Russia and Poland – a history of conflict and resilience

Mar 22, 2022

For those that weren’t aware I have deep connections to Poland… My wife is Polish. My children are Polish, it’s currently the place that we call home.

I am therefore currently witnessing firsthand the incredible urgent and positive response to the attack against their neighbors in Ukraine. I’ve looked at this in detail in this recent article on the Russian and Ukraine situation. However, for those that are interested – I wanted to talk a little about exactly why the Poles have responded so generously and resolutely.  The key is in their troubled past, and their own interactions with Russia that have often been emblematic of their grit and determination as a nation.

1920: ‘Miracle on the Vistula’

It may surprise you to learn that an extensive series of battles in 1919-20 in Poland, almost unknown to history until 25 years ago, led to the decisive strategic defeat of a communist invasion of western Europe conclusively secured the future of the nation and confined communism to Russia for another 20 years.

To avoid producing a book, I am concentrating here on Russian-Polish interactions during the first 50 years of the 20th century. I want to give context to the Ukraine invasion of 2022 – and all the hallmarks of Russian aggression in earlier years.

The first major conflict between the newly-free Polish Republic and Bolshevik (pre-Soviet) Russia began in 1919 as the First World War and the (separate) Russian Civil War came to their bloody ends. The Poles – free from the Imperial Russian yoke for the first time since the 1790s – joined up with a Ukrainian force from Kiev (Kyiv) to protect their new eastern border which stretched even beyond Lvov (Lviv). However they were repulsed by the new Russian Red Army and retreated in disarray on their new capital Warsaw.

A retreat, then – but there were in fact giant geostrategic issues at stake. Lenin saw Poland as the essential bridge to carry the communist message immediately to Germany and western Europe, enfeebled as they were from the recent world war. A successful invasion through bourgeois Poland looked like the perfect route to Berlin and beyond.

The Poles reeled back through Belarus during the summer of 1920. However, a desperate plan was produced by Polish commander Josef Pilsudski. The combination of a daring counter-offensive involved surprise attacks northward from south of Warsaw and a strong central thrust at a key weak point in the Russian lines. As the Russian forces of Soviet Commander Mikhail Tukhachevsky drove around the northwest side of Warsaw seeking entry, Pilsudski force-marched his divisions northward – while simultaneously taking out a weak Russian division in the Pinsk Marshes to the south.

The Russian forces moved too slowly throughout; their general staff was riven by jealousies and suspicion; the Poles had even secured access to Russian communications, obtaining vital information on planned troop movements… the stories have grown as the years have gone by. Above all, the Poles fought with desperation for their new nation and its capital. Over the week of the battle during August, the Red Army lost an estimated 15,000+ dead and 65,000 captured, while the Polish dead numbered some 4,000.
By September, Tukhachevsky had been forced to establish a new defensive line further east. In the Battle of the Nieman River in September, the Red Army was again defeated and in October a ceasefire was signed.
The campaign was named “The Miracle on the Vistula” by one Polish MP and across Poland itself the name stuck.

Bolshevik propaganda had earlier described the fall of Warsaw as imminent; its capture was to be the start of planned communist revolutions in Poland, Germany and other European nations. The Russians retired behind their borders. Tukhachevsky was also “retired” and became an early victim of Stalin’s infamous “show trials” in the 1930s.

Peace had come to Europe – for a time…

1939: Battle of Westerplatte – a Symbol of Polish Resistance

This battle on September 1, 1939, an inspiration to the Polish people even now, marked the first day of World War II. Nazi Germany launched an unprovoked attack on this unassuming military transport depot on an island in the harbour of the Free City of Dansk, on Poland’s northern coast.

Despite much foreboding, the war outbreak was a shock – but perhaps not a surprise. For the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact had been signed in Moscow just eight days earlier. It had clearly been designed to enable both powers to partition Poland between them. Wreathed in hypocrisy, it duly set out a “written guarantee of peace” between both states. Russia waited only 16 more days before taking over the entire eastern side of Poland (most of which became what we know as Belarus today).

Russia took no part in the Westerplatte battle: it did not need to.

The Nazis meanwhile saw Westplatte as a simple demonstration of their power to Poland’s political and business elite. Bring in some dive bombers, send over a few shells from an old battleship, (the Schleswig-Holstein) and bring along some marines and police. How long would that take? The Wehrmacht reckoned a few hours.
During the 1930s the Poles had secretly fortified the garrison and reinforced it to about 180 soldiers, with six officers. Otherwise they had one field gun, heavy and light machine guns and light arms. Apart from trenches, that was it! The arrival of the battleship brought a company of marines to reinforce the military and the Danzig (German) police reckoned tht the position would be taken “in about ten minutes”.

September 1 began with a naval bombardment and a marine landing. This was heavily repulsed. A second major attack was further routed in early afternoon. And so the struggle went on – bombardments with new heavy artillery, a two-wave air raid by 60 Junkers Stukas, even a torpedo boat raid. On September 5, Polish CO Major Stucharski held an officer conference to discuss surrender, but the group decided to hold on.

It was here that the myth began to grow. Not only Danzig but most of Poland was transfixed by the one bright light in the dark parade of German successes everywhere else. This was the spirit of the Vistula Miracle once more.
On September 6 the Germans sent two different, burning trains right into the garrison main area from nearby marshalling yards. The trains crashed and burned the woods all around (thus giving the Poles a perfect field-of-fire). This was the garrison’s last stroke of luck. Food and ammunition were now critically low and gangrene had struck the wounded. After a giant bombardment on the morning of September 7, a white flag appeared.
Sucharski surrendered. However the German general in charge, Eberhardt, was so impressed that he allowed Sucharski to keep his ceremonial sword. The German guards receiving the surrender stood at attention as the new prisoners marched out. Over 3,000 Germans had been tied up in the operation.

The phrase “Westerplatte fights on” became an important national symbol. Most nations have them, large and small, from Thermopylae in Greece, Vimy Ridge for Canada and the Alamo for the USA.

Remembrance ceremonies are held at Westerplatte each September 1. Apart from Polish past and present leaders in 2009 there was one Russian VIP: Mr Vladimir Putin, Russian Prime Minister. Perhaps he was there to study the details of the Nazi siege?

1940: The Russian Massacres at Katyn

In 1939, Russia and Germany divided Poland between them, by treaty, as World War II began. Occupation forces and secret police from both dictatorships moved into the newly acquired regions – first to fight Polish armed forces, then to subjugate the various populations. Tens of thousands of Polish soldiers escaped to the West (mostly via Hungary and Romania, Greece and France). The remaining Polish military in Eastern Poland surrendered to the Russians – and were interned.

They subsequently “disappeared”. No intelligence service could pick up any traces, or even rumours. Meanwhile the British and French had to fight a losing campaign against the Nazi armies that drove them out of western Europe at Dunkirk, and thereafter face the Battle of Britain to defeat the Luftwaffe. It was only after the Germans invaded Russia in June 1941 that action could be taken by the Polish Government-in-exile to try and trace the missing officers.

The Polish Government in the UK now signed the Sikorski-Mayski Agreement, which announced the two sides’ plan to cooperate against Germany, and for a Polish army to be formed on Soviet territory. The Polish General Anders began organising this force (largely from Poles exiled by Stalin to Siberia) but urgently sought information on the missing men. During a personal meeting, Stalin assured him that all these Poles had been freed and could not be traced because the Soviets had “lost track of them” in Manchuria! Possibly the biggest lie of the century.
In 1942, captive Polish railway workers heard about a mass grave of Polish soldiers near Katyn and reported the story to the Polish Underground. But nobody believed the grave could hold so many victims… More mass graves were found by the Germans in the same area and eventually Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels saw how this news could be used to drive a wedge between the western allies and the Soviet Union.

Some 3,000 Polish bodies were excavated here. The total became over 12,000 by April 1943 and the Polish Government insisted to Stalin on an investigation by the International Red Cross. Stalin responded by accusing the Poles of collaborating with the Nazis and then broke off diplomatic relations!

Katyn was retaken from the Germans in October 1943. As Goebbels had forecast, the NKVD began a vast cover-up operation throughout the region, with false evidence planted, witnesses threatened, and a new report.
This found that the Poles were all shot by German soldiers… Another investigation by the “Burdenko Commission” reached exactly the same result. Just before his death in 1946 Burdenko himself told members of his family that this was not the case.

The scandal was now well known in the west. But by this time, as the war was now being won, Polish-Soviet tensions were mounting for many other reasons. The argument raged on throughout the 50s and 60s. On October 30, 1989 (as the days of glasnost began) President Gorbachev allowed a delegation of several hundred Poles to visit the Katyn memorial. Among them was the distinguished former US National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski.

In forthright comments after the visit, Brzezinski wrote of “…the symbolic nature of Katyn. Russians and Poles, tortured to death, lie here together… only with the truth can the new Soviet leadership distance itself from the crimes of Stalin and the NKVD…”

How these words resonate today.

Mr Putin’s own remarks? They were recorded in a 2008 interview with a Polish newspaper – Putin (then the Russian Prime Minister) openly called Katyn “a political crime.”

1944: The Warsaw Uprising – Defeat or Betrayal?

The final tragedy of the War for Poland was the failure of the Warsaw Uprising against Hitler, fought between August 1 and September 2 in 1944.

The Nazi armies were by now in full retreat from Russia, and many of their best troops had been sent west to stem their losses in Normandy. Sensing a weakness, the citizens of Warsaw and the Home Army therefore rose as one to take back their capital from the Germans – just as General Rokossovsky and his “First Belorussian Front” were concluding a 120-mile dash in three days to reach the outskirts of the city.

The Poles knew that the Russians were close, but worried that if they sat and waited, they would give the propaganda gift of liberation to the Soviets – as well as control of the city. When to make their move?
Sparked by a broadcast from Radio Moscow, thousands of insurgents came onto the streets, using the subway system, the sewer network (which they had carefully studied) and arms dumps in civilian housing all across the city. They expected that it would take the Russians four or five days to move in and help them – maximum seven – and they duly captured central sections of the city.

Yet nothing happened. Stalin ignored Churchill’s appeals for help. Worse, he denied the RAF permission to even land and refuel when dropping supplies to the beleaguered Poles. Many Polish pilots still took suicidal risks to bring medicines and weapons, but the support could never be enough. Meanwhile, the city was ground down by the Nazis, building by building, block by block. Residents were shot down in their doorways, with the pretty girls taken away to prison camps and worse.

The Red Army was simply ordered to sit and wait. It suited Stalin well to have as many non-communist Poles killed as possible, before his own Polish “communist army” liberated their homeland. After weeks of appalling atrocities, General Bor-Komorowski finally surrendered on October 2, with 22,000 of his 40,000 fighters dead. Between 150,000 and 200,000 civilians were also killed. With all the buildings destroyed between 1939 and 1945, 85 percent of Warsaw had been levelled.

When the War ended in 1945, the first actions by the returning citizens were to rebuild the ancient churches and buildings.

In these acts also lies the spirit of Poland.