When Polish Triumph Spared Europe War
On the eve of the Soviet invasion of Poland, in 1920, Felix Dzerzhinsky, an upper class Pole who had moved to Russia and ascended the Bolshevik ranks to lead the infamous butchers of the Cheka, told Lenin:
The working masses of Warsaw are awaiting the arrival of the Red Army, but, owing to a lack of leadership and the reign of terror, are not coming forward.
“Iron Felix” criticising a reign of terror was akin to the Marquis De Sade criticising a man's excessive sexual appetites, but the Bolsheviks truly thought the Polish working classes would join them in the struggle against what the talented but vicious Red Army general Mikhail Tukhachevsky called the “bourgeois and seigneurs” keeping them down. Even Leon Trotsky, who was cautious about the prospects for war in Europe and preferred to focus Soviet attention on Asia, insisted:
The gentry and bourgeoisie of Poland will be rounded up by the Polish proletariat, who will then proceed to turn their country into a socialist Republic.
Would they indeed. In fairness, this was 1920, when it seemed that the revolutionary fire which had torn across Russia could spread across Europe and the world. If such a great and powerful figure as the Tsar had been deposed, who was to say that any other government was safe?
Polish anti-communism was not the force that it would become. It was the Tsar, and not the Bolsheviks, who had been involved in the partitioning of Poland. With General Denikin of the “White” Russians refusing to commit to Polish self-determination, Chief of State Józef Piłsudski refused to join him in his fight against the Reds. As some of his countrymen no doubt came to regret, this played a significant role in the defeat of the Whites.
As Aleksandra Leinwald writes in “Soviet propaganda and the independent Polish state”, the Bolsheviks waged a “psychological war” against Poland in an effort to convince the common Pole that “true freedom was to be brought to Polish workers and peasants on Red Army bayonets.” This propaganda exploited the unpopular image of the Polish upper classes, and the memory of the szlachta, the short-sighted self-interest of which had helped to consign the Poles to partitioning.
Piłsudski, concerned about the Soviet “westward offensive” in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 1918-1919, and the build-up of Red Army troops on Soviet borders, pre-empted what he feared would be a Bolshevik invasion by sending troops into Ukraine in collaboration with Ukrainian nationalists. Boiling with rage, the Bolsheviks sent the Red Army to push the Poles out of Ukraine and into Poland.
The Poles and the Bolsheviks made mutual accusations of brutality and vandalism against Ukrainian people and cities, doubtless not without some justice on either side, but what set the Soviet offensive apart was its brutal ambition. Tukhachevsky declared that the invasion would spread a “furious torrent” across Eastern Europe. Even the more sober Lenin, as Zara Steiner wrote in The Lights That Failed, was “tempted by the opportunity to carry the revolution to Germany and possibly to Germany itself.” As they stormed across Poland, Lenin's temptations must have intensified. Despite extremely brave Polish resistance, the ill-equipped soldiers were overpowered by Red Army, and as they approached Warsaw their triumph seemed to be inevitable.
But the Bolsheviks had underestimated the Poles: the courage and the wit of the Polish armed forces and the patriotism of the Polish people. As the historian Norman Davies writes, a “vast influx” of more than 100,000 Poles swelled the ranks of the army. The “varied range of volunteers” included:
...men and women, old and young, princes like Eugeniusz Sapieha or scythe-bearing peasants and humble factory workers. They were encouraged to come forward by their teachers, by the clergy and by all the political parties (except the Communists).
Pride in a newly independent homeland inspired these Poles, and so did religious faith. Achille Ratti, later Pius XI, refused to leave an imperilled Warsaw, where he was Nuncio, and he rallied troops against the atheistic, anti-Christian invaders. Ignacy Skorupka, chaplain of the Polish Army, died defending Warsaw on August 14th. When the Poles learned how to jam Red Army radio communications, they did so by broadcasting verses from the Book of Genesis in Morse Code.
Between the 12th and 25th of August, a hundred years ago, the Poles dealt the Bolsheviks an improbable defeat in what became known as the “Miracle on the Vistula”, as a counter-attack, led by Piłsudski, plunged the complacent Red Army into chaos. Spirit alone cannot explain military triumphs, or the Warsaw Uprising would have been victorious. The Poles had tactical achievements, and an element of luck, and the Bolsheviks were dogged by poor decision-making. But morale was a factor. The Bolsheviks expected to find friends and found dedicated foes. The people they arrogantly assumed were on their side, given their tremendous confidence in their belief system, did not appreciate an invading army rampaging through their home.
Of course, I am not suggesting that patriotism and faith are all that matter in societies. Political, cultural and, yes, class differences were contested throughout the next decades of Polish independence. There is no such thing as an entirely unified society. Still, it is inspiring that the Poles came together to defend humbler, more traditional and more transcendent values than the fanatical internationalist utopianism and resentment of the Bolsheviks.
After World War Two, when the Soviets installed a communist government in Poland, the history of the Polish triumph against the Soviets was rewritten if it was not ignored. “Official Polish textbooks,” writes Norman Davies, who devoted his first book to the conflict, “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.” In 1951, the communists erected a statue in Warsaw in honour of Felix Dzerzhinsky. When communism fell, in 1989, the Poles immediately pulled it down - to, the New York Times reported, “the cheers and songs of thousands.”