The Christ of Nations, 1920

In Polish history, war usually comes down to two conflicting scripts. From the Polish side, pushing geographical boundaries out in all directions, as far as possible. From the opposing side: eliminating the irritating roadblock begrudgingly acknowledged as “Poland.” This theme is perennial.

It has not only been steel and fire that has determined if the land of the White Eagle was to be a flesh and blood state, or merely a state of mind; it was also the petitioning of the fighting spirit through ideological appeal.

Literature in Poland has served such a purpose. Polish literature is not meant to appeal to outsiders. It is generally so nationalistic that neighboring nations, even the most tolerant and enlightened, would feel a certain hostility emanating from its pages.

This is not to condemn Polish literature. The nonpareil polish bard, Adam Mickiewicz wrote his magnum opus, Pan Tadeusz, as an exile in France, when his drawn nation had been quartered by standing armies from neighbor states. The loot went to Vienna, Moscow and Berlin, but the heart went to Paris.

National Messianism, as a political ideology, grew from ethereal to concrete when General Pilsudski took this doctrine to the field, playing immovable object vs. unstoppable force, a.k.a the Russian Bear, immediately after the First World War.

Interestingly enough, however, national messianism had already been translated to the East. If Western readers ever confront this strain of thought, it probably will first be through Dostoevsky, an ardent Russian Slavophile who saw his nation as a victim of Prussian and Polish military aggression. In Dostoevsky, it is Russia, not Poland, that is to suffer for humanity, and teach the nations the righteousness of his ever-expanding enlightened empire.

Russia had become the Christ of Nations, filled with millions of little Christs ready to pick up the bayonet in the mud and charge forward.

Did these two competing messianic visions go toe-to-toe?

Rewind to November 21st, 1919. Out of the ashes of the Austrian and Russian empires, arise new nations, still wet from blood-soaked trenches. Two of these nations are Poland and the Ukraine who had just met each other in battle and are now signing an armistice.

Fast forward to April, 1920. Pilsudski launches an offensive into the Ukraine as a preemptive strike to halt Soviet expansion. May, 1920 – Polish forces take Kiev.

If anyone is the victim of these scrambles for land (and oil fields) it is the Ukraine, who is now partitioned between competing forces; Red Russians, White Russians, Poland, and Romania.

That Pilsudski believed in the Polish Messianic doctrine is not in dispute.

That Lenin’s boys in the field, Trotsky and Stalin, believed in the reactionary Slavophile ideal would be harder to prove.

Trotsky was active in trying to make Poland a Russian dacha-land for Soviet Party members. He would become a symbol on both sides in the propaganda war, yet both sides would utilize traditionalist Christian imagery to appeal to the peasantry and recruits, as the idea of an atheistic world-brotherhood of workers had yet to sink in with the illiterate icon-praising Russian bumpkin.

The Soviet propagandists utilized traditionalist, Slavophile, and Messianic motifs in their early deployments. Their appeal to their own soldiers was often reactionary and messianic.

The Polish-Soviet War was intense. It was also ideological. It lasted less than two years, but took more lives on each side than America lost in Vietnam or Korea. And we are talking 1920 technology and weaponry. This suggests a fiercely personalized battle between belligerents.

19 years later World War Two would start, and 95% of German deaths would be claimed by Eastern European ravens, not by Anglo-American hardware.

As always, ideological struggles prove the most bloodthirsty. The playing ground of red and white goal posts was between the Vistula and the Volga. World history, either before nor since, has never seen such a merciless score.

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  • Andrew Levine

    Tell you the truth, Patrick, I think I will leave it with a big question
    mark. My only evidence is circumstantial. Can survival unite a nation
    without concrete ideals and symbols? I would imagine that if survival
    were the only motivation than the largest units that could be mobilized
    from the Polish side would have been similar to peasant resistance
    during the 30 year war, as memorialized by Herman Lons. But there is no
    doubt that Pilsudski was an intellectual and had things worked out in
    his mind beforehand on how it wanted things to be. This is one reason
    for Stalin’s nonchalance with Katyn: he didn’t want to fight a body with
    a head still attached. Also, the hussars did in 1612 what Napoleon and
    Hitler couldn’t do: they occupied Moscow. Those are big stings.

  • http://www.military-history.us/ Patrick Shrier

    That is an interesting thesis. I have never heard the Russo-Polish War described as an essentially ideological struggle before. I have always seen it framed as a struggle for existence by the Poles against an expansionist Bolshevism. The notion that both sides in the conflict saw the fight in strictly ideological terms does go far in explaining the high casualty counts but does it explain the outbreak of war to begin with, especially given the ruinous damage and loss of life inflicted during the recently concluded WWI?