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The Father of Poland

Nationalists of any country can look to Jozef Pilsudski for inspiration.

Jozef Pilsudski
1920s: portrait of Jozef Pilsudski, Polish statesman, Chief of State and Marshal of Poland. (Photo by Laski Diffusion/Getty Images)

Jozef Pilsudski: Founding Father of Modern Poland, Joshua D. Zimmerman, Harvard University Press, 640 pages.

Jozef Pilsudski (1867–1935), Poland’s liberator, grew up in a country divided between Russia, Austria, and Prussia. Noblemen ran politics, dominated a congeries of peasants of various ethnicities, and uneasily collaborated with German and Jewish townsmen and rural functionaries to extract wealth from their estates. Pilsudski himself was a Polish noble from modern Lithuania. He dreamed of a Poland that included the eastern lands where Poles owned land and peopled the towns among non-Polish peasantries.

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The world changed in the 1880s. Poland’s towns industrialized and filled with workers. The recently freed serfs became peasants with their own agenda of agrarian reform. The nations of the old Polish Commonwealth woke and challenged the Polish gentry within those lands as much as they challenged the alien rule of the three empires.

Pilsudski became not just a socialist but a Polish socialist, who sought national liberation as a necessary component of workers’ revolution. The Russians exiled him to Siberia, where he spent five years (1887–92) and lost his front teeth to a Russian soldier’s bayonet. Returned to Poland, he spent years organizing and proselytizing for the illegal Polish Socialist Party until he finally was arrested agaun in 1900. He then managed an astonishing escape from the Warsaw Citadel, feigning madness and then fleeing a loosely guarded St. Petersburg mental hospital with a Polish doctor’s aid. Pilsudski’s exploits gave him the deserved reputation as Poland’s most daring rebel.

The 1905 Revolution led Pilsudski to part decisively with his rivals, who now strove either to work within the partially reformed Russian empire or to engage in immediate revolutionary violence. Pilsudski thought neither tactic would succeed. Rather, he predicted that Poland’s fortunes would turn decisively upon the outbreak of a great European war, in which Germany first would defeat Russia and then be defeated by Britain and France. He organized all-party Polish paramilitary units in Austrian Poland to be ready to free Poland when the European conflagration began. Here lay Pilsudski’s genius. He foresaw the extraordinarily improbable route to Polish independence and prepared his ragtag forces for the event.

Pilsudski raised a contingent of soldiers to serve in the Austro-Hungarian army through 1916, where they performed solidly against the Russians. Pilsudski risked his life, and his men’s, to prove that Poles could fight. He therefore could bid plausibly to the Germans who had conquered Russian Poland: Grant Poland real independence and I will raise an effective army to fight for you. The Germans ultimately would not, and they imprisoned him for the war’s final sixteen months. Released in November 1918, he arrived in Warsaw as the hero who must lead independent Poland.

Pilsudski then fought to establish Poland’s Russian border as far east from Warsaw as possible, to seize the city of Vilna from the Lithuanians, and to secure the Byelorussiand and Ukrainian marches. When Bolshevik armies swept into Poland in 1920, Pilsudski’s tactics saved Warsaw at the Miracle at the Vistula—and with it Poland and who knows how much of Europe.

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The aftermath was less happy. Poland’s quarreling parties fell to fractious and bitter debate. The conservatives and their centrist allies secured pluralities or majorities of the ethnic Polish vote, but the Pilsudskian alliance secured a majority in parliament with the electoral support of Ukrainians, Jews, and other non-ethnic Poles. The conservative parties loudly decried this majority as illegitimate, and in 1922 a fanatic murdered the Pilsudskian prime minister Gabriel Narutowicz. The conservative parties’ extenuation of this act permanently embittered Pilsudski. Eventually, amid increasing political and economic chaos, Pilsudski led a coup in 1926 to remove Poland’s elected government.

Pilsudski apparently thought no one would resist Poland’s national hero; he was wrong. Many of his old comrades stayed loyal to the old government, thus the coup would not be bloodless. He ruled at first without the right, and then without the center or the left, as more and more Poles ceased to support his evident dictatorship. Pilsudski steered Poland as best he could until his death in 1935. He dealt with Hitler’s rise by shows of armed force and by diplomacy, but he died fearing, correct once more, that Poland could not escape from the dangers posed by the strengthening Nazis and Soviets.

Zimmerman gives Pilsudski his first professional biography in English in many years, and it is workmanlike but narrow. Zimmerman quotes extensively from Pilsudski’s writings, and from contemporaries writing about Pilsudski, but he does not provide enough of the Polish historical context for the reader unfamiliar with Polish history.

What is Pilsudski’s legacy? The multinational Poland he dreamed of died. Hitler murdered the Jews, Stalin drove the Poles from the eastern marches and sliced away all lands beyond the eastern ethnic frontier, and the rump of Poland is an ethnic Polish state. Multinational Poland might not have survived anyway: in the end, Pilsudski could only maintain the façade of a Poland of free and mutually loving nations by a Polish variant of authoritarian liberalism.

The current Polish government in its support of Ukraine follows Pilsudski’s desire to keep Russian armies as far as possible from Warsaw. It balances between the culturally imperialist Woke empire to the west and the more straightforwardly annexationist Russian armies to the east. Poland so far has managed this equipoise. But what profit a victory in Kharkov if the children of Warsaw are groomed by the West?

Every nation subjugated in the Woke empire needs the lucid vision of new Pilsudskis, whose clear vision and well-timed action will enable them to reclaim their freedom. But Pilsudski reminds us that even great men’s vision fails, and that the clearest foresight cannot always produce a miracle.

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