In the summer of 1920, Russia seemed poised to take over Europe.
Newly victorious in the Russian Civil War, but convinced that the capitalists were bent on strangling the cradle of Communism, the Bolsheviks looked for salvation. Their gaze fell on Germany, exhausted and embittered by defeat in the First World War, and now engulfed in civil strife between Communist revolutionaries and protofascist freikorps paramilitaries. If only the Red Army’s bayonets could install a Bolshevik regime in Berlin, then the two most powerful states in Central and Eastern Europe would be united in a Communist monolith. And from there, perhaps Communism would spread to Italy, France, Hungary and beyond. Could Marx’s prediction of world revolution finally be at hand?
Unfortunately for Lenin and Trotsky, an obstacle stood in their way. It was called Poland.
Like Communist Russia, Poland was also a new nation, though of a very different kind. The Bolsheviks only needed to overthrow the Tsarist government to take over the Russian state: the Poles had to create their own state. Though the seventeenth-century Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had extended deep into present-day Russia and Ukraine, Poland as an independent nation had been snuffed out in the eighteenth century, its territory partitioned between the Russian, German and Austrian empires. When those empires collapsed after World War I, the Poles took advantage of the chaos to resurrect their nation.
Yet as they had for centuries, Poland and Russia again would go to war. One reason was rival claims for the borderlands between the two nations—those “bloodlands” of Belarus and Ukraine that were perpetual battlefields. The deeper cause was geography; a glance at the map shows that the land bridge from Moscow to Berlin runs through Poland, whose unfortunate fate was to be wedged between Germany and Russia.
The Bolsheviks saw Poland as a semifeudal state of nobles and rich landowners exploiting the workers and peasants. The Poles feared the Red Army would march through Poland on the way to Germany, and never leave. Ironically, the Poles had refused British entreaties to help the Whites defeat the Reds for fear that the former Tsar’s generals would be just as likely to reclaim Poland for the Russian empire.
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