Faith and Polish Military Tactics Defeated the Soviet Army at the Battle of Warsaw 100 Years Ago

August 14, 2020 Updated: September 8, 2020

August 15 this year marks the 100-year anniversary of the breakthrough made by the Poles in their fight against the Soviets that led to the Polish victory that stopped Soviet Russia from exporting the communist revolution to Eastern and Central Europe for the following 19 years. The decisive battle which began on Aug.12 in Warsaw, Poland, was lost by the Soviets who started the general retreat on Aug. 18.

Prof. Andrzej Nowak, a Polish historian, publicist, and a professor of humanities from Jagiellonian University in Cracow, Poland talked to The Epoch Times about the circumstances that led to the Polish victory in the Battle of Warsaw, the aftermath, the significance of this victory for Europe and the world. Prof. Nowak is author of more than 30 books including a book about Soviet-Polish war leading to the Battle of Warsaw The defeat of the evil empire. The year 1920 (in Polish, “Klęska imperium zła. Rok 1920”).

Why Soviet Russia Invaded Poland 100 Years Ago

Epoch Times Photo
Russian communist revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) gives a speech from the back of a vehicle in Moscow, an undated photo. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“Russia has become the place where, contrary to Marx’s expectation, the communist ideology founded in the 19th century in the West, triumphed for the first time. A revolution grounded in communist ideology has gained its first foothold in Russia,” Prof. Nowak said.

The combination of Russian imperial traditions with communist ideology gave rise to a specific policy, embraced by Vladimir Lenin and other leaders of the Bolshevik revolution, Nowak said. “They wanted to immediately expand the revolution to Europe, where its ideological center was.”

Germany—the biggest economic and military power in Europe at that time—also had the largest working class, the strongest workers party, so the goal of Russian Soviet leaders was to fight their way into Germany, Nowak explained.

This objective became more realistic after Germany was defeated in World War I in 1918 when Lenin established the Western front of the Soviet Red Army aimed at carrying out the Bolshevik ambitions to break through Poland to Germany, Nowak said.

A Soviet ministry, (People’s Commissariat of Nationalities), then headed by Joseph Stalin, was tasked to prepare the military offensive. In his article published in 1918, Stalin called Poland and other countries between Russia and Germany “a divider,” meaning “a thin partition that the Soviet Army needed to break through with its ‘iron fist’ to reach Berlin as soon as possible.”

“Bolsheviks wanted communism to triumph not only in the whole of Europe but actually all over the world,” Nowak said. However, Bolsheviks had to delay their offensive on the Western front until 1920 due to the outbreak of the civil war in Soviet Russia where they were fighting united anti-communist opposition forces.

The Soviet-Polish War Broke Out

In 1920 the Soviet-Polish war entered its decisive phase when the Soviet Red Army started preparations for a massive invasion of Poland, Novak said adding that he researched Soviet preparations based on detailed documentation he found in military archives in Moscow.

Then-Polish Chief of State and Commander-in-Chief Jozef Pilsudski launched in spring 1920 a preemptive offensive to liberate Ukraine from Soviet domination in anticipation of a Soviet attack. The political goal of his action was to form an alliance between Poland and Ukraine that could protect both countries against either Bolshevik or Russian neo-imperialism and lay the foundation for regional security, Nowak said.

However Pilsudski’s plan failed because the Polish military forces were insufficient to protect the sovereignty of Ukraine and Western powers did not deem Ukraine’s independence as important, Nowak said.

Commander of the Soviet invasion Mikhail Tukhachevsky gave his army of nearly 5 million soldiers, the order, “over the corpse of White Poland to Berlin.” The Polish army had only about 900,000 troops, according to Nowak.

Bolsheviks used the term “White” in reference to anti-communist forces while they called their army “Red.”

Tukhachevsky’s main objective was to reach Berlin as soon as possible and therefore he devised a tactic to encircle Warsaw to the north thus spreading the lines of communication. “This maneuver allowed Pilsudski to inflict a mortal blow to the Soviet army” by preparing a superb plan to strike it from the south and on August 15, 1920, the Polish forces smashed the enemy army completely forcing it into a panicked escape. Poland took 100,000 Red Army soldiers prisoner, Nowak said.

Lenin stated “at a Soviet communist party conference in September 1920 that it was a unique, unprecedented defeat, the defeat of the Red Army and the defeat of the Soviet strategy,” said Nowak.

How Polish Victory Came About

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Portrait of Polish President Jozef Pilsudski in uniform, 1927. (Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Lenin should bear some responsibility for the defeat because he ordered to open two fronts at the same time, a task which the Red Army was not able to handle, Nowak said.

In addition to the Polish offensive, Lenin opened the second front led by Stalin on the southwest a few weeks before the offensive on Warsaw with a goal to conquer the southern part of Poland and Southern Europe including Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria, Romania, and reach Italy. Stalin confirmed to Lenin in a cable that this plan was achievable, Nowak said.

However “more important than a misunderstanding and mistakes of the Soviet leadership was the attitude of the Polish soldiers and above all the patriotic national consciousness of the Polish population,” Nowak said.

Before attacking Poland, Bolsheviks had made successful conquests in the former Russian Empire by “drawing upon slogans of class revenge, anomie—social instability caused by the erosion of morals, norms, and values in a society—and lack of a sense of national identity of the people who they conquered,” Nowak said.

Meanwhile, in Poland, the same slogans did not work. When Bolsheviks called Polish workers and peasants who mainly comprised the Polish army to start shooting at their officers and join the Red Army to conquer Warsaw it had no effect, said Nowak.

Polish soldiers had strong national consciousness and a sense of patriotism and “did not want to join Bolsheviks against Polish homeland but decided to defend it,” Nowak said.

Poles historically treated Russia as an invader and enemy which annexed a big part of Poland and oppressed Poles, according to Nowak.

Another reason was that Poles were convinced that they have a relationship with the Western, Latin civilization based on Christianity so they believed that “Bolshevism [and] communist ideology wanted to subvert, destroy” this civilization.

“Poland simply turned out to be a mature, European nation in 1920, and not just a mass of class hatred,” Nowak said.

Miracle on the Vistula

Some Poles believe that Divine Providence helped the Polish Army to win the Battle of Warsaw and therefore the battle is sometimes called The Miracle on the Vistula. August 15, the day when the Polish Army achieved the breakthrough in the fight coincided with Assumption Day, a Catholic holiday, especially important for Polish Catholics.

According to Catholic Insight, Father Ignacy Skorupka seeing the terror in the eyes of young Polish soldiers lead a line “holding a wooden crucifix, meeting his death, uttering ‘for God and for the homeland,’  on the outskirts of Ossowo village.”

Cardinal Aleksander Kakowski said in his diary, according to Catholic Journal: “Young soldiers whom I visited in a hospital for the wounded were telling me the details of Fr. Ignacy Skorupka`s death. Meanwhile, the captured Bolsheviks recounted the Mother of God above a priest vested in surplice and holding a cross.”

“One of the important reasons for the resistance of Polish society to communist ideology was precisely the Christian tradition and deep distrust toward an ideology, which appeared openly under anti-religious banners,” Nowak said.

Therefore Poles identified the Bolsheviks mainly with anti-religious propaganda. The majority of them were Catholics, who deeply believed in their religion and treated the Bolshevik invasion not only as an attack on Poland but as the attack on the foundations of civilization and Christianity which motivated them even more to defend their country and their civilization, said Nowak.

Such an attitude was reinforced by the support of the Catholic Church which organized public prayers. Pope Benedict XV strongly supported Poland’s fight against the Bolsheviks. Many Catholic chaplains joined the Polish army at that time to provide support and some gave their lives in the battle, Nowak said.

“The concept of the Miracle on the Vistula … was created with some political objective,” Nowak said explaining that Pilsudski’s political opposition which held the majority in the Polish parliament tried to detract from Pilsudski’s role in the victory. The opposition emphasized various factors contributing to the victory including providential intervention.

Nowak believes that these two concepts are not contradictory because Pilsudski, his chief of staff of the Army and commanding generals, as well as the mobilization of the entire society by the Catholic church and Poles’ faith, all played a significant role in the victory.

How Europe and US Reacted to Bolshevik Invasion

“Western European countries were at that time affected by trauma caused by gigantic losses they suffered in World War I,” said Nowak, “and did not want to participate in any new war.”

“They believed that international order should be based on the cooperation of traditional empires and Eastern Europe must be under the control of one of them.”

France and the UK did not want to give control over Eastern Europe to Germany since it was considered an enemy defeated in World War I, so they could only negotiate with Russia.

However France wanted to negotiate only with anti-communist Russia, Nowak said. Therefore France treated Poland as a “substitute” ally and sold large amounts of ammunition and military equipment to Poland without which Poland would not have been able to fight.

The UK however was willing to negotiate with Russia whether or not it was communist, Nowak said. When the Red Army was approaching Warsaw in 1920, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George discussed with Lev Kamenev, the third most important person in the Soviet Politburo and Lenin’s deputy, the new European order with Poland under Soviet domination.

Lloyd George tried to appease Russia at Poland’s expense and only required that Soviet Russia stopped its offensive at the Polish-German border as he did not want Russia to merge with Germany, Nowak said. The UK also banned all aid for Poland in 1920.

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson did not take any action on the international arena because the Senate blocked the ratification of a peace treaty after World War I. He was also recovering from a serious stroke at that time, Nowak said.

The Secretary of State in the Wilson administration Bainbridge Colby issued a statement a few days before the Battle of Warsaw stating that “the territorial integrity and true boundaries of Russia shall be respected. These boundaries should properly include the whole of the former Russian Empire, with the exception of Finland proper, ethnic Poland, … The aspirations of these nations for independence are legitimate. Each was forcibly annexed and their liberation from oppressive alien rule involves no aggressions against Russia’s territorial rights, and has received the sanction of the public opinion of all free peoples.”

Particularly noteworthy is the initiative of a group of over twenty American volunteer airmen who established Kościuszko Squadron to support the fight of the Polish army against Bolsheviks, Nowak said. One of its members was Merian Cooper who later produced a famous adventure film, King Kong.

Aftermath of Soviet-Polish War

“Poland saved its independence for the next 19 years,” Nowak said.

Nowak explained that Lenin was talking about breaking down the small Baltic countries in a week after conquering Poland so it would have been a possibility that countries such as Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland could have lost their independence if the Bolsheviks had won.

Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and other Central and Eastern European countries could have also been conquered, he added.

Poland’s victory over Russia gave these countries a “priceless” opportunity to develop their economy, culture, language, to bring up one generation and imbue it with ideals of independence before World War II broke out in 1939, Nowak said.

“It was very, very important that it was not Soviet culture with the Russian language,” but that each country developed its national culture.

These 19 years of independence allowed these countries to withstand World War II and about 45 years of communist rule after the War, Nowak said. It fueled freedom movements in countries under Soviet and communist dominance since 1945 and it gave rise to the 10-million Solidarity movement in 1989 in Poland which “dealt a deadly blow to the Soviet empire.”

Polish Victory is a Warning for Modern World

For the West, the most important lesson from the Polish victory is that the policy of appeasement by making concessions to an aggressive empire like the Soviet regime at the expense of weaker countries will backfire on those who made such concessions, Nowak said.

Poland stopped the expansionist ambitions of Soviet totalitarian empire in 1920 but in 1939 the Soviet totalitarianism returned, Nowak said.

Germany and the Soviet Union concluded the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact in August 1939, which included a secret protocol dividing Poland and the Baltic countries into German and Soviet spheres of influence. It allowed Germans and Soviets to invade Poland in 1939 from West and East in September 1939 at the beginning of World War II while France and Britain did not take any action.

As a result, World War II claimed millions of lives all over the world, and the Soviet Union was not stopped when it expanded its domination to the Central and Eastern Europe in 1945.

During the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1920 the head of the Soviet special security forces ordered to establish a system of concentration camps in Soviet Russia and on conquered territories to detain all opponents of the Soviet rule, Nowak said.

The first concentration camps for dissidents and opponents of the communist rule were created in Soviet Russia in 1918 and preceded a similar form of repression around the world. According to former Soviet military intelligence officer and popular historian Viktor Suvorov, before World War II, Adolf Hitler sent Gestapo officers to Soviet Russia to study the experiences accumulated by the Soviets in creating concentration camps.

The “civilization of concentration camps” is the basis of the communist ideology, Nowak said.

Communist ideology still governs some countries like China and North Korea where people do not enjoy religious freedom, Nowak said.

In China, Catholics, Falun Gong adherents, and Muslims are persecuted for their beliefs, said Nowak. Independent beliefs not governed by the Chinese Communist Party are persecuted there, he added.