VERITAS Research Institute and Archives

In the second part of a 2-part interview, Dávid Ligeti tells us about two of the military men who faced off at the Vistula River, the Hungarian weapons shipment that helped the Poles secure victory and the historical place of the Polish–Soviet War. The interview originally appeared on HIRADO.HU on August 14th, 2020.

Let’s talk about two noteworthy figures on opposing sides of the Polish–Soviet War: the talented Soviet military leader Mikhail Tukhachevsky, who fell victim to Stalin’s purges in 1937 and Marshal Józef Piłsudski, the driving force behind an independent Polish state, who passed away in 1935. Their careers took off almost simultaneously and the dates of their death were also relatively close. 

The life stories of these two soldiers nicely symbolize the chaos that Poland fell into in 1918, which was a very important year because of the formation of the independent Polish state, last seen on maps of Europe in 1793–95. By the time of the First World War, Piłsudski had already positioned himself well by establishing the Polish Legion, which backed the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in the war. Due in no small part to support provided by Hungarian Hussars, the legion successfully halted the Russians in the Battle of Limanowa in December 1914.  Piłsudski also recognized that the emergence of a new Polish state was possible with the support of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. Initially, the idea was of a free Polish state joining the German Empire in the same manner as Bavaria. When the Central Powers suffered complete defeat, Piłsudski skillfully repositioned Poland by making an acceptable alternative offer to the Entente Powers. As such, he became the dominant personality of the Polish state, though of course many other factors also contributed.

The other military man, Tukhachevsky, showed himself to be a talented officer at the beginning of the war. By the way, numerous former czarist generals and officers had joined the new Russian military force, for example, Aleksei Brusilov, who would become famous for his eponymous offensive in 1916. Tukhachevsky was a POW, but even in prison, he bettered himself. There is a story, which is perhaps not as widely known as it should be, that while interned by the Germans in Ingolstadt, he met fellow prisoner Charles de Gaulle. Later, de Gaulle would be in Warsaw with the pro-Polish French Mission while Tukhachevsky, as one of the leading generals of the opposing Russians, bombarded the Polish capital. Despite his young age, Tukhachevsky handled responsibilities usually bestowed on older generals. He proved to be an adept military thinker who came up with modern and aggressive attack strategies.

So we can rightly say that two uniquely skilled men faced off during the course of the fighting in Warsaw.

How did the conclusive clash, the battle along the Vistula River (more commonly known as the Battle of Warsaw), go?

The Russians attempted to cross the Vistula River somewhere near Warsaw while simultaneously launching attacks near Sandomierz and Lemberg, which meant that this war took place over a very wide frontline. We are not talking about the trench warfare that typified the First World War. In contrast, this was a struggle fought with fast moving frontlines. After the severe body count of the First World War, neither the Russians nor the Poles could afford to mobilize many troops, so their respective cavalries took on greater significance. In this war of mobility, a rather intense clash took place on August 15th, when the Poles successfully stopped the Russians’ advance near Warsaw. The Russians could not cross the Vistula River and continue their campaign westward simply because the Poles stopped them and pushed them back.

An important aspect of the Battle of Warsaw is that Hungary provided a large stockpile of weapons and ammunition to the Polish fighters. Why was the Kingdom of Hungary, which no longer shared a border with Poland by that time, the only state that effectively backed Poland in its life-or-death struggle against the Russians?

As I have already mentioned (Editor’s note: In Part I of the interview), Poland suffered strained relations with all its neighbors at that time, with the possible exception of Romania, although even that was tense as a result of the ethnic Slavic population residing in Bukovina and certain Polish territorial claims. The Entente Powers recognized that Poland had to be helped, but Polish industrial capacity was extremely fragmented, which meant the Poles lacked the means to manufacture weapons and ammunition.

This was when Hungary, where major military industrial capacity had been developed during the years of the First World War, stepped onto the stage. The munitions factory in Csepel, later known as Manfréd Weiss Steel and Metal Works, had played a major role in arming the troops of the entire Austro-Hungarian Monarchy during the war. So there existed major production capacity, and in contrast to 1919, the factory had access to raw materials once again. Significant stockpiles of ammunition accumulated. Prior to and even after the signing of the Treaty of Trianon, the Hungarian National Army, under the command of Regent Miklós Horthy, considered launching a campaign to rectify Hungarian territorial losses.

What kind of firepower did Hungary send to the Poles? How large was the shipment of weapons and ammunition?

We are talking about approximately eighty railway truckloads’ worth of ammunition, most of which was suitable for the Austrian-made Mannlicher rifle, which had been standardized in 1894. Five rounds of ammunition could be put in the magazine of a Mannlicher at a time. A repeating rifle “consumes” a high number of rounds, so every soldier carried a standard 120 rounds of ammunition. The eighty truckloads from Hungary was a tremendous help for the Poles, who, by the way, used Mannlicher rifles because many of their troops had fought for the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy earlier, and secondly, Poland had been able to secure a significant stockpile of the rifles from the Germans. The shipment received from the Hungarians guaranteed that the Poles would have enough ammunition, while the Soviet-Russian forces could not necessarily count on their supply lines.      

Why was the shipment of Hungarian weapons and ammunition sent to Poland through Romania instead of via the shorter and more convenient route through the Czechoslovak state?

The reason why the Czechoslovaks did not allow the shipment of Hungarian munitions to be transported through their country is that they feared the Poles, with access to firepower, would use it against them once the Polish–Soviet War concluded. Their fear was not entirely unfounded.

Did the Romanians cooperate with the Hungarians because of pressure from the Entente Powers?

The Entente did put some pressure on the Romanians to allow the munitions shipment from Hungary to pass through, but a more important factor was that the Romanians themselves had also been in a war of intervention with Soviet Russia not much earlier. So there was serious conflict between the Soviet Russian state and Romania. On the basis of the ancient proverb that ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’, the Romanians concluded that in the event of a successful Polish stand against Soviet Russia, they would be able to keep Bessarabia, which they had occupied in 1918 as part of the peace agreement with the Central Powers.

Can we truthfully make the claim that the Hungarian shipment of weapons and ammunition made the difference in the outcome of the battle along the Vistula River?

We can certainly say that the Poles would have found themselves in a most precarious situation without the shipment.

What kind of emlékezetpolitika (Editor’s note: “The politics of memory” is how a nation chooses to memorialize a historical event.) has there been in Poland concerning this 100-year-old event? It is referred to as a miracle today, but obviously the various political systems of the past treated its memory very differently.

That the decisive battle, which is referred to as the Miracle at the Vistula River in Poland, a robustly Catholic nation, was fought on August 15th is fateful, for that is the day that the Feast of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven is commemorated. This series of events became an important cornerstone of the Second Polish Republic during the Interwar Era. Though it is true that the Polish state was officially established at the end of 1918, its real birth is considered to be at the battle along the Vistula River. After the Second World War, Poland, like Hungary, suffered through Bolshevization and occupation by the Soviet Union, but how the Battle of Warsaw was perceived did not go through a 180 degree turn as the perception of the Republic of Councils in Hungary did following the Horthy Era. The battle did not lose any of its significance at the level of the common man. Later, after 1989, this anniversary became an important event once again, this time as part of the Third Polish Republic. Nonetheless, its central significance was somewhat diminished as a result of the disclosure of the Katyń massacre.

As far as Hungarian public awareness is concerned, the battle itself and our contribution to stopping the violent spread of Bolshevism are completely forgotten. During the Kádár Era, not a single word about the battle could be found in middle school history textbooks. Unfortunately, students today have not heard much about what happened either.

That is a consequence of the severe turn that took place after 1945. Throughout the Interwar Era, the Poles were regarded with respect for what they had done, so much so that whenever bilateral Hungarian-Polish negotiations were held, the memory of the Battle of Warsaw was always evoked. Moreover, veneration of the Poles was encouraged during the Horthy Era, and obviously we owe a great deal for their success, for in summer 1920, there was a real possibility that the communist framework / total Bolshevik state power that was implemented only after 1945 would have been forced on Central and Eastern Europe a generation earlier, the consequences of which would have been unforeseeable.

In post-1945 Hungary, the events of 1920 were interpreted as Poland, imperialist and engaging in white terror, impeding the progress of Bolshevism. There was another turn, it is true, after 1989, but the appreciation and respect associated with the memory of the Battle of Warsaw during the Horthy Era have perhaps begun to resurface in the past few years. That Hungarian history books continue to put so little emphasis on what happened in Poland a century ago can perhaps be explained by the shock that that other major historic event from 1920 delivered to the Hungarian nation, a trauma still felt so strongly today. Of course I refer to the Treaty of Trianon, which, when we refer to 1920, is what most Hungarians think of.


Source of Image: The Krakow Post