The Last Battle
There is a story about a Russian who, when asked about communism, said: “Of course, communism was bad. But who made communism? The Bolsheviks. And who were the Bolsheviks? Well, they were foreigners; Lenin – a Tatar, Stalin – a Georgian, Dzerzhinsky – a Pole, Trotsky – a Jew. We, Russians – were innocent.”
Essentially, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known under the alias Lenin, was a Tatar. He also had German, Swedish and Jewish blood, and least of all Russian. In fact, he held Russians in contempt; it was he who, after completing the Bolshevik putsch, decreed that the traditional Julian calendar (which survived only in the Orthodox Church) be exchanged for the western Gregorian one. Lenin and Trotsky dreamt of expanding communism into civilized Western Europe (and ultimately the whole world), with Germany foreseen as the first country to undergo a red revolution. There was however, one problem – Poland stood in the way. Fighting began in February 1919, with a Soviet attack on the area that is today Belarus. The attack was repelled. In April, Polish soldiers captured Vilnius, the town of Piłsudski’s birth, and in August, Minsk. This was a magnificent achievement; an army of over one million men, into which representatives of every social class enlisted, arose as the result of the organizational effort of the positivists, national democrats, peasants’ associations and socialists (admittedly, Polish socialism always had a democratic character, not a revolutionary one).
Since Piłsudski dreamt of creating a Polish-Lithuanian-Belarussian-Ukrainian federation, he made contact with the great Ukrainian politician and leader, Chief Otaman Symon Petliura, and directed his army towards Ukraine. The Head-of State later wrote: “the aim of the war was the defence of Poland and to liberate our neighbours from the Bolsheviks, and to give those neighbours the chance to decide their own fate.” The Polish army reached Kiev on 3 May 1920. The soldiers commandeered a tram, rode it into town, captured a Bolshevik officer, and left. But on 9 May, a joint Polish-Ukrainian parade took place in the city, now devoid of Soviet bandits. As a result of Red Army counter-offensives, it was necessary for the army to withdraw; an independent and autonomous Ukraine remained only a dream of Piłsudski and Petliura.
As an aside: during the period of martial law, an elderly gent approached a ZOMO (para-military police) cordon stationed at the Kijów (Kiev) cinema in Kraków and began distributing flowers to the men. Their surprised commander asked: “Why, citizen, when everybody is throwing stones at us, are you handing out flowers?” The old man replied: “So that I can see our boys by Kijów once again!”
Trotsky, the advocate of ‘permanent revolution’, urged Lenin to push the Red Army westward. Their commander, Mikhail Tukhachevsky growled: “Over the corpse of White Poland lies the road to world-wide conflagration.” The Poles were abandoned: the British refused support and communist dockers blocked ships carrying arms and ammunition; France sent a military mission headed by General Weygand, who loitered in Warsaw, completely useless. The only true assistance came from Hungary, which practically disarmed itself, having placed the supplies of its entire army at Poland’s disposal. In August 1920, Tukhachevsky’s forces stood at the edge of Warsaw. The diplomatic corps fled to the West in terror (the only foreign diplomat that refused to flee was the papal nuncio, Ambrogio Damiano Achille Ratti, later to become Pope Pius XI). A Bolshevik victory seemed assured.
Piłsudski executed the risky manoeuvre of regrouping his forces – exhausted defensive units were withdrawn to the rear and were replaced by assault units. On 13 August, the Soviets failed to gain a bridgehead over the Vistula. Between 14 and 18 August, the operations of the Polish 5th Army, under General Władysław Sikorski, halted the northern wing of the Red Army on the Wkra river, while the Polish offensive broke through to the Bolshevik rear. On the 18th, Tukhachevsky realised that he was surrounded. All that remained was the panicked flight to the east by the remnants of the three Soviet armies; over 100 thousand Red Army soldiers were taken prisoner. The war finally ended with the signing of the Treaty of Riga, on 18 March 1921, which confirmed the eastern border of the Republic of Poland. The German communist, Klara Zetkin, would later recall her conversation with Lenin, who said: “The Poles saw the Red Army not as brothers and liberators, but as foes. The revolution … has failed. The workers and peasants … have risen up in defence of their class enemy.” It would appear that workers and peasants think more clearly than leftist intellectuals.
So ended the forging of Independence. Later turbulent events are a matter for another story. To finish not on pathos, but on a humorous note, let us recall one of the numerous anecdotes about the ‘most loyal of the loyal’, possibly the most dashing figure of those turbulent times, Piłsudski’s aide-de-camp, Bolesław Wieniawa-Długoszewski (from jpilsudski.org):
“In 1934, when Wieniawa-Długoszewski was to represent Poland at the funeral of King Alexander of Yugoslavia, he was late for the ceremony for reasons that remain unclear. On his return to Poland, he was ordered to report to Marshal Piłsudski, who had been enraged by the incident. Wieniawa turned up wearing a dinner jacket, which served to further infuriate the Marshal. When the apoplectic Piłsudski roared at Wieniawa: ‘What is the meaning of this!’, the latter, standing to attention, matter-of-factly replied: ‘Sir, I report obediently, since I know that I have offended most grievously, and thoroughly deserve a slap in the face. Yet, since I have utmost respect for my uniform, I have come in civilian clothes; a Polish general cannot be smacked in the mouth while in uniform!’ Piłsudski was once more disarmed by his favourite, and there was no punishment.