Polish statesman’s biography teaches lessons about today’s Ukraine

Polish statesman’s biography teaches lessons about today’s Ukraine
Polish statesman’s biography teaches lessons about today’s Ukraine

NEW YORK (AP) — A hundred years ago, a revolutionary Polish patriot argued that Russia’s thirst for territory would continue to destabilize Europe unless Ukraine could gain independence from Moscow.

Polish Marshal Józef Piłsudski never succeeded in realizing his hope for an independent Ukraine connected to Europe. But the farsighted and analytical statesman succeeded in wresting his own homeland from the grip of Tsarism and from two other powers, Austria and Prussia.

At a time when many Poles had abandoned the dream of full independence, Piłsudski put a sovereign Polish state back on the map of Europe at the end of World War I, after more than a century of oblivion.

Piłsudski’s story, with its flaws, accomplishments, and echoes of today’s war in Ukraine, comes to life in a recent biography, “Józef Piłsudski, Founding Father of Modern Poland,” by Joshua D. Zimmerman , professor of Holocaust studies and Eastern European history. at Yeshiva University in New York. The book, published by Harvard University Press, also revisits Piłsudski’s relationship with Ukraine.

A thick mustache, thick eyebrows and a hawk-like face, Piłsudski lived modestly and inspired his troops by leading them into battle. He was celebrated at home and abroad in his time, but his memory outside Poland has faded.

After proclaiming a new Polish republic, Piłsudski and his legionnaires waged a series of wars to define, secure and defend his borders, culminating in his greatest victory: driving back a Bolshevik army in 1920 that threatened to drive into Berlin and bring a communist revolution to the heart of industrial Europe.

Prior to this battle, known as the “Miracle on the Vistula”, Piłsudski’s forces had penetrated deep into Ukraine and occupied Kyiv in an alliance with nationalist leader Symon Petliura, who was also fighting the Bolsheviks, in the middle of Ukraine’s short-lived independence in 1918-1921. .

As Zimmerman recounts, Piłsudski had a vision of a multilingual, multi-ethnic Poland that respected the rights of minorities, especially Jews. This earned him the enmity of nationalists who wanted a Poland ruled by ethnic Poles.

After World War I, Piłsudski hoped that Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine could form an alliance to counter Russia in the style of the Polish-Lithuanian union that had existed for centuries before 1795. But Ukrainians and Lithuanians were suspicious of Polish claims to their territories, and Pilsudski’s vision of an anti-Russian alliance never became a reality.

In language that could be applied to discourse today, Piłsudski envisioned a sovereign Ukraine not just to prevent Russian aggression, but as an outpost of Western liberal democracy.

“There can be no independent Poland,” he reportedly said in 1919, “without an independent Ukraine.”

Piłsudski launched a military campaign in 1920 in support of Ukrainian nationalists against the Bolshevik regime, an action condemned by some as an overreach. Zimmerman thought he had reasoning that resonates today, as Poland, Lithuania and the Baltics, along with Finland and Sweden, believe Russia under President Vladimir Putin must be contained.

On May 7, 1920, Piłsudski’s cavalry entered Kyiv, followed by Polish and Ukrainian infantry. At the height of his Ukrainian campaign, he ordered his commanders to withdraw “as soon as possible” in order to establish friendly relations with the new Ukrainian state. according to Zimmermann.

“My view is that he clearly stood for an independent Ukraine, a Ukraine that would be a democratic outpost on the Russian border, a buffer between Russia and the West, but also a staunch Polish ally who shared the values democratic values ​​of Piłsudski and the values ​​of at least his supporters. “, said the author.

Poland and Lithuania – two countries that emerged from Soviet rule – are among Ukraine’s strongest diplomatic champions against Putin’s Russia.

Zimmerman’s book makes a “significant” and balanced contribution to understanding Piłsudski, said Michael Fleming, historian and director of the Institute of European Culture at the Polish University Abroad in London.

“Pilsudski was well aware of the challenges posed by Poland’s geography and concluded that an independent Ukraine would share Poland’s interest in limiting Russia’s expansionist tendencies,” Fleming said by email. “At the same time, however, it is important to remember that Western Galicia (including Lviv) was highly contested” between Poles and Ukrainians.

Indeed, Polish and Ukrainian nationalists clashed in the early 1900s and again during and after World War II, and some ethnic animosities persisted.

During the Russian Civil War between the Red Army and the anti-Bolshevik White Army, Pilsudski resisted calls for Poland to help the whites. No matter who won, he believed, Russia would remain “fiercely imperialist”.

There was little to be gained from the negotiations because “we can’t believe anything that Russia promises”, Piłsudski reportedly said.

Piłsudski, born in 1867 and brought up in present-day Lithuania, was steeped in the romanticism of Polish independence. He acquired a burning hatred of the Tsarist authority that held Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine under its sway, and he and his brother were implicated in a plot to assassinate the Tsar and imprisoned.

Zimmerman recounts how, upon his release, Piłsudski became the main activist of the banned Polish Socialist Party, published his diary for years, boldly escaped from a second Russian imprisonment after being arrested – pretending to be crazy – then turned to creating a military force in Austrian-ruled Poland that eventually fought Russia in World War I.

Although they fought under Austria and Germany, Piłsudski’s insistence on Polish independence eventually led to his imprisonment by the Germans, a sacrifice that cemented his legend among his fellow Poles. Upon his release, he was proclaimed leader of the country and the de facto founder of modern Poland on November 11, 1918, now celebrated as Poland’s Independence Day.

After Poland’s borders were secured and a civilian government established, Piłsudski mostly withdrew from public life. But after several years, he took his own turn towards strongman rule.

Worried that a democratic Poland was slipping away and disgusted by 13 failing Polish governments, he led a military coup in 1926 to restore order. After imposing a system of “managed” democracy and a soft dictatorship, Piłsudski’s final years were plagued by declining health and growing concerns about how to position Poland between a rising Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany.

Zimmerman captures the difficulties of weaving Poland together and details its conflicts, including pogroms against Jews by some of Piłsudski’s troops. Yet he sees Pilsudski as a defender of Jews and pluralism.

The author argues that Piłsudski, though imperfect, possessed the judgment and skill necessary to defend Poland’s interests. His death in 1935 left Poland with a leadership vacuum, unable to stave off the German and Soviet invasions of 1939.

Yet Piłsudski’s creation of an independent Poland after World War I helped ensure that by the end of World War II and the end of Soviet rule, there was no doubt that a Poland independent would re-emerge.


John Daniszewski, editor for standards and former international news editor at the Associated Press, is a former Warsaw correspondent.

. biography of a man state polish gives of lessons about ukraine today

. Polish statesmans biography teaches lessons todays Ukraine

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