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Norman Davies: the Battle of Warsaw one hundred years on

August 12, 2020

By Norman Davies

This article is published in association with The Relief Society For Poles Trust

The Cud nad Wisłą, or Miracle on the Vistula, was no miracle. It was a hard-fought battle, which took place in August 1920 near Warsaw and ended in a decisive Polish victory over the Red Army of Soviet Russia. It was won by the skill, discipline and determination of the Polish defenders; by the patriotic spirit of a large number of volunteers; and by Marshal Józef Piłsudski’s brilliant counterattack, which stopped the Soviet offensive in its tracks.

Only afterward were theories put forward by Piłsudski’s nationalist opponents suggesting that victory should be ascribed either to General Maxime Weygand or to Providence. The height of the battle happened to coincide with the Feast of the Assumption when many Polish Catholics prayed for their country’s salvation. So, people naturally felt their prayers had been answered.

Suppressed knowledge

As a student of Modern History at Oxford, I never heard a word about the Polish-Soviet War; it had no place on the intellectual radar screens of British historians. But I began to mend my ignorance on the subject as soon as I visited Poland in the early 1960s.

An early source of information was my future father-in-law, Professor Marian Zieliński, who lived in Kęty near Bielsko. He explained that Communist censorship was suppressing knowledge of the Soviet defeat, adding that everyone knew what had really happened thanks to the experiences of their families. He himself had fought in the war as a teenager and went on to describe some of his amazing adventures.

In the summer of 1920, the young Marian Zieliński was a 16-year old pupil in the gymnasium of Tarnów, a town well known for its recent patriotic support for Piłsudski’s Polish Legions. As the school year was finishing, he and most of the boys in his class skipped school, walked the 300 km to Warsaw, found a recruiting office, lied about their age, and joined the army.

There was no time for formal training. The “Bolshevik hordes” were already on the march. The young volunteers were assigned to the Siberian Brigade, which consisted of trained Polish conscripts from the disbanded Tsarist Army and which had escaped from Russia via the Far East; each of them was paired up with a hardened veteran, who was ordered to teach the teenager on the way to the front how to load, fire and clean their heavy English rifles. They were sent to the fortress of Modlin, where General Władysław Sikorski’s Fifth Army was deployed.

Then, following Sikorski’s successful action on the River Wkra, they pushed northwards towards the Prussian frontier, where, near Chorzele, they ran into the “Red Cossacks” of Ghai Khan. This was to be Marian’s baptism of fire. Kneeling behind a thorn bush, he struggled desperately with his jammed rifle, as a saber-wielding Cossack charged.

Closing his eyes from fright, he heard the galloping hooves, the swish of the whirling saber and the single shot fired by his veteran companion. The Cossack fell dead from the saddle; and the riderless horse rolled over them both, man and boy.

For me, who had never fired a gun in anger, the combination of these romantic tales with the frisson of “taboo” proved irresistible. In the eyes of a budding historian, there is nothing so attractive as the forbidden fruit of officially denied events. Polish history in the years 1918-21 became the first topic of my academic research, and eventually of my very first book.

In those days, I cannot remember anyone talking of the “Polish-Bolshevik War”. English books talked (inaccurately) of the “Russo-Polish War”, usually very cursorily and invariably with the assumption that it was Poland which had attacked Russia and not vice versa. Official Polish textbooks, if they mentioned it at all, wrote of the “Wojna Polska-Radziecka”, which, they said, was “pursued in the interests of the great Polish landowners”, which “brought enormous losses to the country”, and which ended mysteriously after the Red Army chose to retreat.

For myself, seeing that the new-born Polish Republic was confronted by the armed forces of three Soviet republics – Soviet Russia, Soviet Belarus and Soviet Ukraine – I have always called it the “Polish-Soviet War”, and kept to the formula in my book, White Eagle, Red Star, published in in 1972.

The Polish-Soviet War

The war between Poland and the Soviet republics lasted from February 1919 to the ceasefire of October 1920 and was formally ended by the Treaty of Riga signed on 18 March 1921. (Incidentally, it was concluded prior to the formation of the Soviet Union in 1923. Another frequent mistake is to say that Poland was fighting the Soviet Union.) It is important to stress, however, that the fighting occurred in two distinct phases, and that each phase had its specific characteristics.

The 1919 campaign was essentially territorial. In the first year of its existence, the Polish Republic, like most of the neighboring states, was struggling to establish its frontiers. Further East, the Russian Civil War between “Reds” and “Whites” was in full flow, and in many non-Russian provinces of the former Tsarist Empire, complicated three-sided contests were in progress between the Bolsheviks, the Whites and local national movements.

Piłsudski sought in vain to form a federation of like-minded border states, so concentrated instead on securing a solid block of territory. He rebuffed the “White” General Denikin, who thought absurdly that the “Whites” could co-opt the Poles while denying them self-determination. He took control of West Ukraine (East Galicia) including Lwów, occupied both Wilno and Minsk, and sent troops across the frozen Dvina to help the Latvians.

After a brief interval in the winter, the campaign of 1920 was to assume a totally different, ideological character. So long as the Bolsheviks were preoccupied with the Civil War, they had nothing in mind beyond their survival. But, having conquered the Russian heartland in the course of 1919, they began to heed the dictates of their ideology, which told them that the Communist Revolution should be exported from Russia to Germany, Marx’s homeland, at the first opportunity.

“The Red Bridge”

According to Marxist theory, Russia’s largely peasant society was unsuited to a genuine proletarian revolution, and most Bolshevik theorists, like Nikolai Bukharin, accepted that their movement’s long-term interests demanded a link-up with more developed countries, where a substantial industrial proletariat existed.

After long hesitations, Lenin now cast caution aside, believing that the moment had come for expansion. Trotsky, the Commissar for War, objected, knowing the Red Army’s limitations, and proposing that the first wave of revolutionary expansion should be directed against Asia, not Europe. But he was overruled. For Lenin also assumed (wrongly) that the Red Army would be welcomed by the oppressed workers and peasants along the way. In this scenario, Poland occupied the “Red Bridge” which the Red Army had to cross on the route from Russia to Germany.

The winter of 1919-20 was a critical time. Lenin was calling loudly for peace with Poland, while blatantly building up the Red Army’s presence in Russia’s western regions. Writing about this fifty years ago, I talked about Piłsudski’s “sound instincts” in resisting Lenin’s blandishments. We now know that he was receiving detailed reports from Polish radio intelligence which provided concrete evidence of the Bolsheviks’ bad faith.

As the new campaigning season approached, Piłsudski realized that doing nothing would be fatal, and his response was twofold. Firstly, he opened an alliance with Semeon Petlura’s Ukrainian Directorate, and secondly, in the company of Petlura’s Ukrainian divisions, sought to disrupt Lenin’s preparations by moving on Bolshevik-occupied Kyiv. The Polish Army marched eastwards in late April, and within three weeks was welcomed in Kyiv with flowers.

Predictably, the Soviet propaganda machine reacted furiously, denouncing “Polish imperialism” and deluging western capitals with strikes and placards demanding “HANDS OFF RUSSIA”. As usual, western opinion misjudged the realities.

Few westerners knew that Kyiv was no longer part of Russia or that Bolshevism could be a threat to anyone. Indeed, in that imperial era, many people thought that the idea of national independence set a dangerous precedent. British trade unions followed the Communist lead, identifying Piłsudski as the aggressor and vowing to block all military supplies to Poland.

Although the Kyiv operation gained a little time, it did not go well. Ukraine was still riven by numerous armed factions, and Petlura failed to assert his overall authority. Before long, the Bolsheviks were assembling a powerful strike force led by the formidable “Konarmia” of Semyeon Budyonny, which was withdrawn from the front fighting Denikin’s “Whites”. The Polish garrison in Kyiv became increasingly isolated and decided to withdraw. As one veteran put it, “We ran all the way to Kyiv, and ran all the way back.”

Bolshevik propaganda was not without effect in Poland. Although Polish society was still overwhelmingly rural, and Poland’s prime minister in 1920, Wincenty Witos, leader of the Polish People’s Party (PSL), was an archetypal peasant from Tarnów, the hostile Communist slogan of “Pan’skaya Pol’sha“, or “Poland of the Landlords”, had strong historical overtones, and resonated widely, especially among Belarusians and Ukrainians in the eastern borderlands (Kresy).

Furthermore, the Bolsheviks appealed strenuously to the large Jewish community, urging them to desert their “Polish masters”. Those appeals fell largely on deaf ears; most Polish Jews were religiously conservative, spurned right-wing Zionists and left-wing Communists alike, and remained loyal to Poland. Even so, the unfair stereotype of Żydokomuna (Judeo-Communism) took root, and the Polish army took needless precautions by interning considerable numbers of Jewish soldiers.

Red Army offensive

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