Magazine Poland

On this Day, in 1920: the “Miracle on the Vistula” saved Europe from Bolshevik Russia

On August 13, 1920, with Poland’s newly regained independence at stake, the Bolshevik Army launched its final assault on Warsaw with plans to bring communism to Central and Western Europe.

After more than a century of partition between the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia and the Habsburg Monarchy, Poland re-emerged as a sovereign country at the end of the First World War.

But until the Paris Peace Conference and Treaty of Versailles formally established Poland as an independant state, many territorial issues remained unresolved and fighting for the borders of the reborn nation dragged on even after the Armistice was signed in November 1918.

The Polish-Soviet War

Under the leadership of its new Chief of State Józef Piłsudski, the young Polish state solidified its independence in a series of conflicts that re-defined the country’s borders. War with Ukraine expanded the Polish republic’s territory to include Volhynia and parts of Galicia, while the Greater Poland uprising succeeded in attaching most of the province’s territory to Poland.

Meanwhile, in neighbouring Russia, the Bolsheviks had gained the upper hand in the Civil War and Vladimir Lenin began viewing Poland as a bridge to bring communism to Central and Western Europe. In his speeches, he asserted that the revolution was to be carried to Europe on the bayonets of Russian soldiers and that the shortest route to Berlin and Paris was through Warsaw.

Given that Russia had been one of the three empires that had partioned Poland at the end of the 18th century, Polish sentiments toward Russians couldn’t have been worse upon regaining independence. And the fact that the former empire was now led by Bolshevik revolutionaries did very little to change these negative outlooks on all things Russian.

The Battle of Warsaw

Though war between Poland and Russia officially broke out in February 1919, most of the major fighting took place in 1920, after Józef Piłsudski formed an alliance with the exiled Ukrainian leader Symon Petlyura and their combined forces began to push into Belarus and Ukraine, even liberating Kiev in May.

But despite early setbacks, the Red Army launched a successful counter-offensive, forcing the Polish army to retreat westward in disarray. With the Russian strategy calling for a mass push toward Warsaw, Poland’s newly regained independence was at stake.

In August, when the Red Army commanded by Mikhail Tukhachevsky launched what was expected to be the final assault on Warsaw, Piłsudski was forced to begin his counterattack twenty-four hours early, with some units not yet in position, for fear that Warsaw might fall if he waited.

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.

The “Miracle on the Vistula”

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 divided the disputed territories between Poland and Soviet Russia and secured the Polish state’s eastern frontiers until 1939.

The treaty was so favorable to them that it reportedly even surprised the Polish generals and the 1920 Battle of Warsaw soon 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.

Some historians have argued that the Soviet failure to destroy the Polish Army decisively ended Soviet ambitions for international revolution. The politician and diplomat Edgar Vincent even regards this event as one of the most important battles in history for having halted the spread of communism westwards into Europe.

But despite the final retreat of Soviet forces, historians do not agree on the question of victory. While the Poles claimed a successful defence of their state, the Soviets also claimed a victory over the Polish eastward invasion of Ukraine and Belarus.

Nonetheless, the fighting with the Soviets was hugely symbolic for the newly-formed Poland because it reignited a fierce sense of nationalist pride among Poles as the defenders of Europe. Nationalists have even 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 some believe prevented the spread of Islam into Europe.

Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.