Man of Destiny

Pilsudski: Man of Destiny


Faith in it [a special destiny] is very deep in me.[1]

-Joseph Pilsudski, 1890


Joseph Pilsudski (1867—1935) led a remarkable life as a pivotal figure literally on center stage (Central Europe) during one of the greatest dramas in human history: World War I and its aftermath. Born a Polish patriot at a time when Poland did not exist, he spent the first half of his life as an enemy of state, the second as head of state. After his dramatic escape from the Warsaw Citadel in 1901, Pilsudski became a legendary outlaw credited with one of the most daring and successful train robberies in European history. The pilfered loot was used to fund revolutionary activities from a base in relatively friendly Polish Austria. There, under the guise of officially sanctioned riflemen associations, the militarily untutored Pilsudski organized a small and undersupplied group of irregulars who later formed the core of the Polish Army. His prediction of impending war, and the opportunity it afforded for Polish independence, was eerily accurate. Pilsudski fought gallantly in the Great War, leading the famous Polish Legions as an Austrian general. Fighting more against czardom than for the Central Powers, after the Russian collapse he was imprisoned by the Germans for refusing to take an oath of allegiance to the kaiser. In the waning stages of the war, Pilsudski, like Lenin before him, was sent home on a special German train where he "found power lying in the streets."

As head of state, Pilsudski reintroduced libertarian principles and a parliament to Poland, resurrecting a republic reminiscent of Poland's proud and largely forgotten past. As Polish marshal, he personally led a dramatic counterattack against the Soviet Red Army that was on the verge of spreading Communist revolution across a prostrate Europe. The shocking Polish victory at the "Miracle on the Vistula" ranks as one of the most decisive, yet little known, battles in Western civilization. After the 1921 Treaty of Riga, the Bolsheviks quietly retreated from the Trotskyite policy of international revolution to the more modest Stalinist goal of Socialism in one country. Thanks to Pilsudski, Europe was spared, for a generation at least, from a Communist takeover.

Pilsudski recognized the inherent vulnerability of smaller European nations and championed a plan for a federation of Slavic states, albeit under Polish guidance. This concept was a variation of the amazingly successful Polish-Lithuanian federal system that dominated Eastern Europe for at least three centuries; his attempt to resurrect the policy was one of the least-known and worst-told stories of the interwar years.[2] The union might have given Germany and Russia pause before launching World War II; however, Poland's neighbors rejected the ambitious plan.

At the height of his power, Pilsudski retired, Cincinnatus-like, to a simple country life.[3] However, after several bucolic years, the liberator and founder of the reborn republic became dissatisfied with the petty political infighting that plagued the skewed parliamentary system that his opponents had implemented in Poland. Pilsudski was keenly aware that Poland had been partitioned by her rapacious neighbors in the late 1700s, when partisan politics and democratic excesses left the once-powerful Polish state weak and divided, and therefore vulnerable to foreign intervention. To avoid this fate, in the last act of his life, Pilsudski returned to power as virtual dictator, although a benign one by the standards of the day.

The wildly varying vicissitudes of Pilsudski's life make his place in history interesting to contemplate. If he had died at age twenty-five, he would have been completely unknown and a total failure. If he had died at fifty years old, he would have been only a minor footnote in history. Death at age fifty-five, after the defeat of the Red Army and the establishment of a parliamentary republic in Poland, would have secured Pilsudski a place of high honor in the pantheon of Western civilization's heroes. But by the time he actually died at age sixty-seven, much of the glitter of heroism had been faded by a decade of authoritarian rule. Had he lived another five years and successfully defended Poland against Nazi Germany, whom he recognized very early as a great threat, he might have recaptured the historic high ground.

Despite the pageantry of his life, Pilsudski is remembered in the West, if he is remembered at all, as a curmudgeonly, vaguely threatening dictator of a relatively insignificant state. It should be recalled, however, that it was Pilsudski's resurrected Poland that became the proximal cause of World War II, when the Germans and the Russians jointly attacked and divided Poland between them. The event was not historically unique; the same enemies had previously partitioned Poland four times. Because his policies were very nationalistic and somewhat Socialist, Pilsudski is sometimes confused with the Nazis, but in fact he was very much opposed to their political philosophy, and was the only European head of state who made concrete plans to eradicate them before Germany became too powerful.

His enduring image as a gruff pragmatist is somewhat justified. His years as an underground and later front-line fighter left him with little penchant for flowery phrases or the compromises. His opponents, both at home and abroad, were better propagandists. He was not reluctant to use force, even preemptively, to gain his objectives. At times he was annoyingly secretive, profane, and offensive even to his friends. He had no eloquent or consistent political philosophy, and changed alliances with disarming ease. He had no eternal policies, only an eternal interest, that of Polish independence.

Despite his foibles, his indomitable will and clarity of purpose provided critical leadership at just the right historic moment, and his life is a shining example of the triumph of the lost cause. He is comparable to Churchill in this regard. Zbigniew Brzezinski, former United States National Security advisor, called Pilsudski, "a beacon which galvanized the energies and commitment of patriotic Poles."[4] Pilsudski instinctively knew how to inspire, how to grab the levers of power, and how to magnify that power through political theater. He ranks among the elite of European statesman.

[1]      Garlicki, Józef Piłsudski, 8.

[2]      Dziewanowski, Piłsudski: A European Federalist, vii.

[3]      Cincinnatus was a fifth-century BC Roman general and dictator who, after defeating the republic's enemies, immediately resigned his position, voluntarily giving up all power to return to his farm. He is considered a model of civic virtue, leadership, and modesty.

[4]      Catalog of Collections, Pilsudski Institute, 5.