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.

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Culture, History, Political issues, Ukraine by Doug Merrill. Bookmark the permalink.

About Doug Merrill

Freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, following stints in Atlanta, Budapest, Munich, Warsaw and Washington. Worked for a German think tank, discovered it was incompatible with repaying US student loans. Spent two years in financial markets. Bicycled from Vilnius to Tallinn. Climbed highest mountains in two Alpine countries (the easy ones, though). American center-left, with strong yellow dog tendencies. Arrived in the Caucasus two weeks before its latest war.

10 thoughts on “White Eagle, Red Star by Norman Davies

  1. Much as I like Norman Davies’ work, there’s always the slight problem of his Polonophilia (perfectly understandable and nowt wrong with it) in knowing how much of the interpretative framework to trust, particularly given the shortage of other books on this topic.

    (Also, I note that the discussion page on the Wikipedia article on this war yet again confirms the empirical assertion that there’s nothing as dogged in defending historical myth as a Russian nationalist.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Polish%E2%80%93Soviet_War )

  2. The war was a bit of an international cause celeb, though more for the Right than the Left. Merian Cooper, who, among a million other things, directed the original King Kong, also fought as a pilot for the Poles, for example. (He tells the story of having been shot down over enemy lines, captured, imprisoned, killing a guard to escape, and walking West for a month through enemy territory until he reached friendly lines.)

    The prolonged battle over the Curzon Line on Wikipedia is pretty good evidence that there’s nothing as dogged in defending historical myth than a Polish nationalist.

  3. Carton de Wiart, Adrian, 77, 94, 221, 279.

    “[The Allied militar mission’s] chief, General Adrian Carton de Wiart VC, was a wasted asset. This indestructible warrior, who had lost an eye in Somaliland in ’98 [[Pirates? Plus ça change…]] and a hand at Ypres, who had been shot through the lung in South Africa, through the skull and the ankle on the Somme, through the hip at Passchendaele and through the leg at Cambrai, possessed all the qualities best designed to appeal to the Polish officers among whom he was sent. … At MÅ‚awa in August 1920, he fought off a detachment of marauding Cossacks from the running board of his observation train, having at one point in his enthusiasm fallen onto the track. …” p. 94

  4. I think Davies’ point of view is well grounded, though I am also quite fond of things Polish. Dating the start of the war from the first armed encounter between Polish and Soviet forces after the withdrawal of the Germans seems reasonable, especially as he is clear about the fits and starts that followed, and how neither state would have planned for a major conflict at that time. He’s kinder to PiÅ‚sudski than I would be, but then again he knows heaps more of the details than I do. He uses Isaac Babel’s writings as a significant point of view from the Russian side, and he’s even-handed on military matters throughout as far as I can tell. He cites, for instance, PiÅ‚sudski’s high regard for Tukhachevsky’s strategic choices, as well as PiÅ‚sudski’s sense of the absurdity of the whole war. What do you think, Richard?

  5. That’s the problem I have, TBH. There’s very few non-academic books on Polish history available in English, and most of them are written by Norman Davies… I just feel slightly uncomfortable in forming a reliable opinion on something so critical from such a limited knowledge base.

    (And FB> point taken and acknowledged. 😉 )

  6. I wouldn’t necessarily say that the war has become less known than in 1972. My personal impression is that during the recent years, there’s been quite a lot of new research on the various regional intricacies of the war. For example, the Ukrainian and Lithuanian sides are now topics of interest for the local historians.

    As the title of his work indicated, Davies was still treating the war mainly as a Polish-Soviet conflict – which is, of course, a legitimate point of view still today. He did devote some attention also to the Lithuanian and Ukrainian issues, of course.

    I might note that there were also Finnish volunteers serving on both sides of the Polish-Soviet war. On the Bolshevik side, there was the 480th Finnish Sharp-Shooter Regiment of the Red Army, consisting of the Red exiles of the Finnish Civil War; this was an elite unit of 1500 men, who were veterans of the battles against the Whites and the intervention forces in East Karelia and the Archangelsk Front. They were dispatched to Poland in May 1920. Most of them ended up prisoners when they attempted to escape with Ghai’s forces to East Prussia, but some managed to get away. The surviving Finns were attached to the 18th Division of the Red Army, and participated in the operations against Armenians and Georgians in the winter of 1920-1921.

    On the Polish side, there were those hapless Finnish volunteers who served in ataman Bulak-Balakhovich’s forces (Bulak was also briefly mentioned by Davies). Most of these men were former Finnish Whites who had fought against the Bolsheviks also in the Estonian War of Independence, and then basically traveled further south, looking for a new opportunity to fight against the Reds. On the Polish front, they saw serious action during the “Miracle of Vistula”, and also in Bulak-Balakhovich’s and Peremykin’s subsequent disastrous incursions to Byelorussia and Ukraine. One of these men, Kaarlo Kurko, subsequently wrote his memoirs of the conflict.

    I wrote an article of Kurko and his memoirs for the Polish weekly “Tygodnik Powszechny” back in the last August. Those who are fluent in Polish can read the text from the website of the paper:



    J. J.

  7. Thanks for the pointer, JJ. My Polish isn’t what it once was, but I will have a look. Where did they find a Finnish-Polish translator?

  8. Well, as you may have noted, I do have a smattering of English, so they didn’t really need a _Finnish_-Polish translator. Patrycja Bukalska, who edited the text, is perfectly fluent in English, so I wrote the main body of the article in English for her.

    I can manage my everyday business in Polish just fine, but my written Polish doesn’t really match journalistic standards quite yet.

    Norman Davies, by the way, is obviously also a contributor in “Tygodnik Powszechny”. If memory serves, the last year he wrote an article where he reasoned that the Central European missile shield is really not a good idea.


    J. J.

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