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Jozef Pilsudski. Founding Father of Modern Poland

30.06.2023 - 12.00 / Galicia Jewish Museum, ul. Dajwór 18, Kraków

Book presentation (EN)
Joshua D. Zimmerman

In the story of modern Poland, no one stands taller than Józef Piłsudski. From the age of sixteen he devoted his life to reestablishing the Polish state, which had ceased to exist in 1795. Ahead of World War I, he created a clandestine military corps to fight Russia, which held most Polish territory. After the war, his dream of an independent Poland realized, he took the helm of its newly democratic political order. When he died in 1935, he was buried alongside the Polish kings.

Yet Piłsudski was a complicated figure. Passionately devoted to the idea of democracy, he ceded power on constitutional terms, only to retake it a few years later in a coup when he believed his opponents were trying to dismantle the democratic system. Joshua Zimmerman’s authoritative biography examines a national hero in the thick of a changing Europe, and the legacy that still divides his supporters and detractors. The Poland that Piłsudski envisioned was modern, democratic, and pluralistic. Domestically, he championed equality for Jews. Internationally, he positioned Poland as a bulwark against Bolshevism. But in 1926 he seized power violently, then ruled as a strongman for nearly a decade, imprisoning opponents and eroding legislative power.

In Zimmerman’s telling, Piłsudski’s faith in the young democracy was shattered after its first elected president was assassinated. Unnerved by Poles brutally turning on one another, the father of the nation came to doubt his fellow citizens’ commitment to democracy and thereby betrayed his own. It is a legacy that dogs contemporary Poland, caught on the tortured edge between self-government and authoritarianism.

Joshua D. Zimmerman is the author of several books, including The Polish Underground and the Jews, 1939–1945, and has written for Politico and the Times of Israel. He is the Eli and Diana Zborowski Chair in Holocaust Studies and East European Jewish History and Professor of History at Yeshiva University.