How Poland saved Europe
Lenin’s Failed Conquest of Europe
by Adam Zamoyski
Paperback: 224 pages
Rec. price: AUD$28.00
Poles fought in two little-known, but pivotal, wars during Europe’s modern era, both of which, if lost, meant a fundamental — root and branch — reshaping of European society and culture.
The first was in 1683, when Poland, with King Jan Sobieski III as commander-in-chief, contributed 20,000 men to an already 55,000-strong Christian coalition force that went on to defeat the Turkish Muslims at their second Siege of Vienna.
Thereafter — over more than a century — Austrian forces and ongoing Habsburg-initiated resettlement programs steadily re-consolidated Europe’s hold over most of the Balkans that had fallen under Turkish sway.
If Sobieski hadn’t joined to help swing the balance towards the belated European alliance, there would have arisen a powerful centrally-located Islamic fiefdom enveloping all of Austria, Bohemia and Moravia. Clearly Europe would today be markedly different — religiously, ethnically, politically, and in so many other ways.
Europe’s near miss
A similar European “near miss” occurred again 237 years later, in 1920.
This time the Poles, led by Józef Pilsudski, blocked a concerted Soviet bid to enter the heart of Europe to transform first Poland, then Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia (Bohemia-Moravia and Slovakia), France, the Low Countries, and eventually Great Britain, into one-party communist states.
Things would have been very different not only for all European states but also for their offspring colonial cousins in distant lands. Just how Australia and New Zealand would have fared so soon after the costly Great War is another moot point.
Adam Zamoyski’s Warsaw 1920: Lenin’s Failed Conquest of Europe considers this historical clash and its outcome. He asks why, if this clash was so crucial, so few are aware of it. He offers three reasons.
First, because the Polish-Soviet War merely prevented something from taking place, namely the communisation of Europe, “rather than reversing it”. “This meant, says Zamoyski, “that it had no palpable impact on anyone not directly involved”.
Second, because post-1918 historians “were mostly pre-occupied with other themes, such as composing triumphalist accounts of the Great War from their own national standpoint”.
And, finally, Soviet histories only cursorily refer to their defeat at Warsaw, and then only within the context of the Russian Civil War which the Soviets won.
To understand why Warsaw was besieged in 1920, it is important to appreciate Lenin and Pilsudski’s radically differing visions for a post-World War I European order.
Lenin envisaged eastern, central and western Europe, including Great Britain, forming a network of Bolshevik states, akin to what Eastern Europe was like between 1945 and 1989, with the Soviet capital Moscow as the communist New Jerusalem.
Pilsudski sought an independent Poland operating in a loose confederation with neighbouring Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine, to ensure that neither Germany to Poland’s west nor Russia to its east could ever again dominate the lands between the Baltic and Black seas.
It must be stressed that Pilsudski had a unique and intimate insight into Bolshevism. Both he and his family knew members of Lenin’s family, the Ulyanovs. Pilsudki’s brother, Bronislaw, was involved with Lenin’s older brother, Alexander Ulyanov, in an assassination attempt on Czar Alexander III. More-over, both Pilsudski — a socialist but not a Bolshevik — and Lenin, had been exiled to Siberia.
An early Pilsudski preventative move was the alliance he struck in April 1920 with Ukrainian nationalist, Simon Petliura, to help him create an independent Ukraine.
Their joint attack on the Russian Bolsheviks, however, proved to be a debacle and was rebuffed by a two-pronged Soviet Red Army drive towards Warsaw — by a northern army led by Mikhail Tukhachevsky and a southern one led by Aleksandr Yegorov and Josef Stalin.
Lenin’s major advantage in this conflict was his side’s adeptness in propaganda. Western, including especially German, leftists backed the Soviet side vocally and blocked aid shipments to Poland.
Pilsudski’s major asset was his army’s radio eavesdropping skills. The Poles adeptly monitored the radio traffic of both wings of the Soviet army. The intelligence gained greatly contributed to the subsequent resounding success of Pilsudski’s famous counter swing which destroyed, first, Tukhachevsky’s forces — the so-called Miracle of the Vistula — and, later, Yegorov’s.
Poland was thus victorious in the summer of 1920, sparing Europe another continent-wide conflagration and confining the communist experiment to the Soviet Union.
However, within two decades that victory was lost. In 1939, under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Hitler and Stalin together destroyed Poland. In 1941, Hitler turned upon Stalin and attacked the Soviet Union. In 1945, Soviet forces helped the west defeat Hitler’s Reich but, in doing so, overran and occupied much of eastern Europe, including Poland.
It was not until 1989 that Poland finally liberated itself from communism through Solidarnosc’s non-military methods devised by the grandchildren of the admirers of Pilsudski and his 1920 success.