Insight Poland

“The symbolic significance of the ‘Miracle of the Vistula’ was built afterwards”

Interview with Maciej Górny, Polish historian and specialist of 19th and 20th history of Central and Eastern Europe, professor and deputy head of the Historical Institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences and professor at the German Historical Institute in Warsaw. miracle of the vistula

The Battle of Warsaw was the culmination of the Bolsheviks’ attempt to extend the revolution across Europe. Could you remind us briefly the different events, starting from the Brest-Litovsk negotiations, that led to it?

Maciej Górny: In parallel to the negotiations in Brest-Litovsk, there was something really unexpected happening throughout Central Europe, and not only on Polish lands. There was a major social change, including in people’s mentality and behaviour. Up to more or less late 1917, in Central European nations and Russia, the situation of workers and burghers was very tense. Urban populations were amongst the hardest-hit groups, a situation which was not so different from the one in Western European countries. But here, the situation was even more dire and riots became common in many cities.

Up to mid-1917, the usual answer of the political elite in Austria-Hungary, Germany and Russia was to crack down on and suppress whatever resistance they encountered, an answer which was implemented many times in the case of industrial workers. When the negotiations in Brest-Litovsk occurred, things started to change, mostly due to the unexpected power that the industrial workers started to feel, something they had never experienced before.

They discovered that the entire war effort was basically lying on their shoulders. So whenever they went on strike, it had strong consequences. Hence, they felt that they had the power to change politics, mostly through strikes but also in the form of any kind of riots and other acts of disobedience. This is what happened in January and February 1918 throughout Central Europe. For example, in Bohemia the biggest armament plants and Škoda factories near Pilsen stopped working. It happened also in Vienna, in Kraków and in other cities in Galicia. This represented a major change. miracle of the vistula

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The Austro-Hungarian and Russian delegations meet in Brest-Litovsk.

The connection with Brest-Litovsk is clear with the slogans used by the workers throughout Central Europe. What they asked was bread, naturally, because of significant food shortages. And they asked for peace with Russia – or whoever in the East capable of procuring this lacking food. As such, this process can be interpreted as a kind of empowerment of the working class. If you are looking for comparison in history, there’s the Polish Solidarity movement in early 1980s. A period in which industrial workers started to feel that they have a power to change their own lives by themselves. They started to refuse to simply follow orders. miracle of the vistula

On the other side, it’s important to look at how authorities reacted to this new situation. Up to mid-1917, the only answer was coercion, violence and suppression. In the period surrounding the Brest-Litovsk negotiations, they started to talk to the leaders of the working class who were most of the time social-democratic politicians. This was a trend which foreshadowed what came in late 1918 throughout the region. Those social-democrats became important parts of the new governments popping up after the Empires’ collapse in the aftermath of World War I.

It emphasized a major political change on which the Bolsheviks would build their hopes and political agenda. All around the region, there emerged a huge, albeit slightly disorganized, working-class movement and more importantly a feeling of empowerment among lower social stratum – even in places like Central Poland, where there was no massive workforce but on the contrary mass unemployment. As an example, in Warsaw, various groups of employees who weren’t factory workers behaved as if they were, and professionals working in the post offices or in the medical sector also went on strike.

Another crucial aspect to consider in the context of the spreading of the Bolshevik revolution is the continuity from imperial policy-making to post-independence ones. There was no major difference between the relatively liberal policies of late imperial powers and those implemented by the newly established states. They both mostly surrendered to the demands of the working classes. miracle of the vistula

And it went more or less in this direction until the early 1920s when foreign, mostly Western experts came to the region and basically explained to the local elites that they could no longer base their economic policy on money-printing. When it comes to Poland, these events took place between 1920 et 1923, but this is somewhat similar to what happened in other countries of the region: Austria and Hungary, for instance, were bailed out in 1922. At that moment, Western powers imposed their conditions and these countries were firmly encouraged to follow the rules of liberal economics.

Hopes to successfully spread the revolution towards Central Europe on the Bolshevik side were high due to the strong social basis they could rely on. When you look at symbolic gestures, in November 1918, the first flag hung on the Warsaw Castle was the red banner, and it remained there for a couple of weeks. None of the municipal officers wanted to risk taking it down or putting the tricolour one instead. The atmosphere was in a way very promising if you were a Bolshevik. You could count on a kind of social upheaval leaning on the far-left.

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Key members of the Polish Revolutionary Committee established in Bialystok.

As you said, Bolsheviks could count on some popular support throughout the region at that time. The Hungarian example is a good illustration. What about Poland: we know in particular that a brief Revolutionary Committee was set up in Bialystok during the advance of the Bolsheviks in July 1920?

The Revolutionary Committee was created during the advance of the Red army in the Eastern parts of Poland. It didn’t last long and had more of a symbolic meaning. However, we should also remember that some of its members, such as Julian Marchlewski or Feliks Dzierżyński, were influential policy-makers. Interestingly, these leaders made some mistakes which could explain their political failure. I would describe these politicians as “humanitarians”.

In this respect, they were very similar to their Hungarian counterparts (their short-lived state was already non-existent when the Bolsheviks came close to Warsaw). But still, both Hungarian and Polish communists shared one mistake: they were not ready to give land to the peasantry. A mistake Lenin never made. It was one of the first things that Russian Bolsheviks implemented. They did not start with collectivisation: first, they gave lands to the peasantry, a measure which gave them popular support. And then, when they were strong enough, they started the collectivisation process. miracle of the vistula

Both Hungarian and Polish Bolsheviks were reluctant to do this, and were rather in favour of collectivising from the very beginning, not because they were particularly tough but rather due to their weakness: they realized that giving the lands to peasants would, in the short term, deprive cities of food. In their opinion, supply chains would collapse within one year and the only way of supplying the whole region was to implement it by force. Either you collectivise and coerce peasants into delivering their crops to cities, or cities would starve. That may be a missed opportunity for Polish communists, but it’s just a hypothesis.

It’s important to remember that this government was never actually established in Warsaw. They did not go further than Wyszków and the only big city they conquered was Bialystok. Hence, they did not have the opportunity to act in Poland nor to have an impact on Soviet policies within the occupied parts of Poland when the Bolsheviks were there. Locally, the Red army was told not to be too cruel with citizens as they were “exporting” the Revolution.

We can also mention examples of peaceful coexistence and even some form of collaboration between them and Polish national democrats. For example, the memoirs of former Polish Prime Minister Wicenty Witos provided some evidence about these developments. But after the war, a natural thing was to scapegoat Jews as the main people responsible for collaborating with Bolsheviks… miracle of the vistula

Finally, if you want to assess the real chances of success of the Soviet invasion, it should not be seen as a revolutionary development (even though its aim was to implement a socialist revolution). It was not the first time that a foreign army came to the region. Hence, there were some implicit rules on how to behave in case of an invasion. It’s wrong to imagine a kind of new world with new politics. Everything was pretty much the same as before, even on the scale of brutality. Regarding this specific conflict, the only thing that really changed was the level of professionalization of the armies. Both the Red Army and the Polish army were less organized and less disciplined, and hence more dangerous for the civilian populations compared to the imperial armies of Germany, Austria-Hungary and even Russia in 1914-1918.

Precisely, how did Poland experience this particular period after World War I? How did the citizens live the transition from the general euphoria caused by the return of independence (November 1918) to the remobilization to save the nation from the Bolshevik imperialism? And what was the role of the general population at that time?

First, I would question the statement you make on the atmosphere of “general euphoria”. If you read some memoirs or diaries from this period, you understand that it’s not necessarily the case and see a clash between parts of society who were really attached to the idea of Polish independence and who felt that 1918 opened a window of opportunity to achieve this goal, and those who remained utterly uninterested. Euphoria about independence existed of course, but it was not a general feeling. miracle of the vistula

The situation was evidently biased, as the more enthusiastic fringes of the population could generally be found among the intelligentsia, whereas disappointment remained the main sentiment among peasants and lower-class workers – people who did not have the possibility to publicly express their feelings – as well as national and ethnic minorities, who had rather mixed feelings about independence. miracle of the vistula

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Józef Piłsudski and his troops during the Polish-Ukrainian war.

Secondly, we cannot really talk about a “re-mobilization”, as de-mobilization never truly happened: if you visit the tomb of the unknown soldier in Warsaw, it commemorates a young defender of the city of L’viv (Lwów in Polish) who died in 1919, not in the Polish-Soviet war but during the preceding Polish-Ukrainian conflict. If you read press articles from this period, this latter conflict which took place in Eastern Galicia was the most important one, at least in terms of propagandistic content. The war against the Western Ukrainian People’s Republic began on November 1, 1918, shortly before the Polish independence and lasted until mid-1919. It was the first major conflict, and World War I was still not officially over.

The war against the Bolsheviks started in the early months of 1919. Hence, for a couple of months, these two wars were being fought simultaneously. By far the Polish-Ukrainian conflict was the most important one, and at that time it was also the most brutal and violent one. In addition, there was also the Polish-Czechoslovak war, which had a huge publicity even though it was almost irrelevant in terms of casualties.

There was also the Silesian uprising (and two more to come by 1921) and various plebiscites across the country. Not to mention the numerous social conflicts throughout the country. In conclusion, it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact moment of Polish mobilisation. The Polish–Soviet war was only one of many conflicts during this period. And until the spring of 1920, nothing would justify calling it great or existential.

Political scientists would probably call this conflict a low intensity one, as it was waged on a massive territory (including Belarus and Ukraine) and was a multilateral conflict fought by different sides. Not only Russians, Ukrainians or Belarussians but various groups, sometimes even not precisely identifiable. One example was the so-called Greens who were mostly made of deserters later joined by masses of peasantry. In Ukraine and Belarus, you had whole regions entirely free from any established government. miracle of the vistula

It was a chaotic situation where armed peasants were watching their village and perhaps a couple of other ones. This conflict was evidently waged by both Poland and Bolshevik Russia, but their armies were surrounded by numerous other groups who intervened and took part in the fighting, often switching alliances on a regular basis. Even though it depended on the local situation, various unprofessional factions were fighting in a chaotic way, mostly along railway lines which were sparse in the region at that time.

While Poland was divided for more than a century between three Empires, did the political elites manage to rapidly consolidate the state apparatus? And was the Polish army operational from the beginning of the Soviet-Polish War?

These are evidently two separate things. Regarding the army, you never start from scratch. To give you a concrete example, when the war between Poland and Western Ukraine was about to start, a Ukrainian officer came to the central military barracks in L’viv and asked every individual attending the meeting to declare whether they were Ruthenians or not. Whoever raised its hand was accepted in the Western Ukrainian Army. That was how this army was created.

To properly see the continuity between the imperial and national armies we have to go back to the beginning of the Great War in 1914. At that time, some elements of national units such as Polish legions or Ukrainian riflemen were formed within the imperial armies. Voluntary units appeared on the Russian side too, like the Yugoslav or Czechoslovak units, semi-professional fighters who fought during World War I. miracle of the vistula

However, as time passed, imperial armies got increasingly disorganized while these national units grew, and the balance shifted around 1917-1918. Those who used to be voluntary unprofessional soldiers started to feel like elite national troops and even became so. Their position ceased to be inferior as the imperial military became increasingly disorganized. They became like cancer cells within the body of the imperial armies.

Then, in 1918 when empires were effectively collapsing, these national forces were already there, and it was possible to build on that. In addition, there were people who never really demobilized because they regularly switched from one army to another, quitting the imperial troops on Monday and fighting for the fatherland’s army on Tuesday. As such, these “new national armies” were quickly based on existing structures and simply took over some units from previous imperial armies. Regimental traditions and stories of units fighting the Bolsheviks, like the 20th Polish Infantry Regiment, can be traced back from the XIX° century Habsburg army. All in all, there was clearly a lot of continuity in that respect.

It was less problematic to have an army than to build a proper government. But in this specific area, we’re once more talking about “transitory history”, so it has some similarities with the military domain. It’s evidently linked with the phenomenon of workers’ empowerment we mentioned earlier. Early in World War I, Austro-Hungarian and Russian imperial powers realized that they were not able to fully cope with their bureaucratic duties anymore. miracle of the vistula

The war grew bigger than expected from the military perspective but also from the social standpoint (in terms of food shortages, intense migration flux, etc.). Central Europe was a place where war refugees were immensely numerous: we’re talking about 10 times more people than in the rest of Western Europe, hundreds of thousands of Jews fled from Galicia, whereas millions of Belarusians and Ukrainians had to move to the East, and so on.

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Streets of Warsaw on the day of Poland’s independence, November 11, 1918.

Facing this situation, imperial bureaucracies were not able to deal with these issues anymore and were forced to ask for help and place some responsibilities on self-governing organisations which emerged across the region. Municipal powers started to have more influence in Austria-Hungary or in Russia (whereas no self-governments existed in the Polish part of Russia until 1914). We can find here some similarities with the formation of the army, as these intermediary bodies became more and more influential within the imperial structures.

These local organisations continuously raised up a cohort of politicians who would be seen later as the fathers of independence. We have the examples of Konstantin Päts in Estonia or Antanas Smetona in Lithuania who started their wartime political career running local charities and then became key figures of the national independence. Some of these organisations were the basis on which future national structures would be built. miracle of the vistula

In addition, from 1917, in both empires, local political structures were attracting more and more central level politicians. This phenomenon is linked to social-democrats who supported local protests and became less involved in imperial politics being crafted in the capital cities. From autumn 1918, there was already a mix of local and national-level politicians who started to create parallel state structures such as national committees in Austria-Hungary which, for a couple of months, coexisted with the imperial state apparatus.

However, these structures should not be pictured as wholly separate bodies because they dealt with imperial bureaucracy for a long time. In conclusion, there was a lot of continuity as well between imperial and post-imperial stages at the political level. A lot of people switched allegiances overnight. Once again, nothing is entirely new here, as most of the national structures were only evolutions of imperial ones.

Regarding the Battle of Warsaw itself, the “Miracle of the Vistula” as it is commonly referred to, why is it precisely a miracle? When was this expression first used? As a reminder, the Bolshevik troops were only a few kilometres from the capital when they were finally defeated. How can we explain a Polish victory which appears completely unexpected today?

To be radical, I would say that the grandeur and heroic nature of this battle was invented afterwards. To start with the name, the term of “miracle” was coined by the Polish far right as a way to criticize Pilsudski and shift the credit for the victory from the leader to the divine sphere. At this time, people also remembered the “Miracle sur la Marne”. The parallel was clear, both situations were difficult as a powerful enemy was approaching the capital – Paris in one case, Warsaw in the other – and had to be stopped at all costs. The Battle of Warsaw became the Polish version of the Miracle on the Marne. miracle of the vistula

The only difference was that they had 10 times more casualties in France. The scale of both battles are absolutely not comparable, and it’s even more striking if you look closer to the numbers. There is no doubt that the Polish-Soviet war was a significant conflict in terms of numbers: almost one million on the Polish side, and 4 million on the Bolshevik side. In this regard, it’s comparable to the fighting between France and Germany. But the difference lies in the details: these armies were completely unprofessional and incapable of sending more than couple of tens of thousands of soldiers to the actual fight close to Warsaw.

The number of actual soldiers was more or less 40.000 on the Polish side and perhaps up to 100.000 on the Soviet side. So you only had a very small fraction of troops directly involved in the fighting even though this battle, in some aspects, was something of a massive struggle. But still nothing comparable to the previous battles which occurred during World War I.

Also, it’s important to question the very meaning and significance of the battle of Warsaw. Considering these armies were unprofessional and badly equipped, the whole scale of the conflict was mitigated. In addition, it wasn’t very clear which side was the strongest. If we only look at absolute numbers, it’s clear that Russia had a clear advantage. But when you take into account the long distances the Bolshevik troops had to travel, how difficult their supply lines were to manage and the fact that many of their soldiers were left behind for various reasons, then the picture becomes more nuanced. miracle of the vistula

All in all, it was not the giant conflict nor the giant battle we tend to talk about today. It was a big one of course, but not comparable to the most important World War I battles. The symbolic significance of the “Miracle of the Vistula” was built afterwards, with the aim to strengthen national cohesion in the Second Polish Republic with the spread of propagandistic material and symbolic meanings.

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Polish soldiers during the Battle of Warsaw in 1920.

Poland only enjoyed its regained independence for two decades: then came World War II and the invasion of Poland by the Germans in the West and the Soviets in the East. The Soviets eventually managed to impose a communist regime in Poland for more than four decades. How did the historiography concerning the Battle of Warsaw and Poland’s role in the Polish-Soviet War evolve throughout the 20th century?

It’s important to remember that the memory of this battle remained contested during the interwar period. Like I said previously, it was part of a large-scale propaganda effort from the Second Polish Republic which heavily relied on the victory at the Battle of Warsaw and on Piłsudski himself. It was a divisive issue, not only between the Polish right and Piłsudski’s ruling political movement, but also between Poles and national minorities. Still, the Polish state did manage to create a set of rituals around Poland’s independence, which included the war against the Bolsheviks.

The Battle of Warsaw even became a state holidays while, in the late 1930s, it was increasingly (and naturally unofficially) “celebrated” by pogroms in various cities. In the political rhetoric of the Polish right, there was always a clear link between Communists and Jews, so in their mindset, it was logical to attack Jewish populations on the occasion of the victory against the Bolsheviks.

The communists, for their part, never accepted this anniversary and rejected all policies and initiatives coming from the Polish interwar state. Even if these events were still partly celebrated in 1943 or 1944, then came the Stalinisation of the country. Communists grew more critical towards this national history and, in the late 1950s, paradoxically came up with an interpretation that was much closer to British or French historiography rather than the Polish one. If you read interwar Western historiography, you would be convinced that the Polish-Bolshevik war effectively started with the Polish offensive in Ukraine, and that Poland was the real attacker. miracle of the vistula

Polish communists were in agreement with these international scholars for whom the war was caused by Poland’s attempt to suppress the Bolshevik revolution. They sided with the critics against Piłsudski and reinterpreted the war in an upside down manner if compared to the official Polish position during the interwar period. If Poland was the attacker, than Tukhatchevski’s march towards Warsaw was only a defensive move and it would mean that it was ultimately a Soviet victory, considering they did save the Bolshevik revolution. And the notion of “miracle” disappeared as well.

But during the late years of communism, initial traditions surrounding these events started to come back. Memorial politics increasingly shifted back towards the initial national interpretation. It never came close to the nationalistic approach, as it happened in Romania for instance, but Polish communists did let people rediscover their national traditions and legacy. One of these was the Polish-Soviet war, so we can say that this “memorial shift” was a late-Communist development rather than a post-Communist one. The idea of a Polish Miracle came back in the public sphere in its own right.

US Mike Pompeo Visits Poland On Army Day With President Duda
Polish President Andrzej Duda during the ceremony commemorating the centenary of the Battle of Warsaw, on August 14, 2020.

Within contemporary Poland, history evidently holds a central place. We know about the particularly intense commemorations surrounding the November 11 independence or those related to the Warsaw Uprising. What about the Battle of Warsaw, and more broadly the Soviet-Polish war? Is it a strong memorial element today? There is the feeling that this battle is slightly less important in current memorial politics.

I suppose this feeling has something to do with the political or symbolical meanings attached to specific historical events. It has to do with post-history rather than with those events themselves. If the Battle of Warsaw is not celebrated as some other historical events are, it does not mean that this battle was not important. It means that this specific event is not such a divisive topic with conflicting interpretations.

This situation widely differs from other events, like the Warsaw uprising or the beginning of World War II. The Battle of Warsaw is today a rather uncontroversial event: an enemy came and was defeated. There was no fifth column or any type of controversy, only the rather marginal, side-question of who was truly responsible for the victory.

Regarding the Battle of Warsaw, nobody has truly launched any type of “memorial fight” or fundamentally questioned its legacy. Of course, it’s a dynamic process and we cannot be certain it will stay like this in the future, especially considering the fact that there are many topics that could lead to controversy. Antisemitism is one of these: we have to remember that just before the battle, the Polish Army excluded Jewish officers and put them into an internment camp in Jabłonna. The lack of confidence in Jewish soldiers was significant within the Polish army at that time.

We also know that waves of anti-Semitic violence took place during both the Soviet and Polish retreats. Białystok, the city conquered by the Bolsheviks, had a lot of Jewish inhabitants at that time, and they suffered from important pillages and looting when Poles regained control of the city. There are still many aspects of the Polish-Soviet war that could lead to diverging historical interpretations, so I wouldn’t say it’s a closed case. But as of today, the Battle of Warsaw and the Polish-Soviet war are not the source of any major political controversy.

Conducted by Arthur Kenigsberg, Romain Le Quiniou et Gwendal Piégais, this interview was originally published in French by Euro Créative and Le Courrier d’Europe Centrale, official partners of Kafkadesk.

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