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Wednesday, August 12, 2020

The Battle of Warsaw: Celebrating the Centennial of a Polish Victory

Free people everywhere should be grateful to the Poles for the victory.

Polish defenses near Miłosna

This month marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most important military engagements of the 20th Century. It will be celebrated in Poland, the country which won it decisively. The country which lost it, Vladimir Lenin’s nightmarish gulag known as the Soviet Union, is thankfully extinct. Free people everywhere should be grateful to the Poles for the victory.

From 1795 until 1918, Poland disappeared as Austria, Prussia, and Russia partitioned it into pieces for themselves. Upon its re-emergence as an independent nation (an outcome of World War I), a reconstituted Poland immediately faced an existential challenge from Moscow. Lenin’s Bolsheviks were still consolidating power at home but their territorial appetites were well known to Poles and their new Chief of State, Józef Piłsudski. The fateful Polish-Soviet War broke out in February 1919.

Making war on Poland was more than a local affair to the Soviets. They made it plain that the Poles were simply in the way of their larger goal: exporting communism to the rest of Western Europe. Germany, gripped by post-war economic and political chaos, seemed ripe for a Marxist revolution if only Soviet troops could move in and assist, but Poland would have to be disposed of first.

Nicknamed “the Red Napoleon,” Soviet commander Mikhail Tukhachevsky ordered, “To the West! Over the corpse of Poland lies the road to worldwide conflagration. March upon VilniusMinsk, Warsaw and onward to Berlin over the corpse of Poland!” Bolshevik theoretician and Lenin confidant Nikolai Bukharin publicly declared that the campaign would take communist forces “straight to London and Paris.” In a letter to Joseph Stalin, Lenin himself suggested the Red Army should attack Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary for the purpose of provoking a communist revolution in Italy, to which Stalin replied in the affirmative.

Both Tukhachevsky and Bukharin, by the way, were executed during Stalin’s purges in 1938 but they were at Lenin’s side and at the pinnacle of Soviet power in 1920. Lenin died in 1924 and was eventually succeeded by Stalin.

Soviet victories in the summer of 1920 looked unstoppable, as Moscow’s Red Army pushed to within striking distance of the Polish capital. From August 12-25, the Battle of Warsaw raged. Foreign observers expected the imminent collapse of Poland. Then, the tactical brilliance of Pilsudski and his chief of staff Tadeusz Jordan-Rozwadowski plus the legendary courage of Polish fighters combined to produce what Poles call “the Miracle on the Vistula.” Author Michael Peck writes in The National Interest:

Just as all seemed lost, Marshal Pilsudski unleashed his masterstroke, a move worthy of Robert E. Lee or Rommel. While the central Russian armies were fixated on Warsaw, a Polish strike force side-slipped to the south of the city, and then turned north in a left hook into the exposed Russian flank. Surprised, demoralized, and outmaneuvered, the Russian armies disintegrated, with some retreating back to Russia and others fleeing to German territory to be interned. Pilsudski’s counteroffensive was assisted by the breaking of Russian codes, a Polish specialty that they later used to crack the Nazi Enigma machine.

For the next two months, a string of additional Polish successes produced what Lenin lamented as “an enormous defeat” for his forces, leading to a peace treaty in mid-October. Against all the odds, Poland had crushed the Soviet Union’s revolutionary expansionism dead in its tracks. There would be no Bolshevik Western Europe.

As many readers of these pages know, Poland is an incredibly special country to me personally, not only because of its 1920 achievement, but also because of the pivotal role it played sixty years later in bringing the evil Soviet Empire to a well-deserved end.

I saw Polish bravery against communism first-hand when I spent time with the Polish underground in 1986, and later raised the money for a Polish edition of Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose to circulate by the thousands under the noses of the communist government. In the list of additional readings below, I am posting links to some of my own articles about Poland and famous Poles.

This October, I plan to visit Poland for my seventh time—to keynote a conference in Gogolin sponsored by the Freedom & Entrepreneurship Foundation. Among the conference events will be a screening of a fantastic new, Polish-produced movie about the life of Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. I intend to raise a glass and toast the centennial of the Miracle on the Vistula, as well as the many contributions of this remarkable country to the cause of human freedom. You can learn more about the conference here.

Thank you, brave Poland, for what you did in 1920 and for what so many of your citizens did and continue to do for freedom in the century since!

For additional information, see:

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is