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An underappreciated contribution to European history

A review of Przegrane Zwycięstwo. Wojna Polsko-Bolszewicka 1918–1920. (Lost Victory. The Polish-Bolshevik War of 1918-1920). By: Andrzej Chawlba. Publisher: Wydawnictwo Czarne, Wołowiec, Poland, 2020.

February 3, 2021 - Zbigniew Rokita - Books and ReviewsIssue 1-2 2021Magazine

In 2020 Poland was expected to unveil a monumental arch that would commemorate the triumph of the Polish military over the Red Army on the outskirts of Warsaw one hundred years ago. If erected it would be the greatest commemorative structure of the Law and Justice government, which never fails when it comes to European memory Reconquista.“I wholeheartedly support the construction of the triumphal arch as soon as possible. I’ve contributed myself,” said Mateusz Morawiecki, Poland’s prime minister. In the end the arch was not erected but nevertheless the 1920 Poland-Bolshevik war constitutes a key pillar in the Polish national mythology, as well as one of two memorable events when the Polish military defeated its Russian counterpart (the other was Poland capturing Moscow in the 17th century). Andrzej Chwalba, a Jagiellonian University professor and one of the most renowned contemporary Polish historians, became deeply interested in the Polish-Soviet war. This work resulted in a recent book entitled Lost Victory. The Polish-Bolshevik War of 1918-1920.

Underestimated achievement

This recently-released book is on the period of 1918 to 1921, which includes the time when Poland was fighting the advancing Red Army for independence and regional power. Under Marshal Józef Piłsudski, Poland aspired to take a position of dominance in Central and Eastern Europe, weakening Russia’s presence. It sought to enter into some form of federation with the newly created Ukraine and Lithuania. The Polish army moved east as far as Kyiv and Minsk, which they captured. They were later pushed back to Warsaw, only to finally fend off the Soviets during the famous Battle of Warsaw, and hence defend Poland’s independence (and that of Finland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia).

Two worn out armies were unable to continue the war. The so-called treaty of Riga, signed in 1921, outlined the interwar border between Soviet Russia and Poland. This treaty cemented the agreements of the First World War peace conference of the Allied powers and created the Riga-Versailles order, but it also led to a cold war between Poland and the Soviets. From today’s perspective, under the treaty of Riga, Belarus and Ukraine were to be partitioned (a fact Ukraine still cannot forget) and Poland recognised the puppet states of the Ukrainian and Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republics which had been incorporated into the USSR. The Soviets treated the Treaty of Riga the same way as the Treaty of Brest they signed three years before with the Kaiser’s Germany (i.e. as a strategic pause, temporarily surrendering a substantial piece of land). And it was in 1939 when they claimed the land back, and remained under Soviet control until 1991.

Today, many Poles feel that the West underestimates their achievements in history, which includes defeating the Red Army in 1920. Poles are happy to quote Edgar Vincent D’Abernon, a British diplomat, who ranked the conclusive battle of that war (which the Poles call “the Miracle on the Vistula”to indicate a divine intervention granted against the Bolsheviks) as the 18th most significant in world history. It is, however, an isolated and probably far-fetched opinion.

Generally, the world remembers two victories of the Polish military: vanquishing the Teutonic Knights in 1410 and defeating the Turks in 1683. The problem is that Poles themselves somehow have a different perception of their own contribution to history. The Polish History Museum conducted a survey in which it asked Polish citizens on what was the greatest military victory of Poland? The answers leave little room for speculation. Forty per cent voted for the 1920 Battle of Warsaw. Remaining events included the aforementioned battles of Grunwald in 1410 (28 per cent) and Vienna in 1683 (17 per cent), the conquering of Moscow in 1610 (8 per cent), and the capture of Monte Cassino in 1944 (7 per cent).  

In his book, Chwalba stresses that Poles failed to persuade western politicians and researchers that it was in fact Poland that stopped the Bolsheviks. The book’s title directly refers to the fact that while Poland won the war in the military sense it lost in terms of propaganda. In an interview with Gazeta Wyborcza, Chwalba said: “the Piłsudskiite lost their global fight for the Battle of Warsaw. Poland’s means were too humble for effective PR policies. Politicians and writers around the world found it difficult to believe that a nation from nowhere and a state out of nowhere, a country of poor and the illiterate managed to beat the Red Army and stop the speeding global revolution.” The victory was generally attributed to General Maxime Weygnard, the French leader and chief of the military mission in Poland. For that reason and others Chwalba insists that“although Piłsudski won the war, he lost peace”.

Saviour of Europe

During the interwar period Poland was regarded as an unruly, imperial state, Chwalba claims; and once it gained independence it reached for non-Polish lands in the east (there is some truth to this as Poland benefitted from the right for self-determination, but denied the same right to, for example, Ukrainians). Even today Poland has not managed to shred this brash and aggressive image, and it still lingers in western historiography and continues to be promoted by Kremlin propaganda.

In Poland, it is commonly believed the world does not understand that it was Poland that saved Europe from the Soviets. Even history enthusiasts tend to promote these claims. A popular Polish history web portal Histmag conducted a survey and asked 1,600 readers the following question: “If Poland hadn’t won the Battle of Warsaw, would the Bolshevik revolution have spread all over Europe?” Sixty per cent of respondents said that it would and 23 per cent disagreed. Yet, according to Chwalba, no documents exist to confirm that the decimated Bolsheviks were planning further expansions into the West. What they wanted, instead, was to restore the German-Russian border from 1913 and undermine the Treaty of Versailles.

The Bolsheviks considered assisting revolutionists in the West if any revolutions were to break out. However, the Battle of Warsaw took place in the second half of 1920 when the revolutionary dust in Western Europe was settling. Its peak was in 1919 when republics of councils were proclaimed in Bavaria and Hungary; and revolutionary unrest stretched across a great part of Germany, Italy and Spain. In Poland there are certain groups welcoming the narrative of a potential alliance between Piłsudski and the white generals-royalists. This narrative is fuelled by Piotr Zychowicz, a right-wing historian and journalist, who published a book in 2015 titled The Piłsudski-Lenin Pact. A tale of how Poles saved Bolshevism and wasted a chance to build an empire. His thesis is patchy,yet it impacts the imagination of many and provokes lively discussions.

Suffering

Generally speaking, nations build their collective memory on the narrative of martyrdom or heroism. Poles are successful at mixing both. We like to think of ourselves as both Europe’s defenders and victims. In 2019 the liberal Oko Press asked its readers the following: “Do you think that Poles have experienced more evil and suffering in their history than other nations?” 74 per cent of responses agreed and 22 per cent did not. This rough sketch of the Polish national character corresponds to the Polish experiences with the Soviets during the 20th century. The fact that the West underestimated the 1920 Polish military victory left Poland feeling underappreciated, especially since this was the only victorious moment of Poland moment over Russia; later, of course, was the Soviet invasion in 1939 and subsequent decades of domination.

At the same time, the feeling of alienation from European history has more elements and not only Poles are troubled about it. While it is western researchers who often set the tone of European historiography, in the West some 20th-century events and processes – including communism, the Holocaust and the German occupation – are perceived in a completely different way. Some historians, such as Timothy Snyder and Tony Judt, tried to glue together two parts of the same continent. Yet, Eastern and Central Europe remains underrepresented in these central narratives.

The Polish sense of being ignored is part of this broader issue. This is perhaps why so many Poles desire of a triumphal arch and the showcasing of the achievements of their predecessors, be it real or exaggerated.

Zbigniew Rokita is a Polish journalist and writer specialising in Central and Eastern Europe. He is the author of a recent book edtitled Kajś. Opowieść o Górnym Śląsku (Kajś. A tale of Upper Silesia).

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