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Unvanquished: Joseph Pilsudski, Resurrected Poland, and the Struggle for Eastern Europe

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Telling the epic story of Joseph Pilsudski, the father of Polish independence, this vivid biography reads like an adventure novel, including swashbuckling tales of both World Wars, a plot to kill the czar, Siberian exile, life in the underground, a dramatic prison escape, and one of the most successful train robberies in European history. Although he is largely either unkn Telling the epic story of Joseph Pilsudski, the father of Polish independence, this vivid biography reads like an adventure novel, including swashbuckling tales of both World Wars, a plot to kill the czar, Siberian exile, life in the underground, a dramatic prison escape, and one of the most successful train robberies in European history. Although he is largely either unknown or misunderstood in the West, Pilsudski was a consequential historical figure whose defeat of the Red Army in 1920 preserved Poland’s sovereignty and quite possibly spared Europe from Bolshevik revolution. This extensive and definitive account of Pilsudski's life places this and other achievements in the proper context by providing sufficient background in Polish history and illuminating his interconnectedness with more well known historical events.


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Telling the epic story of Joseph Pilsudski, the father of Polish independence, this vivid biography reads like an adventure novel, including swashbuckling tales of both World Wars, a plot to kill the czar, Siberian exile, life in the underground, a dramatic prison escape, and one of the most successful train robberies in European history. Although he is largely either unkn Telling the epic story of Joseph Pilsudski, the father of Polish independence, this vivid biography reads like an adventure novel, including swashbuckling tales of both World Wars, a plot to kill the czar, Siberian exile, life in the underground, a dramatic prison escape, and one of the most successful train robberies in European history. Although he is largely either unknown or misunderstood in the West, Pilsudski was a consequential historical figure whose defeat of the Red Army in 1920 preserved Poland’s sovereignty and quite possibly spared Europe from Bolshevik revolution. This extensive and definitive account of Pilsudski's life places this and other achievements in the proper context by providing sufficient background in Polish history and illuminating his interconnectedness with more well known historical events.

30 review for Unvanquished: Joseph Pilsudski, Resurrected Poland, and the Struggle for Eastern Europe

  1. 4 out of 5

    Lewis Weinstein

    A magnificent biography of one of the great, unknown men of the 20th century. Pilsudski was a legitimate hero from the early 1900s until his death in 1935. He fought the Russians and Germans in the early 1900s, was instrumental in creating the reformed Polish state in 1919, and ran the Polish government from 1926-35. He became a dictator when the Polish experiment with parliamentary democracy proved as ineffective as the Weimar Republic in neighboring Germany; Hetherington pulls no punches in de A magnificent biography of one of the great, unknown men of the 20th century. Pilsudski was a legitimate hero from the early 1900s until his death in 1935. He fought the Russians and Germans in the early 1900s, was instrumental in creating the reformed Polish state in 1919, and ran the Polish government from 1926-35. He became a dictator when the Polish experiment with parliamentary democracy proved as ineffective as the Weimar Republic in neighboring Germany; Hetherington pulls no punches in describing how Pilsudski dealt with his opponents; he arrested some and later released them, executing none. The finest part of the book for me was the description of how Pilsudski recognized the dangers of Hitler and tried, unlike the rest of Europe, to do something to stop him. He stood up to Hitler over the issue of Danzig, and Hitler blinked. Pilsudski believed that a preemptive strike against Germany in 1933 could prevent what he clearly saw as Hitler's plans to rearm and attack. Pilsudski was thwarted in his plan by the timidity of the French and the appeasement policy of the British. Many of the events of 1932-35 will be described in my new novel, involving both my Polish and German characters. I think these events are unknown to most readers and will provide fascinating perspective on those years. A few notes from the book ... ... Pilsudski's view: France & Britain have different objectives. France wants to contain Germany and expand its own land and power in Europe. Britain wants peace and is willing to appease Germany to gain it. ... in 1933, the Polish Army possessed over 250,000 highly trained and well-equipped soldiers … Germany was limited to the 100,000 allowed by Versailles and had no modern weapons ... Pilsudski dispatched Jerzy Potocki to Paris as an unofficial envoy … spoke with French PM Paul-Boncour to explore the possibility of a Franco-Polish preventive war against Germany … given a suitable pretext … Poland would seize Danzig and key German territories in the east, while France would invade Germany from the west ... a disgraced Hitler would be forced to resign ... but the French did not respond to this initiative ... and Germany did not react to Poland's Danzig initiatives ... Pilsudski informed French PM Daladier in Feb 1933 … that Germany was rearming and needed to be confronted now rather than after 2-3 years of consolidation of the Hitler regime and intense rearming … in late March, Pilsudski sent a message to Daladier outlining hiw to justify an attack on Germany ... stating that the German decree of Feb 22, setting up an auxiliary police force of 50,000 men, was a violation of the Versailles Treaty which the League of Nations had every right to investigate ... any inspection would sure to confirm that Germany was rearming beyond the agreed upon limits ... thus justifying armed intervention ... the best time to attack Germany was 1933 … Poland's military capabilities exceeded Germany's … only 3 of Germany's 10 divisions were positioned along the polish border, and they were under-supplied … the Polish Army hadre-positioned 15 divisions (half of their force) to oppose them, giving the Poles a 5:1 advantage ... Pilsudski knew the Polish Army's 1933 advantage would not last … he knew the Germans were rapidly rearming (illegally) and had vast industrial capabilities … were sure to re-emerge as a great military power

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jerome

    A well-written and well-researched biography of Piłsudski. Hetherington thoughtfully describes Piłsudski’s role in bringing the Polish nation back from non-existence after the Great War, first through subversive activities that landed him Siberia and the Warsaw Citadel (where he made an unlikely escape) and then through his military service under the Austrians, as commander of the Polish forces during the independent state’s war with Soviet Russia, and in his dealings with other European powers, A well-written and well-researched biography of Piłsudski. Hetherington thoughtfully describes Piłsudski’s role in bringing the Polish nation back from non-existence after the Great War, first through subversive activities that landed him Siberia and the Warsaw Citadel (where he made an unlikely escape) and then through his military service under the Austrians, as commander of the Polish forces during the independent state’s war with Soviet Russia, and in his dealings with other European powers, both East and West, who were lukewarm or hostile to the idea of an independent Poland. Piłsudski was nothing if not a man of action, and Hetherington has something to say about pretty much his entire life, so the narrative doesn’t drag. Hetherington also covers Piłsudski’s role in the 1926 coup and his subsequent reign, where he repressed the center-right, arrested dissidents, and generally hid his authoritarianism under a facade of elected government. Hetherington also covers how Piłsudski failed to prepare his successors (all military) for the challenge of ruling. The narrative is rich, engaging and compelling, and Hetherington’s coverage of a broad variety of issues is balanced and easy to follow. He does a great job integrating Piłsudski’s life into Poland’s wider history. The book does have a couple typos, though, and Hetherington’s general neglect of primary sources seems like a problem (the book also includes Wikipedia citations). The secondary sources he does use are all English-language. The writing can also be a bit breezy at some times, confusing at others. Also, the book seems somewhat hagiographic, and he mostly skims the controversial episodes, like the suicide of Piłsudski’s lover and the activities of Piłsudski’s’s death squads. An insightful, thorough, and sweeping work.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Joseph Serwach

    "I see the eyes of children wide open with surprise at the idea that there could have been times when prison, that is to say a humiliation that crushes a man to the ground, could awaken in us a spark of enthusiasm, light fires in our eyes, and bring smiles to our lips,'' - Joseph Pilsudski. "He who has chosen the nest on the heights of the eagle rather than the hearthstone will know how to sleep when the horizon is red with the storm, and the mutterings of demons are heard in the wind among the p "I see the eyes of children wide open with surprise at the idea that there could have been times when prison, that is to say a humiliation that crushes a man to the ground, could awaken in us a spark of enthusiasm, light fires in our eyes, and bring smiles to our lips,'' - Joseph Pilsudski. "He who has chosen the nest on the heights of the eagle rather than the hearthstone will know how to sleep when the horizon is red with the storm, and the mutterings of demons are heard in the wind among the pines. Thus have I lived.'' -- Slowacki November 11 is an important holiday for both Americans and Poles, who both commemorate the events of 11-11-1918 but for very different reasons. In the United States, Veterans Day, formerly known as Armistice Day, honors the troops with the date going back to the original Armistice that ended World War I. For Poles, that same date, 11-11-1918, marked Independence Day, the day Poland became a free nation after 126 years of being wiped off the map by neighboring powers. November 11, 1918 also marked the rise of Poland's George Washington, the only man in world history to defeat both Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. Pilsudski's story is a story known to few Americans, a story that the Soviets suppressed for 40 years told incredibly well in Peter Hetherington's Unvanquished: Joseph Pilsudski, Resurrected Poland and the Struggle for Eastern Europe. Pilsudski's story isn't just important to Poles and students of revolutions, government and war. It's also a fascinating study of the power of marketing and advocacy-based strategic communications to fuel a movement. America's devotion to free speech and a free press go back to its beginnings and are embedded in the First Amendment. Poland treasured a free press going back to the invention of the printing press in the 1400s. During the great Cossack Uprising of the mid-1600s, Russia's czar ridiculed the Poles for allowing the free publication of subversive materials but as Hetherington notes, the Polish Senate responded with something that could just accurately describe 21st century change conversations fueled via social media: "The King and we do not order books printed, nor do we forbid it: if a printer publishes good and fair material, we praise it; if fools publish something inferior, unworthy and untrue, we at the council laugh at it. If no one were to publish books, our descendants would know nothing about us.. Printing is free in our country, by law and by the custom of nations.'' Four hundred years later, the power of printing has been extended to social media, digital marketing, videos and a host of other communication tools. All work together to change conversations that move the needle to make things happen whether that's selling a product, changing public opinion, putting yourself on the map or inspiring people to take a risk. Many organizations fear social media since it seems like anarchy with no clear chain of command but the Poles, through centuries of uprisings, embraced political anarchy (no clear power or chain of command) saying "it is by unrule that Poland stands.'' Pilsudski thrived on the bigger challenges during the greatest crises and admitted he wasn't the best leader for less-conflicted times, saying "I rise when there is a storm, because that is what I know, but as to these petty things...'' He rose to power and started changing conversations with a printing press. In July 1894, at age 26 after five years of hard exile in Siberia, Pilsudski began an underground newspaper called The Worker writing provocative attacks on the ruling Russian czarist government with messages like "the captive nation bears constant humiliation.'' Pilsudski never feared danger or death, said a friend, who added his only fear was a lack of money. Pilsudski's provocative editorials were written under the pseudonym "Rom" for "Romantic." He believed true power lay in organizational control and the fact that he and his colleagues were able to regularly publish and distribute their paper for six straight years shattered the illusion that the government was in complete control... His publication and its messages gave him the 'aura of authority' in the eyes the government as well as the eyes of the people. His story has the makings of multiple good books or movies and inspired both the Poles and his adversaries. After being arrested in 1900, he feigned insanity to get sent to a psychiatric hospital and escaped a year later with help from the underground. By 1904, he was traveling to Japan trying to influence the Japanese (then at war with Russia) to support a Polish uprising to give their mutual enemy problems on two fronts. Like any good businessman, the revolutionary Pilsudski always looked for new opportunities in the weaknesses or battles between major rivals. In 1908, he lead a daring train robbery to finance his revolutionary activities then began began training troops, who joined the fighting and pounced on opportunities caused by struggles between European powers before, during and after World War I and its aftermath. He was captured by the Germans but sent back to Poland to take power in 1918. In 1920, Pilsudski's Miracle on the Vistula decisively defeated the young Soviet Union that had thought it could run through Poland on the way to capturing a weakened Germany and Europe. In 1933, he considered a preemptive war against Germany as Adolf Hitler was just taking power and stared down both Hitler and Stalin in further confrontations. Unfortunately for Poland, Pilsudski died in 1935, four years before the Nazis and Soviets formed a new alliance to capture Poland, marking the start of World War II and more than four decades of Cold War that followed. But just as World War II, began in Poland, the fall of communism would begin in Poland with Solidarity leader Lech Walesa often emulating his idol Pilsudski. "To be vanquished and not surrender -- that is victory,'' Pilsudski said.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Matt

    A few thoughts about the book: *First off, the author is by no means a trained historian, and makes no claim to be anything of the such (he's a "petroleum geologist" as the back cover states). *He also has no connection to Poland, Pilsudski, or Eastern Europe in general, but decided to write the book after reading about interwar Europe and seeing Pilsudski's name come up with no explanation as to why he mattered; though he conceded there were plenty of biographies written, he said they were either A few thoughts about the book: *First off, the author is by no means a trained historian, and makes no claim to be anything of the such (he's a "petroleum geologist" as the back cover states). *He also has no connection to Poland, Pilsudski, or Eastern Europe in general, but decided to write the book after reading about interwar Europe and seeing Pilsudski's name come up with no explanation as to why he mattered; though he conceded there were plenty of biographies written, he said they were either "highly subjective" or not as "comprehensive as [he] desired, nor written for an audience unfamiliar with Polish history." *However perhaps being unfamiliar with Poland, its language, customs and history, he deliberately left out diacritics in the names of people and places. While he writes this was done as the book was "intended for an English-speaking audience," it drastically alters the pronunciation of certain words. The most egregious example would be the name Pilsudski itself, which should be properly rendered as "Pi³sudski" (I am aware of the irony of critiquing this while writing the name without diacritics, but as this is not a formal setting, I think you can forgive me). *While the bibliography is extensive, it is notable for two omissions that quickly would betray the fact that the author is not a trained historian. The first one is the lack of any primary sources whatsoever; while he does utilise a book Pilsudski wrote about his early career, and a biography written by his wife after his death, everything else is secondary sources that could be pulled off any university library shelf. The second issue is that these are all English-language sources; for a Lithuanian-born Polish head of state who fought in the Austro-Hungarian military against Russia, then allied with France and the UK against both Germany and the Soviet Union, while dealing with substantial Ukrainian, Belarusian and Jewish minorities, there is nothing in any other language. *There are several spelling and grammatical errors throughout the book. While this is more to the fault of the editor and publisher than the writer, it still is annoying to deal with. Especially when they were as frequent as in this book (I noticed at least 5 separate instances in a 700+ page book). That all said, the book isn't terrible. Its the first English-language biography of Pilsudski to be published in several decades, and incorporates a brief history of Poland at the start to give the reader an idea of what the situation of the country is. And it is quite thorough, going over the life of Pilsudski in fine detail, often without any bias (as the author claimed other biographies had). But I would think that while a noble cause, Hetherington should have probably left the historical writing to a trained historian.

  5. 5 out of 5

    John

    Unvanquished is an important text tracing the history of the Second Polish Republic told through the complicated figure of Joseph Pilsudski. Pilsudski is generally credited as being the Father of (the new) Poland. Through trickery and brilliance, he played three of the main belligerents against each other causing one of the true winners of WWI - that being the birth of a free and independent Poland in 1918. If that wasn't enough, he kept Poland's ever scheming enemies, Russian and Germany, at ba Unvanquished is an important text tracing the history of the Second Polish Republic told through the complicated figure of Joseph Pilsudski. Pilsudski is generally credited as being the Father of (the new) Poland. Through trickery and brilliance, he played three of the main belligerents against each other causing one of the true winners of WWI - that being the birth of a free and independent Poland in 1918. If that wasn't enough, he kept Poland's ever scheming enemies, Russian and Germany, at bay until his death in 1935. The book has many exciting tales of Pilsudski. His life as an anti-Russian rebel, as a soldier fighting under the Austrian flag (mostly so he could fight Russia on a grander scale), and even as a train robber. Again, as a way to fund his Polish rebel group. The book also tells of Poland's frustrating journey as a fledging new country trying to find the best fit of government and economy. Pilsudski actually has to step in through an almost bloodless coup d'état, acting as a dictator. But not in the same vain as his contempoaries, Hitler, Stalin, and Mussulini. As Pilsudski once prophetically said to his daughter before he died (1935) there would be a war within 10 years, and they (Poland) would lose. A good book with much reference material included. Poland should have used the Phoenix instead of the White Eagle as her symbol, for she has risen from the ashes more than once in her tumultuous history. The only change I would have made would be to move the history of Poland from the front of this book to an appendix at the end. I found this information interesting, but not vital to the story of Pilsudsi. It's a book that's worth sticking with from start to finish, therefore, I give it a solid 4 stars.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Mark Latchford

    A massive tome, extremely well researched story about a little known but extraordinary father of modern Poland. Particularly impressive when you realise the author is not a historian by profession. However, the story telling is long winded and sometimes repetitive. The preamble about Polish history goes on for over 150 pages before you reach the subject for example. Nevertheless kudos for putting the spotlight on Eastern Europe between the wars.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Kevin Hawkins

    Really well written and well researched book. Because of this one learns much about Joseph Pilsudski, Polish History, and life lessons too. Some of the life lessons include to believe in oneself, ignore bad advice even when it comes from well meaning people, and though your movement may start small it can grow into something large.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Dambro

    Excellent history of late 19th and early 20th Century Poland. Hetherington is not an academic historian and apparently uses only English sources. That being said, he has crafted a magnificent biography of the founder of the Second Polish Republic, Joseph Pilsudski. He provides a wealth of background going back to the medieval Polish Commonwealth. He is a talented writer and is pleasantly free of the pedantry and ideology of many academic historians. It is an excellent introduction to Polish hist Excellent history of late 19th and early 20th Century Poland. Hetherington is not an academic historian and apparently uses only English sources. That being said, he has crafted a magnificent biography of the founder of the Second Polish Republic, Joseph Pilsudski. He provides a wealth of background going back to the medieval Polish Commonwealth. He is a talented writer and is pleasantly free of the pedantry and ideology of many academic historians. It is an excellent introduction to Polish history and a nuanced portrait of one of its greatest heroes.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Brendan Hodge

    This is a well written and documented biography of modern Poland's founding father, Joseph Pilsudski. Pilsudski is a fascinating character who went from socialist revolutionary fighting against the Tsarist Russian government for Polish independence to nationalist semi-dictator holding together the 1918-1939 era Polish state in the face of faltering democracy. There's much to admire in him and much to question, and along the way a great window into the development of mid 20th Century Central Euro This is a well written and documented biography of modern Poland's founding father, Joseph Pilsudski. Pilsudski is a fascinating character who went from socialist revolutionary fighting against the Tsarist Russian government for Polish independence to nationalist semi-dictator holding together the 1918-1939 era Polish state in the face of faltering democracy. There's much to admire in him and much to question, and along the way a great window into the development of mid 20th Century Central Europe. Definitely worth a read.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Joe Kaye

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jacob Wolinsky

  12. 4 out of 5

    Fred James

  13. 4 out of 5

    Jay

  14. 4 out of 5

    Christophe

  15. 5 out of 5

    Robert Cole

  16. 5 out of 5

    Michal

  17. 5 out of 5

    Michael Wegenka

  18. 4 out of 5

    Hans

  19. 4 out of 5

    Fred Tonelli

  20. 5 out of 5

    Gregory Mayflower

  21. 4 out of 5

    Omar I

  22. 5 out of 5

    Joseph

  23. 5 out of 5

    Matthew Warchal

  24. 4 out of 5

    John Balderach

  25. 5 out of 5

    Bart Bart

  26. 5 out of 5

    Leon Konieczny

  27. 5 out of 5

    Piotr Grebski

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jan Zabłocki

  29. 4 out of 5

    Piotr Smolanski

  30. 4 out of 5

    Linda Doyle

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