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4.0 out of 5 stars No Miracle on the Vistula, September 19, 2009
This review is from: White Eagle, Red Star: The Polish-Soviet War 1919-1920 and The Miracle on the Vistula (Paperback)
An early and fine book by the distinguished historian Norman Davies. The subtitle "The Miracle on the Vistula" is probably a recent addition by the publisher as it does not appear in the original (1972) edition. Davies takes pains to demonstrate that there was nothing miraculous about the Polish victory. The Polish-Soviet War is known to many from Isaac Babel's great Red Cavalry story sequence. Davies provides a well written and documented narrative and analysis of the Polish-Soviet War. He covers the background, military history, political history, and diplomatic history in a series of well integrated chapters. All chapters are distinguished by Davies' well considered descriptions and judgments about the major actors and historic trends, and excellent selection of quotations from the primary literature (including some from Babel's stories).

In Davies analysis, some type of conflict between the Soviet Union and the Polish state was inevitable. The collapse of the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and German Empires left an enormous power vacuum in Eastern Europe, particularly the borderlands between central Poland and western Russia. The Soviet leadership, facing great challenges from internal enemies, was convinced that the revolution had to expand, particularly to Germany, to be secure. They also perceived the Polish nationalist regime led by Pilsudski as a tool of western capitalism and inevitable foe. The Pilsudski regime, in fact, was regarded with considerable distaste by the French, British, and Americans, and pursued a strongly independent policy. A more important vision driving the Polish leadership was of a greater Polish state or Polish led federation from the Baltic to the Black Sea. In 1919, the expanding Poles and Soviets slid into conflict in Lithuania, Byelorussia, and the Ukraine. Polish fears of the Soviets then led to a Polish effort to develop a buffer zone with an unsuccessful conquest of much of the Ukraine while the Soviets were preoccupied with internal enemies. As the Soviets gained the upper hand in the Russian Civil War, they focused their energies on the Poles and rolled back the Polish incursions, followed by an invasion of Poland that reached deep into northern and central Poland. Overextended and straining their primitive supply system to its limit, the Soviets were then pushed back by skillful and vigorous generalship on the part of Pilsudski and his commanders.

Davies shows very well how this happened, with evenhanded discussions of the strengths and weaknesses of both sides. He concludes with a thoughtful chapter on the consequences of the Polish-Soviet War. Contrary to the statements of some other Amazon reviewers of this book, he specifically rebuts the idea that the Poles saved Europe from a Communist conquest. In his judgement, and this is backed by a careful analysis of diplomacy and politics in Britain and France, the Soviet defeat was blessing in disguise for the Soviets. A Soviet victory would probably have aroused British and French fears of the Soviet Union to the extent that a direct intervention would have occurred destroying the nascent Soviet state. In Davies analysis, the major consequences of the war were Soviet isolation and a Polish state dominated by the military.
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Showing 1-10 of 13 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Oct 14, 2010 12:52:41 PM PDT
SumBudy says:
I'm sorry but I have to disagree with the comments you made in your review. I'm not sure if you were just expressing Mr. Davies views or if that's the conclusion you came up with after reading this book. If I understand your statement correctly, Poland should have just let the Bolsheviks invade and wait for Britain and France to intervene? Just like they intervened when Germany and Russia invaded Poland in 39? The problems plaguing Poland are geographic. They're surrounded by war monger nations from the east and west (Germany and Russia), while their closest European "allies" like France and Britain are historically cowardly towards both Germany and Russia (sorry if I offend any Brits or French but that's just the way it is). The main reason for the reds starting a war with Poland after gaining the upper hand over the whites during the civil war was to spread communism all across Europe. It was Lenin's main goal. A show of force by the Russians that at first succeeded but later failed because the Polish people were tired of living under foreign rule. Miracle or not, the odds were stacked way against Poland. A country that always had to fend for itself. With that said I'll probably give this book a read. I enjoy Mr. Davies works.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 15, 2010 7:11:11 AM PDT
R. Albin says:
If you're interested in interwar Europe and Eastern Europe specifically, this is a very useful book. Neither Davies nor I suggest that the Poles should have been passive and let the Red Army role over Poland. Davies' point, and I find this argument creditable, is that a Soviet victory over Poland would likely have been a poisoned chalice for the Soviet Union. If you look at some popular accounts of the Polish-Soviet war, the argument made is that a Soviet victory over the Poles would have resulted in Soviet conquest of Germany and Communist states from at least the Rhine across the rest of Eurasia. The Poles then prevented this outcome and "saved the West." Hence, "The Miracle on the Vistula." Davies' argument is that this outcome was unlikely, and that a Soviet victory over the Poles would probably have a elicited a sharp response from the British and French, probably direct intervention and Franco-British expulsion of the Soviets and perhaps destruction of the Soviet state.
Even if you don't accept this counterfactual idea, the idea of the Red Army and its primitive supply chain being able to mount an invasion of Germany across Poland is pretty implausible.
As for Poland being surrounded by large, aggressive neighbors - no disagreement from me. However, an important point made by Davies (and a number of other historians) is that the Pilsudski led Poles were pretty aggressive in their own right. Under Pilsudski, the Poles envisioned a large Polish state or Polish dominated federation including Lithuania, parts of what is now Belarus, and the western Ukraine. Many of these regions had substantial Polish populations. The Poles, for example, temporarily occupied much of the Ukraine prior to the outbreak of the Soviet-Polish War. The Poles under Pilsudski wanted to be opportunistic conquerors but weren't particularly successful.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 15, 2010 8:14:39 AM PDT
SumBudy says:
Your point is duly noted. Guess I'll have to read this book and see what Mr. Davies has to say.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 30, 2011 6:51:29 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 11, 2012 4:47:29 PM PDT
I have not read the book; however, I do agreed with Mr. Ablin's statement about the Poles wanting to have a large state or dominated federation and they were pretty aggressive in their own right to secure terrorities.

If you look at early Polish history, the Poles did have a commonwealth with Lithuania and fighting different enemies like the Ottoman Turks, so it was logicial that they tried to acquire as much land to protect themselves (just about every nation, and empire have done so). The Poles tried to expand their country along the Baltic region where they fought various Baltic tribes including one called the Prussians (no relations to the Prussians of the 18th, 19th, and 20 centuries). In the end, the Poles had to make an agreement with the Germans to bring in the Teutonic Knights to subdue the Prussians and in return the Germans were allowed to have political, social, and economic rights in Prussia. If the Poles were better warriors and had better leadership, then they would have not called in the Germans to subdue the Prussians which would have led to bitter tensions between Germany/Prussia and Poland down the road.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 11, 2012 4:11:31 AM PDT
M. Burger says:
Thank you Mr. Albin for your review. Indeed it is preposterous to assume that Budyonnij's horse army would have been able to invade Germany. As unfortunate as it may be for Polish nationalists to read the true story of this war, it is nevertheless important to keep the facts in mind: Polish eastward expansionism had nothing to do with saving the world from communism. Rather it was an attempt to gain territory and power. Let's not forget that "holy" Poland had no problems in taking (a minor) part in Hitlers break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1938:

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 11, 2012 11:43:01 AM PDT
R. Albin says:
Thanks for the compliment. Your point about 1938 is very good and the Polish government of that time was dominated by veterans of the Russo-Polish war and the preceding attempts at Polish expansion.

In reply to an earlier post on May 8, 2012 2:15:33 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 8, 2012 2:39:42 PM PDT
We can only speculate what would have happened next should the Soviets beat the Poles and moved to Germany. But this much is clear to me: Lenin did aspire to export his revolution abroad. The chances were debatable, and I agree, in the long run communism in the West would not prevail but in the war exhausted Western Europe, this could have spelled much trouble.

Now, Pilsudski did not have saving Europe from Communism in mind, sure his aim was to rebuild Poland, in federation with Ukraine, Lithuania and, perhaps Belarus, as large as possible. Nationalist, however, he was not; it was Dmowski, much more popular with the French and British but also very nationalistic and Right leaning. Pilsudski wasn't as popular, I agree, he was even detested. Wasn't that in part because of his Socialist past? He was, after all one of the leaders of the PPS (Polish Socialist Party).

In reply to an earlier post on May 9, 2012 4:14:28 AM PDT
R. Albin says:
In response to your first paragraph, I defer to Davies' opinion and he thinks that Soviet success in Poland would have resulted in the end of the Soviet Union. I think most historians would dispute your statement that Pilsudski was not a nationalist.

In reply to an earlier post on May 9, 2012 5:48:02 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 9, 2012 2:02:53 PM PDT
In the long run yes; in the short run - impossible to decide. The Soviets could have suffered terrible defeat resulting in the immediate collapse of the Bolshevik regime.

In reply to an earlier post on May 9, 2012 1:51:28 PM PDT
R. Albin says:
Counterfactuals like this one are, almost in principle, impossible to evaluate. But this also undermines that casual "Miracle on the Vistula" construct.
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