Poland: The Anniversaries of the Start of WWII and Miracle on Vistula | Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours

Poland: The Anniversaries of the Start of WWII and Miracle on Vistula

Polish soldiers defending Poland in 1939
Soldiers of the Polish Army during the defence of Poland, September 1939

WWII began today in 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland and plunged Europe into six years of death and devastation. The other anniversary that occurred this month was the 1920 “Miracle on the Vistula,” when the Polish army changed history with the repulse and sound defeat of the Soviet Red Army as they approached Warsaw with the goal of spreading the Bolshevik revolution throughout western Europe. Norman Davies, Professor Emeritus of the University of London and a Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford has written several books on Polish history. We are fortunate to offer this article on the history of Poland from him to share with you on these solemn anniversaries.

1918-2018: Poland’s Dreams, Disasters and Dreams

By Norman Davies

Friday, 11 November 1918, was the last day of the First World War. It dawned on a map of Europe, from which an independent Poland had been absent for 123 years. Yet it marked the end of a colossal military conflict, which had caused the deaths of over 40 million people and four years of complex political turbulence. Here, in Western Europe, the Allied Powers led by France, Britain and the USA, were claiming victory. Germany was being forced to accept the severe terms of an Armistice, which was signed in France ‘on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month’.

Central and Eastern Europe, however, was gripped by rampant chaos. The Russian Empire, the largest combatant power, had collapsed following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The Bolsheviks had made peace with Germany, and all the Empire’s non-Russian provinces, from Finland to the Caucasus and Central Asia, had broken away from Soviet Russia. Austria-Hungary, Germany’s principal ally, was also disintegrating; the Habsburg Emperor, driven from Vienna, watched as his armies evaporated, and several new states, including the Austrian Republic, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, made their entrance. To top it all, Germany’s imperial regime had lost control. The Kaiser had abdicated amid military mutinies and social unrest. In this way, the dissolution of the three powers, which had ruled the partitioned Polish lands for over a century, was opening the way for the rebirth of a new Poland. The Poles had not won their independence by force of arms. But they were now given a unique opportunity to seize it.

Polish commander Józef Piłsudski
Polish commander Józef Piłsudski

On the 11 November 1918, Warsaw was still nominally ruled by a German-appointed Regency Council, and was full of German troops. But the occupying forces, lacking orders from Berlin, had lost the desire to fight. They were surrendering in droves to local civilians. What is more, the Regency Council handed the command of its own military formation, the Polnische Wehrmacht, to Józef Pilsudski, recently released from a German prison. The iron-willed Pilsudski, leader of the Polish independence movement, now had a chance to grasp what his disbanded Legions had earlier failed to achieve and to unite his still fragmented country.

Poland’s Second Republic was proclaimed long before it became a reality. Its birth pangs ended on 14 November, when the Regency Council resigned and appointed Pilsudski ‘Head of State’. Its tiny territory barely stretched beyond Warsaw, Lublin and Krakow. Further acquisitions in Poznan and East Galicia (Lwów) preceded the Treaty of Versailles which delivered various territories but not Gdansk. Democratic elections in early 1919 triggered international recognition. The world-famous pianist, Ignacy Paderewski, stepped onto the stage as Prime Minister.

Polish soldiers marching to Battle of Warsaw
Polish soldiers marching to the front of the Battle of Warsaw

Yet an existential threat was posed by Soviet Russia. The Bolsheviks had long planned to export their Revolution to Germany and beyond, and in the Spring of 1920 a vast Red Army marched west through Poland. The Polish-Soviet War, therefore, was not just a clash between nation states; it marked a major continental offensive designed to overthrow Europe’s international order. But thanks to mass support for the Polish Army and Pilsudski’s masterstroke at the Battle of Warsaw, the Bolsheviks were thwarted, the Red Army was routed and Europe was saved. The Treaty of Riga (March 1921), that fixed the Republic’s eastern frontier, coincided with the launch of a French-style constitution.

Constitutional politics, alas, lasted only five years. A deep rift divided Pilsudski’s vision of a multinational Poland, modelled on the historic Commonwealth, and the narrow nationalist ideology of his chief opponent, Roman Dmowski, who demanded a ‘Poland for the Poles’. Social tensions ran high, economic progress was slow, the Church was disaffected, and parliament was disrupted by endless party coalitions. In May 1926, Pilsudski led a military coup that overthrew the system which he had created. An authoritarian semi-democratic semi-dictatorship emerged, dominated by the Army. It took the name of the Sanacja, meaning ‘Political Healing’. It was typical of the degraded democracies that proliferated elsewhere in the region, but cannot be fairly compared to the totalitarian tyrannies in neighbouring Germany and the USSR.

Given the low starting point, the hyperflation of the early 1920s and the later Depression, inter-war Poland’s achievements were not inconsiderable. Infrastructure was built. New industries were launched. And a vibrant cultural life developed. Despite the backward rural areas, notably of ‘Polska B’ in the East, the scourge of illiteracy was largely eliminated.

Ethnic Poles formed less than two-thirds of the Republic’s population, and in the 1930s, in line with the looming international crisis, minority problems multiplied. Germans, Jews, Belarusians and Ukrainians all had grounds for complaint, although the rebellious Ukrainians were treated the most harshly. Nonetheless, when the testing time came, the citizenry, with few exceptions, resisted the enemy with admirable loyalty and resolution.

The Second World War, which started on 1 September 1939 with Germany’s unprovoked attack, soon turned Poland into the most perilous place on earth. The invasion was made possible by Stalin’s collusion with Hitler in the German-Soviet Pact. The Red Army promptly joined the Wehrmacht, and a joint victory parade was held as their hapless victim was declared defunct.

During the September Campaign of 1939, the Polish Army fulfilled its duty honourably, while its Western Allies failed to provide promised support. The unexpected Soviet intervention ruled out prolonged defiance.

The German-Soviet Pact (1939-41) enabled Hitler to occupy eight European countries and Stalin five. Meanwhile, the two totalitarian partners devoured Poland whole. Under the German General Government, the Nazis abolished all Polish institutions, perpetrated mass executions, drove all Jews into Ghettoes, and built concentration camps at Auschwitz and elsewhere. In the Soviet Zone, Stalin’s security police, the NKVD, forcibly imposed the Communist system, murdered 20,000 Polish officers at Katyn, condemned many more Polish citizens to the Gulags, and deported two mil- lion beyond the Urals.

During those same years, the exiled Polish Government, headed by General Wladyslaw Sikorski, was established first in France and then in London. Conforming to the pre-war constitution, it remained the uniquely legitimate Polish state authority from 1939 to 1990. Supported by representatives of all Polish democratic parties, it supervised the welfare of Polish refugees, commanded both the Polish Armed Services Abroad and the underground state in Poland, and maintained close diplomatic relations with all the western powers until the war’s end.

From June 1941, when Hitler deceived his erstwhile Soviet partner and savagely attacked the USSR, previous political alignments were transformed. Stalin joined Churchill and Roosevelt as one of the Allied ‘Big Three’. The Polish Government, still technically at war with the Soviets, found itself in a quandary. Nevertheless, Sikorski bit his lip, visited Moscow and signed agreements which led to the release of Polish deportees and the foundation of the Anders Army. 120,000 Polish citizens, soldiers and civilians, would subsequently leave the USSR under Anders’ command.

Polish territories following the 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union
Polish territories following the 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union

By now, the Polish lands were wholly occupied by German forces, and the Nazi leaders proceeded to use the territory as the laboratory of their ‘Lebensraum’, and in particular as the killing-ground for their genocidal ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Problem’, later labelled the Holocaust. They did so because the largest number of European Jews were living in that area. The shadow of instant death hung over all groups of the country’s terrorised inhabitants. Yet compared to some other occupied countries, collaboration in Poland was minimal. Almost no Poles were employed as concentration camp guards and none volunteered for the Waffen-SS. Gestapo informers came from all nationalities. The ghettoes were run under SS-overseers by Jewish Councils and Jewish police, and the gas chambers were manned by Jewish commandos. A heroic underground organisation, codenamed Zegota, saved thousands of Jews from death. Even so, the Polish record was not without stain. The Jedwabne massacre, though exceptional, is undeniable.

The conduct of Polish soldiers, sailors and airmen, who served the Allied cause, was exemplary. Polish pilots tipped the balance in the Battle of Britain. Polish codebreakers broke the earliest version of the Enigma code. Polish troops guarded Scotland’s eastern coast. General Maczek’s 1st Armoured Division fought its way from Normandy to Holland. Polish paratroopers fought bravely at Arnhem, saving their British comrades from total disaster. The amazing odyssey of General Anders, who marched his men and women from Russia to Italy via the Middle East, was crowned by the bloody victory at Monte Cassino. Hundreds of British-trained cichociemni were parachuted into Poland to help the secret resistance.

Warsaw Uprising
Warsaw Uprising during WWII, 1944

The Warsaw Rising of 1944 was undoubtedly one of the most tragic events of Polish history; its causes are still disputed. The fact is that the Home Army (AK) fulfilled its task ten times over. Ordered to fight for five or six days until Allied support arrived, it held out magnificently for more than two months. The decisive failings lay not in the AK’s conduct but rather in the lack of Allied coordination and of Western diplomatic assistance, and, in particular, in Stalin’s treacherous decision to hold the Red Army back. The Government’s order to launch the Rising had been encouraged by Western leaders, and the scale of the appalling civilian death toll could not have been reasonably foreseen.

After that, Polish hopes of regaining the country’s lost independence faded fast. Stalin ruled the roost in Eastern Europe, and at Yalta the Americans refused to confront him, desperately needing Soviet participation in the war against Japan. The Polish Government was sidelined in London, just as Churchill was side-lined in the highest Allied councils.

Yalta Conference
Poland’s fate was discussed at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 between Churchill, Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin, whose Red Army occupied the entire country.

Meanwhile, in the course of 1944-45, Poland was completely overrun by the Red Army. The German occupation was replaced by a cruel Soviet occupation. As the NKVD took charge, Poles had little say in their fate. All the new political and military organisations were subject to Soviet control. All the non-Communist wartime resistance movements were crushed, and all democratic parties suppressed. The frontiers were changed, and millions of people were forced from their homes. By 1948, a dictatorial, one-party, Communist state was in place. Despite the sacrifice of one fifth of the pre-war population, there had been no genuine liberation.

Poland’s subjugation to Communism lasted for 45 years, that is, for more than two generations. Throughout those decades, in the shadow of the Cold War, though material conditions improved for a time, the prospect of fundamental change was absent. The People’s Republic was a Soviet satellite, run from Moscow in the closed world of the Soviet Bloc. The ruling Party, the PZPR – “neither Polish, nor United, nor proletarian” – was a sham, the creation of its Soviet superiors. For reasons of opportunism or of survival, over ten percent of the population joined the Party, creating deep divisions between “Us” and “them”. Czeslaw Milosz wrote of the “Captive Mind”, whereby one part of the nation lorded it over the others. National traditions were secretly preserved by the Church, by family life, and by a handful of brave dissenters.

The wartime regimes had inflicted radical changes on Polish society. The Jews had been murdered by the Nazis, the Germans expelled on Allied orders, and the Ukrainians excluded by frontier changes. For the first time in its history Poland became a starkly monoethnic country in the image of the pre-war Nationalists and almost unique in Europe. The consequences persist.

The PRL passed through three distinct phases. During Stalin’s lifetime, which ended in 1953, the countries of the Soviet Bloc were held in the grip of an extreme supranational tyranny. Many key posts in Poland were held by Russians. Post-war reconstruction was accompanied by political terror, mass repressions and judicial murders. The Five Year Plans of a centralised industrial economy involved pitiless social engineering and huge human costs.

From 1956 onwards, the ruling Party gained a margin of autonomy from Moscow, though the Soviet Army stayed in place. Wladyslaw Gomulka, a nationalist Communist, gained a measure of popularity at the start of his 14-year reign. He reached an agreement with the redoubtable Primate, Stefan Wyszynski, and the cultural straightjacket was relaxed. But he left office following the bloody suppression of popular demonstrations on the Baltic Coast. His successor, Edward Gierek, sought in vain to maintain the Party’s dictatorship whilst borrowing heavily abroad and pandering to workers’ demands. He was toppled by bread riots and hardening opposition.

The 1980s, therefore, saw the Communist regime stagger from crisis to col- lapse. In 1979, the visit of the newly elected Polish Pope, John Paul II, had created a euphoric climate of hope and expectation. The next year, a strike in the Lenin Shipyard at Gdansk led to nationwide protests and the formation of ‘Solidarity’, the Soviet Bloc’s only independent trade union. Under Solidarity’s undisputed leader, Lech Walesa, the so-called ‘Workers’ State’ was directly challenged by angry workers. The writing was on the wall.

The military coup, which introduced martial law in December 1981 was executed without serious bloodshed by the new Party Secretary, General Wojciech Jaruzelski. Thousands were arrested and interned; Solidarity looked destroyed; and the Army seemed to have saved the Party. In reality, the Party never recovered. Its ideological base had been shattered. One third of its members had joined Solidarity, and it was incapable of designing executive reforms. The underground opposition was churning out dissident literature, as Lech Walesa received the Nobel Peace Prize.

As the decade wore on, General Jaruzelski was inexorably forced to consider compromise. In the Gorbachev era of “glasnost’” and “perestroika”, he could no longer count on hardline support from Moscow. When the Solidarity priest, Father Popieluszko was murdered, he put the killer policemen on trial. Finally, in 1988, Walesa was recalled to calm growing workers’ unrest, and Round Table talks began. The Communist leaders believed that they could hang on to the essential levers of power while granting Solidarity a subservient role. After the June elections in 1989, when the opposition won every parliamentary seat on offer, they realised their mistake. In August, they were obliged to appoint Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a leading Solidarity adviser, as Premier. By this step, Poland led the way in the collapse of the Communist Bloc.

Lech Wałęsa at the Lenin Shipyard
Lech Wałęsa during the strike at the Lenin Shipyard, August 1980

Solidarity completed its task over the following months, when the Fall of the Berlin Wall killed off the Communists’ remaining hopes. General Jaruzelski, still President, did not dare to give Mazowiecki orders. Soviet ‘regents’ were expelled from all Polish ministries. The secret services were purged. And key Communist ministers resigned. With their departure, the old Moscow-led order ceased, and unconditional presidential elections could be held. For the first time since 1939, Lech Walesa emerged as the democratic leader of an independent nation. To crown his success with a grand, symbolic gesture, the last President-in-Exile, Ryszard Kaczorowski, flew in to hand over the insignia of a legitimate presidency.

The independent Polish state that appeared in 1990 was labelled the ‘Third Republic’ as if the People’s Republic had never existed. As in 1918 it was necessarily the child of compromise. Thanks to the strategy of non-violence advocated by the Polish Pope and adopted by Solidarity, the defeated ex-Communists and their families were not shot or proscribed. Former Party members, like Alexander Kwasniewski, were free to join the new political mix. Some of them learned the principles of liberal democracy well.

Lech Walesa’s presidency 1990-95, was less impressive than his earlier leadership of Solidarity. He faced enormous obstacles. The Balcerowicz Plan, which built a market economy, involved painful socio-economic changes that took time to bear fruit. Ephemeral political parties led successive short-lived governments. And until 1994 Poland toiled under the shadow of a huge Soviet/Russian army of occupation, which did not hasten to leave.

President Kwasniewski’s election in 1995 surprised many, but he quickly proved pragmatic and impartial and won two terms of office. Under him, left-wing and right-wing governments alternated freely, and economic growth surged ahead. The Constitution of 1997 did not please everyone, but provided a sound basis for the rule of law. Poland joined NATO in 1998 and the European Union in 2004, thereby gaining the promise of military and economic security. The country had many friends and allies, and few active enemies. By all objective criteria, and despite continuing problems, it appeared in better shape than at any time in living memory.

2005, however, saw the passing of Pope John Paul II, the much loved ‘moral father of the nation’. Observers at home and abroad had praised the Polish Pope’s guiding role, and his absence opened the flood gates to divisiveness and demagoguery. Political discourse coarsened, and language, which in Britain would be regarded as ‘unparliamentary’, proliferated. Unexpectedly, a substantial sector of the population was reacting unfavourably to the country’s condition. Their subjective sense of negativity was boosted partly by the strident commentaries of Radio Maryja and partly by the newly founded Law and Justice Party (PiS). For the next decade and more, the Polish scene would be dominated by the unbridled rivalry between the truculent, self-styled ‘patriots’ of PiS and the liberally-minded Civil Platform (PO). The ‘Patriots’ maintained that Solidarity had been betrayed by foreign foes and domestic turncoats, and that the nation’s very identity was in danger. The liberals believed, generally speaking, that the Republic had been developing since 1989 along healthy lines.

For five years, the two rival parties competed on even terms. At first, Law and Justice took the upper hand. Lech Kaczynski was elected President, while his dominant twin brother ran the ruling party. Their shaky coalition collapsed before a ‘Fourth Republic’ could be launched. Thereon PO gained the advantage. In 2007, Donald Tusk took over the reins of the government, which he would lead for two terms. President Kaczynski’s ratings plummeted.

Tragedy struck on 10 April 2010. The President’s plane carrying nearly one hundred dignitaries to a ceremony for the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacres, crashed near Smolensk in Russia, killing everyone on board. Both Polish and Russian state investigators agreed that the crash was purely accidental, caused by pilot error and a culpable disregard for procedures.  e captain should never have tried to land in the unusually dense fog. Polish experts examined the wreck in detail. Yet conspiracy theories multiplied. The late President’s brother blamed both Vladimir Putin and alleged Polish accomplices. In the resulting presidential election, he lost out only narrowly.

Critics of PO’s second term would say that it was marked by complacency. Average standards of living continued to improve, assisted by vast EU subsidies. Foreign relations were based on close partnerships with the USA, NATO and the EU. Yet over one million young Poles were working abroad, little relief was offered to Poland’s poorer communities, which often felt neglected, and no answer was found to the relentless campaign mounted by Law and Justice. Bolstered by torchlight processions, the leaders of PiS claimed that Poland had become “a condominium of Germany and Russia” or that Lech Walesa had served Communist interests. Premier Tusk soldiered on until he left for Brussels to be the EU Council’s President.

Then Law and Justice pounced. In 2015, they fairly won both the presidential and the parliamentary elections.  e scene was set for an unprecedented assault on the third Republic’s ethos and for the creation of a Party-State. The seat of power was moved from the Government and Parliament to the Headquarters of PiS on Nowogrodzka Street. Nonetheless, the policy of “500 Plus”, which increased child benefits, was popular; the admission of a million Ukrainians countered the EU’s directive to accept a quota of non-European migrants; and reform of the judicial system was justified by electoral pledges.

Poland was clearly caught up in the wave of so-called ‘Populism’ that was sweeping the western world. The leaders of Law and Justice shared many of the instincts, rhetorical flourishes and methods that typified Victor Orban in Hungary, England’s Brexiteers, Donald Trump in the USA, and the new ruling parties in Austria and Italy. They could all eagerly subscribe to the nebulous slogans of ‘Take Back Control’, ‘Drain the Swamp’, or ‘Make My Country Great Again’. One half of the population was dismayed. The other half approved. Official spokesmen calmly gave assurances about the benign nature of the Dobra Zmiana, the ‘Change for the Better’. The sidelined opposition complained of practices reminiscent of the late People’s Republic or of the Sanacja. The nation was more deeply divided than ever.

Of course, the Polish variant of Populism has its own characteristics. It is encouraged by a significant group within the clergy, which dislikes the ‘decadent secularism’ of the West. It strangely equates Liberalism with Communism, whilst in practice denigrating its liberal rivals more assiduously than the ex-Communists . And it is deeply rooted in the unhealed traumas of Poland’s past. With their usual ineptness, western journalists have widely dubbed Poland’s populists as “conservatives” or “right-wing nationalists”.  These labels are inadequate. By their own admission, the leaders of Law and Justice are thorough-going radicals, who aim not only to transform their country’s institutions but also to re-write its history. Their selective view of ‘the Polish perspective’ demands that only the most positive aspects of Poland’s historical image are promoted. So they publicise Zegota, and lionise the forgotten Zolnierzy Wykleci of the post-war period. Yet older Poles remember the absurdity of selective history. By taking over the splendid Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk, reportedly to accentuate its ‘Polishness’, the ruling Party destroyed an icon of inclusivity. By preparing a law, that criminalises certain forms of expression regarding wartime Poland, it provoked an international outcry, particularly in Israel and the USA.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the Polish Government soon ran foul of the European Commission, which in 2017 invoked Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, citing fundamental breaches of the EU’s rules of membership, to which all member states have formally agreed to conform. The grounds for this action included the muzzling of state media, the suppression of judicial independence, the abuse of parliamentary competence, and multiple infringements of Poland’s own Constitution. The Government responded by claiming that ‘Poland’ (not Poland’s Government) was under attack from euro-busybodies meddling in the internal affairs of a sovereign state.

The hundredth year since 1918 arrived in the midst of this turmoil, whose final outcome could not be predicted. Optimists described a minor disturbance in a teacup, pessimists feared worse. Three things are certain. One is that each side will celebrate the Centenary of Independence in its own way: the second that surprises will happen: the third that Poland will survive.

For no country can realistically be judged by politics alone, and the Polish nation is famous for having preserved the essentials of its national life and culture in the face of a repeatedly adverse political framework. Poles have been adept at defying the effects of oppression and division, at riding out the political upheavals, and, in the darkest days, of retreating psychologically into the realms of ‘inner exile’. Knowing that storms will pass, they draw strength and pride from their prowess in the arts, from the depth of their religious beliefs, and, as will be seen tonight, from their immense musical talents. No politician in Polish History can match the spiritual influence of Frederick Chopin. Nothing exudes so much dignity as the stately procession of the polonez. No military march, not even Colonel Bogey, can match My, Pierwsza Brygada. In this regard, Polish morale is sustained by the two most fundamental texts of the repertoire. Of national independence, Adam Mickiewicz wrote prophetically that “no-one values it more than he who has lost it” At the same time, the opening line of the national anthem, Dabrowski’s mazurek, asserts magnificently that “Poland has not perished yet so long as we still live.”

What is more, a sense of proportion is always desirable. As a British subject as well as a Polish citizen, I constantly compare the fortunes of my two countries. In 1918, the United Kingdom was the world’s ‘top dog’, the ruler of a global Empire. It began to disintegrate in 1922, when the Irish Republic broke free, and was greatly diminished after 1945 when the Empire itself began to dissolve. Since then, it has slipped gracefully down the league table of nations, adapting and evolving but never recovering its former position. With Brexit, it faces an extremely risky challenge.

Poland, in contrast, started in 1918 at the very bottom of the heap. Twenty years later, having climbed up several rungs of the ladder, it was devoured, through no fault of its own, by the two greatest snakes on the board. Its recovery could only re-start after a fifty year break. Since then, despite the occasional setback, it has again climbed steadily into the upper echelon of European nations. In other words, its overall trajectory is upward. Bravo ! plynie Wisła plynie…dopóki płynie Polska nie zaginie.

Norman Davies

About Norman Davies

Norman Davies C. M. G., F. B. A. is Professor Emeritus of the University of London, a Supernumerary Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, and the author of several books on Polish and European history, including White Eagle, Red Star, The Isles, Europe, Microcosm, and his prize-winning history of Poland, God’s Playground.

Over the years, Norman Davies has received many prizes and honours. He was awarded the CMG by Queen Elizabeth II in 2001 for ‘services to history’, and has collected several Polish distinctions including the Orders of Polonia Restituta, of Merit, and of the White Eagle. He is an honorary citizen of several cities, including Wroclaw: and the holder of numerous honorary degrees, most recently a D Litt from Sussex.

Learn more about Norman Davies>>

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