On August 12, 1920, the fate of Poland hung by a thread. The Bolsheviks, victorious in Russia, advanced rapidly towards the heart of Europe, approaching the suburbs of Warsaw. This was the decisive moment in the Polish-Bolshevik War, a conflict that had begun some seventeen months earlier, when Polish and Red Army forces had clashed in their borderlands amidst the chaotic aftermath of the First World War and the Russian Civil War. The conflict escalated dramatically in April 1920, when Józef Piłsudski, the Polish Chief of State, invaded Ukraine in an effort to seize its western borderlands and set up a Polish-friendly government in Kiev. The Red Army, having defeated most of its Civil War opponents by June 1920, soon concentrated overwhelming force against the Poles and drove them out of Ukraine and Belarus.
By July, the Red Army, led by General Mikhail Tukhachevsky, advanced westward at a rate of over 20 miles a day. Warsaw was its first goal, but as Tukhachevsky would recall later, “A gust of revolutionary excitement had blown through the working classes of Western Europe.” With the conquest of Warsaw, he added, “The fire of revolution would have raged across the whole of Western Europe.” Things looked so dire in the Polish capital on August 12 that Piłsudski ordered a subordinate to start planning insurgency operations in case the city fell, and left the city for the final battle that he would command in person.
The mood in Moscow was jubilant. Lenin’s opening speech at the Second World Congress of the Communist International (Comintern) on July 19, 1920 centered largely on Western Europe and Germany. He argued that the outcome of World War I had relegated Germany to a new “state of colonial dependence” and that it was now ripe for revolution. In his memoirs, the French communist politician L. O. Frossard recalled asking Lenin how quickly the Red Army would move forward into Central Europe after its inevitable victory in Poland. Lenin replied, “If Poland gives itself to Communism, the universal revolution would take a decisive step.” Frossard writes: “He stopped, seemed to reflect, then thinking out loud, “Yes, Soviets in Warsaw, it would mean Germany shortly falling due…. it would mean bourgeois Europe cracking apart.”’ A few days later, he made a similar statement, thinking half out-loud: “Should we stop at the frontiers? ‘Declare’ Peace? It is vain to imagine this!”
But circumstances intervened. The Poles dealt a decisive defeat to the overstretched Red Army along the banks of the Vistula, inflicting more than 100,000 casualties. 65,000 more Red Army soldiers were driven into neutral Germany, where they were interned for the remainder of the war. By the end of the month, Bolshevik forces were in full retreat. The war would end with a ceasefire in October.
Had Poland fallen to the Red Army in 1920, the immediate consequences for Europe would have been dire. Before the Battle of Warsaw turned the tide, Occupied Poland suffered atrocities at the hands of the Bolsheviks that included mass executions, rape, the destruction of property, and pogroms against Jewish residents by Budyenny’s First Cavalry Corps. Red Army units also performed mass killings of middle and upper class civilians as they advanced westward. They also had a habit of sending women to “wash the barracks,” the Red Army’s euphemism for gang rape. Other victims included more than 20,000 Polish prisoners of war who would die in Russian captivity.
The Polish state was hardly blameless: Józef Piłsudski himself had turned a few border skirmishes into an all-out war with his invasion of Ukraine; thousands of Russia POWs would perish in Polish camps during the war; and Polish troops participated in atrocities, particularly against Jewish residents of Ukraine and Belarus. But, as American envoy Henry Morgenthau Sr.’s 1919 report indicated, Piłsudski and his government had taken active measures to halt the worst of the abuses. Piłsudski wanted to build a coalition government after the war that required the support of a broad range of the political spectrum, and that required respecting individual and minority rights as much as possible.
By contrast, the Bolsheviks actively encouraged atrocities by Red Army soldiers and communist supporters. Felix Dzerzhinsky, the head of the Bolshevik secret police, described the attitude of the Bolsheviks towards atrocities thus: “the task at hand is to break up the old order. We, the Bolsheviks, are not numerous enough to accomplish this task alone…. We are here only to channel and direct the hate and the legitimate desire for revenge of the oppressed against their oppressors.” This meant advocating for mass violence. The end results were most vividly illustrated in the mass graves scattered throughout Russia, Estonia, Ukraine, Belarus, Poland and elsewhere between 1918 and 1921.
The gravesites of the Polish-Bolshevik War were the high-water mark of communism prior to the Second World War. Lenin believed in, expected, and planned for a world revolution. Instead, the Red Army failed to conquer Poland and failed to trigger revolution in Germany. This troubling setback demanded a reassessment of both foreign and domestic policy. The “socialism in one country” doctrine developed under Stalin and Bukharin would emphasize internal development over world revolution and turn the full destructive energies of the Bolsheviks against the Russian people, in the form of collectivization and the Great Terror. Not until after the Second World War would Central and Eastern Europe fall again under the communist banner.