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June 20, 2024

Why Do Poles Fight, Even When It is Hopeless?


Marek Jan Chodakiewicz

I would like to reflect briefly on just two Polish last stands in the 20th century: the Battle of Zadwórze (August 17, 1920), during the Polish-Soviet War, and the Battle of Wizna (September 7-10, 1939) during the September Campaign of 1939.  The former last stand was against the Communists and the latter against the Nazis. Why do the Poles fight, even when it is hopeless?

I wish in my story to complement Michael Walsh’s strategic and cultural approach to the problem in his Last Stands: Why Men Fight When All is Lost (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2020). “It has been the thesis of this book that while technology may change, human nature is immutable” (p. 302).

Walsh, who is a good acquaintance, has the courage to write about controversial things. Who else would be bold enough to muse over defeat? Why? “It was only natural that some good had to be found in this, and that good was to be found in innate ideals of bravery, martial skills, physical prowess, moral courage, and endurance, and a willingness to fight to the death, which after all was the only option, other than flight, a soldier had back then” (p. 177). Furthermore: “Even when all was lost, they turned a potential rout into a last stand by adhering to discipline, trusting in their drill and training – not to spare them from a fate that was almost certainly theirs, but from shame, disgrace, and dishonor” (p. 302).

But first, let us consider, specifically, why the Poles fight at all. The Poles fight for a cause that is greater than themselves. Namely, they fight for their country, Poland. When they say Poland, they do not mean an ideological abstract. Her people, places, memories, smells, food, and, foremostly, culture make their native land so valuable.

The Poles also believe that their struggle is for freedom. So, historically, they have fought either to recover liberty or to defend it. They did so against odds so overwhelming that their resistance amounted to a last stand in some cases. They gave it all they had.

Walsh sums up this attitude: “Does anyone in the West still think and talk like this? Do we still have a concept of what it is like to live – and die – nobly? Do we even have family names upon which to bring dignity instead of notoriety or celebrity? Who still believes in going to eternal joy? Or is self-sacrifice a fool’s errand, a suicide charge into oblivion, which the world will little note and not long remember? If nothing is worth dying for, then what are we living for?” (p. 181).

Thus, idealism propels those who sacrifice everything by taking their last stands. Naturally, whereas idealism is the chief inspiring element, there are other factors; I shall refer to them shortly.

Now, however, let us address the critics. I am cognizant that there will be objections to and guffaws at such statements in our post-modernist age. Well, I am laughing as the derision spewers back.

I also realize that not all people from Poland cherish the ultimate sacrifice of fighting, particularly when it leads to last stands, considered suicidal by many. As Walsh has put it, “We seek to bury our past for having the effrontery for not living up to the moral standards of the present” (p. 78).  Moreover, “Cynics may, and do scoff that these are outmoded virtues (if indeed they were ever virtues at all) from a bygone era, relics of barbarism, sexism and ‘the patriarchy.’ In an age when nuclear annihilation is just a hot button away, what does it matter if men are willing to fight to the end? That some are willing to do just that never seems to occur to them. Only a nihilist or a fatalist could believe otherwise” (p. 302).

Further, I know that most intellectuals today deride sacrifice and recoil from armed resistance even in a righteous cause. I understand moreover that many in the West have foresworn war while remaining giddy about revolution.

Therefore let me qualify my assertions above. When I say “the Poles,” I do not just mean the denizens of a place whose current west-east borders are between the Oder and Bug Rivers, and in the north-south, they span from the Carpathians to the Baltic Sea. Further, by “the Poles,” I do not necessarily mean ethnicity.

What I mean by “Polish” is a conscious devotion to the idea of passing the torch of Polish culture from past generations to the current one with a mission to convey it to the next generations in the future. In this way, Polishness denotes continuity.

Without continuity, no uninterrupted phenomenon of nationality exists. Nationality cannot be contrived freshly today ad novum; it cannot be imagined ex nihilio. It must be predicated upon an ancient paradigm that, along the way of its historical march, absorbs various accretions that complement its essence and strengthen its nature.

For nationality to make any sense, it must stem from history.  It is a Burkean compact between the dead, the living, and the unborn. In the first things that define us, the dead showed us the way, we emulate them, and we hope the unborn will do so as well.

Those who realize the essential function of continuity and who defend the cultural chain of Polish liberty qualify as Poles, their ethnic background notwithstanding. They do not have to be Polish ethnically to want to fight for her freedom. There must be unity of culture and a unity of purpose stemming from it.

Welsh argues “that ‘diversity’ as a cardinal organizing principle is the death of unified societies, as the Roman Empire discovered too late; and that hate, properly channeled, can be a powerful protective emotion, as the Indians at the Little Bighorn and the Russians at Stalingrad proved” (p. 304). Therefore “diversity, it seems, was of as little use to the Mexicans [at the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836] as it was to the Romans in the fifth century. There was no ‘strength’ in it, only trouble” (p. 191). Cultural unity allows the Poles (and others, including Americans) to realize that “our history is written with their bones dipped in their blood and the blood of their enemies” (p. 74).

Those who do not care about any of this have written themselves out of the chain of Polish continuity. If they did so consciously, then they are post-Poles. Otherwise, they are just raw ethnographic material devoid of national consciousness. Thus, once again, they do not qualify as Poles.

Incidentally, this scheme concerns any nationality. People rejecting a chain of continuity of nationhood predicated on common values must imagine themselves outside of it. From the point of view of mentality, once they get rid of continuity and tradition, they become entirely different beings. They no longer will be, say, Americans, but something else altogether.

Undoubtedly, one expects Americans to fight for America. Freedom is not free. It often costs blood. Same applies to the Poles and others. “One of the fallacies of modern historical interpretation is that what’s past is past, that it dies along with its protagonists. But does it? History has a longer arc than modernity might suspect. And it may not always bend toward ‘justice’” (p. 161).

So why do some men fight when there seems to be no chance of survival? There are several explanations.

Even if we are outmatched and outnumbered, we can still imagine ourselves shouting along with William “Braveheart” Wallace: “Freedom!”. Or at least we can argue that, even though the enemy is too many, we still should fight them to make a point. We do not need to win. We just must fight them. Once in a blue moon, that calls for a last stand.

Further, there is honor, or, more precisely, “death before dishonor,” according to Walsh (p. 119). “The word the ancients used was honor. In the post-World War II era [in the West], ‘honor’ has become risible, an archaic insult, the taunt of the atheist and the weakling against the strong. A hero goes to his death willingly; we moderns call that man a chump” (p. 75). Yet, “to flinch from danger or to shirk one’s duty was, to an honorable man, never to be preferred to death in the service of your country and your fellow soldiers. Self-preservation was never the better part of valor” (p. 210).

The ultimate sacrifice of life springs from rapid developments, even if it is ground in ideals: “For them, as for all soldiers, the battle was here and now, and it was in that eternal present that they fought, died, and now live on” (p. 182).

Preeminent British military historian John Keegan, in his The Face of Battle (New York: Viking, 1976) and other works, argues that men fight for their fellow soldiers, starting at the very bottom: the squad or platoon.

Most immediately, men will sacrifice themselves for their comrades and friends. Other factors are secondary or, perhaps, even unimportant. Extreme conditions of war facilitate situations where only strong bonds of friendship can account for the men’s selfless endurance and sacrifice in the face of peril. Thus, in a way, Keegan’s is an operational and tactical take on why men fight.

A leading American cultural critic, Michael Walsh, holds that men fight to protect the home and hearth, particularly women and children. In other words, they fight for the survival of their bloodline. “In sum, the essence of the human condition is the struggle for physical survival” (p. 33).

He further explicates, “Today, we fight over politics and seek political solutions to problems so academically intractable that, thanks to political correctness, we can no longer give them either tongue or voice. For at root, war is not about ideology – no one dies for an abstract, impersonal concept, no matter how motivated or animated he was at first by its tenets – but by the most personal and elemental emotions to which the human animal is given: home, hearth, country, faith, leader” (p. 169).

Sometimes it is as simple as this: “they did their duty – which is the essence of heroism” (p. 284). That is also why they fight.

Thus, for him, war, including last stands, is a purely male affair. “They were as men possessed; but, this is what men do when pushed to the edge. It may not be the most attractive human characteristic, and our kinder, gentler age may recoil from what appears to be barbarity; but, it is as vital and essential to masculinity – and thus, in tandem with femininity, to humanity” (p. 247).

And further: “Heroism is not solely about culture, history, ethnicity, and religion. Rather it is, at root, about masculinity… In the main,… women (and feminized men) make poor political leaders in times of existential strife, their natural inclination to feminine virtues such as tolerance, as well as their innate sympathy for the stranger or the outsider, leads them to seek to understand their opponents rather than defeat them unconditionally and with all necessary force. Whether we like it or not, masculinity with its attendant bellicosity is rare, in fact, the glue that preserves and holds civilization together. A primal force, it is deadly to both friend and enemy. It is amoral: in a last stand, there is no turning of the other cheek to receive the slap. Instead, one gets the thrust to the heart. As much as it pains the modern West to admit it, war appears to be the natural state of mankind, and peace the aberration” (pp. 33-34).

For the record, that may be the case elsewhere, but in Poland, men and women fight hand in hand. No less an authority than the fabulous Victorian adventurer, traveler, and spy Richard Francis Barton admitted as much about the Polish ladies in the 19th century. They sometimes literally struggle on the battlefield alongside their men, as in the Polish-Bolshevik War of 1920 and the Warsaw Rising of 1944. So here, the author of Last Stands falls short by failing to learn about the Polish exception. Does it prove the general rule?

Nonetheless, Walsh recognizes that his general scheme must be commodious enough to include other factors that drive us to struggle. “Why do men fight? What or whom is worth dying for?… They fight for themselves, for their brothers-in-arms, and therefore for their women and children and for their country, which is the expression of the family. Without women, there are no children, and without children, there is no future. And, without the country – a patria which means ‘fatherland’ – there is nothing but the tribe, the family, the self” (p. 19).

Last Stands is not a military history, strictly speaking. It is a pean to “untrammeled masculine bellicosity” (p. 54). It is an absolutely delightful tour de force blending history, legend, and Hollywood with art – sculpture, and music. Walsh’s erudition is that of a generalizer and popularizer. One savors his quotes in Latin and Germans. One delights in his cultural musings and literary and film criticism. One rejoices at his identifying both Nazis and Communists as deriving from “the German political left” (p. 95); of referencing the two great socialist powers of Europe, National Socialist Germany and the Communist Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” (p. 286); and of the fact that “identity politics was the essence of the National Socialist German Workers Party” (p. 97).

One appreciates his dedicating Last Stands to his father. The author refers to him throughout but devotes the last chapter to the paternal adventures in the Korean War, a denouement of the chain of continuity of war and last stands. “Never give up, no matter how steep the cost,” the writer concludes. “They were determined to win or die trying… And perhaps this is the definition of true courage: the ability to function, as coolly as possible, not in the face of certain death but in the indifferent face of random uncertainty” (p. 218).

But first, Walsh weighs his evidence: the paradigmatic last stand: Thermopylae. It was Oriental despotism vs. freedom. The author’s musings next about the battles of Cannae and the Teutobourg Forest pitted Rome vs. Barbarism. That meant squaring off against the Carthaginians, who slaughtered children for Baal, and Teutons, who “hanged traitors and deserters but killed cowards and sodomites by burying them alive, face down, in a bog. They sacrificed animals and sometimes people as well” (p. 71). Rather than Roland’s horn, an enormous ego resounded during the last stand at the Ronceavaux Pass (Chapter IV), as it did with Custer at Little Big Horn (Chapter X).

In between we have Hastings, the Swiss Guards (whose defeat at Rome was “followed by an orgy of rapine and plunder that ultimately went on for ten months” (p. 154), Szigetvar, and three major 19th-century American battles, as well as British last stands in the Sudan and southern Africa (“at close quarters, the Africans were unafraid to grab for the British rifles by the bayonet, heedless of the pain; had the soldier just reloaded, the warriors were blown apart, point-blank. And they still came, (p. 265). Finally, Welsh recounts his father’s exploits at the Chosin Reservoir.

The author focuses almost exclusively on Western last stands (p. 140), which means a book needs yet to be written with a more universal profile. For example, one can find inspiration in literature, Junichiro Tanizaki’s Secret History of the Lord of Musashi and Arrowroot (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), to savor the Japanese way of the battlefield. As for scholarship, there are fine depictions of the Siege of Osaka in 1615 – much to choose from.

The only exception to the Western-centric paradigm is the Nazi siege of Pavlov’s House at Stalingrad and the Zealot defense of Masada against the Romans. Welsh compares and contrasts the latter with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. Sadly, he fails to give justice to the Zionist-Revisionist Jewish Military Union (ŻZW) and, like most others, overfocuses on the leftist Jewish Fighting Organization (ŻOB). The Ghetto Uprising, alas, is the author’s only last stand connected to Poland (p. 100).

Michael Walsh thus missed out on unbelievable epics. I would like to give him two stories. During the Polish-Bolshevik War at Zadwórze, south-eastern Poland, on August 17, 1921, a small Polish unit refused to yield to the Konarmiya of Semen Budyonni.  Three hundred thirty young volunteers, many of them famous “Eagle Cubs” (Orlęta) of Lwów, both high school and university students, put up fierce resistance against a Soviet cavalry division supported by artillery.

The Soviets went on their offensive on August 12th, trying to capture Lwów. The Polish volunteers were tasked with slowing them down. On August 17th, to avoid outflanking, they were ordered to retreat.  However, they encountered fierce enemy artillery fire. To limit casualties, the Polish commanding officer, Captain Bolesław Zajączkowski, split his forces: cavalry and infantry went their separate ways.

The latter withdrew through Zadwórze. Within a couple of square kilometers, the Polish infantrymen attacked and counterattacked against the Red Army for the next eleven hours. The Soviets fielded at least a division – a minimum of 10,000 men – against them. However, the Poles captured the railroad station, which became the pivot of their resistance.

An attempt to break out failed as the Red cavalrymen descended on the volunteers in an open field. Unexpectedly, three Polish Air Force planes swooped down from the sky, strafing the Bolsheviks so that the volunteers could retreat in some order.

Low on ammunition, the survivors regrouped again near the railroad station.  The Bolsheviks shouted for them to surrender.  The Polish commanding officer issued his last order: “Boys, to the last bullet!”

When the Poles ran out of ammunition, they fought with bayonets, rifle butts, and entrenchment tools. Almost all of them perished. Some committed suicide rather than give up. Others were dispatched by the Communists. Three hundred eighteen died out of 330.

The Reds took virtually no prisoners. According to Isaack Babel, a Communist cavalryman: “The battlefield. I rode together with the War Commander along the first line; we beseech them not to kill the prisoners. Apasenko washes his hands; Sheko blurted out – why not? This played a horrific role. I did not look at their faces. They pierced them with bayonets, they shot one dead body after another, they were still tearing the clothes off from one; they were slaughtering another; moans, shouts, whizzing… They have now pulled someone out from hiding. Apasenko [shouts] – do not waste ammunition, slaughter him. Apasenko says that always – slaughter the nurse, slaughter the Poles.”

One of the fallen was nineteen-year-old Konstanty Zarugiewicz, a Pole of Armenian origin and a highly decorated veteran of the wars for independence. His body was never found. In 1925 his mother, Jadwiga Zarugiewiczowa, was tasked to participate in the exhumation of the victims and select one of the casualties to be buried at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw. She pointed to an unknown volunteer, whose age was subsequently established to have been about 14 years old. She escorted the coffin to Poland’s capital, where it was reburied.

The story of Zadwórze is still rather unknown in Poland, not to mention in the US. Nevertheless, in Poland Wizna, our following example remains quite well known, and in America, at least among specialists, some have heard of the struggle there.

During the Campaign of September 1939, the battle pitted about 720 Polish soldiers against the German Third Army and, in particular, General Heinz Guderian’s entire XIX Armeekorps der Panzertruppen. The battle lasted for four days along a front of about 9 kilometers.

Led by Capitan Władysław Raginis, the Polish unit occupied the high ground on the eastern banks of the Narew and Biebrza River. They were partly entrenched and commanded the field of fire from their dozen or so bunkers, although these lacked proper ventilation.  The fortifications were not finished, however, and the Polish outfits lacked appropriate anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. Their artillery was antiquated. There were too few troops to defend the entire area. Nonetheless, together with a fellow officer, Raginis swore an oath that he would neither surrender nor retreat.

The battle was joined on September 7. Skirmishes ensued and, because of Polish stubbornness, a bottleneck of German units occurred on the opposite bank of the Narew River. They failed both to cross and deploy.

On the next day, however, the Germans pierced the defensive line; yet they failed to end the resistance despite massive bombardment by planes and artillery. Massive bunkers and their crews continued to fight. Small bunkers were knocked out, but some of their crews managed to flee.

The following day Guderian himself appeared and ordered new air and land assaults. Consequently, the Polish artillery was completely wiped out. Most bunkers were destroyed; the Polish troops resisted in the trenches for a few more hours before retreating.

However, the command bunker and a few other resistance points persevered despite Captain Raginis being wounded. Major Malzer of the XIX Armeekorps recalled that: “Despite our panzer fire, neutralizing of their machine guns, and blowing up the entry doors, the Poles kept on fighting. Finally, one of the sappers ended the resistance by climbing once again on the bunker and throwing a few hand grenades there. Only in such a way was the resistance of the Poles broken. Inside, we found seven bodies.”

On the morning of September 10, only the command bunker kept on firing. When it ran out of ammunition, Captain Raginis allowed his soldiers to exit to surrender while he committed suicide. Chalk it up to Henryk Sienkiewicz, if you must.

The heroes of Wizna are commemorated at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw. School kids still learn about the sacrifice of Captain Raginis. Further, heavy metal rock fans worldwide have heard about the Battle at Wizna because of a hit by the Swedish group “Sabaton.”

The outcome of both battles was defeat; if anything, the defenders in each instance succeeded in retarding the enemy’s progress by a day or three. It eventually contributed to victory in 1920, but it failed to stave off Poland’s defeat in 1939. So for some, the slaughter was senseless sacrifice.

However, at the spiritual level, it was not. Both at Zadwórze and Wizna, the men struggled for Poland’s freedom. They never surrendered. And that is the key to success. Marshall Józef Piłsudski stressed that “To be defeated and not to surrender is victory.” Just like Sun Tzu cautioned: the enemy is not defeated until his will to fight is broken.

Poland was overrun many times in history. However, it never gave up. As Walsh put it, in reference to his topics, but equally applicable to Poland: “And here we arrive at a key element in all our accounts of last stands, which is the cultural confidence it takes to relate these stories. History is generally written by the winners, but sometimes… it takes a crushing loss in order to inspire the winning side to victory” (p. 174).

So long as there is a chain of continuity, from one generation to the next, this spirit of defiance will never change, for better or worse. “And even when we know the ending of the outcome – Leonidas dies, Roland dies, Zrinyi dies – we nonetheless watch, look, and listen raptly to the ordained, immutable end. Even when evil triumphs over good, as it so often does, we want to see it – and then see good return for the rematch” (p. 175).

Poland’s national anthem spells all this out in a stanza: “Poland has not perished yet so long as we live/what the alien power has taken from us/we shall recover with our saber.” That means that one’s country, Poland, in this instance, remains alive so long as there are patriots who refuse to acknowledge their nation’s demise. Even when those patriots take their last stand and perish, their legacy lives on from generation to generation.

That is why, ultimately, last stands are never futile. They live in legends. Ask Michael Walsh: “In the end, all that is left is culture, which derives from faith, which itself derives from essential human nature. It is how we choose to interpret and immanentize that nature that lies at the heart of all human conflict” (p. 122).

At any rate, aside from the sad Polish lacuna in Last Stands, there are a few other errors. For example, Emperor Maximilian of Mexico was a Habsburg and not a Bourbon (p. 196); pace Welsh, Russia was/is very much a colonial power (p. 300). But all that can be fixed and does not detract from the sheer fun of reading this literary-military tour de force.

Washington, DC, 12 September 2021

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