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Bio of Polish statesman holds lessons on today’s Ukraine

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

Poland’s Marshal Józef Piłsudski never managed to fulfil his hope for an independent Ukraine connected to Europe. But the farsighted and analytical statesman did manage to wrest his own homeland from the grip of czarism and from two other powers, Austria and Prussia.

At a time when many Poles had given up on the dream for 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’s erasure.

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

Thickly mustached, with heavy brows and a hawk-like visage, Piłsudski lived modestly and inspired his troops by leading them in battle. He was celebrated at home and abroad in his day, but his memory outside of Poland has faded.

After proclaiming a new Polish republic, Piłsudski and his legionnaires fought a series of wars to define, secure and defend its borders, culminating with his greatest victory: turning back a Bolshevik army in 1920 that was threatening to drive all the way to Berlin and carry a Communist revolution to the heart of industrial Europe.

Before that battle, known as the “Miracle on the Vistula,” Piłsudski’s forces had marched deep into Ukraine and occupied Kyiv in an alliance with nationalist leader Symon Petliura, who also was fighting the Bolsheviks, amid Ukraine’s short-lived independence in 1918-21.

As Zimmerman recounts, Piłsudski had a vision of a multilingual and multiethnic Poland that respected the rights of minorities, especially Jews. That earned him the enmity of nationalists who wanted a Poland run for ethnic Poles.

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

In language that might be applied to today’s discourse, Piłsudski conceived of a sovereign Ukraine not merely to prevent Russian aggression but as an outpost of Western liberal democracy.

“There can be no independent Poland,” he is quoted as saying in 1919, “without an independent Ukraine.”

Piłsudski launched a military campaign in 1920 to support Ukrainian nationalists against Bolshevik rule, an action condemned by some as an overreach. Zimmerman believed he had a rationale that echoes today, when Poland, Lithuania and the Baltic countries, as well as Finland and Sweden, feel that 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 peak 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 Zimmerman.

“My view is that he clearly championed an independent Ukraine, one that would be a democratic outpost on Russia’s border, a buffer between Russia and the West, but also a staunch Polish ally that shared Piłsudski’s democratic values and the values of at least his followers,” the author said.

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 balanced and “significant contribution” to the understanding of Piłsudski, said Michael Fleming, a 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 much 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 have lingered.

During Russia’s civil war between the Red Army and the anti-Bolshevik White Army, Pilsudski resisted pleas for Poland to help the Whites. No matter who won, he believed, Russia would remain “fiercely imperialistic.”

There was little to gain from negotiations because “we cannot believe anything Russia promises,” Piłsudski is quoted as saying.

Piłsudski, born in 1867 and raised in present-day Lithuania, was steeped in the romanticism of Polish independence. He acquired a burning hatred of czarist authority that held Poland, Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine in its grip, and he and his brother were implicated in a plot to assassinate the czar and imprisoned.

Zimmerman traces how, upon his release, Piłsudski became the leading activist of the banned Polish Socialist Party, published its newspaper for years, made a daring escape from a second Russian imprisonment after he was caught — by pretending to be insane — and then turned to creating a military force in Austrian-ruled Poland that eventually fought against Russia during World War I.

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

After Poland’s borders were secured and a civil government established, Piłsudski mostly stepped back from public life. But after several years, he followed with his own turn to strongman rule.

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

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

The author makes the case that Piłsudski, although flawed, possessed the judgment and skills to defend Poland’s interests. His death in 1935 left Poland with a vacuum in leadership, 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 when World War II ended and Soviet rule receded, there would be no question that an independent Poland would reemerge.


John Daniszewski, editor-at-large for standards and former senior managing editor for international news at The Associated Press, is a former Warsaw correspondent.