An early and fine book by the distinguished historian Norman Davies. The subtitle "The Miracle on the Vistula" is probably a recent addition by the publisher as it does not appear in the original (1972) edition. Davies takes pains to demonstrate that there was nothing miraculous about the Polish victory. The Polish-Soviet War is known to many from Isaac Babel's great Red Cavalry story sequence. Davies provides a well written and documented narrative and analysis of the Polish-Soviet War. He covers the background, military history, political history, and diplomatic history in a series of well integrated chapters. All chapters are distinguished by Davies' well considered descriptions and judgments about the major actors and historic trends, and excellent selection of quotations from the primary literature (including some from Babel's stories).
In Davies analysis, some type of conflict between the Soviet Union and the Polish state was inevitable. The collapse of the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and German Empires left an enormous power vacuum in Eastern Europe, particularly the borderlands between central Poland and western Russia. The Soviet leadership, facing great challenges from internal enemies, was convinced that the revolution had to expand, particularly to Germany, to be secure. They also perceived the Polish nationalist regime led by Pilsudski as a tool of western capitalism and inevitable foe. The Pilsudski regime, in fact, was regarded with considerable distaste by the French, British, and Americans, and pursued a strongly independent policy. A more important vision driving the Polish leadership was of a greater Polish state or Polish led federation from the Baltic to the Black Sea. In 1919, the expanding Poles and Soviets slid into conflict in Lithuania, Byelorussia, and the Ukraine. Polish fears of the Soviets then led to a Polish effort to develop a buffer zone with an unsuccessful conquest of much of the Ukraine while the Soviets were preoccupied with internal enemies. As the Soviets gained the upper hand in the Russian Civil War, they focused their energies on the Poles and rolled back the Polish incursions, followed by an invasion of Poland that reached deep into northern and central Poland. Overextended and straining their primitive supply system to its limit, the Soviets were then pushed back by skillful and vigorous generalship on the part of Pilsudski and his commanders.
Davies shows very well how this happened, with evenhanded discussions of the strengths and weaknesses of both sides. He concludes with a thoughtful chapter on the consequences of the Polish-Soviet War. Contrary to the statements of some other Amazon reviewers of this book, he specifically rebuts the idea that the Poles saved Europe from a Communist conquest. In his judgement, and this is backed by a careful analysis of diplomacy and politics in Britain and France, the Soviet defeat was blessing in disguise for the Soviets. A Soviet victory would probably have aroused British and French fears of the Soviet Union to the extent that a direct intervention would have occurred destroying the nascent Soviet state. In Davies analysis, the major consequences of the war were Soviet isolation and a Polish state dominated by the military.