Whoever had the choice, would choose an eagle's nest on the cliffs in place of a home. May he know how to sleep, though his eyes be red from the thunder, and listen to the cries of the wild spirits in the murmur of the pines.
From the inscription upon Joseph Pilsudski's grave
Joseph Pilsudski's place in the history of Poland is more than the sum of his accomplishments, more than his immortal legacy, it is more than the past, present, and future of the nation. Pilsudski represents the perfect embodiment of the resilience of the embattled Polish spirit and national soul. Indeed, he appeared in Polish history in the midst of a hopeless darkness that reached deep into the past and stretched out beyond the discernible horizon of the national future; it is perhaps for this reason that he is so dearly prized by the nation, which seems to seek him out with desperate, clutching hands when recounting these dark times, in order to borrow strength from him even today.
Born in Zulow, Lithuania in 1867, Pilsudski's early education was marred by the persistent ethno-indoctrination of the controlling Russian forces. In order to bring Poles under a more stabile Russian control, the education of youths in the region was often colored by anti-Polish sentiment, that the children might choose to consider themselves Russian instead. Remarked Pilsudski: "Their system was to crush as much as possible the independence and personal dignity of their pupils... My pride was trampled upon listening to lies and scornful words about Poland, Poles and their history." While at home, on the other hand, Pilsudski was frequently treated to "endless stories about Polish-Lithuanian heroism", a welcome escape from a society that reviled everything Polish, a society that had banned both the language and the literature.
In his time at Jagiellonian University he developed a tentative interest in socialism; though he was not particularly taken with its tenets, he found in it a sort of ally, a system and body of people that might assist him in a struggle against Czarist Russia. He would spend some time in a Siberian prison for his relationship to a socialist organization. Upon his release he went into hiding, founding and becoming editor of the Polish Socialist Party magazine, Robotnik(The Worker). He was imprisoned once more, but this time he escaped and fled to Japan, where he would fail in his attempts to strike up an alliance with the Japanese(Russo-Japanese War). He returned home a pauper.
Still intent on establishing an independant Polish state, Pilsudski organized a band of Polish and Lithuanian patriots into an organization of professional highwaymen and robbers; their most celebrated "score" was the daring 1908 robbery of a mail-train, in which Pilsudski himself "threw the bomb". In a letter he wrote to a friend just before the raid, Pilsudski, seemingly anticipating his own death, writes: "I am not going to dictate to you what you shall write about my life and work. I only ask of you not to make me a 'whiner and sentimentalist.' I fight and I am ready to die simply because I cannot bear to live in the latrine our life amounts to. Money, may the devil take it! I prefer to win it in a fight than to beg for it from the Polish public which has become infantile through being chicken-hearted."
This raid was successful, and Pilsudski survived with a considerable fortune with which to finance a considerable fighting force: the Polish Legions. By the time of WWI, Austria had become willing to ensure Polish independance in exchange for the support of the now-formidable Polish Legions: Pilsudski jumped at the opportunity, and it seemed as though he had, at last, found himself the deciding fight. But in 1917, when Kaiser Wilhelm II demanded that Pilsudski swear an oath of allegiance to Germany, Pilsudski refused, considering such a pledge to be a compromise of the total autonomy he had been seeking for Poland. For this, he was imprisoned in Magdeburg Castle, where he would remain until the end of WWI. His men, likewise unwilling to swear their allegiance to a foreign power, disbanded.
In 1918, when the Kaiser had abdicated and the war had ended, Pilsudski simply walked free. He arrived in Warsaw without any knowledge of what the future would hold. He discovered that he was the most popular man in all of Poland, which had become independant again after 123 years. The peace, however, would last only long enough for a new threat to consolidate its army and advance.
Leon Trotsky's concept of permanent revolution led Marshal Mikhail Nikolayevich
Tukhachevsky to declare in 1920: "Over the dead body of Poland the road leads to the world’s fire." And with that the onslaught began. The Russians, having broken through fortified Kiev, poured through the Ukraine and through western Poland right up to Warsaw. On August 12, "newspapers all over Europe declared the capitulation of Warsaw and Poland", and communist forces in Berlin and throughout Germany were preparing to join the Red Army in revolt: the revolution was at hand. Western Europe, seemingly underestimating the magnitude of communist forces in the underground of its own societies, did little to contribute to the Polish effort (though they perhaps would have done more had they known then, as they would later discover, just how considerable the underground communist presence in their own societies actually was). The threat was real.
While Western Europe was reading about the fall of Warsaw, unaware of the communist element in its own society preparing to meet with the forces en route, Joseph Pilsudski drove a daring counterattack into the flank of the Red Army, which had presumed the war already won. The Reds, divided in half, were forced into retreat.
Had Pilsudski failed to arrest the triumphant advance of the Soviet Army at the Battle of Warsaw, not only would Christianity have experienced a dangerous reverse, but the very existence of western civilization would have been imperiled.
Lord D'Abernon, British Ambassador to Berlin
Though Pilsudski resigned to civilian life in 1922 after contributing to the establishment of a Polish constitution modelled after that of France, he came back to power four years later when he overthrew the government of Wincenty Witos to establish a "virtual dictatorship". He maintained varying degrees of power over Poland from then on until his death in 1935.
The junta that succeeded Pilsudski could not rally the hearts of the Polish people the way he could; in 1939, four years after the death of the man whose passion and success was the passion and success of a restored Poland, the Soviets and Germans invaded, and Poland fell into darkness for another half-century.
There will always be parts of the world in which history and memory hang heavily around the necks of women and men. And though perhaps nationalism is a wildfire there are those who are freezing whom it may warm.