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The Fire of Revolution: A Counterfactual

Analysis of the Polish-Bolshevik War,
1919 to 1920
Ian Johnson
Ohio State University
Published online: 16 Mar 2015.

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To cite this article: Ian Johnson (2015) The Fire of Revolution: A Counterfactual Analysis of the
Polish-Bolshevik War, 1919 to 1920, The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, 28:1, 156-185, DOI:

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Journal of Slavic Military Studies, 28:156185, 2015
Copyright Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 1351-8046 print/1556-3006 online
DOI: 10.1080/13518046.2015.998129

The Fire of Revolution: A Counterfactual

Analysis of the Polish-Bolshevik War,
1919 to 1920

Ohio State University
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In August, 1920, the fate of Europe hung in the balance. Bolshevik

forces stood poised to take Warsaw, while Lenin contemplated the
possibility of invading Germany. General von Seeckt in Germany
considered renouncing the Treaty of Versailles, thus threatening
a new world war. In France and Great Britain, senior leaders
reluctantly and with great hesitation discussed military inter-
vention in Eastern Europe. Using primary source material from
American, British, German, and Polish archives, this study offers
new conclusions about the landscape of post-war Europe through
a counterfactual analysis of the Battle of Warsaw.


After four years of war and 17 million dead, quiet finally reigned on the
Western Front. It was 28 June 1919, and diplomats of the victorious powers
had assembled in the Quai dOrsay in Paris. Here they drew up the puni-
tive treaty designed to prevent the horrors of another Great War. The cost
of future peace was high, to be paid by the defeated belligerents in land
and reparations. Much as in wartime, Germany would bear the brunt of the
Central Powers burden.
Yet only a year after the Treaty of Versailles, European statesmen faced
the possibility of a new conflagration. The dust had not yet settled from
the collapse of Austro-Hungarian, German, and Russian Empires, leaving an

Ian Johnson is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the Ohio State University. A Fulbright-Hays
Fellow, he currently lives in Moscow where he is conducting research for his dissertation.
Address correspondence to Ian Johnson, 5216 Hollywood Road, Edina, MN, 55436, USA.
Color versions of one or more of the figures in the article can be found online at www.

Polish-Bolshevik War 157

anarchic space stretching from the Elbe to the Don and the Baltic to the
Black Sea. With national boundaries yet to be determined, war gripped this
vast area. Ethnic conflict, disease, famine, and civil war claimed at least eight
million lives in Eastern Europe and the former Russian Empire between 1918
and 1922. It was in this vacuum that a new specter appeared, threatening to
undermine the precarious post-war balance of power.
By the summer of 1920, the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social
Democratic Labor Party had survived nearly three years of bloody conflict.
At last, the Russian Civil War appeared to be drawing to a close. But as the
last anti-Bolshevik armies disintegrated, a new conflict threatened Lenins
victory. Beginning on 24 April 1920, forces from the newly independent
state of Poland advanced deep into Ukraine and Belarus, making common
cause with anti-Bolshevik forces there. In May 1920, Lenin and Trotsky, then
Commissar for Military Affairs, directed the bulk of the Red Army against this
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new threat. The Red Army outfought and outmaneuvered the Polish Army
over the next three months as Soviet soldiers advanced all the way to the
very gates of Warsaw. The Comintern proclaimed in July 1920 that under the
powerful blows of the Red Army . . . White Guard Poland, the stronghold
of world reaction, is falling. What was ardently desired by all revolutionary
working men and women around the world has come true.1 Statesmen in
Western Europe agreed that Lenins revolution would soon plant its flag over
Poland, though with markedly less enthusiasm.
Perhaps more ominously, Bolshevik forces also seemed ready to sweep
into Germany, igniting revolution and overthrowing the unstable Weimar
Republic. The German working classes stirred as Red Army units reached the
borders of East Prussia, less than two weeks march from Berlin. As historian
Timothy Snyder noted, So long as the Polish-Bolshevik War was underway,
revolutionaries in Germany could imagine that help was coming from the
Red Army.2 As victory followed victory, Lenin and the Bolshevik leadership
in Moscow began debating the merits of invading Germany. Only war-weary
Great Britain and France could halt the Red Army, they concluded. But the
victorious Western powers looked on passively as a decisive battle began
for Warsaw itself. For two weeks in August 1920, the fate of Europe hung in
the balance. What would have happened if the Red Army had succeeded in
taking Warsaw?


The 2006 edited volume Unmaking the West, offers a convincing defense
of the value of the historical counterfactual.3 Editors Philip Tetlock and
S. A. Gorlov, S overx en n o sekret n o : A ln s M oskva B erl in , 19201933 gg . [Top Secret:
Alliance Moscow-Berlin, 19201933],(Olma Press, Moscow, 2001), p. 34.
T. Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, (Random House, New York, 2011), p. 8.
P. E. Tetlock and G. Parker (eds.), Unmaking the West: What-if Scenarios that Rewrite World
History, (University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI, 2006).
158 I. Johnson

Geoffrey Parker contended that all historians, consciously or unconsciously,

use counterfactual analysis to explore causation. While counterfactuals
have a reputation for veering into flights of fancy, with proper guide-
lines a counterfactual thought experiment can offer rich intellectual rewards.
To help bind their volume, they challenged their contributors to follow three
rules: be explicit about how they selected, from the vast universe of possi-
bilities, the pivotal junctures at which history could have been redirected; to
be explicit about the connecting principles they used to draw conclusions;
and to address the objection that counterfactual thought experiments are
hopelessly self serving.4 Finally, they encouraged their authors to follow the
minimal rewrite rule: alter as little as possible.5
This essay uses their guidelines in exploring the Polish-Bolshevik War.
The historical moment of revision here is grounded in one of the most arbi-
trary of historical moments: the chaos of war. While in retrospect, some
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commentators have made broad structural arguments as to why Polish vic-

tory was inevitable, observers at the time were convinced Poland would lose.
Months of defeat and retreat had forced the Poles into a last-ditch defense
of their capital: Victory was hardly certain. The point of departure for this
article is that moment of confusion in mid-August 1920.
In this case, the second guidelinethat of clear causation and
connectionrelatively easy to follow. The French, British, German, and
Soviet governments, assuming Poland would lose in August 1920, began
to maneuver politically and diplomatically, calculating that the Bolsheviks
would occupy all of Poland. As a result, there is a wealth of existing diplo-
matic and military correspondence showing exactly what strategic decisions
the major powers had made in the event of a Russian victory. As a result,
this counterfactual can be founded upon primary sources.
It is hardest to counter the argument that counterfactuals such as this one
inevitably become self-serving. This author can honestly claim to have been
surprised by the course this essay took. The discovery of new primary source
material, particularly material from the British and German national archives,
challenged my initial conclusions. Only when prodded by wise counsel did
I grudgingly revise this article accordingly. That the final product changed
my thinking about German and Russian foreign policy, and in particular, the
Treaty of Versailles, hopefully undermines any charges that the article would
inevitably reach a desired end.

P. E. Tetlock and G. Parker, Counterfactual Thought Experiments in Unmaking the West, pp. 3335.
This requires maintaining the greatest degree of consistency with the actual course of historical
events. The best counterfactuals do not alter anything dependent on human choice. Changing choices
requires changing a counterfactuals protagonists, rendering the exercise for a historian irrelevant. Good
counterfactual analysis seeks to highlight historical forces and figures, rather than undermining them.
Of course, the same is true with general principles of physics, human nature, geography, etc. Instead,
good counterfactuals rely on changing the smallest conceivable details, things that are the most non-linear
in their behavior. In this case, the course of an artillery shell changes the course of history.
Polish-Bolshevik War 159

Finally, it must be asked: Is a counterfactual examination worthwhile

in this case? I would argue that this approach offers unique and fascinating
insights into the strategic situation in Europe in 1920. That moment was a
transformative one, as the last, forgotten battles of World War I were fought
out across Eastern and Central Europe. The national strategies of the major
powers of Europe had yet to be redefined after Versailles. The victorious
Ententes diplomatic unity was already crumbling in the face of American
isolationism, French intransigence over Versailles, and British imperial com-
mitments. The survival of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War had
shocked European observers; diplomats, generals, and politicians alike had
little idea of how to interact with this new, ideological regime. A bewildered
Marshal von Hindenburg complained during negotiations at Brest-Litovsk,
Lenin and Trotsky behaved more like the victors than the vanquished, while
trying to sow the seeds of political dissolution in the rear as well as the ranks
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of our army.6 The general confusion of the traditional European order was
most evident in Germany, with its large communist party, aggressive working
class, cautious political elite, and militantly conservative army. With Germany
in chaos and the Entente withdrawing, there was a genuine possibility that a
Russian victory in Poland would have reignited World War I. In exploring the
Battle of Warsaw, this essay will offer new conclusions about the landscape
of post-1918 Europe.

Warsaw, 1920
Signed in Paris a year before the Battle of Warsaw, the Treaty of Versailles
attempted to redraw the map of Europe. The victors had two goals: weaken
Germany and draw new, nationally determined borders along the basic
principles of self-determination. They achieved the first goal by stripping
Germany of 13 percent of its territory and 7 million inhabitants and demand-
ing reparations. In addition, they forcibly demobilized the German post-war
army down to 2.2 percent of its 1918 strength: It was to be a force of only
100,000 men, without the use of modern technologies of war. In addition, the
Entente established a committee of military officers, the Interallied Control
Commission (IACC), to begin systematically demilitarizing German industry,
destroying factories that had made weapons during the war, and eliminating
Germanys huge stockpiles of munitions. The goal was to make Germany
incapable of waging war.
The second goal was pursued with less passion. The Allies held a series
of plebiscites throughout Europe between 1919 and 1921 to redraw national
boundaries in accordance with the wishes of the people.7 Of course, where

P. Von Hindenburg, Out of My Life (1920), Reprint, Forgotten Books, London, 2013, pp. 334335.
Of course, many Pro-German areas lost by Germany or Austria were not allowed to hold similar
plebiscitesthe Sudetenland is perhaps the most glaring example.
160 I. Johnson

they encountered German populations, the Allies sometimes ignored the

desires of the local population. No referenda were held in the Sudetenland,
Alsace and Lorraine, the Saar, Danzig or Posen [Poznan in Polish].8 The Allied
commissioners also found it impossible to do their work in Eastern Europe:
The Russian Civil War and the presence of large numbers of German troops
effectively blocked potential plebiscites.
Throughout Eastern Europe, local populations did not wait on the
Western Allies for assistance. The Poles had already begun moving toward
independence before the conclusion of the war. As German fortunes waned
on the Western Front, the puppet government the Germans had set up in
Warsaw declared Polands independence on 7 October 1918. Within a mat-
ter of weeks, three competing republics had formed: one led by socialists,
one by communists, and one headed by the regency council.9 Into this vac-
uum stepped Josef Pilsudski. A former guerilla fighter who had organized
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bands of resistance against Russian rule in Poland, he had served in the

armies of the Central Powers, leading a Polish legion against the Russians.
By 1917, he believed Germanys defeat was inevitable, and demanded spe-
cial conditions from German leadership in order to keep his soldiers in the
field.10 The German High Command imprisoned him for his insubordina-
tion until late in the war. But as defeat approached, they released Pilsudski.
Immediately upon his return to Warsaw, the Polish regency councila
German creationappointed Pilsudski head of state.
Almost immediately, conflict broke out on all sides of Poland.11 In
November 1918, a popular uprising exploded in Western Ukraine, an area
with large Polish and Ukrainian populations. The city of Lwow, a Polish
city surrounded by a Ukrainian hinterland, became the scene of a six-
month back-and-forth struggle between Ukrainian and Polish irregulars.
Poles in Poznan launched a national uprising against Germany in December.
In January 1919 a war broke out over disputed borderlands contested by
both Poland and Czechoslovakia.
The new Polish state had no defined borders, little central adminis-
tration, and no standing army. Pilsudski set the creation of a military as
his highest priority. Seeing the lack of clear frontiers as an advantage,
Pilsudski launched offensives with newly organized Polish Army units into
disputed areas of Ukraine. At the time, Ukraine was in the throes of anar-
chy, divided between competing Ukrainian factions, White Russian forces

With Posen, some of the German majority districts were ceded to East Prussia after a referendum.
However, the vast majority of the territory was handed over to Poland by the Allies without a referendum.
Almost 40 percent of the population was German-speaking in 1918, though many of these were German-
speaking Poles or Jews.
N. Davies, White Eagle, Red Star:The Polish-Soviet War, 191920, (Macdonald Publishing, London,
1972), p. 20.
Ibid., p. 20.
Ibid., pp. 5859.
Polish-Bolshevik War 161

and pro-Bolshevik forces. Moving far beyond traditionally Polish areas,

Pilsudskis army soon became embroiled in the Russian Civil War in what
is now Ukraine and Belarus in April and May 1920.12
Pilsudskis advance was poorly timed. Lenin and the Bolsheviks had
turned the tide against their Entente and White Russian adversaries in late
1919.13 White Russian General Alexander Kolchak had been captured and
killed in February 1920, and Anton Denikins forces no longer posed a
significant threat. As a result, when the Poles boldly advanced and took
Kiev on 7 May 1920, they began encountering tough opposition in the
form of veteran Red Army units.14 Between January and May 1920, Red
Army strength facing the Poles increased 500 percent; by May, it numbered
20 infantry divisions and five cavalry brigades.15 As Red Army forces concen-
trated against Pilsudskis forces, the Polish advance slowed and halted. The
Polish Armys triumphal occupation of Kiev would last only a month, from
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7 May to 13 June. On 4 July, senior Red Army General Mikhail Tukhachevsky

launched a massive counteroffensive.16 Polish forces soon found themselves
outnumbered and far from their supply depots. The front collapsed as Red
Army forces advanced more than 500 miles in less than five weeks.
By 10 August 1920, the fate of Poland hung by a thread (see Figure 1).
The Red Army moved westwards at a rate of over 20 miles a day in July.17
Tukhachevskys primary objective was Warsaw, but as the front dissolved in
front of them, senior Red Army commanders began to contemplate the pos-
sibility of overturning the entire European order. As the advance gathered
steam, Tukhachevsky issued orders that exhorted his soldiers to advance
To the West! Over the corpse of White Poland lies the road to world-
wide conflagration.18 The Battle for Warsaw would a struggle for European

The Counterfactual: A Defeated Poland

A slight change in the course of events offers a glimpse at an entirely different
world. This alternate universe begins with a big bang. In 1916, during the
height of the Brusilov offensive, Colonel Jan Kowalewski was serving in

E. Mawdsley, The Russian Civil War, (Pegasus Books, New York, 2007), p. 250.
Ibid., p. 251.
For more details on the campaign leading up to the battle, the Polish Armys Wojskowe Biuro
Historyczne [Military History Bureau] produced an official, multi-volume history of the battle, Bitwa
warszawska [Battle of Warsaw] in 1935, which contains details on the summer campaign of 1920.
N. Davies, op. cit., p. 87.
I should add that it was far from a continuous front: Manpower and materiel shortages, coupled
with limited logistics, made a World War I-style front impossible.
M. S. Neiberg and D. Jordan, The Eastern Front 19141920: From Tannenberg to the Russo-Polish
War, (Amber Books, London, 2008), p. 218.
C. Fischer, Europe between Democracy and Dictatorship: 19001945, John Wiley and Sons,
Hoboken, NJ, 2011, p. 124.
162 I. Johnson
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FIGURE 1 The strategic situation, August 1920.

the Tsarist Armies as an officer of engineers on the Eastern Front.19 In our

fictitious world, this future head of the Polish Cipher Bureau is killed by a
stray artillery shell that hits his command post during the Brusilov offensive
in 1916.20 This accords with the counterfactual minimal rewrite rule: Given
the high death rate for Russian combat officers and his four years of service,
Kowalewskis survival was, statistically, about as probable as his death.

For more on Kowalewski and his role in the Battle of Warsaw, see R. Woytak, Colonel Kowalewski
and the Origins of Polish Code Breaking and Communication Interception, East European Quarterly XXI
(4) (1988), pp. 497500, and J. Bury, Polish Codebreaking During the Russo-Polish War of 19191920,
Cryptologia 28(3) (2004) pp. 193203.
A chemist by training, Kowalewski was drafted into the Tsarist Army in 1914. He served in the
Engineering and Signal corps, seeing combat across the Eastern Front. By 1918, he had risen to the
position of chief intelligence officer in a Polish-majority division. With the arrival of Polish independence,
he remained mobilized, fighting against Ukrainian and White Russian forces in 1919. Experimenting with
codes and ciphers out of boredom, he managed to decipher a number of communiques exchanged by
Ukrainian and White Russian forces. Impressed, his superiors sent him back to Warsaw to work in military
intelligence. He assembled a crack team who would break Red Army communiques beginning in 1919.
These men would provide the intelligence that enabled the Miracle on the Vistula.
Polish-Bolshevik War 163

During the Polish-Bolshevik War, Kowalewski played a critical role

in the breaking of Soviet ciphers, a decisive factor in the Polish victory.
Organizing a team of mathematicians and students to decipher the huge
quantity of Russian radio traffic, Kowalewski succeeded in creating an effec-
tive intelligence organization. Shortly before the Battle of Warsaw, the Polish
Cipher Bureau was able to inform the Polish Army that a gap had opened
between the Soviet left and center. Pilsudskis highly competent chief of
staff, Tadeusz Rozwadowski, masterminded a counteroffensive into the gap,
driving a wedge between the Soviet 16th and 1st Cavalry Armies. In the
counterfactual, Kowalewskis death prevents this intelligence from reaching
Pilsudski.21 As the Red Army races toward Warsaw, the Polish General Staff
is never informed of the growing gap between Tukhachevskys armies.
As dawn breaks on the morning of 12 August Pilsudski faces the Red
Army on the Vistula without being aware of this gap in Tukhachevskys lines.
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As the British ambassador noted, the Polish troops have been offering only
feeble resistance and are now endeavoring to concentrate for the defense
of the capital.22 Instead of a Polish counterattack to the south, Pilsudski
engineers an attack against the Soviet center moving against Warsaw.23
Outnumbered and facing elements of four Soviet Armies, the brave Polish
counterattack fails. Tukhachevskys forces pass into the Lower Vistula valley
on 18 August, and by 20 August 20 encircle the First and Fifth Polish Armies
in Warsaw from the north.
Pilsudski, already criticized heavily for his Ukrainian adventure and for
his war leadership, resigns from his military command in disgrace. The Polish
civilian leadership evacuates the city.24 A confused succession leaves the
Polish government in chaos, as units south of Warsaw begin a haphazard
retreat toward the Czechoslovak border. By the end of August, the outcome
is apparent. A bloody siege of Warsaw follows, but Red Army forces capture
the city by the first week of September. Their plans for Warsaw were clear:
The Bolsheviks have . . . set up Soviets at Bialystok, Lomza and Tarnopol,
thereby furnishing an indication of the procedure they would follow if they
succeeded in capturing Warsaw.25 Julian Marchlewski, assigned by Lenin

It is, of course, possible that aerial reconnaissance or forces on the ground could have perceived
this gap in front of them. What was vital, however, was the fact that the Cipher Bureau informed Pilsudski
very early of the hole in Soviet lines, giving the Polish General Staff several days to shift troops behind
the lines and prepare for a counter-offensive.
Sir H. Rumbold, Sir H. Rumbold to Lord Curzon, Despatch No. 521, 16 August 1920, FO 688/6,
207211 (BNA), p. 2.
Ibid., pp. 15.
This evacuation of parts of the government (and Polands national archives) to Poznan had already
begun when Pilsudski won his great triumph. Sir H. Rumbold, Telegram to Foreign Office No. 655,
6 August 1920, FO 688/6, 75 (BNA), p. 1. However, the civilian leadership bravely refused to leave the
city even when defeat seemed likely because they felt that the army needed as much encouragement as
possible. H. Rumbold, Sir H. Rumbold to Lord Curzon, Despatch No. 521.
Ibid., p. 7.
164 I. Johnson

to head the Polish Provisional Revolutionary Committee, enters Warsaw in

triumph as the head of the new Polish Soviet Socialist Republic.26

Over the Corpse of Poland

For the Bolsheviks, Poland was only a step on the road to world revolu-
tion. As early as April 1920, Lenin had begun talking about an invasion of
Germany.27 He noted that spring, before the major offensive against Poland,
that the Bolsheviks would soon be probing Europe with the bayonets of the
Red Army.28 That meant Germany.
Two years before, the Second German Reich collapsed under the weight
of its defeat. A revolution began in December 1918, as communists attempted
to seize major cities throughout the country. Five bloody months later,
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right-wing Freikorps units nominally loyal to the Weimar Republic finished

suppressing the last of the communist revolutionaries. Peace was not to last
long. In early 1920, right-wing military officers led by Wolfgang Kapp seized
control of the government in Berlin.29 Simultaneously, another communist
uprising broke out in the Ruhr.
After the suppression of both left and right, uneasy peace again reigned
during the summer of 1920. The German Communist Party (KPD) remained
well organized and popular, despite the failure of their uprisings. Most of
the KPDs most prominent leaderssuch as Paul Levi, Walther Ulbricht, Paul
Frlich, Ernest Meyer, and Ernst Thlmannwere alive and in positions of
responsibility in 1920.30 The KPD received over 600,000 votes in the Weimar
elections in 1920 without standing any candidates or even attempting to
participate.31 They would receive consistent 10 percent to 12 percent support

Marchlewski was already with Tukhachevskys armies in July 1920 and was waiting for this very
entry into the city. N. Davies, op. cit., p. 153.
A. P. Schmid and E. Berends, Social Defence and Soviet Military Power: An Inquiry into the
Relevance of an Alternative Defence Concept, (Center for the Study of Social Conflict [COMT], State
University of Leiden, Leiden, The Netherlands, 1985), p. 158.
D. Schumann, Politische Gewalt in der Weimarer Republic, 19181933: Kampf und die Strasse und
Furcht vor dem Brgerkrieg [Political Violence in the Weimar Republic, 19181933: Struggle and the Path
and Fear of Civil War], (Klartext Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, Essen, Germany, 2001), p. 34. The Kapp Putsch
had a number of interesting connections to Russia. First, a number of White Russian migrs in Berlin,
recently fled from the Russian Civil War, backed Kapp, mostly because of his anti-communism. To Lenin,
the Kapp Putsch resembled the Kornilov Affair, an event that had provided the Bolsheviks with critical
momentum. In particular, the Putsch had discredited the moderate socialist left, provided an excuse to
arm the workers, and had also helped the Bolsheviks win the Petrograd Soviet elections in August 1917.
This proved to be perhaps the critical step toward the October Revolution. Given the Marxist view of
history, Lenin saw the two events as parallels, a harbinger of the revolution soon to come in Germany.
D. Schumann, p. 3435.
Wahlen in der Weimarer Republik [Elections in the Weimar Republic], Deutscher Bundestag,
Administration of the German Bundestag, Research Section WD 1, March 2006. https://www.bundestag.
Polish-Bolshevik War 165

from the German electorate throughout the Weimar period.32 This level of
support made the KPD the largest communist party outside of the Soviet
In the fall of 1920, the German army was in the final stages of demobi-
lizing in accordance with the Treaty of Versailles.33 From its wartime strength
of almost 5 million, the German army was to be reduced to 100,000, orga-
nized into 10 divisions, and banned from possessing aircraft, tanks, and other
advanced technologies.34 The Kapp Putsch delayed disarmament, which
was supposed to be completed by 31 March 1920. By October 1920 the
Reichswehr (the name of the German Army from 1919 to 1935) had been
reduced to 190,000 men, with disproportionate numbers in administrative
and transport positions.35 Further, the Weimar Republic also passed a national
disarmament law to try to bring both the Freikorps and militant Communists
under tighter government control. Beginning on 7 August 1920, anyone not
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in uniform caught with a firearm could be summarily shot.36

The new Germany was in a fragile state in 1920. In 1918, the Weimar
Republic had been saved by the Freikorps and the German Army, neither
of which bore the Republic any love. By 1920, those two groups had been
dramatically weakened through disarmament and demobilization. Across the
border sat a force larger than anything the Weimar Republic could muster in
its own defense. The Red Army in Poland had an effective combat strength
of 160,000 by July 1920.37 That figure does not include forces fighting in the
Ukraine and against other White Russian forces. On paper, the Red Army
mustered a force of 4.6 million men, though only a small portion of these
would have been combat effective in late 1920.38 The Red Army would have
possessed considerable numerical superiority to the German army units it

For more on German demobilization, see R. J. Shuster, German Disarmament after World War I:
The Diplomacy of International Arms Inspection 19201931, (Routledge, London, 2006).
Yale Law School. The Avalon Project, The Treaty of Versailles, 2008,
subject_menus/versailles_menu.asp (accessed 16 October 2012).
General Von Seeckts Statement on German Disarmament at the Spa Conference, 7 July 1920, The
Cabinet Papers (CAB) 24/108, 94, The British National Archives (BNA), pp. 16. According to the German
government, disarmament proceeded at the following pace: 10 October 1920: 190,000 men in uniform;
10 January 1921: 180,000; 10 April 1921: 160,000; July 1921: 130,000.
Gesetz ber die Entwaffnung der Bevlkerung [Law on the Disarmament of the Population,
Weimarer Republik: Der historischen Dokumenten, 7 August 1920,
1920/bevoelkerung-entwaffnung_ges.html (accessed 12 October 2011).
M. Tukhachevski, The March Beyond the Vistula, reprinted in J. Pilsudski, Year 1920 and Its
Climax: Battle of Warsaw during the Polish-Soviet War, 19191920, (Pilsudski Institute of America,
New York, 1972), p. 273.
E. Mawdsley, op. cit., p. 258. Of these, only a small portion were trained, well armed, and well
organized; most were partisans or militia.
166 I. Johnson


In early August 1920, German leaders were faced with a difficult proposi-
tion. The Treaty of Versailles was almost unendurable to senior officers of
the German Reichswehr. Entente troops occupied the Rhineland, Silesia, and
parts of East Prussia. The idea of rearming and fighting a war to overthrow
Germanys treaty obligations appealed strongly to the officer class. Entente
hostility to the Bolsheviks led to increasingly pro-Bolshevik sympathies
among the hardline conservative leadership of the post-war German military,
the Reichswehr. After the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, sympathy turned
to action as senior German officers quietly approached representatives of the
Bolshevik state to discuss mutual aid.39
One of the first means of communication between the two states
was Ismail Enver Pasha, the former Turkish minister of war.40 He had
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worked closely with the Germans during the war and was a close asso-
ciate of General Hans von Seeckt, who became commander in chief of the
Reichswehr in 1920. When he was forced into exile in 1918, he sought refuge
in Germany. In April 1919, using as an excuse negotiations over Soviet mili-
tary aid to Turkey, he traveled from Berlin to Moscow over a warzone.41 But
given his status in Turkey, his real mission was to reach out to the Bolshevik
leadership on behalf of the Reichswehr. To that end, he arranged to meet
with Leon Trotsky, then Commissar of Military Affairs, on the Reichswehrs
behalf.42 He wrote back to General Seeckt on 26 August 1920, to note his

Today I spoke with . . . Trotsky. With him theres a faction that has real
power, and also includes that party that stands for an understanding with
Germany. That party would be willing to acknowledge the old German
borders of 1914.43

The origins of German-Soviet cooperation are a little murky. But it is clear that there were two
main channels between the two states in 1919: Enver Pasha and Viktor Kopp, a Soviet diplomat who
had been sent to negotiate the release of Russian POWs still held by Germany.
E. Pasha, Hans von Seeckt-Enver Pasha Korrespondenz, 19201921, in General F. von Rabenau,
Hans von Seeckt: Aus Seinem Leben (19181936) [Hans von Seeckt: From His Life], Hass und Koehler,
Leipzig, 1940, pp. 306308. Von Seeckt had served in Turkey from 1917 as the Chief of Staff of the Turkish
Armed Forces on behalf of the German Military. In that position, he had become friends with Enver Pasha,
who was then Minister of War. Von Seeckt apparently did not disapprove of the Armenian Genocide as it
went on, as he believed improved national unity might aid the Ottoman Empires war effort. Enver Pasha
was the architect of that policy, initiating the mass deportations of Armenians on Turkish soil.
Ibid., p. 306. His first attempt to get there involved a plane crash and a harrowing escape across a
warzone. His arrival in Moscow was the conclusion of the second attempt.
Ibid., p. 307.
Ibid., p. 307. Enver Pasha led a strange life from 1918 to 1922. He flew to negotiate arms deals
between the Soviet Union and Turkey, as well as to feel out the possibility that the Soviets would grant
the Central Asian Republics independence. But he soon discovered he was unwelcome back in Turkey
by the nationalists led by Mustafa Kemal. With no country to negotiate for, he offered his services to the
Bolsheviks in suppressing the Basmachi revolt in Uzbekistan. Upon arrival, he defected to the rebellion,
Polish-Bolshevik War 167

With these positive signs from Moscow, discreet diplomatic exchanges

began, often in private homes or clubs in Germany.44 The talks centered
on Poland, the possibility of new economic opportunities between the two
states, the status of POWs, and embargoed German vessels in Russian har-
bors. As they proceeded, the Reichswehr began passing intelligence on the
Polish Army to the Soviets, beginning in 1920.45 When the Krupp Corporation
sought out a semi-legal deal to sell locomotives to the Soviet Government,
General Seeckt assisted them in transferring money through Sweden and
shipping their finished products through the Baltic States.46
When German exchanges with the Soviet Union began, the Bolshevik
Government was in the midst of a desperate struggle with White Russian,
Entente, and Polish forces.47 But by August 1920, the situation had changed.
The Bolsheviks stood poised to take Warsaw and reach Germanys borders.
In this difficult moment, the leading figures of the Weimar Republic were
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torn. General Ludendorff, among others, hoped to form a coalition against

the Bolsheviks. To that end, at the Spa Conference in July 1920, German
Chancellor Constantin Fehrenbach requested that Germany be allowed to
retain a standing army of 200,000 men, rather than 100,000, in order to
repel any Communist incursion.48 The Allies refused. At that juncture, the
Ost faction, particularly within the Reichswehr, gained the upper hand.
General Seeckt, head of the Reichswehr, was among the leaders of
the pro-Bolshevik clique within the government.49 The Polish-Bolshevik War
made his attitude clear for the first time. Beginning in July 1920, Bolshevik
forces increasingly strayed across the borders of East Prussia as they fought
the Polish army. In response, Seeckt gave strict orders that all Reichswehr
officers must avoid any conflict with Russia or even the outward display
of a hostile attitude towards Russia. On the other hand, any cooperation or
assistance towards representatives and troops of the Entente Powers must

declared himself a representative of the Prophet Muhammad and Emir of Bukhara, and attempted to
create a Pan-Turanian Empire in Central Asia. After 10 months, and some victories, he was killed by Red
Army troops.
A. Heywood, Modernizing Lenins Russia: Economic Reconstruction, Foreign Trade and the
Railways, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999, pp. 7071. These initially involved junior German
foreign ministry personnel or junior Reichswehr officers and Russian expatriates that had been contacted
by the Bolsheviks.
Report, Polish Military Mission to the Supreme Allied Command, 7 July 1920, Box 3, Folder 2,
pp. 1018, Instytut Jzefa Pisudskiego w Ameryce in New York (IJP-NYC), pp. 18.
Geschftliche Beziehungen der Firma Krupp mit der Sowjet-Regierung in Russland in den
Nachkriegsjahren [Krupps Business Relations with the Soviet Government in Russia in the Post-War
Years], WA/40 B 1350, Kruppisches Archiv, Essen (KA), p. 1.
In 1919, Red Army forces were fighting American, Armenian, Austrian, Azerbaijani, British, Czech,
Estonian, French, Finnish, Latvian, Lithuanian, German, Georgian, Japanese, Polish, Turkish, Ukrainian
and of course, Russiansoldiers.
S. A. Gorlov, op. cit., p. 34.
Hans von Seeckt had come to the conclusion that Germany ought to work alongside Russia
sometime in 1919. He had served on the Eastern Front for most of the First World War and done some
political work in newly independent Ukraine after the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
168 I. Johnson

be avoided . . .50 He went on to note that members of the military or

general public openly supporting White Russian or Anti-Bolshevik forces
should be taken into protective custody.51 Seeckt outwardly obeyed orders
relayed from Chancellor Fehrenbach and Minister of Defense Otto Gessler for
strict neutrality in the Polish-Bolshevik conflict. But his version of German
neutrality clearly favored the Bolsheviks.52 Indeed, the Polish government
consistently complained to the Allies that the German military, as it withdrew
from Eastern Europe in 1919 and 1920, provided material aid to Bolshevik
forces, looted local towns, and even attacked Polish garrisons.53
When Seeckt believed the Red Army had defeated the Poles, he made
his position vis--vis the Soviets clear. He penned a memo to his senior
officers on 8 August, beginning by stating that he had heard the rumors:

The Russian victory over Poland has aroused moods and hopes within
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the German military which blur our possible courses of action at this
time. Notably, it has revived the idea that Germany could overthrow the
Treaty of Versailles with the help of Russian Armies in Poland, waging a
new war against the Entente.54

Had the Bolsheviks triumphed in front of Warsaw, as this counterfactual

proposes, this wishful thinking within the military might have become a
strategic option. Might Germany have torn up the Treaty of Versailles, retaken
its lost Eastern territories, and dared the Entente to wage war to enforce the
punitive post-war settlement?

The Soviet Decision

While Seeckt and Fehrenbachs government contemplated their options,
Lenin and the Soviet leadership also faced a choice after the counterfactual
victory at Warsaw. Germany was ripe for revolution. But the threat of a
H. von Seeckt, Fernschreiben vom offizier an offizier [Telegram from Officer to Officer, 23 July
1920, GFM 33/3591 (BNA), p. 1.
Interestingly, this was not true of the entire German government. Members of the German Foreign
Ministry and some of the civilian leaders of East Prussia hoped for a Polish victory in the Polish-Bolshevik
war (Memo, 6 August 1920, Auswaertiges Amt, GFM 33/3591, (BNA). But it is clear that many members
of the political right, especially within the military, were more concerned about a defeat for the Entente,
as well as the possibility of regaining lost territories in the East, than they were about the possibility of a
Bolshevik invasion of Germany. News of Tukhachevskys offer to return lost German territories doubtless
reinforced their view that the Bolsheviks were more friend than enemy.
Colonel H. H. Wade, Cipher Telegram to Mr. Balfour, 18 January 1919, Foreign Office Records
(FO) 608/266, 196, British National Archives at Kew (BNA), p. 1. Colonel Wade described the fighting:
At Zlotnik . . . the Poles captured 4 guns and at Labitchin . . . they took 100 prisoners, and at Shubin . . .
Poles compelled an armoured train to retire and claimed to have taken several hundred prisoners and
much materiel (p. 1).
H. von Seeckt, Memorandum, 8 August 1920, RH2-29/1, Bundesarchiv-Militrarchiv, Freiburg im
Breisgau (BA-MA), pp. 12.
Polish-Bolshevik War 169

general war loomed: Allied troops occupied the Rhineland and monitored
the plebiscites on Germanys eastern boundaries.55 At the same time, the
Soviet state was unable to feed its own people, let alone fight a major
war against the victors of World War I. Would Lenin have given General
Tukhachevsky orders to invade Germany? Or would he have favored the
alliance that the German military so desired?
During the summer of 1920, as events proceeded rapidly in Poland,
Lenin was busy with the Second World Congress of the Comintern in
Moscow. It became clear to those around him that he was struggling with
the question of how boldly to export the Revolution. In the critical months of
1920, Lenin and the Politburo swung back and forth between the two great
strains of Soviet foreign policy: permanent revolution and peaceful coex-
istence. Lenins first goal was to safeguard the revolution in Russia. Even
in the summer of 1920, Wrangel and a White Army continued to operate in
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Ukraine, and some 70,000 Japanese soldiers cooperated with the remnants
of Kolchaks army in Siberia.
Lenins opening speech to the Congress on 19 July 1920 revealed his
priorities: His address centered on Germany and Western Europe.56 Shortly
thereafter, two French Communists asked Lenin how quickly the Red Army
would move forward into Central Europe. Lenin replied,

If Poland gives itself to Communism, the universal revolution would

take a decisive step. He stops, seems to reflect, then thinking out loud,
Yes, Soviets in Warsaw, it would mean Germany shortly falling due. . . .
It would mean bourgeois Europe cracking apart.57

A few days later, he made a similar statement, thinking half out-loud:

Should we stop at the frontiers? Declare Peace? It is vain to imagine this!58
He then added that if uprisings did not occur in Poland and the military
situation proceeded badly, he remained opposed to sking a dangerous
turn of events.59
While he mused on Poland, Lenin proceeded both diplomatically and
militarily. In mid-July, as their troops advanced, the Bolsheviks began

Silesia and Danzig were two of the most important Entente occupation zones in the aftermath of
World War I, each hosting thousands of allied soldiers. Relatively little has been written about either.
For more, see N. Beaupr, Occuper lAllemagne aprs 1918 [The Occupation of Germany after 1918],
Revue Historique des Armes (254) (2009), p. 919. Also of value is T. Hunt Tooley, National Identity
and Weimar Germany: Upper-Silesia and the Eastern Border 19181922, (University of Nebraska Press,
Lincoln, NE, 1997).
V. I. Lenin, First Session Speech, Second Congress of the Communist International. Minutes of the
Proceedings, (Publishing House of the Communist International, Moscow, 1921), p. 1.
T. Fiddick, Russias Retreat from Poland: From Permanent Revolution to Peaceful Coexistence,
Macmillan Press, London, 1990, p. 122.
Ibid., p. 123.
Ibid., pp. 123124.
170 I. Johnson

negotiations with the Western Allies through two diplomats stationed in

London.60 They offered to halt any continued offensive action against the
Poles in exchange for Versailles-like impositions against the Poles: the dis-
bandment of most of the Polish Army, limitations on arms, and potential
reparations for soldiers.61 Yet simultaneously, Lenin sent a constant stream of
telegrams to the front (particularly to Stalin, then a commissar on the front
lines) with orders for aggressive action; he told Stalin on 12 July to hasten
orders for a furious intensification of the offensive.62 These contradictory
policies revealed another consistent theme in Soviet foreign policy: fighting
while negotiating.63 They also showcase Lenins own caution: He planned to
export Communism into Central Europe so long as the military situation was
favorable. If Tukhachevsky had taken Warsaw in August 1920, would Lenin
have stopped at the frontiers? Despite Lenins exhortation that it was vain
to imagine such a scenario, would a revolutionary spark in Germany have
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drawn the Red Army across the German border?

In July 1920, a ferocious debate raged in Moscow: how far to continue
the westward offensive of the Red Army. A Polish intelligence document,
purportedly from a member of the senior ranks of the Soviet Politburo, noted
the following:

On July 6, in Moscow, at the Kremlin, a meeting of the Commissioners

of War with Poland took place. . . . Trotsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev and
Soviet generals stood on one side [for war] while those leaning in the
direction of peace included Lenin, Chicherin, Krassin, Radek and the
present author. Trotsky demanded exploiting the effects of offensive until
the very end, bringing the offensive to the west as far as possible, and
bringing it to the edge of Germany; he argued that inciting rebellion in
revolutionary Germany would be a trifle.64

For the side in favor of a possible invasion of Germany to triumph in

the Politburo, three requisites would be necessary. First, a popular uprising

Peace Negotiations between Poland and Russia, July 1920, FO 688/6, 7 (BNA), p. 1.
E. F. Ziemke, The Red Army, 19181941: From Vanguard of World Revolution to Americas Ally,
(Routledge, New York, 2001), p. 124.
Negotiating while fighting, used extensively in the Russian Civil War, would become a staple of
communist diplomacy the world over. Given the lack of respect for diplomatic norms and the view
that capitalist regimes were fundamentally illegitimate, communist regimes often dangled the prospect of
peace while their militaries continued aggressive operations in an effort to weaken enemy resolve. This
strategy would be used again by Stalin against Japan, by Mao in the Chinese Civil War, by Kim Il-Sung in
North Korea, and most famously, by the North Vietnamese government during the Vietnam War.
Memorandum: Do Adjutantury Generalnej [Memo: To the Adjutant General], 29 July 1920, Box 2,
Folio 26, 296-300 (IJP-NYC), pp. 12. The letter from which this was drawn does not disclose any
classified information and urges Poland to surrender to the Soviets, as the author claims that the Soviet
Union desires only peaceful relations with its neighbors. It seems that the letter was approved by senior
Bolsheviks before being sent.
Polish-Bolshevik War 171

in Germany would serve to justify the Red Armys intervention and convince
Lenin that the Red Army would likely succeed militarily. Second, the Red
Army would need to be in a condition to launch another major offensive.
It would not have been able to do so in the early fall of 1920. Finally, Lenin
would have needed some confidence that the Allies would not respond with
direct military force.
The possibility of another German Communist uprising remained high.
It was a real enough threat that the Allied Commissioners in the Rhineland
discussed reaction plans among themselves during the summer of 1920.65
Two revolutions had taken place between 1918 and 1920; a third, with major
Bolshevik forces so close, seemed inevitable. Indeed, as the Second World
Congress of the Comintern drew to a close in Moscow, the German delegates
suggested to Lenin that they should host the next Congress in a soon-to-be
Communist Berlin.66
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The second requirement for action would have been the capabilities of
the Red Army. The military condition of the Red Army would have required
a halt, possibly for several months before they could cross the frontiers.
In reality, the end of the war against Poland, made official by an armistice in
October, meant the diversion of resources against Wrangel and the last of the
White Armies. The campaign in Crimea was a brief one: Wrangel made plans
to evacuate his forces as soon as he heard of the Polish-Soviet armistice.
On 28 October 1920, General Mikhail Frunze led some 130,000 Red Army
soldiers against Wrangels forces, who were allowed to retreat in good order;
the last White Russian combat units had left the Crimea by 16 November.67
This concluded the operations-level fighting in the Russian Civil War. A vic-
tory over Poland would have required an identical campaign, taking place,
perhaps, on a slightly earlier timeline.
It is difficult to assess the real combat strength of the Red Army in
the fall of 1920. More than 4.6 million men were in uniform, but only
1.8 million were organized into units, and only 600,000 were classified as
combat effective.68 Gaining a proper understanding of the relative balance
of forces between the Bolsheviks and the Western Powers is critical to this
counterfactual exercise. A Soviet victory in Poland would have left the Third,
Fourth, Fifteenth, and Sixteenth Armies on Polish soil, plus the 57th Infantry
Division and some independent cavalry units.69 Trotsky moved a number of
key divisions that had fought in the Polish campaign to fight in the Crimea
after the Polish-Bolshevik War concluded. In July, the forces on Polish soil

M. Pawley, The Watch on the Rhine: The Military Occupation of the Rhineland, (I. B. Tauris
Publishers, London, 1997), p. 22.
O. Ruhle, Report from Moscow, 3rd International Congress, 1920, Communist Library, 2 December
E. F. Ziemke, op. cit., p. 132.
Ibid., p. 136.
J. Pilsudski, op. cit., p. 273.
172 I. Johnson

units had a total strength of some 160,238 men.70 The inclusion of other
units that fought against Wrangel in Crimea would have added an additional
133,000 combat effectives.71 Adding soldiers soon to be transferred back to
European Russia from the two armies stationed in the Caucasus would have
added 70,000 more.72 Given how long troop transfers took between Crimean
and Western Fronts, it is unlikely that this force could have been concen-
trated before mid-November at the earliest. In total, this force would have
numbered around 360,000 combat effectives.
Thus, if a Communist revolution broke out in Germany between mid-
August and mid-November, it likely would have failed. A weakened Red
Army, still recuperating from a victorious campaign against Warsaw, would
have been unlikely to intervene in Germany. Any Bolshevik intervention
would have had to take place after mid-November 1920. Even then, stretched
supply lines would have made offensive action difficult without a great deal
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of support from within Germany.

But there was another option open to Lenin: that of a defensive alliance
with Germany against the Entente. This was the more-realistic choice than
a full-scale invasion of Germany. Lenin noted that the destruction of the
Versailles system was almost as important as the outbreak of the Communist
Revolution in Germany.73 Looking back wistfully at the international situation
in 1920, Lenin once noted that if Poland had become a soviet country . . .
the Versailles treaty would have been destroyed and the whole international
system established by the [Allies] victories over Germany would have been
destroyed along with it.74 Given the growing economic and diplomatic ties
between Germany and Russia in 1920, such an alliance would have appealed
to Lenin, particularly as it would also provide stable and safe borders to
Russias west.
The senior staff of the Red Army favored a pro-German alliance.75
Mikhail Tukhachevsky had gone so far in July 1920 as to offer the German
government an immediate restoration of its eastern borders.76 Such a pledge
was well beyond his authority and must have come down from Moscow. The
Red Army was already in possession of some of Germanys former territories
E. Mawdsley, op. cit., p. 269.
Ibid., p. 222.
V. I. Lenin, Lenin on the War with Poland, 2 October 1920, in X. J. Eudin and H. H. Fisher, Soviet
Russia and the West, 19201927: A Documentary Survey, (Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 1957),
pp. 6061.
Ibid., p. 60.
The warm relations that developed between the German and Soviet officer corps between 1920 and
1933 were one of the major reasons why Stalin would purge his most competent officers during the army
purges in 19371938. Hitler, too, mistrusted the officers who backed continued cooperation with the
Soviets. Officers like von Schleicher and von Hammerstein-Equord were assassinated or removed from
C. Fischer, op. cit., p. 124. He was not the only one. Diplomat Viktor Kopp made a similar offer to
the Germans in August 1920, further highlighting the seriousness of the Soviet offer.
Polish-Bolshevik War 173

around East Prussia when Tukhachevsky sent his communique, suggesting

the seriousness of the proposal.77

The Entente Reaction

In Berlin and Moscow, factions debated between aggressive and defensive
action. In Paris and London, the range of policy choices was more limited.
Already, by the summer of 1920, the Entente powers no longer spoke with
one voice on international policy. In Eastern Europe, Great Britain rapidly
swung toward minimal commitment; Lloyd George was perhaps the least
anti-Bolshevik head of state in Europe in 1919 and the first to approach the
Bolsheviks with a public renewal of trade ties.78 On the French side, Prime
Ministers Clemenceau (in office from November 1917 to January 1920) and
Millerand (January 1920 to September 1920) were much more hostile to
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Bolshevik ambitions, in part because they both feared a Bolshevik alliance

with Germany might reignite a general European war.79
Of all the major figures in European politics, the most aggressive anti-
Bolshevik was Marshal Ferdinand Foch. As President of the Allied Military
Committee of Versailles, he sought to intervene directly on behalf of Poland.80
His zeal was considerable: On 3 July 1920, at a conference in Brussels,
Foch physically cornered British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and
Field Marshal Henry Wilson to demand to know what aid the Entente would
provide to Poland. Lloyd George expressed his reservations but laid out some
requirements he considered appropriate. Foch was apparently dissatisfied;
Prime Minister Millerand, who was also in the room, felt it necessary to
personally walk over and intervene in the conversation.81
The first French aid to Poland came in the form of Hallers army, a
large force of Polish soldiers who had fought in France during World War I.82
The French armed and trained them, and up until late 1918, they had been
commanded by a French commander.83 With the wars end, the French, with

It would have been easy for Lenin and Trotsky to dangle the prospect of restoring Germanys bor-
ders in the winter of 19191920 without the prospect of being taken seriously. However, Tukhachevskys
willingness to promptly turn over territory already conquered to the German authorities indicates that in
the case of Germany, at least, Lenin was serious about self-determination. Doubtless the prospect of a
German allianceif only an economic onehad tremendous appeal to the Bolshevik leadership.
G. H. Bennett, British Foreign Policy during the Curzon Period, 19191924, (St. Martins Press,
London, 1995, p. 62). See also Z. Steiner, The Lights that Failed: European International History,
19191939, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2005), p. 147.
N. Davies, op. cit., p. 45.
Note of a Conversation between the Prime Minister and Marshal Foch in Regards to Poland, 3 July
1920, The Cabinet Papers CAB 23/35/16 (BNA), p. 1.
British Foreign Office Interview with General Haller, 18 January 1919, FO 608/266 (BNA), pp. 13.
Ibid. For more details about the Blue Army (as Hallers Army was also known) there is one book in
English on the subject: P. Valasek, Hallers Polish Army in France, (Whitehall Printing, Naples, FL, 2006).
The subject deserves a more thorough treatment, however.
174 I. Johnson

some delays, began to assist this force in crossing Germany in sealed train
cars.84 This proved a contentious and difficult process, but by late April 1919,
most of Hallers eight divisions had arrived in Poland. There they would form
the backbone of the Polish armies fighting against the Bolsheviks. French
officers continued to serve in many senior leadership positions in Hallers
force throughout the war.85
But French enthusiasm for their Polish allies waned dramatically as
Poland launched its offensive deep into Ukraine in the summer of 1919.
Their action had violated the principle of self-determination and ethnically
determined borders, which had become the core of British and French policy
in Eastern Europe. As a result, Foch found his support for Poland increasingly
unpopular.86 As the war with the Bolsheviks soon turned against Poland, pro-
Polish members of the French military hoped to dispatch several divisions to
fight the Red Army. But this proved politically impossible, given the French
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publics increasing hostility towards Poland.87

Foch continued to demand troops for the Polish front. As he became
less and less inclined to follow the orders of his civilian counterparts, Prime
Ministers Clemenceau and Millerand increasingly sidelined him politically.88
The schism became public in the spring of 1919. At a meeting between the
Italian, French, British, and American heads of state, Foch delivered a speech
that Clemenceau refused to have translated into English, saying that Wilson
and Lloyd George had understood the main points, even though neither
spoke French.89

Enraged, Foch twice refused to leave the room when Clemenceau dis-
missed him. The Prime Minister, evidently embarrassed at his inability
to control one of his generals, leant over to Woodrow Wilson and said,

Information Report: Interview with General Haller, 16 January 1920, Foreign Office Papers (FO)
608/266, 272274, pp. 13. Haller actually requested the British send a military mission to join him on his
journey from France to Poland to show that he had the support of not only the French, but the Allies
generally, but the British General Staff demurred.
Sir H. Rumbold, Memorandum to Lord Curzon, 31 July 1920, Foreign Office Papers (FO) 688/6
(BNA), pp. 18. Rumbold, the British ambassador to Warsaw, was an accomplished and highly capable
diplomat. He performed his role in Warsaw very skillfully, interpreting the policies of Germany, the
Soviet Union, and Poland with remarkable foresight. In 1933, he would warn the British Foreign Office
that Hitler was an irrational actor and that any negotiations with him would be fruitless. By that juncture,
unfortunately, Rumbolds health was failing, and his dispatches were carefully read only by Winston
Foch was less worried about Bolshevism than many other French leadershe believed that, given
time, an economic recovery in Europe would destroy the threat of Bolshevism. But his support for Poland
was unflagging.
P. S. Wandycz, France and Her Eastern Allies: 19191925 French-Czechoslovak-Polish Relations
from the Paris Peace Conference to Locarno, (The University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1962),
p. 168.
The issue of Rhineland Independence, in particular, was one on which he fell out with Clemenceau,
who had long been his political patron.
Michael S. Neiberg, Foch: Supreme Allied Commander in the Great War (Chapel Hill, NC: Potomac
Books, 2011), p. 89.
Polish-Bolshevik War 175

I dont know what to do, he wont leave. An uneasy silence ensued until
British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour diplomatically suggested a break
for tea.90

Millerand, for his part, was somewhat more inclined to listen to Foch
regarding Poland. He, like Foch, worried about the possibility of a German-
Russian alliance against France but also believed that Frances greatest
defense lay in its continued relationship with Great Britain. Thus French
policy was calculated to provide Poland with the minimum aid necessary to
survive while simultaneously appealing to the non-committal view of their
British allies. According to one astute observer, Millerand was ready to
sacrifice Pilsudski to Mr. Lloyd George.91
The French General Staff was not willing to lose Poland, however.
Foch and the French military commission in Poland had actually drawn up
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war plans against Germany in the spring of 1920.92 A memorandum from

February 1920 noted that Germany may take advantage of the fact that
almost all Polish forces are engaged eastward to try to regain possession of
the territories she gave to Poland.93 If that were to happen, the report con-
tinued, Allied Troops (British, French, and Italian) in the plebiscitary areas
would defend Upper Silesia and Danzig in conjunction with Polish troops.94
A potential counterattack was proposed towards Berlin.95 The French Military
Mission in Paris went so far as to dispatch a reconnaissance team headed by
a colonel to scout avenues of advance from Poland into Germany.96
These tendencies in the French military ran against a non-committal
foreign policy on the British side. Lloyd George and his foreign secretary,
Lord Curzon, showed little interest in defending Poland. The British Prime
Minister was generally hostile to Polish interests at the Council of Four, where
he accused the Poles of imposing upon other nations the very tyranny
which they themselves have endured for centuries.97 During the Polish-
Bolshevik war, Lloyd George went even further, off-handedly remarking that
the Russians were entitled to punish the Poles.98 While concerned about the
spread of Bolshevism, Lloyd George was far more interested in rekindling

M. S. Neiberg, op. cit., p. 6.
S. Wandycz, op. cit., p. 69.
Note: The commission mentioned here was separate from the joint Entente commission sent in
July. A solely French military advisory committee was sent to assist Polish officers as soon as Poland was
created as an independent state. Instruction au Sujet des Reconnaissances a Effectuer sur la Frontire
Occidentale [Instructions on Reconnaissance Performed on the Western Borders], 28 February 1920,
Box 2, Folder 9, 367 (IJP-NYC).
Ibid. Specifically, the report notes the possibility of a thrust through the northern German town of
Strasburg into Brandenburg.
D. Lloyd George, The Truth about the Peace Treaties, (Victor Gollancz, London, 1938), pp. 998.
S. Wandycz, op. cit., pp. 168169.
176 I. Johnson

economic ties with the Russians, both to provide jobs in the United Kingdom
and also to moderate Bolshevism within Russia. In June 1920, while the
Polish Army fell back along all fronts, Lloyd George announced a British-
Soviet trade pact, the first public agreement between the Bolsheviks and
the Western democracies.99 Such activities made a united response to the
Bolshevik invasion of Poland nearly impossible.
The result of deliberations in Paris and London was the dispatch of a
joint British-French commission to Warsaw on 22 July 1920, comprised of
a small group of military observers.100 The British members of the mission
were given one task: to urge Poland to agree to Bolshevik demands and
sign a peace treaty.101 Foch told French officers in Warsaw, inaccurately, that
the French government has authorized the French Military Mission to give
every assistance to the Polish Army in defense of Polish soil.102 The French
members, led by General Maxime Weygand (a close associate of General
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Foch), arrived expecting to advise the Polish army and guarantee Polish
victory. The Poles, for their part, had no interested in being dictated to by a
French government that seemed hesitant to even send military surplus as aid
to the Poles.103 As a result, the commission found itself sidelined and divided
amongst itself. On 12 August, the French Ambassador in Warsaw actually told
the Polish Minister for Foreign Affairs that he was instructed not to associate
himself with British policies.104
In particular, this meant the British desire to organize peace conferences
rather than to get directly involved. The idea was to exert maximum influ-
ence over affairs with a minimal financial or military commitment, a policy
seen again in Chamberlains actions in 1938 and 1939. There, too, the idea of
negotiating with the assumption of good faith proved ineffectual when diplo-
matic measures were not backed by the possibility of military action. In 1920,
the policy of demanding the Poles seek an armistice was abandoned after
more than a year of war only once it was clear that the Bolsheviks were not
negotiating in good faith.105 That realization finally dawned on Lloyd George

W. Churchill, Memorandum Submitted to the Cabinet on 16th August, 1920, by the Russian Trade
Committee on the Draft Trading Agreement, prepared in the Board of Trade, between His Britannic
Majestys Government and the Russian Soviet Government, 24 August 1920, The Cabinet Papers (CAB)
24/111/8 (BNA), p. 1. Some have argued Lloyd Georges trade deal with the Soviets saved the regime
from collapse, given the countrys terrific material shortages in 1920.
Sir H. Rumbold, op. cit., pp. 18.
Kew Archival note on British Mission.
Letter, Marshal Foch to General Henrys, Chef Mission Militaire Francaise Varsovie, 10 July 1920,
Box 3, Folder 1, 23. (IJP-NYC), p. 1.
S. Wandycz, op. cit., p. 165.
Sir H. Rumbold, Sir H. Rumbold to Lord Curzon, Despatch No. 521, pp. 6.
Ibid., pp. 45. Rumbold wrote to Curzon, summarizing Soviet diplomatic efforts, that my telegrams
will have informed Your Lordship of the various devices by which the Soviet Government have succeeded
in delaying the initiation of Armistice and Peace negotiations, in order to allow time for their troops to
get nearer Warsaw which, by universal consent, is their ultimate aim . . .
Polish-Bolshevik War 177

in July 1920, when the British cabinet reluctantly agreed to assist [Poland]
with war material if a Russo-Polish armistice could not be negotiated.106
As a result, it was only as the crisis reached its worst point, in August
1920 that the British cabinet began to consider more drastic action. The
British commissioner in Warsaw, Lord Vincent DAbernon, sent a report back
with three possible courses of action that served to frame the debate in
London.107 The most aggressive action DAbernon proposed was the dis-
patch of a major expeditionary force to invade Bolshevik-occupied Poland:
the Mission were unanimous that in order to secure its own safety the total
Franco-British force should in no case be less than two Divisions and two
Cavalry Divisions.108 The middle course he suggested involved dispatching
a British division to augment Entente plebiscite troops in Danzig and Silesia
to guarantee Polish supply lines: This, he believed, would also have the
virtue of discouraging further Bolshevik advances.109 DAbernons minimal
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possible aid program to Poland involved dispatching 10 battalions to guard

Danzig, halting the withdrawal of plebiscite troops, and continuing the flow
of Polish military equipment and personnel through Danzig.110 In the end,
Lloyd George reluctantly began to pursue the last path, ordering the transfer
of an over-strength division from the British Rhineland garrison to Silesia.111
Even this transfer was carried out so slowly that the troops dispatched east-
ward did not reach the Polish border areas until February 1921, some six
months after the crisis had concluded.112
For their part, as the crisis reached its peak in August 1920, the French
commissioners on the ground in Warsaw, communicating through Foch to
the French government, urged Millerand to dispatch an expeditionary force
of at least four divisions to aid the Poles. They hoped to use these troops
alongside Entente forces already in Eastern Europe to organize and hold
plebiscites.113 But this was just as politically unpalatable in Paris as in London,
and Fochs weakened political position did little to assist the commissions
calls for assistance. In the end, French assistance was largely limited advice
provided by General Weygand to Polish Chief of Staff Rozwadowski (which
was ignored), the continued presence of French officers in Polish army units,
and the supply of military equipment through Danzig to the front.114
G. H. Bennett, op. cit., p. 47.
E. Vincent, Lord DAbernon, Secret Cipher Telegram from Warsaw, 15 August 1920, FO 688/6,
2730 (BNA), pp. 14. DAbernon would later write a detailed account of the battle, praising the Polish
side, entitled The Eighteneeth Decisive Battle of the World: Warsaw, 1920.
Ibid., p. 1.
Ibid., pp. 23.
Ibid., pp. 34.
Memorandum: British Silesian Force, pp. 1921, 8 June 1921, WO 106/948, 1 (BNA), p. 3.
Ibid. This force, called the Independent Division, actually possessed considerable offensive capa-
bilities, with substantial artillery support and elements of the 5th Tank Battalion. This differentiated its
purpose clearly from other plebiscitary garrison forces, which did not possess fire support.
Lord DAbernon, Secret Cipher Telegram from Warsaw, p. 1.
Sir H. Rumbold, Memorandum to Lord Curzon, 31 July 1920, pp. 18.
178 I. Johnson

Despite political reluctance, plans existed in both Paris and London to

commit large-scale ground forces to guarantee Polands national survival.
In the event that Warsaw had fallen, would the British and French com-
mitted to these plans, which would have envisioned an invasion of Poland
through Danzig? Probably not. As Piotr Wandycz noted, Divergences with
London, and hesitations in Paris, were not conducive to a large-scale polit-
ical offensive. There remained the practical and burning issue of keeping
up Polish resistance by sending supplies of arms and munitions. But even
here difficulties existed.115 Only one great fear might have triggered Entente
military intervention: that Weimar Germany and the Bolsheviks would ally
against the Entente.

The Counterfactual Moment

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Let us return to Berlin. It is the end of August 1920. Warsaw has fallen.
Soviet troops press up against Germanys borders. The Berliner Tageblatts
headlines note with fear the proximity of communist forces. In East Prussia,
city-dwellers begin to store up extra food in case of the worst. Day to day,
it remains unclear whether the Red Army means to advance into Germany
or consolidate their gains. Weimar politicians and military leaders now face
a critical choice. Would they turn toward the Russians if an alliance proved
forthcoming, risking a new world war? Or would they maintain a strict pol-
icy of neutrality and possibly trigger a communist uprising or Red Army
The civilian government made its choice clear by August: neutrality.
But the military still had a very real say, especially given Seeckts special
relationship with the weak civilian leadership. And so, in the counterfactual
universe, soldiers debate in barracks and officers kasinos across Germany.
They ask each other: Is the threat of communism enough to forgive the
past wrongs of the Great War? Or even the terms of Versailles? Perhaps
Germany should look east for justice; the Soviets might aid the Germans in
regaining their place among the community of nations. With enough time,
Russian economic power might even allow Germany to contend once again
for Weltmacht. Each side tries to count how many Stahlhelm and Freikorps
men Germany can mobilize on short notice. They grimly study the new maps
with the shrunken version of Germany. But most of all, they wait for word
from the Sphinx, the nickname they have for the enigmatic General Seeckt.
The first choice facing Seeckt was whether or not to seek an alliance
with the Soviets and reclaim former German territories from Poland. In 1920,
Seeckt wrote that we are currently unable to help Russia restore its old

S. Wandycz, op. cit., p. 163.
Polish-Bolshevik War 179

imperial frontier.116 No matter how badly German strategic leadership

might have liked to take advantage of a Polish defeat in August 1920, the
Treaty of Versailles had effectively hamstrung the Reichswehr. Reduced to
190,000 men, with further reductions imminent, the German Reichswehr
was far too small to contemplate operating against the Allies. It was large
enough to effectively function as a police force against revolution. But it was
too small even to protect Germanys borders from raiding. Civilian admin-
istrators in East Prussia had to request permission from the Allies to raise
a self-defense militia against potential Bolshevik predations, because the
Reichswehr was incapable of defending German territory.117
It might be argued that large numbers of German veterans could
have been brought rapidly back into the service, or Freikorps units could
have been incorporated into the Reichswehr. But the IACC had largely
denuded Germany of weaponry. The IACC, and particularly its French mem-
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bers, had orchestrated the prompt destruction of enormous quantities of

German weaponry. On 7 July 1920, Seeckt reported to the Allies at the
Spa Conference that the IACC had taken (and begun destroying) more than
2.4 million rifles, 65,800 machine guns, 12,700 mortars, and 22,900 pieces
of artillery.118 Combined with military equipment surrendered as part of the
Armistice, the IACC stripped the German military of more than 93 percent of
the war materiel it had possessed in November 1918.119
German industrial capacity was incapable of making up these losses.
The IACC had taken the broadest possible view of their mandate to disman-
tle the German armaments industry. As an IACC memorandum replying to
German complaints noted,

The Interallied Military Commission of Control has secured the destruc-

tion of machines specializing in war work . . . [and] insists equally on the
machines which, without being exclusively for war material purposes,
might, by being grouped, facilitate the resumption [of war]120

This meant going so far as to destroy electrical generators and steel

production facilities that were not used for military production.121 Allied
H. Von Seeckt, Brief [Letter], 31 January 1920, in Friedrich von Rabenau, Hans von Seeckt: Aus
Seinem Leben, 19171936, p. 252. Translated by current author. He added, though that, we should
nevertheless not prevent them from doing so.
Note from the German Peace Delegation Relative to the Formation of Volunteer Guards in East
Prussia, 5 August 1920, Foreign Office Records (FO) 893/7 (BNA), pp. 17. Of course, there were little in
the way of actual depredations because of the relationship between the German Army and the Bolsheviks.
General Von Seeckts Statement on German Disarmament at the Spa Conference, pp. 16.
Ibid. These figures include weapons confiscated by the German police and the
Reichstreuhandgesellschaft and either destroyed or turned over to the IACC for destruction.
Transformation of German War Factories, 9 October 1922, War Office Records (WO) 155/14
(BNA), p. 1.
Letter from the German Ambassador in Paris to the French Prime Minister, 16 August 1922, War
Office Records (WO) 155/14 (BNA), pp. 12.
180 I. Johnson

inspectors, networks of informers, and specific punitive measures against

major German armament firmslike Krupphad crippled German indus-
trys capacity for military production within two years of the Treaty of
Versailles. The IACCs aggressive action meant that Germany could not wage
even a defensive conflict to revise the Versailles settlement.
A Russian alliance would not have remedied these problems. Seeckt
recognized this reality. A memo from August 1920 concluded that not only
were German forces too weak to beat the Entente but also that Russia was
too weak to be an effective ally: Seeckt wrote that the weapons, ammunition
and technical material of the Red Army are completely insufficient for a
Western war.122 Not only did this mean that Germany should avoid a war in
the west; it also meant that the Soviets were too weak to pose a direct military
threat in the east. Seeckt instead argued that Germany should bide its time
and develop its economic resources in friendly relation with Russia while
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maintaining a strict policy of neutrality in Europe.123 The strategic imbalance

between Germany and the Soviet Union and their potential enemies was too
In effect, the punitive nature of the Versailles settlement would have
done exactly what it was supposed to do: render Germany incapable of fight-
ing a general European war. The German Army of 1918 would have been
capable of renewed hostilities. But it had ceased to exist. It was only with
the increasing laxness of Ententeand particularly Britishenforcement of
the Versailles settlement that the German military effectively began to rearm.
Indeed, this process began long before Hitlers machtergreifung. In 1926,
the IACC withdrew its inspectors from German factories. Within months, the
Reichswehr had concluded secret contracts with all of the major German
industrial firms to begin the process of rearmament.124
Thus, Germany likely would have remained neutral while the Soviets
conquered Poland in August and September. But what of the other scenario,
a Soviet invasion of Germany? Let us return to the counterfactual narrative.
On 23 October 1920, the KPD and affiliated communist parties launch an
insurrection designed to overthrow the Weimar Republic.125 Workers grab
rifles and begin building barricades in German industrial centers. German
revolutionaries declare Soviet Republics in Hamburg and Saxony. Communist

H. von Seeckt, Memorandum, 8 August 1920, RH2-29/1, Bundesarchiv-Militrarchiv, Freiburg im
Breisgau (BA-MA), pp. 12. He wrote the memo when he believed the Soviets had won the war against
Poland, which makes his statement here particularly valuable.
The German militarys rearmament before 1933 was conducted, in part, outside the borders of
Germany. Concern about the IACC led the Reichswehr to seek accommodations for industrial production
and equipment testing in Turkey, Sweden, and most importantly, the Soviet Union. Much of Germanys
covert rearmament activities would take place at three secret military bases and a number of industrial
concessions safely hidden inside Russia. The plan was clear: prepare for a new general European war to
overturn Versailles and take back Alsace and Lorraine.
In reality, such insurrections were launched in March 1921 and October 1923.
Polish-Bolshevik War 181

activists on street corners shout All workers, ignore the law, and take up
arms wherever they can be found!126 Thousands pour into the streets.
But the German army is ready. Its police and army units have been
nervously awaiting this moment. With the full support of the ruling coalition
and President Ebert, the Reichswehr begins brutally suppressing the revolt.
The revolutionaries turn their eyes toward the Polish border, waiting for
the Red Armys assistance. But aside from a few advisors quietly sent from
Moscow, no aid is forthcoming. Within two weeks, the revolutionaries are
Would the Red Army have crossed the borders? As Seeckt argued, the
Red Army was too exhausted and ill-equipped to challenge any of the
Western Powers to a prolonged conflict, especially in October 1920. Assured
of favorable neutrality by the German military, the Bolsheviks would con-
tinue to do what they had already begun: sovietize Poland and work in
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conjunction with German industrialists to rebuild Russias shattered econ-

omy. By 1924, Germany was the Soviet Unions most important trading
partner, accounting for 40 percent of all Soviet exports.128 Indeed, when the
KPD attempted uprisings in 1921 and 1923, the Soviets sent small quantities
of aid, but largely stayed out of the matter.129
Besides the economic benefits of working with the Germans, there were
other grounds for this sudden passivity when it came to exporting revolu-
tion. Trotsky summed up the main reasons in 1922: the fractious and divided
state of the German Communist Party (technically, parties by 1920: disagree-
ments split the KPD in two) had compelled the International to review all
circumstances . . . and proclaim that the task of the European Communists
did not consist in conquering power today or tomorrow but in winning over
the majority of the working class.130 The German Communists were deeply
divided amongst themselves and not very good at listening to orders from
Moscow. Their political unreliability made the Soviets hesitant to aid them
directly. Trotsky also noted in his speech that Lenin in 1921 had said that
we can wait.131 Believing in the inevitability of their final victory, and uncer-
tain of the political reliability of the Western Communist Parties, Bolshevik

This was one of the slogans of 1921s March Action. Gilles Dauve and Denis Authier, The March
Action, 1921, Marxist Library,
In the March Action of 1921, the last major communist insurrection in Germany, it took the police
and the Reichswehr seven days to crush the revolt, arresting thousands of communists and dramatically
weakening the strength of the communist factions in Germany.
Niederschrift ber die informaterische Besprechung ber die gegenwrtige Lage der deutsch-
russischen Beziehungen im Auswrtigen Amt, R 31492K/KO96760, 25 June 1924, PA-AA.
Moscow dispatched a small band of revolutionaries to aid the 1923 uprising, but few weapons or
real material support.
L. Trotsky, Speech, The First Five Years of the Communist International, 20 October 1922, Marxist
182 I. Johnson

leadership would have been reluctant to gamble everything on a war outside

of their borders.
The goal of this essay has been to examine the strategic situation in
1920. But for the sake of interest, how would a Polish defeat have altered
the course of European history after 1920? Here the argument must move
from primary source evidence to speculation. Polands altered fate would
have been grim: an earlier, and even more brutal, occupation by the Soviets.
Enduring the worst aspects of the collectivization drives and five-year plans
would have killed hundreds of thousands at a minimum. Stalins preoccupa-
tion with the Poles in Ukraine suggests that Poland, too, might have suffered
Another possible outcome might have been an earlier outbreak of the
Second World War. The German public would have feared the Soviet Union
more with a Soviet Poland than it did in the real course of events. Interwar
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Polonophobia in Germany would have been combined with already strong

anti-Bolshevik sentiments. The rise of a charismatic anti-communist like
Hitler seems more than likely, perhaps well before 1933. At the same time,
with a shared border, the extensive military cooperation between Germany
and the Soviet Union would have proceeded at even greater pace than Seeckt
had planned. And finally, the Allies, wary of Communist power, might have
proved more willing to revise Germanys treaty obligations in an effort to
create a bulwark against communism. The result would have been an earlier
revival of Germanys military capabilities accompanied by a political desire
to use them.133


This counterfactual essay has aimed to do several things. First, it has

attempted to highlight the importance that contemporary diplomats and
politicians attached to the outcome of the battle, even despite French
and British inaction. Indeed, those fears had a rational basis, given the
possibly disastrous consequences had Poland lost. But the battle and the
counterfactual scenario also reveal broader trends in the foreign policies of
the major powers.
For more, see T. Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.
There are far too many factors to evaluate, but had Germany invaded the Soviet Union a year
earlierin 1940 instead of 1941its chances of victory would likely have been greater. If other events,
such as the Winter War, Khalkin-Gol and the Stalinist military purges, had they occurred on a similar
timeline, the Soviet military would have been in worse shape in 1940 than 1941. In addition, Soviet
industry increased at 30.5 percent between 1937 and 1940 (M. Harrison, Soviet Industrial Production,
1928 to 1955: Real Growth and Hidden Inflation, Journal of Comparative Economics 28(1) (2000) p. 148.
By comparison, German industrial production between 1938 and the end of 1940 only increased
1.8 percent (Indices of Industrial Production, in Palgrave Macmillan, International Historical Statistics,
2013, p. 2,
Polish-Bolshevik War 183

In Germany in August 1920, there were two starkly different choices:

turn toward the East and revise the Versailles settlement by war, or inte-
grate with the West and seek power through economic terms. As the Treaty
of Versailles weakened the German military, it had less and less say in the
countrys overall foreign policy, and the Weimar Republics political leader-
ship sought the latter course.134 As evidenced by their conduct during the
Polish-Bolshevik War, the German military and much of the political right
sought a return to the Grosspolitik of the pre-war years. The realities of the
Treaty of Versailles, which rendered Germany incapable of waging war with-
out systematic rearmament, spelled defeat for the militarys goals in 1920.
But it also served as a wedge between military leaders and the Weimar state.
Seeckt succeeded in surrounding the army with a Chinese Wall, imper-
meable to politicians.135 Behind this wall, the Reichswehr acted as a state
within a state, rearming without the supervision of the Reichstag. Their goal
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remained consistently the same from 1919 until 1933: the revision of the
Treaty of Versailles by force. In the end, the German officer corps proved
amenable to Adolf Hitler in large part because he embodied this fundamental
Some, drawing from the arguments initially made by John Maynard
Keynes and hostile journalists immediately after the war, have argued that
Versailles was ineffective, as it provided the economic and political impetus
for the next war. But the German war aims in World War I were European
conquest; this remained the goal of the German High Command in the
interwar period. Any post-war settlement would have proved wildly unsat-
isfactory to the German military, regardless of territorial adjustments or the
harshness of its military and economic provisions. And, of course, it is not
plausible to think that Germany could have lost World War I and retained
Alsace and Lorraine, more than enough of a future casus belli. By compari-
son, Versailles was far more lenient than the treaties German leaders imposed
on Russia or planned to impose on the Western Allies. As has been argued
here, seen through the prism of the Polish-Bolshevik War, the harshness of
Versailles was, in reality, its greatest virtue.137

The Left and Center parties that dominated the Reichstag envisioned German power being
enhanced through economic preeminence in Central and Eastern Europe, rather than by any use of
force. This, of course, became the vision of many post-1945 West German politicians. The first real sign
of this was the Locarno Pact in 1925. It became even more clear after von Seeckts fall from power in
H. Ritter von Mittelberger, Lebenserinnerungen [Memoirs], originally quoted in F.L. Carsten, The
Reichswehr and Politics: 1919 to 1933 (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 1973), p. 103.
That argument was perhaps first articulated in English by G. A. Craig, Reichswehr and
National Socialism: The Policy of Wilhelm Groener, 19281932, Political Science Quarterly 63(2)
(1948) pp. 194229.
German reparations perhaps should have been higher, as the German state benefitted financially
from no longer needing to support a large military. Its geostrategic position improved tremendously with
the dissolution of the Eastern Empires that had formerly kept it in check. Gerhard Weinberg made both
184 I. Johnson

For Soviet Russia, the Polish-Bolshevik War was first and foremost a
front in the Russian Civil War. The preservation of the Revolution always had
precedence over other foreign policy goals. But the sudden success of the
summer campaign in 1920 opened new possibilities. The new Soviet state
had been at war with nearly every significant power in the world between
1917 and 1919.138 As a result, the idea of permanent revolutiona war to
the death with the non-communist powerspervaded foreign policy consid-
erations during the Civil War. As the conflict with Poland expanded in scope,
new ambiguities and challenges appeared. Permanent revolution advocates
like Trotsky now had to face the reality that continuing to push their revolu-
tion westward could reignite a general European war that they could not win.
Faced with military defeat and the lack of other international revolutions, the
more cautious party in the Politburo prevailed. But as has been argued here,
even military victory in Poland would have triggered a more pragmatic Soviet
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foreign policy, with the possibility of an alliance with Germany looming large
in Lenins strategic calculations.
British and French activities in light of the Battle of Warsaw also high-
light important strategic problems in both states. Curzon and other British
diplomats returned, after 1918, to the long-held policy of preventing any
one state from achieving hegemony on continental Europe.139 Even by 1920,
Lord Curzon and others around Lloyd George saw France as too powerful
vis--vis the other powers of Europe and became increasingly cool toward
French interests.140 The general unwillingness of Lloyd George to consider
intervention on behalf of Poland was not simply a product of the oft-cited
war weariness. In many ways, it represented a return to the disengaged
British foreign policy of the 19th century, focused on international confer-
ences and economic power, neither of which required the deployment of
military forces to the continent.141
In light of the Battle of Warsaw, French policy regarding the enforce-
ment of the Treaty of Versailles was clearly well founded. In August 1920,
the Treaty of Versailles succeeded in its basic goal of preventing the out-
break of another war. The aggressiveness with which the French sought to
demobilize the German military and Germanys war industries prevented
Germany from military action in 1920. The continued enforcement of the

cases in A World at Arms; A Global History of World War II, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005.
So too did Zara Steiner in The Lights that Failed, op. cit., pp. 606607.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Trotsky, the RSFSRs first Commissar of Foreign Affairs, initially intended
that the Foreign Commissariat would do little more than to publish the secret wartime treaties of the
Allies and then shut up shop (R. Service, A History of Modern Russia: From Nicholas II to Putin, (Penguin
Books, New York, 2003), p. 67.
G. H. Bennett, British Foreign Policy during the Curzon Period, 19191924, (St. Martins Press,
London, 1995), p. 183.
Polish-Bolshevik War 185

Treaty of Versailles by Great Britain and France offered the best hope of pre-
serving European peace. British efforts to moderate the treaty, long before
appeasement, succeeded only in aiding the militarist party in Germany.
In 1920, the dust had not yet settled from the First World War, leav-
ing most of Europes leaders with a powerful sense of uncertainty. Their
choices during August 1920 help to reveal those ambiguities. The Battle of
Warsaw was a flash of lighting that illuminated this murky post-war strategic
landscape. In his own analysis of the Battle of Warsaw, Red Army Marshal
Mikhail Tukhachevsky recalled that a gust of revolutionary excitement had
blown through the working classes of Western Europe.142 He added that
with the conquest of Warsaw there is not the slightest doubt that . . . the fire
of revolution would have raged across the whole of Western Europe.143 His
opponent, Polish general and former head of state Josef Pilsudski, concluded
his own recollections by noting that many of his contemporaries considered
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the Battle of Warsaw to be a kind of childrens scuffle, a mere brawl, unwor-

thy to be considered in the light of the high military theories of the military
art.144 He wrote that he would not contradict those who described it thus
but added that they should admit the battle had affected the destinies of the
entire civilised world.145 On that, both Tukhachevsky and Pilsudski could

M. Tukhachevski [sic], The March Beyond the Vistula, in J. Pilsudski, Year 1920 and Its Climax:
Battle of Warsaw during the Polish-Soviet War, 19191920, (Pilsudski Institute of America, New York,
1972), p. 264.
J. Pilsudski, op. cit., p. 222.