White Eagle, Red Star by Norman Davies

Just a few short weeks after the end of World War I on the Western Front, Poland and Soviet Russia started fighting again, skirmishing on their poorly defined border that built into full-scale invasions over the next year. Davies’ book White Eagle, Red Star: The Polish-Soviet War 1919-1920 tells this complex story clearly and incisively. In the West, the armistice began on November 11, 1918. In the East, nothing was as simple. The separate peace signed at Brest-Litovsk made room for the collapse of the Russian Empire and the emergence of a number of polities on its former territory.

The German army of the east stayed in position, patrolling its vast area of remaining occupation, the Oberkommando-Ostfront, or Ober-Ost, which stretched 1,500 miles form the Gulf of Bothnia to the Sea of Azov. In every quarter local wars were in progress. Soviet Russia was fighting for its life against all the other successor provinces simultaneously, on fifteen fronts. Russian ‘White’ armies sprang up on all sides — Yudenich before Petrograd, Kolchak in Siberia, Denikin on the Volga. Allied armies of intervention were sent to guard the interests of the Entente, the British in Archangel, Murmansk, and the Caucasus, the French in Odessa, the Americans and Japanese in Vladivostok. Then the succession states started fighting among themselves — The Rumanians with the Hungarians in Transylvania, the Yugoslavs with the Italians at Rijeka, the Czechs with the Poles in Teschen, the Poles with the Ukrainians in Galicia, the Poles with the Germans in Poznania. Post-war social unrest in many European cities produced communist revolutions on the Soviet model, each involving still more fighting …
To pay special attention to just one of these conflagrations may seem superfluous. Yet the Polish-Soviet War was different. … Unlike all the other post-war squabbles with which it is frequently equated, the Polish-Soviet War raised wider issues — the clash of ideologies, the export of revolution, the future of Europe itself. – p. 21

Yet now the war is even less known than it was in 1972, when Davies’ book was first published. At that time, it was still within living memory (indeed, the book is dedicated to his father-in-law, who was caught up in the war), but on the other hand communist Poland and the Soviet Union had little desire to remember that they had fought bitterly almost at the very beginning of the Soviet era in Russia.

Ideological tensions were heightened by historical tradition. Russia and Poland were traditional enemies. The Russians saw Pilsudski as the heir to the Polish lords who had conquered Moscow in 1611, who had ruled Kiev until 1662, and whose only accomplishments were rent-collecting and rebellion. The Poles saw Lenin as a new Tsar, whose only thought was to renew their bondage. Both Russia and Poland in February 1919 were states in their infancy, the one sixteen months old the other only four months old. Both were chronically insecure, gasping for life and given to screaming. In the opinion of the senior members of the European family neither infant was expected to live long. Soviet Russia was regarded in conservative circles as an abortion, whose continuing survival was an inexplicable misfortune; Poland was regarded as an unhealthy foundling, incapable of a vigorous, independent life. Soviet and Polish leaders, resenting these opinions, compensated for them by grandiose schemes of expansion, the one by plans of imminent world revolution, the other by schemes of territorial aggrandizement. – p. 31

Initially, the undefeated German army was a buffer between the two new states. But following the armistice in the west and the abdication of the German emperor, there was no point in keeping a German army in the field. The withdrawal, when it came, produced a vacuum into which both Polish and Soviet units advanced. Their first collision came on February 14, 1919, when a Polish detachment captured 80 Red Army soldiers in the crossroads of Bereza Kartuska. Fighting ebbed and flowed throughout the year in the borderlands once held by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth but ceded to the Russian Empire as Moscow’s power grew.

Davies tells a complex story clearly. He presents the many players, from Allied observers to Ukrainian peasant leaders; the many places, from Vilnius in the north to Galicia in the south and Kiev in the east; and the many influential events in a context that the reader can both recall why they are significant and keep abreast of the main narrative. Beyond retelling the events, and making sense of a confusing era, he describes how the war appeared to participants, and why the conflict is worth remembering.

‘We ran all the way to Kiev’, a Polish veteran commented, ‘and we ran all the way back.’ – p. 105

In 1920, Polish forces captured Kiev. The vast open areas of the border region allowed an offensive, once it had gained momentum, to keep going with relative ease. Defensive lines were few, concentrating troops for an engagement nearly impossible. But by the same token, the provinces gained so quickly proved impossible for the Poles to hold, and the initiative eventually passed to the Soviet side. Their offensive was almost as rapid, and led them deep into Poland and almost to the gates of Warsaw in August 1920. But the Polish defenses held, and counter-strikes on the northern and southern flanks pushed the Soviets eastward.

It is pointless to speak of ‘long lines of communications’ or Tukhachevsky’s ‘contempt for space’. These are not explanations. The lines of communication between Russia and Poland cannot be shortened. The vast space of the Borders is a well-known fact, which every general must first accept then ignore; a strategist who treated the expanse of the Borders with due respect would never fight at all.

Negotiators for the two sides reached a temporary agreement for peace in early October 1920. Like many temporary arrangements, it lasted far longer than expected.

The Soviet leadership saw Poland as a bridgehead to Western Europe, where the world revolution of the proletariat would surely claim its victory. Some Polish leaders wanted to establish a federation of the borderlands, joining countries along Russia’s western border to keep it in check, and others saw an opportunity to re-establish Poland’s borders of 1772. Neither came to pass. But after four years of trench warfare in Western Europe, fighting in the East saw the use of tanks in a war of maneuver and several other features of the war that would come to Europe beginning in 1939. Among the western observers was a young Charles de Gaulle. Among the Soviet commanders, only those who followed Stalin’s views along the southern front survived the purges of the 1930s.

Permanent link to this article: https://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2009/05/12/white-eagle-red-star-by-norman-davies/

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