With Norman Davies about Józef Piłsudski’s risky move and drawing conclusions from the 1920 victory, talks Piotr Korczyński.
The miracle of the Polish-Soviet War – in your book “White Eagle, Red Star” you use this expression to describe Józef Piłsudski’s tactical move. As you emphasize, the most crucial thing in August 1920 was that he took the enormous risk to regroup his whole army in only one week. What was the miracle?
Professor Norman Davies: The analyzes of the Battle of Warsaw don’t always take into account the fact that Piłsudski hadn’t exactly known the Bolshevik plans. Polish historians have axiomatically adopted the thesis that Mikhail Tukhachevsky wanted to seize Warsaw. I’m convinced he actually had a different goal; his priority was to march to the German border and kindle the flame of revolution there. He only sent two armies to attack Warsaw, and three others he threw north of it, towards Berlin. What Piłsudski did meant a great risk, but at the same time it was a genius move. He put all his eggs in one basket – near Warsaw and north of it, he cut off the Soviet columns from their rears and communication lines with Russia. He succeeded, but for an entire week he had lived in the state of terrible uncertainty before it turned out that the offensive led from the Wieprz River was successful. Redeployment of forces – in a situation where the enemy had the advantage – into one operation, which was to determine the result of the whole battle, was a masterpiece move, rarely seen in history. If I were to indicate the second person, besides the Marshal, who contributed to that victory, it would be General Władysław Sikorski, then Commander of the 5th Army. He was the one to stop the attack of the Red Army north of Warsaw, on the Wkra River.
Can you agree with the opinion that the Polish-Soviet War was the first conflict in which such big numbers of Polish peasants took part, and where two predominantly peasant armies were fighting against each other on the battlefield? Do you think the peasants were attracted to the army only by the promise of the Land Reform?
The Land Reform was a very important element in the attitude of the Polish peasants, but surely it was not the only or the primary one. I will refer here to my own family’s experiences. My father-in-law, Marian Zieliński, was born near Tarnów to a peasant family. In the times of the Dual Monarchy, his father was a principal at a village school and instead of salary he received a plot of land from the Austrian authorities. As a young boy, my father-in-law worked on that farm and studied at the same time. In 1920 he was 16, and he was a student at a middle school in Tarnów. Believe it or not, his whole class went to Warsaw on foot to volunteer as soldiers and fight to protect their country. At the recruiting station, my father-in-law, as well as his friends, lied that he was 18 and he was admitted. He didn’t have the faintest idea about the army, and he went straight to battle without any preparation or training. His main asset was patriotism.
The Bolsheviks were certain that once they crossed the Polish border, there would be hardly any struggle, and that the whole working class would immediately take their side. However, the situation was quite the opposite. The Red Army had very few recruits, while volunteering to the Polish Army was common in the summer of 1920. Not only among peasants or laborers, but also Jews. The Bolsheviks were really counting on winning over the Jewish community, but they were sorely disappointed. They underestimated the level of patriotism in a country that had just regained its independence.
A very important fact for peasants was that one of their own, Wincenty Witos, was the prime minister at the time. It was crucial. It was constantly emphasized that the Polish prime minister is a peasant without a tie. What’s interesting, in June 1920 – a critical month preceding the Battle of Warsaw – Witos left his ministers and joined the harvest in his family village, Wierzchosławice! Even the war couldn’t change his peasant priorities.
In the highly mobile Polish-Soviet war, the air force and armor were quite extensively used in the offense. Why did Marshal Edward Rydz-Śmigły and other commanders forget about these experiences in September 1939?
I wouldn’t say they forgot. In 1934, the already-mentioned Gen. Sikorski wrote a book entitled “War in the Future,” in which he predicted the importance of armored vehicles and air force in the next global conflict. So the problem in Poland wasn’t really the lack of awareness, but rather economic limitations. Both Germany and the USSR had significantly greater capabilities in this respect, and on top of that they followed the rule of drawing conclusions from defeat. After WWI, the Germans did not break down, but instead started preparing for the next conflict, in order to eliminate mistakes made in the previous one. The same applies to the Soviets. On the other hand, the side that wins a war has a feeling of success and is less inclined to introduce changes, since its methods proved effective. This was the case with France and Great Britain after 1918.
There was one exception though – General Charles de Gaulle, who in 1920 fought in the ranks of the Polish Army.
Yes, de Gaulle, just like Sikorski, predicted what the future of combat would be. The problem was that the French General Staff did not listen to him. Only in 1940 it turned out how right he had been. The armored division he had organized and commanded according to his theories proved to be the only French formation able to effectively resist the Germans.
It is hard not to ask also about Marshal Maxime Weygand, who in the West was considered to be nothing less than the architect of the Polish victory in 1920.
It was an undeserved opinion. Weygand’s role in 1920 was very insignificant. Piłsudski had asked France for soldiers, and they sent one Marshal instead. When he arrived, Piłsudski welcomed him with the words: “Where are your divisions?,” and later excluded Weygand from his staff’s meetings. Therefore, his role in the 1920 war was marginal. Of course, when he went back to France, he was proclaimed the hero and the true winner of the war. It needs to be emphasized, however, that the Marshal distanced himself from those opinions and did not claim anyone’s merits as his own. The French government of the time, on the other hand, created the myth of Weygand winning the war with the Bolsheviks in Poland to satisfy their current political needs.
A myth that was also picked up in Poland by some opponents of Piłsudski...
Well, the National Democracy with Roman Dmowski as its leader, used all possible means to discredit the Marshal. In fact, the term “Miracle of the Vistula” initially carried a pejorative meaning, created by the National Democrats themselves. They tended to say it was a true miracle that the Polish Army commanded by a “military amateur” managed to win that battle. The ideological differences between Piłsudski’s and Dmowski’s camp had always played a big part, and they did not disappear after the war of 1920. The Marshal was an advocate of a multinational state, such as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and Dmowski dreamed of an ethnically homogeneous country.
It’s worth pointing out that Piłsudski, and later also Gen. Władysław Anders, was of the opinion that all nations serving in the Polish Army should be treated equally, regardless of their religion: Poles, Belarusians, Jews and Ukrainians were to be provided with the same opportunities of advancement. The military was supposed to play an integration-promoting and state-building role. Dmowski had an entirely different outlook on that matter, and, as a result, their interpretations of the Polish-Soviet War varied.
I have heard an opinion that maybe it would be better if the Red Army had not been stopped at the gates of Warsaw in 1920. Even if they watered their horses in the Seine, the West would have handled them and civilized the Soviet Communism. Maybe if that had happened, Adolf Hitler would have never come to power in Germany. What do you think about this hypothesis?
The West still doesn’t know much about this war. Western Europe has never been responsive to events happening outside it. I think that the chances of Tukhachevsky seizing Berlin, let alone Paris, were close to zero. Just as he wasn’t able to defeat the Poles, he wouldn’t be able to win with the Germans. Of course, in 1920 there were groups in Germany expecting and hoping for the arrival of the Red Army, but it was a minority which the German right-wing handled without much trouble.
Nevertheless, the Germans really counted on Poland to lose, in order to, for example, settle the conflict over Silesia to their advantage.
That’s true. After WWI, the Germans seized any chance to turn things around for themselves and Polish defeat would be very convenient.
In your book, you were quite critical about the attitude of the British government of the time towards Poland fighting with the Bolsheviks. To say the least, their reaction was very cool. Why was that?
At the time, Great Britain was the biggest empire in the world. It didn’t have the slightest understanding for smaller nations’ pursuit of liberty. To put it in other words, it sided with Russia in its imperial solidarity. London was expecting that sooner or later Bolshevism would fall, Russia would return to its position of power and once again dominate Eastern Europe. Consequently, London would again be able to do business with it. We need to keep in mind that at the time the British government also had a problem with a small, unruly, catholic nation – the Irish. London perceived Poles just like they perceived the Irish – as disobedient troublemakers who just wait for an occasion to start an uprising. Independence, held sacred by Polish and Irish people, for imperialists, both Russian and British, was a plague. For Great Britain, the fall of the Russian Empire was a shock and a disaster. Poland was tolerated only because Russia had been overtaken by the Bolsheviks, whose rule was considered transient and temporary.
How do you assess the effects of the Polish victory in 1920?
It certainly halted the expansion of Communism in Europe for the next 20 years. Unfortunately – not for longer. It was undoubtedly a success. Stalin was traumatized by this failure and hated Poland for it. He took his revenge in 1940, by giving the order to murder Polish officers in Katyn. Here, I can again refer to my own family’s experiences. My wife’s grandfather, a colonel in the Polish Army, after regaining independence by Poland was a co-founder of Military Police, and during the Polish-Soviet War he managed camps for Soviet prisoners of war. So, in the Soviet Union, he was regarded as the greatest enemy. He was already dead in 1940, but the NKVD [People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs] searched for his children, my mother-in-law among them. She was saved from being arrested by a Russian officer, who didn’t let NKVD agents into her house. Summarizing, the events of 1920 significantly affected the behavior and attitude of Soviets towards Poland during WWII.
Professor Norman Davies is a British-Polish historian of English-Welsh ancestry, a retired professor of the University of London, a member of the Polish Academy of Learning and the British Academy. He is an author of works on the history of Europe, Poland and the British Isles, a recipient of the Order of the White Eagle. His works on the history of Poland include: God’s Playground: A History of Poland; White Eagle, Red Star; Heart of Europe; Microcosm; Rising’44; Trail of Hope: The Anders Army, An Odyssey Across Three Continents.
autor zdjęć: Zbigniew Furman/ Reporter/ East News