First published in 1972, Norman Davies’ White Eagle, Red Star covers the Soviet-Polish War of 1920. Davies went on to write extensively about Polish history in the 20th century, and White Eagle, Red Star was re-issued in 2003. Unfortunately, the new edition has not been updated to reflect the opening of Soviet and Polish archives following the end of the Cold War. Nevertheless, White Eagle, Red Star remains an exceptionally lucid and useful account of the Soviet-Polish War, probably unmatched in the English language.
Early on, Davies establishes the central problem of Soviet-Polish War historiography; the war has no clear start date. From August 1914 on, the entirety of what would become the Soviet-Polish frontier was fluid and militarized. In addition to the armies of Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary, a variety of Polish, Ukrainian, and other nationalist groups sought to achieve independence. The collapse of the Imperial Russia in 1917 only enhanced the chaos, as did the retreat and collapse of the Russian Army in the face of the German advance. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk solved little, as German troops remained deployed deep within the disputed territory, and continued to carry out periodic offensive action. The October Revolution led to further ideological and national conflict. Finally, the defeat of Germany on the Western Front and the collapse of Austria-Hungary made Polish independence achievable, and conflict with whatever Russian state emerged from the chaos inevitable.
The reconstituted Polish state was carved out of territory from the German, Hapsburg, and Russian empires, with the latter boundary being the most fluid. Several different entities contested for authority along the notional border, including the Soviet state, various White warlords, several different Ukrainian statelets, the Baltics, and the German Army. With a relatively stable base, there was ample opportunity for the Poles to expand at Russian expense. The Polish Army was cobbled together from units in the German, Austrian, and Russian armies, with some British and French training and equipment. It wasn’t a terribly impressive force by the standards of World War I, but in mid-1919 it was probably the class of Eastern Europe.
The Red Army had problems. It was engaged on several fronts against many different opponents. The Russian industrial base had been gutted by the war and the revolution, leaving the army with meager and outdated equipment. The continuing hostility of the Western Allies and Japan made resupply from abroad difficult. The officer corps was a disaster, and included some veterans of World War I, some czarist officers, and a large number of relatively inexperienced recruits. Red Army doctrine, such that it was, developed in the battle against the Whites, and was not up to the challenge of static warfare with an even quasi-modern European army. On the upside, the Red Army had some good senior leadership, high morale and crack discipline in some units, and eventually a substantial numerical advantage.
Polish objectives weren’t entirely coherent, but were based on three essential premises. First, Poland should secure a favorable border with Russia, without overextending itself. Second, the Russian Empire posed a threat to Poland in either its Soviet or Imperial forms, and as such any weakening of the Empire would enhance Polish security. Finally, Poland had a critical diplomatic role to play in Eastern Europe as the leader of an emerging bloc of independent states; victory in war against Russia could help secure this place of prominence.
The Soviets suffered from strategic confusion. First, some believed that regime survival was at stake. The Poles, in collusion with various White forces and potentially with the support of the West, might attempt the military destruction of the Soviet regime, or at least the detachment of a geographic area large enough to substantially weaken the Soviet state. Related to this were general territorial concerns, which manifested in a desire to push the Soviet frontier as far west as possible. Finally, a significant portion of the Soviet elite saw the war with Poland as an opportunity to spread the Revolution. Poland was, in this conception, the first stop on the way to Germany. These goals stood in some tension with one another. The desire to spread the Revolution encouraged risk taking, and precluded the consolidation of sensible territorial positions. The concerns about regime survival encouraged paranoia, and led to misunderstandings both of Polish war aims and of the potential for a grand anti-Bolshevik coalition.
During the war, the Soviet elite ran into the unexpected problem of nationalism. Appeals to Russian nationalism, it turned out, proved far more productive in terms of morale and mobilization than class based propaganda. Russian workers displayed more interest in crushing their Polish comrades than in liberating them. Since most Bolsheviks were Russian, a turn towards nationalism was probably inevitable. The turn, however, helped alienate Polish Bolsheviks in both the USSR and Poland. The Poles themselves had little use for Bolshevik propaganda, preferring the domination of their own feudal class to alliance with Russian workers.
A pre-emptive Polish invasion of Ukraine began in late April 1920. The invasion was mildly successful; it captured Kiev, but no one in either the Polish military or political leadership believed that the city could be held. Indeed, the arrival of the Soviet First Cavalry Army threw the Poles back, and began a series of staged offensives across the entire front. The Poles managed to fall back in good order towards Warsaw, where they reorganized their defense for the expected Soviet onslaught. The senior Soviet commander was Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a former czarist officer who had served time in Ingolstadt Prison, where he met Charles De Gaulle. Ingolstadt, incidentally, served as the basis for the final prison in Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion. Tukhachevsky would later play a major role in the development of modern armored warfare, a project for which Stalin rewarded him with execution.
Tukhachevsky believed that the momentum of the Red Army offensive would unhinge the Poles and leave the Soviets in control of Warsaw. It turned, out, however, that the Soviet offensive developed too slowly and carried too little punch; the Polish Army successfully defended Warsaw, then threw the Soviets back. The larger Soviet offensive broke down, while the Poles remained in good order. By the end of August, it was clear that the Red Army would not be extending the Revolution to Warsaw, much less to Germany.
Davies argues that the Western Allies played a very minimal role in the war. None of Britain, France, or the United States had much stomach for war with the Soviet Union after the interventions of 1918. Moreover, few in the West believed the Poles capable of unseating the Bolshevik regime. The Germans had no interest in seeing a strong Poland on their eastern border, and indeed some Germans believed that a Russian victory would speed the end of the restrictions on German military power. Davies conclusion on this point contradicts most Soviet historiography, which sees the Polish-Soviet War as just another attempt by the West to strangle the Revolution. It also contradicts some Western accounts that emphasize the importance of British and French advisors in organizing the defense of Warsaw. However, I found Davies argument pretty compelling. The Allies were tired of war by 1919, and what little interest they had in Russian affairs was devoted to support of one White faction or another. More importantly, the Poles and Russians had their own very good reasons for fighting a war, few of which had anything to do with Western anti-communism.
The Soviet-Polish War wasn’t simply the result of Bolshevik aggression. There’s no question that much of the fault for the war lay with the Poles. While the Polish leadership wasn’t interested in being part of the Allied project to strangle the Bolshevik Revolution, or even in cooperating very closely with White Russian forces, it did want to seize as much territory as possible, and had an expansive vision of the role that Poland could play politically and diplomatically in Eastern Europe. The Poles believed that the chaos attendant to the Revolution could be profitably exploited. At the same time, however, conflict between the new Polish state and the Soviet Union was probably inevitable. For both nationalist and ideological reasons, the Soviets were likely to eventually pursue control over Poland. For the nationalists, Poland remained an integral part of the reconstituted Russian Empire. For the ideologues, Poland was the gateway to Europe, and to world revolution. Unfortunately for the Poles, there was simply no way out of the trap. The best hope for Poland might have been a full disintegration of Soviet Russia, along with a generally supportive Western Alliance. In other words, it’s difficult to imagine conditions under which Polish security might have been achieved short of what was accomplished in 1991.