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Can We Turn Back the ‘Blood-Dimmed Tide’ on the Potomac?

Poland’s victory a century ago stands as a beacon, reminding us of the power of strong leadership that can unite a nation in common cause. 

Polish soldiers during the Battle of Warsaw. (Wikimedia Commons)

At a time when chaos seems to be gushing everywhere, it’s nice to think about historical occasions when destruction and evil were defeated.   

In fact, it’s more than nice; it’s useful. Why? Because if it happened before, it can happen again. Yes, history is a great resource, as it provides a treasure-trove of examples of what worked in the past—as well as, of course, what did not work. One can learn from both. 

One positive precedent is the “Miracle on the Vistula,” when the people of Poland, defending their capital city of Warsaw, repelled the advancing Soviet Red Army.   

In fact, the centennial of the battle, fought from August 12 to August 25, 1920, is coming up soon. The Polish government, and Poles everywhere, plan a commemoration; there’s already a video featuring the actor Liam Neeson. Indeed, tourists are encouraged to come and celebrate “a major milestone in Polish history as it saved Poland’s newly regained independence . . . also one of the most important battles in history since the Polish victory over the Soviets stopped the spread of communism to Europe.”

The events of that era were complex, of course, and are subject to multiple interpretations, and so it takes some effort to tease out the precise parallels to today.

Yet this much, for sure, is true: In the aftermath of World War I, four great empires collapsed—German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman—and seven new nations were established, or, we might say, re-established. One of these was Poland, which had been partitioned out of existence by its neighbors in the late 18th century.

Interestingly, even as the Polish nation had disappeared, even as Russian satraps ruled in Warsaw, Polish nationalism grew stronger. And so, during World War I, a submerged Poland saw its chance to re-emerge, as the Russians, Germans, and Austro-Hungarians (as well as other combatant countries) fought each other to exhaustion. 

The big break came in 1917, when the Russian tsarist government collapsed, soon to be replaced by Lenin’s Bolsheviks. Civil war erupted in Russia—and that was Poland’s opportunity for liberation.

Led by soldier-statesman Józef Piłsudski (1867-1935), Poland declared its independence on November 11, 1918, the same day that an armistice was achieved in the overall war.  

Yet if all was now quiet on the Western front, on the Eastern front—actually, on many fronts—violent turmoil persisted. So even as Russia was convulsed in civil war, just about every other country in Eastern Europe reeled in convulsion, too, regarding its borders, its political regime, or both.

Moreover, in those days, beyond the rivalries of nationalism, communism was a specter haunting Europe. Hungary, for instance, was afflicted by a communist government for a few months in 1919. And Germany, too, suffered from a short-lived communist regime in its province of Bavaria. In fact, communists were taking to the streets, or even to the barricades, in virtually every country in Europe.

In his famously brooding 1919 poem, “The Second Coming,” William Butler Yeats punned on the color red, in both its political and physical manifestations: “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

So Poland, independent or the first time in more than 120 years, had to chart a course for itself amidst these dangers. Piłsudski’s idea was to create a new alliance of Eastern European countries, as a way of fending off threats from Germany to the west and Russia to the east.

Piłsudski’s vision included Ukraine, which was then struggling to secure its independence from Russia.  However, the communists in Moscow were no more eager than any other Muscovite government, before or since, to see an independent Ukraine, and so Poland found itself in conflict with the red regime, soon to be known as the Soviet Union.

The Poles achieved early success, attempting to set up a friendly Ukrainian government in Kiev, and yet soon the communists, having won their civil war, amassed their armies and counter-attacked, forcing the Poles to retreat.

Indeed, at this exact point, a hundred years ago, July 1920, the Russians were on the brink of crushing Poland once again. They had numbers on their side and, in addition, were fired up with communist zeal. To them, “workers of the world unite” was more than a slogan—it was an action plan for global dominion.

As Red Army general Semyon Budyonny confidently predicted on his way to Warsaw, “We will be happy on the day when, together with the proletariat of the West, we will enter into a decisive battle with the world bourgeoisie, when our army will receive its operational orders from Red Paris, Berlin, or London.”  

Indeed, in those crazy times, when so many thought that communism was the future, Budyonny’s bold prediction seemed possible.

Yet then, in August 1920, came the Miracle of the Vistula. At the gates of Warsaw, the Soviets were defeated; the war ended, and the Russo-Polish border stabilized. 

So how did the Poles do it? The tangible, historical answer is that Piłsudski had a brilliant plan. As the Russians advanced on Warsaw, he gambled that could defend the capital with an army of irregulars—boys, shopkeepers, women—while using his actual army as a strike force to hit the Russians from the rear.

This daring moment is captured in a patriotic 2011 movie from Poland, Bitwa warszawska; in the film, after Piłsudski outlines his plan, a subordinate tells him, “It’s high risk, sir.  Our weakened forces may succumb and Warsaw will fall before you’re ready to attack.” To which Piłsudski responds sternly: “You must endure the enemy’s onslaught on the outskirts of Warsaw until my armies strike them from the back.  There’s no other choice.”

So notably, in Poland’s subsequent victory, the civilian defenders of Warsaw were as much a part of the triumph as the army itself. Indeed, the military success was a signal moment in modern Polish history, because it demonstrated that the Polish people would and could fight effectively for the Polish nation.

Indeed, during the course of the battle, some citizens became national legends. One such was a Catholic priest, Father Ignacy Skorupka, martyred in the fighting and revered to this day—and even tweeted

Of course, that victory in 1920 did not bring an end to Poland’s woes. In 1939, the Soviets teamed up with the Germans—by then the Nazi Germans—once again to dismember Poland.  The joint invasion and occupation was then, of course, overlain by Hitler’s attack on Stalin in 1941, as well as by the Holocaust. So as many as six million Poles died between 1939 and 1945, about half of them Jewish.  And then, of course, the communists imposed their dominion on Poland for a further half-century.

Still, Poland’s victory a century ago stands as a beacon, reminding us of the power of strong leadership that can unite a nation in common cause. Indeed, it can be thought of as more than a beacon—it can also be thought of as a case study. As in, faced with a dangerous menace, here’s what the Poles did to save themselves, and we should learn from such heroic actions. 

Okay, so now to today. No, the Red Army is not at our gate, but today, as we know, a dangerous mutation of Leninism, which Wesley Yang has dubbed the “successor ideology,”  is already inside our gate.

In the meantime, as we all know, America is deeply divided, unable to unite, even in defense of treasured national symbols. Or perhaps we should say, with regret, formerly treasured national symbols. Down this road is national collapse.   

In other words, we need a “Miracle on the Potomac” to stem this new “blood-dimmed tide.” And yet as the Poles proved, miracles don’t come easily. Yes, God can grant miracles with ease, but here on earth, humans must work hard to earn them.

In the meantime, it’s painfully obvious that no current national leader has the personal, ethical, and intellectual resources to reverse the current societal drowning.

So now, thinking back to our historical armamentarium, we can ask: Do we need our own Piłsudski to plan a winning strategy? Do we need our own Skorupka to inspire us?  Do we need our own citizen-army to mobilize for its own defense? And perhaps most urgently, do we need some larger, transcendent vision that pulls the country together, fixing us in courageous common purpose, like the long-ago defenders of Warsaw?  

Maybe we need all of the above. But right now, we have little of anything that we can point to that’s helping us. So yes, it will take a miracle. And yet as we have seen, with enough effort, earthly miracles can be planned—and accomplished.

about the author

James P. Pinkerton is a longtime contributing editor at The American Conservative, columnist, and author. He served as longtime regular columnist for Newsday. He has also written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, National Review, The New Republic, Foreign Affairs, Fortune, and The Jerusalem Post. He is the author of What Comes Next: The End of Big Government--and the New Paradigm Ahead (1995).He worked in the White House domestic policy offices of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and in the 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1992 presidential campaigns. 

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