Unvanquished — Pilsudski, Poland, and the triumph of the lost cause.
Joseph Pilsudski (1867-1935) was a consequential historical figure who saved Europe from foreign invasion. Yet 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 and 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 vaunted 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.
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.
Unvanquished differs from prior English-language Pilsudski biographies in the following ways:
SCOPE. Unvanquished is a more comprehensive, detailed description of Pilsudski's life than prior English-language biographies. The book chronicles not only familiar episodes such as his underground activities, heroic wartime leadership, federalist plans, coup, and effective statesmanship, but also less well-known events, such as his formative years, ideological underpinnings, life on the fringe of society, and numerous disappointments and failures.
CONTEXT. Unvanquished places Pilsudski's life in historical context. The book provides an essential background in Polish history and relates events in Poland to events in Western Europe. Unfortunately, the West has not always reciprocated this approach. As the Englishman Edmund Burke observed when decrying the 1795 partition, "With respect to us, Poland might be, in fact, considered as a country in the moon." Unvanquished strives to place Polish and European history within the same context by interweaving the story of Pilsudski life with a general history of his times.
PERSPECTIVE. Like most great men, Pilsudski was loved or hated, and consequently much of the historical record is influenced by the subjectivity of the observer. While complete objectivity is impossible, as a non-Pole with little prior knowledge of Polish history before undertaking this study, I have strived to depict Pilsudski as accurately as possible, flaws and all. Despite his foibles, his contributions were overwhelmingly positive. He should be remembered not only as one of Poland's finest heroes, but as an accomplished statesman and significant historical figure.