Jozef Pilsudski: Founding Father of Modern Poland by Joshua D Zimmerman - review by Mark Cornwall

Mark Cornwall

Rebel with a Cause

Jozef Pilsudski: Founding Father of Modern Poland


Harvard University Press 640pp £34.95

There often seemed to be two Józef Piłsudskis: one, the brooding and isolated thinker who dreamed of a resurrected Polish state and whose sense of national mission matched that of his hero, Napoleon; the other, the frenetic man of action who captivated those whom he met with his dynamism and charisma. As the actress and socialist Antonia Domańska recalled after meeting Piłsudski in 1902, he ‘had classic features, steely eyes with a deep and penetrating look … How beautifully he spoke about a free Poland. God, what a crazy pipe dream, but when HE speaks, one believes … He is simply obsessed with the vision of casting off [his people’s] chains.’ It was of course a dream that came true at the end of the First World War, when a united Poland emerged out of the former Russian, Austrian and German empires. Piłsudski himself was suddenly transformed from diehard rebel into the country’s first head of state and a figure who loomed over the Polish political scene until his death in 1935. Yet this legendary state builder always remained marked by his early decades of conspiracy and rebellion. They shaped his vision of the new Poland, in which he aspired to create a democratic, inclusive and orderly society. He was intolerant of all who obstructed that goal. The result was his bloody coup d’état of May 1926, four years after his resignation as head of state; it pushed Poland down an authoritarian road from which in the 1930s it never recovered.

Joshua Zimmerman’s masterful new biography, based on Polish and English sources, explores the controversy that surrounded this contradictory man in his own lifetime and thereafter. Both eulogised as a hero and lambasted as a dictator in interwar Poland, Marshal Piłsudski was labelled a ‘fascist’ during the decades of

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