Communism arose in a time of pandemic and war. In 1918, the Bolshevik party led by V. I. Lenin seized control of Russia amid a world numbed by the slaughter of a world war and the seemingly unstoppable spread of influenza. Promising a utopia of equality, the communist message proved seductive to many in Europe and America. In the summer of 1920, having defeated his most serious internal foes, Lenin decided to launch a full-scale invasion of Europe to spread communism all across the continent.
Soviet communism proved anything but a utopian “worker’s paradise.” The Bolsheviks brutally eliminated their political opponents on both left and right, sparking a four-year civil war that killed several million people in Russia and neighboring lands. Tsarist autocracy had a justified reputation for cruelty and in the half century preceding the Revolution, it had executed almost 6000 people and exiled tens of thousands to Siberia. Yet in just four years, Lenin’s communist regime carried out at least thirty times as many death sentences, not counting hundreds of thousands murdered in extrajudicial killings. Despite this, support for the Soviets in the West grew as left-wing groups mobilized to help the Bolsheviks abroad and imitate their success at home.
By early 1920, White armies were in full retreat and Western resolve to oppose communism faded. To Russia’s west, Germany’s defeat and Austria-Hungary’s collapse allowed the emergence of newly independent nations from Finland to Hungary. As long as White armies had posed a threat to the Bolshevik regime, Lenin had been content to let these new countries alone. Now, with a reorganized and victorious Red Army numbering over 5 million he turned his eyes West. His main objective was Germany. The birthplace of Karl Marx had been disrupted by revolts and unrest and had one of Europe’s strongest communist movements. Germany appeared ripe for revolution that could be easily achieved with the help of the Red Army. In the spring of 1920, the Soviets issued orders for a massive western offensive.
To reach central Europe, however, the Red Army would first have to overrun newly independent Poland which recovered its independence in 1918 after 123 years of foreign subjugation. With its economy and infrastructure wrecked by four years of war and occupation, Poland was in rough shape and its situation was made even worse by widespread famine and epidemics of influenza and typhus. Its leader, socialist Józef Piłsudski, saw a resurgent Russia under Lenin as his country’s greatest threat and tried without success to create a confederation with the Baltic States and Ukraine to resist communist expansion. Despite this, the Poles were determined to resist Soviet invasion.
As the Red Army began to transfer forces west for its push into Europe, Piłsudski decided on a pre-emptive attack, sending the Polish Army into Ukraine. His plan was to drive out the Red Army and create an independent Ukraine under Symon Petliura that would be a bulwark against the Reds. At first the attack seemed to succeed, and the Reds abandoned Kiev in early May. But the Poles failed to destroy a significant portion of the Red Army which simply withdrew eastward. The majority of Ukrainians, exhausted and terrorized by years of war, proved just as apathetic toward the Polish-supported Petliura government as they had toward the Reds or Whites. The Soviets turned the incident into a propaganda victory, claiming to be the victims of Polish aggression.
In the summer of 1920, Lenin launched his offensive with two massive army groups. Gen. Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a violent nihilist but also the Red Army’s best general, led the Northern Front advancing from Belarus. The Southern Front, led by Alexander Yegorov, was spearheaded by a corps of 16,000 Red Cossacks commanded by Semyon Budyonny and his political commissar Josef Stalin. The Polish armies despite being outnumbered and ill-equipped had some key advantages. They were often more disciplined and had a better air force. Polish fliers were joined by a group of American volunteers, led by Cedric Fauntelroy and Merian Cooper. In addition, Polish cryptologists had broken Red Army radio codes.
In July, Tukhachevsky’s army broke through Polish lines and began its drive westward. In the south, Budyonny’s Cossacks forced the Poles back. Unlike most fighting in World War I, the Polish-Soviet war would be a war of rapid maneuver often using cavalry, but also armored trains and small units of motorized vehicles.
By the beginning of August 1920, hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers bore down on the gates of Warsaw while in the south Red Cossacks, swarmed toward the city of Lwow. The Soviet advance was accompanied by murder, rape, and destruction. The communists killed landowners, clergy, prisoners of war, business people, and anyone suspected of being a capitalist. Towns and villages were systematically wrecked. According to author Adam Zamoyski “the universal calling card of a visit by Red soldiers was shit—on furniture, on paintings, on beds, on carpets, in books, in drawers, on plates.”
Poland seemed doomed and with the fall of her capital the gates of Europe would be opened. In the West, communist sympathizers blocked both military and humanitarian aid for Poland, stopping trains and refusing to unload ships. The French sent a small group of military advisors who provided no useful advice. Unrest and exhaustion at home and communist agitation at home paralyzed most of Europe’s leaders.
Yet all was not lost. In Warsaw and throughout the country tens of thousands of civilians joined volunteer units. Groups of workers and Orthodox Jews mobilized to build a ring of defenses around the city. In the south, Polish and American pilots, flying mission after mission, harassed and disrupted advancing Red Forces. The Americans were singled out for their courage, one Polish report stating “The American aviators, although exhausted, fought like madmen.” The Americans were singled out the Soviets as well who put a price on their heads and a death sentence for their officers if captured alive. Meanwhile, Piłsudski conceived of a daring plan to save his country. As the Reds advanced on Warsaw, he placed one force to blunt the Soviet advance while he secretly shifted a strike force of his best divisions to the south of the city toward the exposed flank of Tukhachevsky’s onrushing army.
On August 12, the Red Army began its assault. Tukhachevsky declared “Over the corpse of White Poland lies the path to worldwide revolution!” Masses of Bolsheviks broke through the first line of Warsaw’s defense. Volunteer units made up of workers, peasants, boy scouts, and women joined the defense. Priests armed only with crucifixes led counterattacks. The town of Radzymin, just 20 km from Warsaw, changed hands five times in hand to hand fighting. For three days, the defenses barely held on, pinning down the bulk of Tukhachevsky’s men.
On August 16, with the Red Army just miles from Warsaw, Piłsudski ordered his strike force into action, hitting the lightly defended Soviet left flank. The surprise was complete. Polish forces advanced almost 30 miles in the first day, cutting off the Bolshevik spearheads. It took Tukhachevsky almost two days to realize what had happened as his army began to collapse. Some units surrendered enmasse, others fled across the border into Prussia, others turned into a panicked mob. In the south, the Poles counterattacked Budyonny and Stalin’s Red Cossacks and nearly annihilated them. (Stalin would never forget this loss to the Poles and would later take his revenge by ordering the mass killing of hundreds of thousands of Poles.) By October, any hope of a communist advance into central Europe had vanished and Lenin agreed to a ceasefire.
During the fighting, the American pilot Merian Cooper was shot down and captured by Red Cossacks. Despite the price on his head, he concealed his identity from his captors and survived a mock execution. With two Polish comrades, he escaped a POW camp and made his way through hundreds of miles of hostile territory to free Latvia. Awarded Poland’s highest military decoration, Cooper returned to the United States where he became a noted movie director, most famously directing King Kong. His experiences in the war made him one of Hollywood’s staunchest anti-communists.
As a result of the Battle of Warsaw, the communist “utopia” would be locked inside Russia for almost two decades, its leaders becoming ever more extreme, paranoid, and violent. A brief, wary interlude of peace settled over Europe, lasting until rise of Nazism in Germany which would once again set the world ablaze and allow the Soviets to revive their dream of worldwide conflagration. Temporary though it was, the Polish victory a century ago proved that the march of communism is not inevitable and that with determination and courage, free people can prevail even when the odds seem overwhelming and all hope seems lost.
The author is professor of history at the University of Alaska.