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

by Peter Hetherington

Verdict: Hetherington tells Pilsudski's story in rich detail with direct language and a meticulous explanation of the politics of central and eastern Europe before and after World War I. There are surprising stories that most Westerners and most Americans not of Polish descent will learn for the first time.

IR Rating



IR Rating

At the turn of the twentieth century, Joseph Pilsudski, a citizen of the Russian Empire, was one of many Polish patriots working to restore the the independence of Poland, a once-proud nation that in 1900 was divided between Germany, Austria, and Russia.  He was publishing an underground Socialist newspaper and stirring up resentment against the hated Romanov dynasty that ruled Russia.

Pilsudski, having already spent five miserable years in exile in Siberia, had returned to his hometown of Wilno (now Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania) and continued his subversive activities until being arrested by the Russians in 1900 and sent to the Warsaw Citadel, one of the most brutal prisons in the imperial Russian system.  Pilsudski feigned insanity to get himself sent to a mental hospital in St. Petersburg, from which he quietly escaped to continue his seemingly hopeless fight to restore the Polish state.

It is this story – not Pilsudski’s birth, not his heroic stand against the Russians fighting for Austria in the First World War, not his valiant command of Polish forces in the 1919-21 war against the Russian Bolsheviks, and not even his involvement in a 1908 train robbery to help fund the Polish underground’s activities – that author Peter Hetherington uses to begin his story of the life of Poland’s most important modern hero, with only Pope John Paul II and Lech Wałęsa approaching him in terms of importance.

The story encapsulates how Marshal Joseph Pilsudski (1867-1935), the father of modern Poland, refused to be defeated in his struggle to re-establish Poland as a country once again after it disappeared from the map of Europe in 1795 through partitioning by the Russian Empire and the Germanic countries.

Hetherington presents a sweeping narrative of Pilsudski, a leader of the Polish independence movement and the de facto leader of Poland in the first years of its post-World War I independence and from 1926 to 1935 as minister of war, that vividly brings to life not only a man but an entire people.  As the reader will find out, Poland was once the most enlightened and most powerful nation on the European continent, with a devotion to freedom that rivaled that of England and an astonishingly democratic system of government in which kings were elected rather than entitled to power through dynastism.  The uniquely Polish characteristic to live free was what drove Pilsudski not only to re-establish Polish statehood but to secure freedom for the vast region that the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth once ruled.

Hetherington tells Pilsudski’s story in rich detail with direct language and a meticulous explanation of the politics of central and eastern Europe before and after World War I.  There are surprising stories that most Westerners and most Americans not of Polish descent will learn for the first time.  Pilsudski’s successful repulsion of the Bolshevik offensive in the 1919-21 war destroyed Vladimir Lenin’s dream of extending Communism to the West.  Pilsudski was the only leader to stand up to Adolf Hitler before 1939, and he commanded a larger army than Germany at the time Hitler came to power; Pilsudski was more than willing to wage a pre-emptive war against the Third Reich.  He played Germany and the Soviet Union against each other to keep Poland secure.  Much of his achievements in founding and preserving modern Poland came against overwhelming odds, and he likely prevented World War II from happening sooner.  To understand Pilsudski’s refusal to bow to international pressures detrimental to Poland and his firm handling of domestic matters is to understand the Polish nation today and the roles of a Polish pope and a shipyard electrician in Gdańsk in ending the Cold War.

Hertherington’s book does a superb job in illustrating Pilsudski’s life without resorting to hagiography.  He minces no words when examining Pilsudski’s abuses of power after taking over Poland in a 1926 coup to prevent the rising influence of the center-right and his arrests of dissidents during times of crisis.  Poland became more authoritarian, with Marshal Pilsudski running everything behind the façade of an elected government.  Much of his actions in the last nine years of his life diminished his stature, but his devotion to a free and independent Poland never wavered.  “Unvanquished” is an important and majestic biography as complex, as engrossing, and as important as its subject.  It’s required reading for anyone who wants to understand all of Europe as well as Poland.

Typographical errors include numerous references to the “Noble” Prize, the use of the word “trial” for “trail” twice, and, on page 675, the use of “initiative” as a verb instead of the correct “initiate,” as well as a reference to flags being flown at half “mask” on page 691.  Also, look out for punctuation errors (“the League of Nation’s” role, etc.) These are only a few examples of the typos found; in a 700-page book, it’s easy to forget and lose count of them.  And the final paragraph on page 700 does not have justified margins. Also, like most authors, Hetherington speaks of “Russia” in reference to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which was founded in December 1922 and of which Russia was a part; in describing Pilsudski’s dealings with the U.S.S.R. from 1922 to his death in 1935, Hetherington refers to that country as Russia and the Soviet Union interchangeably.   None of this should distract from this highly readable, well-researched (1,862 footnotes and a four-page bibliography) and important book, however.

Reviewed by Steven Maginnis for IndieReader

* Note from the author –

Your comments about the typos were spot on- I have spent the last six months thoroughly reviewing the book with a number of people, including two Polish history professors, correcting these mistakes. Fortunately, the limited first edition is almost sold out. The second edition, purged of the annoying typos, completely checked for accuracy, and including an enhanced section on Pilsudski’s foreign policy (including more and surprising detail on the preventive war against Hitler), will be available in late May.

1 reply
  1. avatar
    KS "Kaz" Augustin says:

    Thank you SO MUCH for this review! It would make the perfect gift for my Polish husband who, throughout our marriage, has been regaling me with stories of Pilsudski’s brilliance. 🙂 Roll on May!


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