Prof. Jerzy MIZIOŁEK, prof. Joanna M. SOSNOWSKA: Triumph 1920. Image and memory

Triumph 1920. Image and memory

Photo of Prof. Jerzy MIZIOŁEK

Prof. Jerzy MIZIOŁEK

Art historian, professor of humanities, in 2018–2019 director of the National Museum in Warsaw.

other articles by this author

Photo of Prof. Joanna M. SOSNOWSKA

Prof. Joanna M. SOSNOWSKA

Associate Professor at the Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. Academic editor of the publishing series: Doctoral dissertations of the Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences. Member of the editorial team of the "Yearbook of Art History". Recipient of the silver medal 'Gloria Artis for services to culture'.

There are few incidents in the recent history of civilization of greater importance than the Battle of Warsaw in 1920; there are none which have been less understood. […]. The task of political writers […] is to bring it to the attention of the European public opinion that Poland actually saved Europe in 1920.

Edgar Vincent d’Abernon

.According to Michael Fibich, US army major who fought in the 1920 Polish-Soviet War: “The Poles believed earnestly that they were fighting for […] freedom, language, traditions, and religion” – these words are highlighted in the entry on the Battle of Warsaw in the widely popular book by R. G. Grant titled 1001 Battles that Changed the Course of History (2017, 774). “In a war that pitted Bolshevik revolutionary fervor against Polish nationalism,” the entry explains, “the Russian Bolsheviks suffered a humiliating defeat. The great Polish victory over the Red Army outside Warsaw ensured the survival of an independent Poland and may have prevented a Bolshevik invasion of Germany” (Grant 2017, 774). This encyclopaedic narrative is developed in a clearly positive key, although it seems difficult to concur with the use of the phrase “Polish nationalism” (it was true patriotism and defence of Christian values that were at stake, as aptly noted by major Fibich) and the hypothetical mood employed to address the possible invasion of Germany. The word “may” appears all the more astonishing since we can be quite certain – thanks to studies by Norman Davies (1972), Richard Pipes (1993) and Adam Zamoyski (2008) – that the Bolshevik forces meant to advance not only westward but also southward, towards Italy. In 1920, Poland once again found itself to be antemurale Christianitatis, the bulwark of Christendom, although during the Polish-Soviet War the country was still suffering many hardships on the road to a full revival of its statehood. This was appreciated by figures such as Achille Ratti, papal nuncio and later Pope Pius XI, members of the French mission, General Maxime Weygand and young Charles de Gaulle, as well as Edgar Vincent d’Abernon, author of the immensely important book The Eighteenth Decisive Battle of the World: Warsaw 1920 (1931). In recent years, extensive research was conducted in this area, using source materials, by Polish historians such as Janusz Odziemkowski, Andrzej Nowak, Grzegorz Nowik, and Jan Żaryn (the last three have contributed chapters to this book).

The book, Triumf 1920. Obraz i pamięć [Triumph 1920. Image and memory], is presented on the one hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Warsaw. The main goal of the publication is to display the battle in a broad historical and cultural context. Despite being regarded as one of the eighteen most important battles fought in the history of humanity, the awareness of its significance is scant. Around the world, it is recognized only by historians and period specialists, and its perception in Poland is not much better. The reasons for this are widely known, the major factors being geopolitics, the Cold War, the imperial ambitions of the USSR, and the fact that Poland had to subordinate to these goals. Only for the first nineteen years could Poles celebrate the Miracle on the Vistula as a state holiday, the history behind this event being commemorated in historical writings, literature, art, and primarily through spontaneous social actions by those who fought to protect the young state.

In the interwar period, the triumph over the Bolsheviks was regarded as the culmination of all previous victories achieved by the Poles, sealing their long history. The Battle of Warsaw was compared with the 1683 Battle of Vienna, the Defence of Jasna Góra (1655), and other great victories in the east (e.g. the battles of Orsha, Obertyn, Wielkie Łuki, and first of all Smoleńsk) that can be understood as instances of defending Christianity and thus European culture.

In the period between September 1939 and the year 1989 – a full half-century – memory of the Polish-Soviet War was persistently eradicated from social discourse in both political and historical dimension. The significance of those events that could not be unabashedly erased from history was diminished and distorted. Consequences of this are still tangible today, three decades after regaining independence. Awareness of the significance carried by the Polish victory is being restored at a slow pace, gradually re-establishing the importance of not only the Miracle on the Vistula, but also the defence of Włocławek and Płock, the Battle of Komarów, the Battle of the Niemen River, as well as many other heroic events, including the earlier Defence of Lviv and uprisings in Greater Poland and Silesia. Restored knowledge regarding both the events occurring on a macro scale and individual achievements helps us to fathom the depth of distortions, which often persist to this day and are still unwittingly promulgated. It seems that the Polish-Soviet War is still not regarded as a breakthrough moment in history. Is it still underpinned with politics, or is it just pure ignorance? On the one hundredth anniversary of this great triumph, however, no monuments are being unveiled to commemorate the battles of Radzymin, Ossów, and Komarów – there is only talk of plans to build them, or of setting their cornerstones. Similarly, Warsaw does not have a place where the Poles could formally celebrate the 1920 triumph, which involved – as Adam Grzymała-Siedlecki put it – “the joint effort of the army, the government, and the entire nation” (1921, 177).

The war with the Bolsheviks was a huge mobilisation on the part of the entire nation, which remained partitioned by three empires for over a century, and yet retained a sense of community and duty to the motherland. Today, in honour of these values and the heroes that deserve respect and memory, we are witnessing many local initiatives that include erecting or restoring monuments, and setting commemorative plaques informing about momentous deeds. For example, a sign was placed in front of the train station in Skierniewice, telling the story of an ammunition transport from the Hungarian government to the Polish Army, which arrived in the nick of time just before all supplies were depleted, after having overcome many obstacles thrown in its way by those supporting Bolshevism (fig.).

Since 1989 the approach to the war that decided about the survival of independent Poland has been gradually (though too slowly) regaining the place it deserves in state policy and social awareness. Nevertheless, no celebrations of the one hundredth anniversary of the battle have been arranged to match its import. What seems the most alarming, however, is that certain veiled attempts are made to thwart the restoration of proper memory about the victory over the Bolsheviks and the tremendous blood sacrifice of the Poles. One example of this is the catalogue to the exhibition Krzycząc: Polska! Niepodległa 1918 [Shouting: Poland! Independence 1918], which emphasises, among other things, the atrocities of the 1919-1920 war, depreciating Polish heroism, underscoring the suffering of the civilians and the fact that the Polish army was poorly equipped, as well as obliterating differences between subsequent wars – all with the aim to devalue the victory and reduce it to the rank of an event that had no global significance. In international literature on the subject, including that related to art, the Polish-Soviet War is still regarded as a stage in the struggle between the Red and White Armies in the years 1918-1921 (Chlenova 2020, 52).

This book is meant to present several different perspectives on the significance of the victory over the Bolsheviks for Polish history and culture, as well as to demonstrate how its narrative fits in with the discourses related to the essence of the national community that is deeply embedded in the European one, sharing its classical roots.

Maria Dąbrowska, witness to this heroic period, made the following note in her diary under the date 20 May 1920: “Piłsudski returned from the front. It was beyond imagination how the capital greeted him. After all, we do have a capital. It was just like it could have been in [ancient] Greece or Rome. I discuss this elsewhere” (Dąbrowska 1988, 149). The last remark refers to the article “Próg triumfu” [The threshold of triumph], which is recalled several times in this book. Since it proved impossible to commemorate the Polish military victory in the form of a symbolic triumphal arch both in the interwar period and in recent decades, one can only hope that the first chapter of this monograph – “Polonia triumphans” by Jerzy Miziołek – will provoke reflection on the nature of triumph and the aspects that set it apart from any other victories or important events, which do not carry historical consequences, demonstrating why it should be properly commemorated. By recalling Polish military triumphs since the Renaissance along with the triumphant arches that celebrate them, some of which were only painted or engraved, the chapter attempts not only to show the vitality of the classical tradition in the visual culture and social life of Poland across the ages, but also to suggest that an impressive and modern triumphal arch should be built in Warsaw to honour our heroes.

The chapter by Andrzej Nowak, titled “Polska w perspektywie sowieckiego imperializmu: spojrzenie z Moskwy na rok 1920” [Poland from the perspective of Soviet imperialism: the Moscow angle on the year 1920]discusses Polish-Soviet relations in the years 1915-1920 in the context of Russian dominance since the times of Peter the Great. The Polish-Soviet War is presented from the perspective of Moscow, which was documented, among other sources, in remarks made by Lenin himself. Professor Nowak draws attention to one hugely important fact: it was not the reviving Poland but Soviet Russia that was the aggressor in this conflict. Lenin’s vision left no place for sovereign Poland, which meant that everything was at stake for the Poles. In the chapter “W obronie chrześcijańskiej Polski i Europy – Kościół katolicki w 1920 roku” [In defence of Christian Poland and Europe – Catholic Church in 1920] Jan Żaryn concentrates on a subject that has been erased from history with particular persistence, namely the huge support from the Polish clergy, which owed its inspiration and courage to the spirituality advocated by papal nuncio Achille Ratti. Although this topic was addressed in recent years, its recognition is still slight. A new, extended approach to this matter presented here indicates the vastness of spiritual engagement on the part of those who wished to support the combatants with prayer. The increase in piousness was immense, and hopes were rising with regard to heavenly intervention. However, it would be a mistake to think that Poles counted only on supernatural forces and military power; in fact, a huge and still unacknowledged contribution to the victory was made by exceptional Polish scientists.

The effort of Polish intelligence to break the secret codes used by the Bolshevik army is addressed in the chapter by Grzegorz Nowik, who discusses the rise of radio intelligence and its methods under the command of Lieutenant Jan Kowalewski, who was aided by eminent mathematicians from the University of Warsaw: Stanisław Leśniewski, Stefan Mazurkiewicz, and Wacław Sierpiński. Thanks to radio intelligence, Piłsudski and his generals knew where to strike, and were thus able to win subsequent battles. As D’Abernon notes in his book, it seemed that the Poles were aware of orders issued by Soviet leaders, which was indeed the case (1931, 35). This makes the Polish-Soviet War not only a triumph of the military strategy but also one of intellect.

The next three chapters are devoted to visual culture. In the first, titled “Pamięć i sztuka” [Memory and art] Joanna M. Sosnowska discusses the theme of the Polish-Soviet War in sculpture and painting as well as the role of art in cultivating its memory. The author discusses possible reasons for the scarce number of exceptional works devoted to this subject despite its huge social importance in the interwar period. Further, she tackles the question of postmemory and analyses paintings and other works of art that have so far evaded critical scrutiny. In this sense, the book’s aims dovetail with efforts meant to popularize the Miracle on the Vistula in broadly understood visual culture, also accounting for less-known images. It is for this reason that the book also elaborates on two Italian representations of the battle. The chapter titled “Cud nad Wisłą w interpretacji malarskiej Jana Henryka Rosenaw kaplicy w Castel Gandolfo” [The Miracle on the Vistula River interpreted in the painting by Jan Henryk Rosen in a chapel at Castle Gandolfo] by Bishop Michał Janocha is thus supplemented to some degree with one written by Jerzy Miziołek and Maria V. Soro and devoted to paintings by Arturo Gatti in the Polish Chapel in Loreto, because both sites are linked to papacy and specifically to Pius XI (Marozzo della Rocca 1996; Chiron 2006). Just like subsequent works by Jan Henryk Rosen, such as Polonia Sanctorum Mater Scutum Christianitatis (1936) and the fresco in the Polish Embassy in Washington (1937), the Loreto painting presents the Battle of Warsaw in the context of the Relief of Vienna.

What mattered in the Polish-Soviet War was not just the genius of army leaders who developed the military strategy, but also the joint effort made literally by the entire nation. One paramilitary organization that fought in the war, notably contributing to the defence of Warsaw, was Legia Akademicka [Academic Legion]. In the chapter “36 pp Legii Akademickiej w pamięci kolejnych roczników studentów Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego” [The 36th Infantry Regiment of the Academic Legion in the memory of students at the University of Warsaw] Adam Tyszkiewicz appreciates and commemorates the achievements of this unit formed by University of Warsaw students and faculty, which is today remembered through a cannon displayed in the University campus.

Another example of how the 1920 triumph has been excluded from social awareness is the fact that the Polish literary canon has not yet incorporated works related to the Polish-Soviet War. It was only in recent years that several studies on this topic emerged. Still, research in this area is merely initial, the authors themselves referring to their work in terms of a “reconnaissance” and suggesting to the public that they are still far from completing a fuller analysis of the rich body of works devoted to this subject, a body that – it needs to be noted – includes works of uneven literary quality. In the chapter “Obraz wojny polsko-bolszewickiej w literaturze polskiej. Rekonesans” [The image of the Polish-Soviet War in Polish literature. A reconnaisance], Jolanta Maria Olszewska sketches a panoramic view of the subject, not only indicating the weightiest works such as those by Stanisław Rembek or Józef Mackiewicz, but also drawing attention to children’s literature and young adult fiction, which played a notable role in shaping the attitude of the so-called Generation of Columbuses. It seems notable that one of these books – a patriotic hagiography penned by Karol Koźmiński – was titled Kamienie na szaniec [Stones for the Rampart]. Another distinct area is defined in literary studies by works that represent the genre of historical fantasy, whose four prominent examples are discussed by Piotr Gociek in the chapter titled “Fantastyczny rok 1920” [The fantastic year 1920].

Centuries ago, a victory would be considered complete if the winners could feast on the spoils won from the defeated. Modern wars also involve carrying away spoils, although they are not referred to in this way, or can even be hypocritically kept secret. It is a bitter experience in Polish history that the spoils of war secured after the 1920 victory were actually goods stolen from Poland by the partitioners, primarily by tsarist Russia. After the Peace of Riga (March 1921), negotiations were held for many years regarding the recovery of works of art, libraries, and other items related to culture. An overview of these heroic efforts made by Polish diplomats as well as representatives of culture and science is sketched by Jerzy Miziołek in the chapter “Triumf 1920 i trofea: odzyskanie narodowych dóbr kultury” [The triumph of 1920 and its trophies: reclaiming Polish national treasures] and by Piotr Jamski, who focuses on the history of bells in the chapter “Spiżowe Te Deum Laudamus” [A bronze Te Deum Laudamus].

This monograph concludes with a text by Mirosław Nagielski titled “Smoleńsk – walka o wrota do Moskwy. Rywalizacja Rzeczpospolitej z Moskwą o dominację w Europie Środkowo-Wschodniej” [Smoleńsk – the battle for the gates to Moscow. The rivalry between the Republic of Poland and Moscow for dominance in East-Central Europe], which brings to attention the fact that historical conflicts are characterized by long duration, continuously feeding on new ideologies yet remaining firmly rooted in inescapable geopolitical conditions.

Triumf 1920. Obraz i pamięć

.We hope that this publication can become a valuable contribution to a more intense cultivation of the legend of the great victory, and that the triumph of the entire Polish nation will be appropriately commemorated not only by erecting a monument in Warsaw, but also by winning for itself a special place in the hearts of Poles, matching that of the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. One last question arises in this context regarding the place of the Polish-Soviet War in universal perception. Although D’Abernon recognized the Battle of Warsaw as one of the eighteen most important battles in the history of the world, it is not his book but Isaac Babel’s works Red Cavalry and 1920 Diary that are republished and read around the world (Babel 2002; 2003). Although he fought on the Soviet side, his narrative is almost entirely objective, since he neither depreciates Polish victories, nor disregards aspects such as the role of American pilots who efficiently fought Budyonny’s Cavalry Army. The achievements of pilots like Cedric Fauntleroy and Merian Cooper (the former later became a colonel, while the latter – a film director known for King Kong) and the exceptional feats of Polish radio intelligence (which was as crucial as the use of radar during the Battle of Britain) could not only be discussed in a separate book but also adapted as a Hollywood film. Let us hope that the celebration of the one hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Warsaw can inspire further actions promoting Poland, its military and brilliant codebreakers around the world, as well as convince scholars of the necessity to study and reflect on the cultural significance of the Polish-Soviet War. This book investigates many areas that were so far left unexplored, provoking us to pose questions regarding the relationship between art and politics. After all, images and monuments are vehicles of memory and their lack invites oblivion.

Jerzy Miziołek, Joanna M. Sosnowska

Summary of a book published in Polish in 2020.. Translated by Grzegorz Czemiel


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