The Buzz

How Poland Saved the World from Russia

In the summer of 1920, Russia seemed poised to take over Europe.

Newly victorious in the Russian Civil War, but convinced that the capitalists were bent on strangling the cradle of Communism, the Bolsheviks looked for salvation. Their gaze fell on Germany, exhausted and embittered by defeat in the First World War, and now engulfed in civil strife between Communist revolutionaries and protofascist freikorps paramilitaries. If only the Red Army's bayonets could install a Bolshevik regime in Berlin, then the two most powerful states in Central and Eastern Europe would be united in a Communist monolith. And from there, perhaps Communism would spread to Italy, France, Hungary and beyond. Could Marx's prediction of world revolution finally be at hand?

Unfortunately for Lenin and Trotsky, an obstacle stood in their way. It was called Poland.

Like Communist Russia, Poland was also a new nation, though of a very different kind. The Bolsheviks only needed to overthrow the Tsarist government to take over the Russian state: the Poles had to create their own state. Though the seventeenth-century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had extended deep into present-day Russia and Ukraine, Poland as an independent nation had been snuffed out in the eighteenth century, its territory partitioned between the Russian, German and Austrian empires. When those empires collapsed after World War I, the Poles took advantage of the chaos to resurrect their nation.

Yet as they had for centuries, Poland and Russia again would go to war. One reason was rival claims for the borderlands between the two nations—those "bloodlands" of Belarus and Ukraine that were perpetual battlefields. The deeper cause was geography; a glance at the map shows that the land bridge from Moscow to Berlin runs through Poland, whose unfortunate fate was to be wedged between Germany and Russia.

The Bolsheviks saw Poland as a semifeudal state of nobles and rich landowners exploiting the workers and peasants. The Poles feared the Red Army would march through Poland on the way to Germany, and never leave. Ironically, the Poles had refused British entreaties to help the Whites defeat the Reds for fear that the former Tsar's generals would be just as likely to reclaim Poland for the Russian empire.

War would pit David-ski versus Goliath-ovitch. Britain and France rated Poland's chances for victory as nil against a Russian colossus endowed with vastly superior manpower and resources. But the West had not reckoned on the force of Polish nationalism and the powerful personality of Field Marshal Josef Pilsudski, the self-taught general who proved far shrewder than the professional military officers who had so badly bungled Verdun and the Somme.

Peace talks continued while both sides prepared for war. Poland struck first, launching a preemptive offensive in April 1919 that swiftly seized Kiev. But they failed in their goal to destroy the retreating Russian armies and, even worse, discovered that the Ukrainians hated Polish occupation as much as they did the Bolsheviks. Poland also learned that nationalism cuts both ways; thousands of patriotic Tsarist officers, a group once targeted for murder by the Communists, now offered their professional expertise to the Red Army in patriotic outrage against the Polish attack.

The tide turned against Poland. Led by Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, the genius of mechanized warfare later executed by Stalin, the heavily reinforced Russian armies marched on Warsaw, driving the outnumbered and outgunned Polish forces before them.

The fighting was epic, colorful and merciless. The Poles raised divisions of enthusiastic but inexperienced and poorly armed volunteers, leavened by their countrymen who had learned soldiering in the armies of Germany, Austria and Russia. From America came the Kosciuszko Squadron of American volunteer pilots. From France came the Blue Army, a Polish force trained and equipped by the the Allies to fight on the Western Front, and which even brought its own tanks.

But the Bolsheviks had their 1st Cavalry Army, the dreaded Konarmiya, a horde of thousands of fast, hard-hitting horsemen led by mustachioed Marshal Semyon Budyonny. Russia also had sympathizers abroad; British dockworkers and German and Czech railwaymen heeded Moscow's call to save the socialist motherland and refuse to load supplies for Poland. Just as in 1939, Britain and France promised support but did little, other than to send a few advisers (Charles de Gaulle among them) who claimed much credit but contributed very little to the Polish war effort.

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