Hetherington presents sweeping accounts of Polish history and Joseph Pilsudski, a major figure in the struggle for Polish independence.
Hetherington warrants praise for the thoroughness of his research and the consistently engaging quality of his prose. His ability to sift through the lion’s share of Polish history (from the country’s founding until the rise of its neighbor, Nazi Germany, in the 1930s), and interweave that history with the singular life of freedom fighter, and eventual dictator, Joseph Pilsudski, is a remarkable feat. The first and last sentences of the opening chapter, for example, form perfect bookends to a brief sketch of the Polish political scene of 1900 as well as the astonishing tale of Pilsudski’s escape from a Russian prison—“The Warsaw Citadel had the ominous reputation as the most escape proof of czarist prisons,” begins the story, while “The man who would liberate Poland was free,” brings that chapter to a satisfying end and sets the stage for the saga of Polish history that’s to come. That Hetherington should maintain control over his material and tell this grand tale with obvious narrative flair renders his book a doubly significant achievement. But the sheer scope of this ambitious work may prove an obstacle for readers. Weighing in at over 700 pages, Hetherington’s tome will test readers’ enthusiasm for Polish history. Reasonable minds may question the author’s assertion that it’s impossible to understand Pilsudski’s place in Polish history, and Poland’s place in the European landscape, without reaching as far back as the legendary beginning of a Polish kingdom and picking up the story in the 800s. Hetherington’s ability to entertain is considerable, and Pilsudski, who escaped from prisons, robbed Russian treasury trains and created his own Polish army, gives Hetherington a lot to work with. But it’s a long way from the time of the Goths to the height of Pilsudski’s influence in the early 20th century, and it’s hard to shake the suspicion that Hetherington has needlessly combined two books into one.
Bigger is not necessarily better, but there’s much to be enjoyed, and much to be learned, should readers take the long road to Pilsudski.