Today, Poles enjoy celebrating Valentine’s Day and exchanging flowers, chocolates, and greeting cards as valentines (walentynki) on February 14. As everywhere else, the red heart symbolizing love features prominently in Poland on this day.
But the symbolism of the color red on February 14 is prominent in Poland in more ways than one. The date of the worldwide holiday for love also marks the day that the Red Army began attempting to bring the banner of communism to Poland, and the rest of Europe, with the first major battles of the Polish-Soviet War in 1919.
Poles Prove They Feel No Love for Russian Empire – Nor Soviet Communism
By 1795, the empires of Prussia, Russia, and Austria had partitioned the territory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth so that both Poland and Lithuania ceased to exist as independent countries. Poland would not regain its independence until World War I came to a close in 1918 – 123 years later.
Of course, if you’re Polish yourself or love someone who is Polish enough to let them blab about Polish history, you’ve probably already heard this story a million times (shout-out to my non-Polish wife). But what happened next in the early years of post-WWI Poland is not as well-known, despite the significance it had for all of Europe.
Though Poland was not the only country concerned with westward Russian expansion at the end of WWI, it had everything to lose had the Russians been successful in doing so – from the perspective of statehood. Losing significant territory would have undermined the country even before it had fully regained its independent status.
Given that Russia had been one of the three empires that partioned Poland at the end of the 18th century, Polish sentiments toward Russians couldn’t have been worse upon regaining independence. The fact that the former empire was now restylized as the Soviet Union led by Bolshevik revolutionaries, rather than as an empire led by an autocrat, did very little to change these negative outlooks on all things Russian.
Opposed to both the ideology of communism and to the notion of being reconquered by another Russian-led state, the Poles fought the Bolsheviks as if their very existence depended on it.
And because they were also perceived as fighting to prevent the spread of communism into Europe, the Poles even received support, moral and otherwise, from numerous allies as far west as the U.S.
The fighting with the Soviets was also hugely symbolic for the newly-formed Poland because it reignited a fierce sense of nationalist pride among Poles as the defenders of Europe. Unsurprisingly, historians have been known to draw comparisons between the Polish-Soviet War and Jan Sobieski III’s defense of Vienna from the Ottomans – a military victory which many argue to have been the key victory preventing the spread of Islam into Europe all the way back in the early 17th century.
Of course, many people who aren’t Polish nationalists may find those kinds of conclusions to be rather silly, and I would agree.
The 1920 Battle of Warsaw, aka the “Miracle on the Vistula”
Though the major conflicts of the Polish-Soviet war began on February 14, 1919 and lasted until 1921, it’s important to note that most of the major fighting took place in 1920 – especially the significant 1920 Battle of Warsaw. Because of this, some even refer to the Polish-Soviet War as the “War of 1920.”
It’s important to specify the year when referring to the 1920 Battle of Warsaw because Polish history is filled with its fair share of Warsaw battles. There was a “Battle of Warsaw” in 1656, 1705, 1794, 1831, 1914, 1915, 1939, and 1945 – not to mention the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. No, unfortunately, I’m not making any of these up, and I may even be missing a few.
Despite the significance of the fight with the Soviets for Polish independence, as well as for its perceived importance in preventing the spread of communism into Europe, the Poles seemed destined to lose the war by mid-1920 due to inferior numbers. That only changed when, with the Red Army on the capital’s doorstep, the Poles launched a desperate counterattack.
As had happened near the Polish capital so many times before, and would happen again, thousands of Poles sacrificed their lives fighting for Warsaw. But despite suffering some 20,000 casualties, the Poles managed to flank and break the over-extended Soviet forces. The renewed offensive was so unexpected and drove the Red Army so far back that the Soviets eventually sued for peace several months later.
Thanks to the resounding success of the counterattack at the Battle of Warsaw and subsequent battles, Poland even gained 200km of territory east of its former borders in a peace deal which was so favorable to them that it reportedly even surprised the Polish generals.
The 1920 Battle of Warsaw became known as the “Miracle on the Vistula,” in reference to the river (Wisła) which winds its way through the center of the Polish capital.
The Love-Hate-Hate Relationship Between Poland and the Soviet Union Continues
If you know anything about Poland in the latter half of the 20th century, you know that the Soviet Union would eventually succeed in bringing a form of its communism to Poland after World War II and that any territorial gains the Poles enjoyed in the 1920s would become quite irrelevant.
In fact, you might very well consider the Polish-Soviet War to be a bittersweet victory for Poland considering what came after.
One of the generals who was partly blamed for the Soviet defeat during the Polish-Soviet War was none other than Joseph Stalin, who had commanded the southwestern front for the Red Army. Needless to say, the future leader of the Soviet Union did not take this embarrassment very well.
Some speculate that Stalin’s personal anger toward Poland is partially what led to the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact – which divided Poland between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in the days leading up to the outbreak of WWII. Some speculate further that the many atrocities and betrayals committed against Poles by the Soviet Union during WWII, such as the Katyń massacre and the Soviet refusal to support the Warsaw Uprising, were also partly due to anger at Poland’s successes during the Polish-Soviet War.
We all know the expression about winning wars versus winning battles. In the case of the 1920 Battle of Warsaw and the Polish-Soviet War, Poland certainly won both the battle and the war. But from the historical perspective of the 21st century and the subsequent atrocities across Europe, it’s hard to consider anything that Poland accomplished in the 1920s as “winning.”
How Love and Peace Outlasted the Red Army and its Hammer & Sickle
Unfortunately, I personally feel that some of the same nationalism that led to so many senseless deaths in the 20th century is reflected in some of the statements of many world leaders today – including Poland.
As easy as it is to celebrate the outcome of the Polish-Soviet War as a victory for a newly-reformed underdog country, we would do well to also remember the associated repurcussions that followed for both Poland and Russia – as well as many other nations involved in WWII. We would also do well to remember that what finally defeated the Soviet Union for good was more a product of Solidarity (Solidarność), breaking down the artificial barriers that divided people, and the overall incompetence of the Soviet regime rather than any battle or sacrifice in the name of nation or ideology.
Though countless people died defending countries that no longer exist in the same form today during the Polish-Soviet War and, later, WWII – it was the desire for peace and love that ultimately led to the most permanent changes in world history.
Not surprisingly, the peace sign and red heart remain far more powerful symbols in the world today than any flag or political symbol. Regardless of what we remember from history on February 14 – or any other day – we should also always remember that.
By Piotr Narel
A bilingual Polish-American who has spent much of his life traversing the Atlantic, Piotr Narel is a communications professional based in Washington, D.C. Send Piotr your feedback and story ideas and feel free to check out more of his articles right here!