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Professor Joshua D. Zimmerman Presents: Jozef Pilsudski. Founding Father of Modern Poland

Professor Joshua D. Zimmerman, the Eli and Diana Zborowski Chair in Holocaust Studies and East European Jewish History recently published a years-long work on Jozef Pilsudski, the founding father of modern Poland who, when Poland emerged on the map of Europe in November 1918, served as commander-in-chief and head of state.

Zimmerman's biography of Jozef Pilsudski: Founding Father of Modern Poland, explores Pilsudski’s vision of a democratic Poland, his support for Ukraine’s independence, and the lessons that can be learned from Pilsudski’s understanding of European power dynamics. The biography is in part a product of a generous grant awarded to Professor Zimmerman in 2021 by Drs. Kenneth Chelst, Bertram Schreiber, and Fred Zwas.

Professor Zimmerman provided some of his key findings on the life and legacy of Poland’s first democratic leader with the YU community on November 21st. The book talk explored the complex and at times complicated reputation of the 20th Century leader who supported an independent Ukraine from Russia, advocated for the protection of Jewish and other minorities, while at the same time was a patriotic social democrat who was labeled as an imperialist agitator on the international stage.

According to Zimmerman, “Pilsudski’s bold position against communism, advocacy for both Poland’s and Ukraine's independent territorial integrity, and conception of equality for all anticipated many of today's debates ruminating across the European continent.”

Jozef Pilsudski (1867-1935) is considered to be modern Poland’s founding father and was the commander of the Polish Legions during World War I, a military formation whose soldiers were 10% Jewish. After achieving statehood, Pilsudski, a military tactician at his core, led his forces into Ukraine in the spring of 1920 and commandeered Kyiv from the Russians. But when the Russian forces repelled Polish forces back to Warsaw, Pilsudski’s successful counter-offensive led to victory in a battle dubbed “Miracle on the Vistula”.  This battle cemented Pilsudski’s legacy as the savior of Europe from a Bolshevik-Russian takeover.  Later, in 1933, Pilsudski successfully defended Polish territory against Hitler’s expansionist ambitions through a combination of military strength and a clear national security doctrine.

Professor Zimmerman shared his opinion that “the contemporary lessons of Pilsudski’s legacy are relevant to anybody concerned with the geopolitical trends grappling Europe and beyond.” Zimmerman concluded, “Pilsudski recognized the grave necessity of preserving Ukraine’s territorial independence as the best way to maintain an independent Poland and by extension Europe. Around 100 years later the global implications of this imperative have only magnified as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In my work, I hope to bring to life the foresight of this seminal figure in this first comprehensive biography in English.”

Jozef Pilsudski. Founding Father of Modern Poland can be purchased here.

Jozef Pilsudski. Founding Father of Modern Poland (Harvard University Press) By: Joshua D. Zimmerman