Tsarist Russia was engulfed in a revolutionary civil war, which led to a Bolshevik government in1917. The leader of the Red Army, Leon Trotsky, wanted to end capitalism in Europe. He believed Germany was the key to this. If the Bolsheviks could unleash a communist revolution there then western Europe would follow. He identified Germany as promising territory after the failed Spartacist uprising, January 1919,1 had shown revolutionary zeal. Carrying the revolution to Germany meant conquering Poland. Trotsky regarded this as a trivial detail as it had only existed for a few months. He was wrong and the Red Army was repulsed. The Polish victory is often referred to as the Miracle on the Vistula.2
The First World War ended in November 1918 and was followed by the decisive Treaty of Versailles, 1919. The principal beneficiary was Poland. Poland had been partitioned in the 18th century whilst, astonishingly, retaining its national identity. Its new geopolitical role was as a cordon sanitaire separating east and west Europe. The importance of this was demonstrated when the Red Army attempted to reach Germany.3 Trotsky’s intention to crush capitalism began there.
Poland had no natural defences and Trotsky imagined it would crumble after being invaded by the Red Army. The First World War had however created millions of battle-hardened soldiers who were trained, ready and available.4 Poland, uniquely, had soldiers from three former national armies, two of whom had fought the third.5 Those soldiers had a cause. The independence of Poland was long dreamed of and had entered the national psyche.6 The Russians, however, had been in continuous warfare since 1914, first under the Tsars and then the Bolsheviks. The First World War had ended for Tsarist Russia when the political message, Peace, Land, Bread7 led to mutiny and the collapse of the eastern front. This was followed by a German victory and the disastrous Brest-Litovsk Treaty, 1919. That their martial spirit had been revived at all was a credit to the Bolshevik’s promise of a better world.
The Red Army swept through Ukraine scoring a notable victory in Kiev. The route to Warsaw was open. Polish generals agreed with Trotsky that they had no chance of winning. Pilsudski, a profound nationalist, dismissed this counsel of despair.8 He energised the troops and the successful Battle of Warsaw only lasted 13 days. Those 13 days shaped European history. The defeat of the Red Army led to the Bolshevik’s consolidating their position in Russia, creating the multi-national Soviet Union. Trotsky, the principal advocate for world revolution, was politically defeated and Stalin’s influence increased. Trotsky’s belief in the impact of a Bolshevik invasion of Germany is a wonderful, ‘What if’ question. If Trotsky was correct then it’s possible the Soviet Union could have extended from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
1 For a very quick summary see The Spartacist Revolt – Weimar Germany – National 5 History Revision – BBC Bitesize and for Leon Trotsky see Trotsky and the Russian Revolution | Schoolshistory.org.uk
4 The British used so-called ‘Black and Tans’ against the Irish who rose in revolt in 1919. They were all ex-soldiers and notorious for their brutality.
5 The Polish army had ex-German and Austrian-Hungarian troops who’d been fighting Tsarist Russia in the war.
6 Chopin left Poland in 1830 at the beginning of an uprising and his music became symbolic of its identity How Chopin’s Mazurkas Reflect His Polish Identity : Interlude see also this about the continuing importance of Chopin In Poland, Chopin’s music defines a nation | The Independent | The Independent
8 Józef Piłsudski | Polish revolutionary and statesman | Britannica he was a total revolutionary and ‘man-of-action. His story is inspirational. He wasn’t paralysed by military orthodoxy and knew that the Red Army wasn’t as good as it looked.