Warsaw 1920

Warsaw 1920 (2008) by Adam Zamoyski is a crisp, incisive description of the conflict between the Soviet Union and Poland in 1920. The Polish-Soviet War is an interesting and important conflict because it could have led to Communism spreading throughout Europe and it was one of the first foreign wars the Soviet Union fought.

The Poles actually started the conflict by making a major push into Ukraine. The Soviets were also planning an attack at the time. The Poles saw a quick victory as the only way they would win. The Soviets repulsed the initial Polish attack and began to advance. Zamoyski potrays both sides as pretty chaotic and not cohesive forces. The Poles had just founded their army after the re-formation of Poland after WWI. The Polish army was an agglomeration of Poles who had fought with the Central Powers in WWI, those who had fought on the other side and those who had been Poles seeking a Polish state. As can be imagined, each group had a very different outlook. The Poles were led by Józef Piłsudski who managed to fuse the groups and who would later go on to lead a coup and become dictator of Poland.

The Soviet forces had, by 1920 been successful against the White Armies in the Russian civil war. They had begun to incorporate a sizable number of former of Czarist Officers and so were improving in leadership. However, due to the Soviets lack of trust in their generals each general would have a political officer attached who could keep tabs on the professional officers. Stalin, Lenin and Trotsky would all feature in the war. The Soviets thought that the Polish peasants and workers may rise up and support the Soviets. They did not. The Soviets saw advancing through Poland as a way to spread Communism throughout Europe.

Initially the Soviet advance was rapid and the Polish retreat badly organized and it appeared that Poland would be occupied but the Poles turned the tide. The Soviet advance on Poland failed and Piłsudski’s counter attack smashed the Soviet forces and drove them back outside the Polish borders.

After the conflict the lessons that warfare could be rapid rather than the slow trench warfare of WWI were largely ignored, possibly because the two sides were regarded as not very strong adversaries. In retrospect the conflict would provide something of a template for the massive, rapid movements on WWII.

The book is a good summary of the conflict and is appealingly short. The conflict is shown to have been surprisingly important because it stopped the expansion of Communism at a time when Europe was weak and Communism could have taken hold. Zamoyski’s book is well worth a read for anyone interested in the era and in Polish history.



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