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Dr. Chodakiewicz reviews new book on Piłsudski

Dr. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz has published a review of Peter Hetherington’s biography of Polish leader Józef Piłsudski (1867-1935) in the January 2013 issue of the Rice University-based scholarly journal Sarmatian Review

Piłsudski is a well-known and somewhat polarizing figure in Poland. Before the First World War, he was an anti-Tsarist socialist revolutionary, albeit of a patriotic, pro-independence stripe, which pitted his supporters against the internationalists, who later became the communists. During the war, he led the Polish Legions, which fought against Russia on the side of Austria-Hungary and Germany until the final stage of the war, when the Legionnaires refused to swear an oath to German Kaiser. After the war, as Poland regained her independence and struggle to maintain it, Piłsudski commanded the Polish forces in the war against the Bolshevik invaders. He is often credited as the architect of the brilliant Polish counter-offensive against the Red Army in August 1920, which secured the young republic’s victory and survival for another two decades. In 1926, Piłsudski and the military units loyal to him launched a coup and overthrew a center-right government. He would rule Poland as a mild dictator until his death in 1935, and his successors governed the country until the German-Soviet invasion in September 1939. While assessments of Piłsudski vary, his impact on Polish history during the first half of the twentieth century is undeniable. 

The review of Peter Hetherington, Unvanquished: Joseph Pilsudski, Ressurrected Poland and the Struggle for Eastern Europe, 2nd ed. (Houston, TX: Pingora Press, 2012) is a version of what appeared in The Sarmatian Review, vol. XXXIII, No. 1 (January 2013): pp. 1733-1735.

Lady Luck’s Piłsudski

What’s with these hard scientists cum amateur historians? In the 1980s, chemical engineer Richard Watt uplifted our hearts with a beautiful Piłsudskite tale of interwar Poland. Now geologist Peter Hetherington has gifted us with a lyrically gripping biography of the man himself: Józef Piłsudski. Unvanquished is a fantastically unbelievable story of a scion of landed nobility; a Kresowiak of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania; a nationalist socialist revolutionary; a romantic; a spy, a fighter, a train robber; a self-taught military man smitten by Napoleon; free Poland’s first Marshal; a self-anointed savior of the Commonwealth with a mass following; a charismatic leader turned nocturnal solitaire-playing misanthrope; a successful putschist; a cranky but mild dictator; a serial husband and lover, and a tender, if largely absentee father; a scathing hater of party politics and parliamentarism; a dabbler turned serious foreign policy expert; and a leftist neo-pagan agnostic enamored in Our Lady of the Sharp Gate. But first and foremost, after grueling travails and disappointments, years of imprisonment and the underground, and fifteen years of almost uninterrupted armed struggle, Józef Piłsudski became ultimately a huge success. He took credit for Poland’s independence, including winning the Polish-Bolshevik War, and he seized power in a coup d’etat in 1926 and never relinquished it until his death. “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 [sic] was dynamic, eminently interesting, and an important historical figure” (p. x-xi). What’s there not to like?

It is a fascinating adventure and the author clearly enjoys sharing it with the reader. “Although not of Polish ancestry, I have come to appreciate Pilsudski [sic] and the Polish people with the zeal of a convert” (p. xiii). Hetherington confesses freely to his nearly utter ignorance of the subject before commencing the project to retrace the Marshal’s progress. The historian has approached Piłsudski’s life chronologically. He poetically introduces the hero at the nadir of his journey, faking schizophrenia in a Tsarist prison, which ultimately facilitated his successful escape. Fortuna is the leitmotif of Unvanquished, and “once again, Piłsudski got lucky” (p. 581) is the refrain of the biography. But one gets the sneaky feeling that studying Ziuk was an excuse to learn about his country and people and to share the knowledge with the unsuspecting American reader: “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” (p. xiii).

Put simply, Piłsudski’s biography is a panoramic foray into the history of the lands of the  Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania before, during, and after the Partitions of the 18th century. It is also a study in military strategy, an inquiry into geopolitics, and a glimpse at political decision making among the colonial powers controlling the Poles and other unfortunates. We are treated to a lecture or two on Polish culture and customs, including religiosity. Somehow it is all woven into a Carlylian scheme of “hero in history” – Piłsudski, always larger than life, like a “granite rock,” Hetherington allows, after the revolutionary’s favorite Romantic poet, Juliusz Słowacki. 

In the course of weighing Ziuk’s considerable achievements and transgressions Hetherington does not shy away from controversial analogies. For example, while generally approving of Piłsudski’s expropriation operations (after all, as his fans have always insisted, Ziuk was only reclaiming back that which the Russian government had stolen from Poland), the author mentions Pancho Villa and Vladimir Lenin, who also indulged in robberies, directly or indirectly, to expedite a revolution. Even more poignantly, departing from standard apologies of the coup d’etat of 1926, Hetherington rejects the notion that it was either a latter day Polish noble rokosz or a konfederacja. Instead, he flatly admits that Piłsudski’s Putsch was akin to Benito Mussolini’s March on Rome. Laudably, the author uses the term “fascism” primarily as a descriptive and not an invective. No hysteria here, thankfully.  

There is more than a whiff of it, alas, in Hetherington’s treatment of National Democracy. But one should not blame the author. If he was stunned to have discovered virtually nothing on Józef Piłsudski and Poland, the Endeks are non-persons, the virtual “Other,” in Western historiography, the United States in particular. They exist, at best, as whipping boys of modern Polish history and, at worst, as “Polish Nazis.” How should our geologist know any better? But no story is not history. He should have been able to see through the standard, ignorant trope. For example, a tiny bit of skepticism would have served him well as far as the allegations that, at the diplomatic tables of Riga in 1920, Poland failed to claim its former eastern provinces up to Smolensk because of the Endeks. True, the nationalists did argue that it would have resulted in taking too many unassimilable non-Polish minorities. However, that option was never on the table; Lenin was not giving anything away, as even the neo-Piłsudskite scholar Andrzej Nowak has admitted. There is an English language monograph on the Riga peace talks. Look it up. 

All in all, too bad Hetherington has failed to apply his vaunted hard science approach to this sort of black propaganda: “In geology, there is a premium on being correct, not just creative, and I tried to apply this philosophy to my book” (p. xiii). In history, we differentiate between fact and opinion. Do try harder as far as the Endeks, please. Here’s my homework for the geologist. Read one book: Alvin Marcus Fountain’s superb biography of Roman Dmowski’s early life.

Hetherington insists that as a scientist he is equipped to be fair and objective as well as “accustomed to evaluating large volumes of information and creating an internally consistent, coherent interpretation within the bounds of the data.” What if the data is lacking? The problem is that his sources are woefully inadequate. The author has no Polish, or any other languages than English; he has failed to visit any archives; and his biography of the Marshal is based almost exclusively on secondary sources. The more primitive and shallow he wisely rejects; but he falls for the Piłsudskite eulogists line, hook, and sinker. It is little wonder that Unvanquished is an unabashed paean to the Komendant. Having rejected mendacious progressive, Soviet and Western, nonsense about Piłsudski, the author was left with pure sanacja hagiography and its derivatives. Thus, basing himself on eulogies, he could only somewhat qualify the effusions of the Marshal’s true believers and the explications of the dictator’s mild supporters (e.g., Wacław Jędrzejewicz and Kamil Dziewanowski, respectively).

Hetherington agrees with Piłsudski on every single major point, most notably his potentially suicidal decision to fight in 1905 and 1914 as well as his singularly paramount role in winning independence in 1918 and in scoring victory over Lenin in 1920, despite the lamentable – to me, and not the author – failure to support the Whites against the Reds. The author waves off any competition to his hero’s pedestal, for instance, most notably, General Tadeusz Jordan Rozwadowski, even remarking, incorrectly and dismissively, that the latter died in obscurity. The geologist also downplays or overlooks various inconvenient facts, potentially compromising his hero, like the suicide of Piłsudski’s two jilted girlfriends, or the grizzly murder of General Włodzimierz Zagórski by the Marshal’s death squad. And there is hardly anything on Ziuk’s involvement with various foreign secret services. Thus, his trip to Japan is seen as a “diplomatic mission,” even though, quite clearly, his Nipponese handlers were military intelligence officers. Since I fear excommunication, I shall refrain from suggesting Ryszard Świętek’s Lodowa ściana: Sekrety polityki Józefa Piłsudskiego, 1904-1918 (Kraków: Platan, 1998), a healthy corrective to the collective adulation of our superhero.

But let us not be too critical. Reading Hetherington, I am reminded of one of my teachers, Joseph Rothschild. The Professor was also fond of the Komendant and no amount of archival research could have changed that. The love for the Grand Old Man (Dziadek) was rarely rational.  After all, Piłsudski did have a magnetic personality, volcanically overwhelming mere mortals with his power, courage, and charisma. 

Free Poland’s first Marshal surely seduced Hetherington. “If a man is judged by the sum of his deeds, then without question Pilsudski [sic] was great…. Pilsudski’s [sic] human flaws do not negate his overall accomplishments, which were overwhelmingly positive for Poland. He was the ‘father of independence,’ the most charismatic politician of the era, and quintessential modern Polish hero … In the final analysis, Pilsudski [sic] was a great historical figure whose life in some ways transcended his flesh-and-blood body” (p. 716-718). Hetherington’s story is thus rather predictable for a specialist, who — while openly appreciating the forcefulness of the apologist argument, some of it phrased in a novel way, as, for instance, the obvious nexus between fellow erstwhile socialists Piłsudski and Mussolini — will nonetheless be singularly unimpressed with the dearth of sources. 

However, Unvanquished is still a delight for a layman. Let me qualify this. By layman, I do not simply mean an average English-speaking enthusiast who will find this particular portrait of Piłsudski enchanting and exciting and who will gladly lend his ear to the triumphs and tragedies of Poland’s past. By layman, I mean an average historian or other social scientist at any American university. This applies even to most Europeanists, including many so called “Eastern European experts,” particularly at least some Holocaust historians. And Hetherington realizes this very well: “Unfortunately, outside of Eastern Europe most people know little of Polish history and much of what they ‘know’ is wrong… Historical truth, if such exists, is often obscured by the prejudices of those who write history, and history is dominantly written from the perspective of the victors, who usually have a less-than-objective point of view. In Poland’s case, the distortions were largely deliberate. Poland has been the victim of two hundred years of negative publicity, in part orchestrated by her assassins to justify their deeds, which manifested itself in everything from revisionist history to bad jokes” (p. 15)

It is customary among American Poles (and Poles in Poland) to coo in uncritical delight when a foreigner, preferably a Westerner, especially an English-speaker, writes anything half-decent and kind about the Old Country and its past. Hetherington deserves better. Credit is due to him for overcoming stultifying layers of cultural prejudice against Poland and presenting Józef Piłsudski, his times, his compatriots, and his nation without customary uninformed venom before the American people. Let’s hope as many as possible read this tribute to Poland’s semi-benign dictator because Unvanquished is already a stupendous improvement over the prevalent acute  ignorance afflicting America’s “knowledge” about Poland’s history. In comparison, Hetherington is as solid as a rock. Pun intended. And Piłsudski, once again, was blessed posthumously by Lady Luck by his newest, eminently readable biography.

Peter Hetherington, Unvanquished: Joseph Pilsudski, Ressurrected Poland and the Struggle for Eastern Europe, 2nd ed. (Houston, TX: Pingora Press, 2012).

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 28 October 2012