Polish militia for the upcoming war which, as he predicted, liberated Poland from over a century of foreign rule. He began WWI as an Austrian general leading the renowned Polish Legions against the Russians, and ended it as a prisoner of the Germans. In November 1918, he became the leader of the resurrected Polish state. His dramatic and unlikely defeat of the Red Army in 1920 not only preserved Poland’s sovereignty, but quite possibly saved Europe from Bolshevik revolution. Pilsudski was the only statesman to successfully stare down both Hitler and Stalin, and his planned pre-emptive war against the Nazi regime, while rejected by the West, might have spared Europe from the nightmare of WWII.

Yet few outside of Eastern Europe are familiar with Pilsudski and Poland’s story, partially because this history has often been deliberately distorted. Poland has been the victim of two hundred years of negative publicity, in part orchestrated by her enemies, which has manifested itself in everything from revisionist history to bad jokes. This book is an attempt to set the record straight.

Unvanquished is the story of Pilsudski and Poland’s perseverance against all odds, and the affirmation of the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity. As Pilsudski’s life illustrates, a cause is lost only when it is abandoned, and that it is the struggle, win or lose, that defines us. Or as Pilsudski put it, “to be vanquished and not surrender, that is victory.”