It’s a scenario that will seem quite familiar to us today. A revolutionary rogue state, bent on world domination, spreading its ideology and influence as far as it can, by fair means or foul. But, 100 years ago this month, it was revolutionary Russia that was hitting the headlines for its expansionist ambitions, and it was Poland that stood in its way.
Viewed from a British perspective, it is easy to imagine the interwar period – with the Jarrow March, the General Strike and the Great Depression – as one characterised primarily by economic rather than military challenges. Yet, for much of central Europe, the time after the end of the First World War was marked by conflict: states emerged, or re-emerged, and frontiers were redrawn, often with violence. To paraphrase Churchill’s pithy quip: the War of the Titans gave way to the War of the Pygmies.
Though largely forgotten in Britain, the most significant, and long-lasting, of those wars was the Polish-Soviet War, which raged for 18 months from the spring of 1919. It had its origins in the standard frontier squabble. Poland, re-emerging after 123 years of absence from the map of Europe and capitalising on the chaos then engulfing revolutionary Russia, was seeking to push its eastern frontier as far as possible to incorporate as many formerly-Polish lands as it could.
In this way, the Poles reached – and took – Kiev in the spring of 1920, but that was to prove their high-water mark. The Soviet counter-offensive that followed pushed them back, and kept pushing, spurred by the humiliation that a Polish invasion provoked.
Soviet successes soon bred grander strategic aims. Survival morphed into expansion. Lenin, only newly ensconced in the Kremlin, was acutely aware of the need to expand the communist system – not only to help realise Marx’s universalist ambitions, but also to secure the revolution at home. His Red Army, now advancing westward, was the ideal vector: communism would be exported on the tips of its bayonets.
In that ambition, Germany was seen as key. Lenin knew that the success of the communist revolution in Russia was ideologically anomalous. According to Marxist doctrine, communism was supposed to be the scientifically inevitable product of the collapse of the capitalist system; it was meant to occur in those countries with a highly developed industrial sector and a highly politicised proletariat.
Russia fulfilled neither of these criteria, of course, but Germany – then wracked by the political fallout of its defeat and collapse at the end of the First World War – was the perfect candidate, and appeared to be ripe for revolution. That spring had already seen both a left-wing revolt in the Ruhr, and an attempted coup by the right – the Kapp Putsch – seek to seize power in Berlin. The arrival of the Red Army on Germany’s eastern frontier would most likely have doomed the nascent Weimar Republic to an ignominious cot-death.
So it was that, as the Red Army approached Warsaw that summer, it was assumed that the Poles were already beaten, and the next target was already in Lenin’s sights. As the order of the day to Red Army troops put it: “Over the corpse of White Poland, to worldwide conflagration!” It was a fair assumption. Polish forces were falling back in disarray, driven into retreat by the blood-soaked proto-Blitzkrieg of the Red Army’s Konarmia, the “Red Cavalry”. Brest-Litovsk fell to the Soviets on 1 August, Lwów was already under siege. Warsaw appeared to be next.
Internationally, the constellation was little rosier. German dockworkers in Danzig went on strike rather than unload ammunition bound for the Poles. French socialists declared their opposition to “reactionary and capitalist Poland”, as did their confrères in Britain, spurred by the armchair revolutionaries of the “Hands off Russia” campaign. When the government in Warsaw published an “Appeal to the World”, in early August, explaining the dangers of a Bolshevik invasion of Europe, it fell largely on deaf ears. Only a small group of French military advisors – including a young Charles de Gaulle – arrived in the capital seeking to stiffen Polish resolve.
Not that Polish resolve needed much stiffening. With a Soviet “Revolutionary Committee” waiting in the wings, and secret policemen and “requisitioning agents” running amok in those areas already under Soviet control, the grim realities of Soviet rule were brutally evident. Poland’s very survival appeared to be at stake.
The end, when it came, was brutally swift. After the Red Army spearhead’s advance was checked at Radzymin, to the east of Warsaw that August, a Polish counterattack drove northward into the overextended Soviet flank, finally defeating the Red Army in a ten-day engagement, which would cost around 20,000 lives. Known to Poles as “The Miracle on the Vistula”, the battle not only relieved the capital, it routed Soviet forces, scattering them north into East Prussia and Lithuania.
With that, the Soviet front collapsed, and the Kremlin finally sued for peace. Lenin’s drive to spread communism westward to Germany and beyond was halted – for a generation – and Poland’s independence was secured – again, for a generation. Germany, too, was temporarily saved from the horrors of totalitarian revolution.
Few outside Poland – at the time, or since – have fully appreciated the significance of the Battle of Warsaw. One of those who did was Edgar Vincent, 1st Viscount D’Abernon, a prominent businessman and MP, who was a member of the Allied advisory mission that had arrived in Warsaw that summer. Writing later about the importance of the Polish victory at Warsaw, he was categorical, stating that, had the Poles “failed to arrest the triumphant advance of the Soviet Army at the Battle of Warsaw, not only would Christianity have experienced a dangerous reverse, but the very existence of western civilisation would have been imperilled.” No surprise, perhaps, that the battle is remembered in modern Poland as the Cud na Wisłą, the “Miracle on the Vistula”.
Sometimes it is useful to be reminded of historical precedents; particularly so in times of crisis, when present tribulations can seem overwhelming. History doesn’t repeat itself, of course, but it can provide echoes and patterns, which often serve to inform our understanding. The Battle of Warsaw is just such an example; a reminder that – though circumstances can change – existential threats are nothing new, and moreover, they are not unavoidable; deliverance can come from an unexpected quarter. For these reasons alone, it is very much worth remembering.
©Roger Moorhouse 2020