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When Lenin invaded Poland

One book to read.

Lenin's Failed Conquest of Europe by Adam Zamoyski

The Soviet invasion of Poland in the summer of 1920 as a prelude to its proposed conquest of Europe, in particular Germany, is so little known and discussed by historians that Adam Zamoyski refuses to call it the Polish-Soviet War. Only one of the works in English listed among his sources uses this name in its title.

Coming so soon after the First World War, it has been overlooked by everyone except the Poles and, given the upheaval that would befall them 20 years later and the pall that descended on them thereafter, Zamoyski admits that "the events of 1920 seem not only irrelevant, but quaint".

This war looked forwards and backwards. Remarkable for the mobility of troop formations in a large theatre, it foretold the strategy of deep thrusts and encirclement battles that would be fought by tanks in the Second World War. The battle of Czesniki, on the other hand, harked back to Napoleon's time. It was, says Zamoyski, "an epic struggle of a kind not witnessed in Europe for over a century, and the last major cavalry-to-cavalry engagement in the continent's history".

Zamoyski's sub-heading is important. Few realise that Lenin wished to conquer Poland to create a revolution in Germany; even fewer realise that he wrote to Stalin, the chief political commissar attached to the Red Army in Ukraine, suggesting a simultaneous attack through Romania, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, to provoke revolution in Italy. Stalin responded that "it would be a sin" not to try.

Pilsudski, the Polish head of state and commander-in-chief, though in his early fifties, was no expert in military strategy. He was racked by self-doubt, yet proved himself a master of circumstances. His counterpart, Tukhachevsky, was only 27, a nobleman who imagined himself a Napoleon in the making, and a nihilist who hated Jews, Christians, capitalists and socialists. He was later shot in Stalin's purges, as were all the senior Red Army commanders who failed to take Warsaw in 1920 (apart from Stalin's cronies in the South).

The Polish Army was hastily assembled from soldiers who had been serving in foreign armies. One observer describing the six regiments of the 1st Cavalry, said that they were "like so many children born of the same mother, but conceived by different fathers".

Even so, the Polish cavalry was well trained and equipped. The Red Army's cavalry was variously equipped and often eccentrically attired - one cavalryman was glimpsed wearing a bowler hat - but initially performed with the ruthlessness of a Mongol horde. In contrast to the disciplined Polish infantry, the Red Army's infantry often went barefoot, and sustained its morale by a policy of rape and pillage.

The Polish-Soviet War was nasty, brutish and short. Starting with a pre-emptive attack by Poland against Soviet forces in Ukraine at the end of April 1920, which resulted in a Soviet victory, it was all over by the middle of October, by which time the Polish Army had routed the Russians and reclaimed much of Belarus and Ukraine.

With the Red Army on the Vistula, in the outskirts of the Polish capital, Pilsudski's decisive counterstroke was to send five divisions up from the south, to cut off the Russian armies along the length of the north-south front. In Zamoyski's phrase, it was like "thrusting a pitchfork into the Russian armies from the side: provided the thrust was sufficiently powerful, panic and chaos would preclude their rallying".

This was what happened, and all because, in the words of a young French military adviser, Charles de Gaulle, "the Polish soldier is a marcher of extraordinary endurance".

Russian losses (dead, wounded, captured and interned) were over 200,000. Its cavalry army in the north, the Konkorpus, was smashed; its counterpart in the south escaped as a shadow of its former self.

The mark of a great military historian is not only to do the battlefield descriptions and explain the tactics, but to give the political context and bring the characters of the commanders to life. Zamoyski manages it all in this concise and thrilling account of a forgotten war and argues that, far from being irrelevant, the Polish victory bought "two decades of freedom".

Telegraph book review http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2008/03/15/bozam115.xml

Re: When Lenin invaded Poland

Well the Soviets certainly made up for this during WWII - Katyn, mass deportations, my dad in Siberia etc.....

Re: When Lenin invaded Poland

It's not *that* so little known and discussed by historians. Norman Davies wrote an excellent book on the subject - White Eagle, Red Star.

Re: When Lenin invaded Poland

One of the great curiosities of history is that in the first week of August 1914 both Pilsudski and Lenin were in Krakow. Did they pass in the street, dine at the same restaurant? As politicians of the left did they have acquaintances in common; were they under the surveillance of the same Austrian police?

In 1913 Lenin lived in Poronin outside of Zakopane and Pilsudski established a training facility in Stróża. Both Poronin and Stróża are on the same rail line from Krakow to Zakopane. Did Pilsudki and Lenin take the same train to Krakow on their many visits there, did they stand next to each other at the Dworzec in Krakow buying tickets, did they ride in the same rail car?

Did they know of each others existence?