How Jozef Pilsudski Built Modern Poland

How Jozef Pilsudski Built Modern Poland

Joshua D. Zimmerman’s Jozef Pilsudski: Founding Father of Modern Poland sheds new light on a key figure of interwar Eastern European history.

Circa 1919, ethnic self-determination had all the hallmarks of a ticking time bomb.

NOT ALL of Pilsudski’s dream came true after the war. Accurately predicting the failure of the White Russians in the Russian Civil War, he wanted to see an independent group of nation states stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea: Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and Poland; the territories of the erstwhile Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth free at last. Pilsudski had a joint Polish-Lithuanian state in mind. Because the Lithuanians had a state of their own in mind, he staged a coup in Kaunas, the capital city of independent Lithuania, in August 1919. Briefly independent after World War I, Ukraine was crucial for Pilsudski. “‘I think that the mission of Ukraine is the historical heritage of Poland spreading the culture of the West,’” he stated in 1920. Motivated by nostalgia for the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Pilsudski was acting on a twentieth-century civilizing mission, and one that was zero-sum. Where Moscow would win, Poland would lose. Where Poland would win, Moscow would lose. The transition from imperial Russia to the Soviet Union did nothing to change this equation.

Pilsudski’s greatest achievement may have been his defeat of the Red Army in August 1920. Vladimir Lenin was exporting revolution on the tip of a bayonet, and the Red Army came within six miles of Warsaw. Through intelligent military maneuver, Pilsudski won the Battle of Warsaw and with this, he reversed the Soviet onslaught. The Poland that emerged from the chaos was much larger than today’s Poland. It encompassed the city of Lwiw (now Lviv in Ukraine) and the city of Vilnius. Its population was 14.3 percent Ukrainian, 7.8 percent Jewish, 3.9 percent German, and 3.9 percent Belorussian. Poland’s claim on Vilnius, a matter of military force, was deeply offensive to Lithuania, which until 1938 considered itself at war with Poland. The 14.3 percent of Polish citizens who were Ukrainian could be politically active as Ukrainians in Poland. They had minority rights, but they had no country. To the east, Ukraine (Kyiv included) had been absorbed into the Soviet Union.

Pilsudski’s later years were less romantic than his youth. Poland struggled with democracy. Its president was assassinated in 1922 and in May 1926, Pilsudski directed a coup d’état, toppling a democratically elected government. His goal was to stabilize the Polish political system—to prevent it from lurching toward reaction or anarchy. After the coup, this foe of authoritarianism was Poland’s authoritarian leader. Thus did Poland diverge from interwar Czechoslovakia. The scholar Tomas Masaryk preserved Czechoslovakia’s democratic integrity, anticipating the divide between the contemporary Czech Republic and Poland, which has struggled with democracy for the past several years. Pilsudski capably managed various kinds of extremism within Poland. It was in no sense an easy task, but he made compromises along the way. His was a mixed, but not awful, record.

Pilsudski also had to navigate the treacherous European landscape of the 1920s and 1930s. He did not place too much stock in civilizing missions. He was an effective statesman because he based his actions on the military balance of power, both before and after Polish independence. “What will happen after I am gone? Who will look reality in the eye?” he asked. There were problems to the East: the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists founded in 1929, which provoked a Polish pacification campaign in response and foreshadowed the terrible Polish-Ukrainian bloodletting in the 1940s. There were problems to the West: namely, Hitler’s Germany. In Poland, Hitler saw “‘an outpost of Asia,’’’ as he derisively put it, and not a beacon of glittering European-ness. In the 1930s, Hitler focused on Gdańsk, Poland’s city on the Baltic Sea and formerly the Prussian city of Danzig. But for Hitler this was a pretext. He intended to extinguish all of Poland. Intuiting this, Pilsudski formed alliances with France and Romania. He looked reality in the eye after 1933, and it terrified him.

Zimmerman is a fine historian, and as such he sticks to history. His biography can nevertheless be read through a different lens, and from it can be extracted a suite of lessons about today’s Poland and Eastern Europe. They revolve around the European Union and NATO, which Pilsudski never lived to see, and around the ever-fraught relationship between Germany and Russia. 

A simple lesson concerns the gifts that the European Union and NATO have given Europe. These institutions have done less to democratize Poland (and Hungary) than many in Brussels and Washington would have liked. Beneath their respective umbrellas, however, they have resolved questions that tormented Pilsudski. Zimmerman’s lightly hagiographic biography glosses over Pilsudski’s condescension toward Lithuania, but even if current Polish-Lithuanian relations have a few sticking points (related to Polish minority rights in Lithuania) these two countries are genuine allies and active trading partners. More consequential for Europe is the Polish-German relationship, the relationship that haunts the conclusion to Jozef Pilsudski. Only four years after Pilsudski’s death Germany crossed the border and eviscerated everything from Polish statehood to Poland’s Jewish community. The EU and NATO have overcome this horrific history, an accomplishment so absolute that it can now be taken for granted in Poland and Germany alike. Zimmerman’s meticulous biography helps us to appreciate the magnitude of this accomplishment. 

A less simple lesson concerns the limitations of the EU and NATO. The spiritual opposite of Mahatma Gandhi, Pilsudski never conceived of national or post-colonial independence in other than military terms. (Perhaps this is how he could live with an authoritarian Poland that he did not want to be authoritarian; politics was merely politics; independence was the thing.) Poland would equal the territory it could defend. In 2022, NATO can certainly defend NATO territory, but it abuts a great deal of non-NATO territory in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Here the military terms of European or transatlantic policy are unclear, and they have been unclear since 1991. Russia never forgot Pilsudski’s insight into Eastern Europe: that the political order follows from the military balance of power. Russia has slowly usurped Belarus, which is under Moscow’s military control. The current war in Ukraine is about the political order in Europe, not just in Ukraine. This is why Russia has been intervening militarily since 2014. Pilsudski would not be at all surprised.

What might have surprised Pilsudski was the European Union’s Eastern Partnership Program of 2009. It was a political project directed at Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan—the six former Soviet Socialist Republics that were European perhaps but were not in the EU. The Program was a political project far from imperialism, a project to capitalize on proximity and on the growing constituencies in these countries that wanted a greater connection to the EU. It was a political project with no military component—suitable to an EU without a military yet unsuited to a neighborhood where military tensions are non-trivial. The EU had mistaken Russia’s military weakness in the 1990s for a new order of the ages. It was not a new order. It was recognizably Pilsudski’s Europe going through one of its periodic moments of turmoil, as had been the case in 1918 and 1919. Ethnic self-determination can be achieved when a multi-ethnic empire falters. It should not be achieved, though, on the assumption (which Pilsudski never made) that this empire will falter forever.

The tragedy of U.S. and European Ukraine policy, beginning in 2009, was that common sense accrued to it only after February 24, 2022. Russia’s was a clarifying invasion. Ukraine’s destiny would reflect the military balance of power in the region: that was as true in the twenty-first century as it had been in the twentieth. Quite possibly, the EU would never have launched its Eastern Partnership Program had it looked reality in the eye. Nobody wanted war with Russia in 2009; that was the inverse of what the EU aspired to. It was foolish, however, to contemplate Ukraine’s integration into Europe without seeing that this integration would have to be made militarily viable—through a treaty alliance, through credible deterrence, through the building up of the Ukrainian military. Some seven months into the 2022 war as of the time of writing, it is obvious that Europe’s shape and structure will be determined by what happens on the battlefield and by the balance of forces that the war will foster.

HARVARD UNIVERSITY Press, the publisher of Jozef Pilsudski, will surely promote this study in Poland. It should promote it in Germany as well. Germany is on the margins of Pilsudski’s story, and Germans do not need to read this biography to learn about the plight of interwar Poland; this is not news. They should read it to understand their situation in the present tense. Pacifist for the right reasons, Germany is losing the Europe it wished to have after 1945 and the end of the Cold War. Much as the EU and NATO forged a better Europe, enveloping Germany in peace and prosperity, they never did so for all of Europe. Too much had been left out, and the EU and NATO never reconciled Russia and Germany (to Germany’s immense disappointment). The old antagonism is now back, and as in the 1920s and 1930s—as in World War I—the site of German-Russian competition is the territory between Germany and Russia. It is Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine, the four countries Pilsudski fantasized about as the bulwark of Western civilization and as Europe’s buffer zone against Russia. Pilsudski had a capacious imagination and more than for most politicians what he imagined came to be. Capacious as his imagination was, though, he was a reader of poetry, not a poet, and always a gifted reader of the military tea leaves. Instructively, he was prepared for the worst.