Prof. Andrzej NOWAK: 1920, the Polish “annus mirabilis”

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1920, the Polish “annus mirabilis”

Prof. Andrzej NOWAK

Ryc.Fabien Clairefond

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The year 1989 would not have happened if it had not been for 1920. Both are worthy of the name “annus mirabilis” – wrote prof. Andrzej NOWAK

The Great War ended for Western Europe in November 1918. What remained were a great trauma and the question: what was the purpose of all this terrible slaughter? From the Polish perspective, that very same time looks a bit different.

In 1914, Poland was nowhere to be found on the map. The Great War saw a military clash between the three powers that had liquidated Poland’s political existence 120 years earlier: imperial Russia, Austria and Prussia. The First World War affected the inhabitants of the Polish lands divided between these three empires no less than it did the French or the Belgians. About 2 million Polish recruits were incorporated into the three partitioning armies, and were forced to shoot each other. Nearly 500,000 of them lost their lives. Moreover, almost 400,000 civilians died or were killed on Polish soil as a result of warfare or occupation policy. Nevertheless, the political balance of this terrible experience was positive: Poland regained its independence.

Even during the war, politicians and members of voluntary formations, who wanted in this manner to attest the Polish people’s will to be independent, campaigned for it skilfully and with dedication. Józef Piłsudski – the man who formed the Polish Legions that initially fought alongside Austria against their chief enemy: Russia – became a symbol of this military effort. Roman Dmowski, the driving force of Polish diplomacy at the side of the Western Allies, together with Ignacy Paderewski, a preeminent pianist, made the issue of Poland’s independence one of the conditions for peace after Germany was defeated. They also patronised the creation of the Polish volunteer corps under the command of General Józef Haller alongside the French army.

France helps rebuild Poland

.And so it did happen: first, Russia lost the war with Germany and Austria, and then Germany and Austria were defeated by the Franco-British alliance backed by America. In November 1918, Poland regained independence. Under the direction of Piłsudski who took the office of the Chief of State, the whole state apparatus was established and a democratic electoral system put in place (with full electoral rights granted to all women – already in November 1918. 26 years earlier than in France!). And above all, what turned out to be an essential necessity in the months to come: its own army. France provided great help in this reconstruction effort: allowed Haller’s army to return to their homeland, sold the military equipment necessary to equip the Polish army, and even sent over 400 French officers to Poland, establishing in Warsaw the French Military Mission under the command of General Paul Henrys. Among the French officers in Poland, there was also a young captain Charles de Gaulle, who trained his Polish colleagues on courses in Kutno and Rembertów.

Paris needed an ally who would keep tabs on Germany – crushed, but not reconciled with defeat nor the Treaty of Versailles – from the east. At that time, France’s former ally, Russia, became engulfed in a revolution. The Bolshevik government left the anti-German coalition by signing a peace treaty with the Second Reich in Brest in March 1918. When Germany lost the war on the Western Front, Russia, whose major centres were controlled by the Bolsheviks, entered a period of civil war. In this situation, Poland became, to quote French staff members, a “surrogate ally”.

Lenin’s plans for a European conquest

.Vladimir Lenin and his comrades from the Politburo (Leon Trotsky, Joseph Stalin and Lev Kamenev) decided in October 1918 to try to conquer Central Europe by means of war and subsequently break through to Germany. They wanted the communist revolution to expand and gain a decisive advantage on the European continent. A reborn Poland stood in their way. Stalin then called it a “thin wall” that the iron fist of the Red Army would easily pierce in order to lend a helping hand to the German proletariat… In autumn 1918, the Western Front of the Red Army was created with this task in mind. It took over subsequent lands abandoned by the German army. On the territories of Ukraine, Lithuania and Belarus, the Bolsheviks immediately formed communist governments. A Soviet government for Poland was also established in Moscow. However, it failed to reach Warsaw, because the Polish Army stopped the Red Army on their march west. This way, from mid-February 1919 onwards, a regular Soviet-Polish war began.

The Soviet offensive westward weakened in the following months, as the Red Army had to focus its efforts on the civil war against the “white” Russians. Piłsudski then undertook a grand plan to create a federation with the participation of Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine, which would prevent Moscow’s imperial reconquest. Unfortunately, it was not possible to win over the Lithuanians. He also tried to form an alliance with Ukraine, which was fighting for independence, under the leadership of Symon Petliura.

Revolution over the “dead body of white Poland”

.On the eve of 1920, when the Bolsheviks had practically won the civil war, Piłsudski realised that Lenin would return to the idea of a march to the west. Indeed, the headquarters of the Red Army in January 1920 developed a plan for an offensive so great it would break up Poland. Beginning in March, the gathering of forces for this attack, scheduled for May, began. The attack was to be executed by the Western Front led by Mikhail Tukhachevsky.

Piłsudski anticipated this attack by directing the Polish offensive on Kiev. In alliance with Petliura, he offered to help rebuild an independent Ukraine. Polish troops entered the capital of Ukraine in May and handed it over to the Ukrainian government. Piłsudski’s plans were thwarted by the powerful attack of the Soviet Western Front which moved across Belarus towards Poland, and the blitz attack of Semyon Budyonny’s Red Cavalry in the south. In June, a rapid retreat of the Polish Army began under the blows of the many times more powerful Red Army. The request for help, addressed by the Polish government to the Western powers, was met with absolute hostility on the part of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who wanted to reach an agreement with Soviet Russia as soon as possible and was ready to sacrifice Poland for this purpose (this was the gist of the so-called Curzon’s note dictated by him on 11th July 1920). The Prime Minister of France Alexandre Millerand, an ex-socialist and friend of Piłsudski’s from his younger days, wanted to help Poland, but without Great Britain he could do nothing more than send a group of new military specialists to Warsaw under the command of General Maxim Weygand.

Poland had to face the great Bolshevik offensive practically alone. Lenin did not want an agreement with Great Britain. What he wanted was to bring the revolution to Berlin – over the “dead body of white Poland”, as he proclaimed in the order given to the Western Front. The second Soviet government for Poland under the actual leadership of Feliks Dzerzhinsky was already prepared. From the Ukrainian side, the South-Western Front was on its way, politically supervised by Joseph Stalin himself. The latter, in a telegram exchange with Lenin in late July, defined further goals of the Red Army’s offensive after the partition of Poland: the Sovietisation of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria, Romania – up until the outbreak of the revolution in Italy.

“This is a complete victory”

.But the Soviet troops were stopped in their way. The plan of a grand counteroffensive developed under the supervision of Piłsudski turned out to be effective. On 15th August 1920, a powerful force of the Polish Army cut the stretched communication lines of the Western Front on the outskirts of Warsaw. The Red Army suffered an enormous defeat. Captain de Gaulle, who then fought together with the Poles against the Bolshevik invasion of Europe, wrote in his memoirs: “The enemy, utterly surprised by the sight of Poles on their left wing, who they thought to be in a state of disarray, who offered no serious resistance anywhere, who would flee the battlefield in chaos or whose whole battalions would surrender (…). Yes, this is a complete victory.”

De Gaulle personally knew the commander of the Soviet Western Front who had suffered this great defeat. During World War I, Mikhail Tukhachevsky sat in the very same cell in a German camp with de Gaulle who was also taken prisoner, and he even learnt French from him. He dreamt he would finally reach the “red” Paris, but he did not even get to Berlin. Neither did Stalin to Prague, Vienna and Rome. In the great battle of Warsaw, Poland rescued a large part of Europe from the threat of Sovietisation and also saved the Versailles system – for 19 years. Only the cooperation of communist totalitarianism in Russia with the new totalitarian system that to be created in Germany will allow Stalin and Hitler to shatter peace in Europe. But Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Czechoslovakia and other countries in the region have not forgotten the two decades of independence. They will keep asking for it until they are successful.

.The year 1989 would not have happened if it had not been for 1920. Both are worthy of the name “annus mirabilis”.

Andrzej Nowak

The text is published in a project executed in partnership with Instytut Pamięci Narodowej (Institute of National Remembrance).

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