Monday, February 25, 2008

Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski

This is a short book and one that is not, at this point, available in the US. I got my copy from and have to say I am disappointed in the author. I read Zamoyski's book on Napoleon's invasion of Russia and thought it was quite good, but here, I'd say he's very much lacking. This is a 'niche' subject that few have covered and to date, as this book shows, it is a subject filled with bias and hypocrisy. The reader is confronted by the old idea that the not yet created Soviet Union wanted to and WOULD HAVE exported their revolution to Germany through Poland. That is an idea that is not based in fact, there were many who wanted to export the Revolution but at the same time, and this is in fact what really happened, there were those who understood that in time a revolution would begin anyway. That is the reason for signing the Brest-Litovsk treaty, they gave away land that they expected to take back at one point or another. When that point would come was anyone's guess since these people were not fortune tellers but revolutionaries who jumped at opportunities and, undoubtedly, at times tried to make those opportunities come about.

Zamoyski himself states on pg. 9 that it was the Poles who first attacked Soviet troops by taking Wilno (Vilnius) and then Minsk. The idea here, apparently, is that it is OK for the Poles to take lands that belonged to them over a century ago before Poland was partitioned, but the Russians cannot do the same thing (for which they also can bring up a claim as they DID control the land for the past century, etc, one should also note that Ukrainians, Lithuanians, etc also have claims. But who has a claim matters little if they do not have an army to back that claim up with). Apparently, if you are only interested in nationalistic ideals that is OK with Zamoyski, but if you want to eventually spread the Communist ideal, that is going overboard. One has to keep in mind that when the Poles attacked the Red Army was facing Denikin in the south and on pg. 10 the author explains that the Army created in the West by the Russians was not strong enough to fight its way across Poland but rather only to fill a power-vacuum when available. The problem here is that the author, as far as I can tell, confuses what the Russians wanted to do with what they eventually would do. Just because some wanted to spread the revolution doesn't mean that's what would have happened. This can be seen by the fact that at least two of the leading Bolsheviks were against the war, Trotsky and Chicherin. Would Lenin still have attacked if the Poles didn't attack first? And then while peace negotiations were going on attack again and take the city of Dunaberg from the Russians and give it over to the anti-Bolshevik government of Lativa? A historian would not be able to give a concrete answer, but the author, apparently, can. Taking an extreme and making it seem as the only viable route is not the job of a historian. My real problem with this book is not the idea that if successful the Bolsheviks might have taken their revolution abroad, or that some wanted this from the start, but that the author is asserting this as a fact and that nothing could change it from happening, aside from, apparently, what did happen, makes sense?

If someone followed everything the Bolsheviks said and took it to heart, how can they then explain how Russian officers, known as 'enemies of the people', were then taken into the Red Army and named 'specialists' and in fact, put in charge of the Red Army (according to the author, by 1920 over 80% of the Red Army officer cadre would be made up of them)? Bolshevik rhetoric is just that, one has to be cautious in assuming that everything Lenin or anyone else said is what would have happened, especially during such a chaotic and turbulent time.

Bottom line is that the Red Army responded to a Polish threat. If there was no Polish threat there is no evidence one can point to which would undoubtedly show that the Red Army would have been used to spread the Revolution, especially considering the position Russia/Soviet Union found itself in after a bloody civil war. What happened in 1920 can be compared to what happened at the end of WWII, the Soviets did not export the revolution but they did enter Eastern Europe and Germany because they were on the COUNTERoffensive rather than an offensive. Hitler also claimed he was preempting a Soviet invasion, the Polish claim is taken seriously today while the German is known, by most, to be a complete fabrication. One can only wonder why that is.

A statement I vehemently disagree with is on pg. 13 when Zamoyski claims that for Russia and Lenin "...the best way of mobilizing support was war..." how can that be when not getting out of WWI is what ended Kerensky's run in the government and the Bolsheviks understood that they would be supported if they ended the war, thus the Brest Litovsk treaty! This can only be valid if seen in the context of the Polish invasion of Russia rather than any undertaking the Russians did before hand. With the Polish invasion many officers who had left the armed forces or never joined the Red Army in the first place came to it in droves and offered their support, such as the famous Brusilov. So, it might be argued that the Polish invasion helped increase support for the Bolshevik cause, but this is when the country is on the defensive, not the offensive, which is the author's original claim here. This can also be seen as the Poles rushed to support their troops when Warsaw was threatened, in both cases it was 'defensive' and 'counteroffensive' actions that rallied support, not outright offensive intentions.

If this book would have presented both sides in the same light, and I will readily admit that in some instances it does - for instance Polish and Russian atrocities against each other are listed, as well as some of the motley formations that were being led by both sides, their 'armies' at times were the furthest thing from what we picture in our minds as 'armies' - but overall this is in the end a biased looked at the events in question, and for that reason, I would not recommend it.


Anonymous said...

Interesting. I always believed that Lenin thought the key to converting Europe was through a successful revolution in Germany. Were not the Poles also nibbling away at Germanys borders?

Actually, now that I think about it wasn't Poland going through a bit of an expansionist phase then?

Interesting review. I have been waiting for a new one.


T. Kunikov said...

I can't comment if the Poles were trying to take territory from Germany, but I can say it wouldn't surprise me. The Poles also enlisted the help of Petlura, a Ukrainian nationalist, to help fight the Red Army.

In regards to Lenin and his beliefs, as I pointed out, there were those who did want to expand the Revolution. But many times these people's 'wants' did not conform to their 'abilities', or rather the abilities of the fledgling Soviet state that was just emerging.

I'll have a new review within a week, I hope, so stay tuned :)

Anonymous said...

Ah, yes. At that time the Soviets were still consolidating power.

The history of this part of the world is amazingly complex an interesting. Of which I am finding I know very little.



T. Kunikov said...

That's right, this history is also heavily biased and filled with propaganda, hypocrisy and myths. Hopefully, this will change in the future. If you are looking for a good book on the Russian Civil War that will cover the Polish invasion, etc, try Mawdsley's "The Russian Civil War."