August 15 marks the Feast of the Assumption as well as the centenary of the Battle of Warsaw, during which the Polish Army defeated the Red Army, which sought to not only to conquer Poland but to export revolution much farther west. The convergence of the Polish victory and the feast marking Mary’s ascent into heaven is not a Trivial Pursuit sort of coincidence, such as the fact that Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the same day. The victory of a Christian army over the eastern Bolshevik hordes had a strongly religious, even mystical, dimension.
Not just about borders
Poland regained her independence in 1918, after more than a century of suffering the yoke of Russian, Prussian, and Austrian rule. The resurrected nation was, however, embroiled in border conflicts with many of its neighbors: Germany, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, and the Soviet Union. In the last of these, however, the dispute was ideological as well as geographical. In White Eagle, Red Star, his classic English-language study of the Polish-Bolshevik War, Norman Davies, the doyen of Polish history, writes: “Unlike all the other post-war squabbles with which it is frequently equated, the Polish-Soviet War raised wider issues: the clash of ideologies, the export of revolution, the future of Europe itself.”
As the Russo-Polish border was in flux due to the Russian Civil War, Józef Piłsudski, the first chief of the resurrected Polish state, decided to invade Soviet Ukraine and bring historically Polish lands back under Polish rule. In April 1920, Piłsudski entered into an alliance with the Ukrainian patriot Symon Petliura, president of the ephemeral Ukrainian People’s Republic. The Poles would recognize Ukraine’s independence while the Ukrainians would allow Polish rule over Galicia, a region of formerly Austrian-ruled Poland whose population had a Ukrainian majority. By May 7, the combined Polish-Ukrainian armies had reached Kyiv, although the mass Ukrainian revolt against the Soviets envisioned by Piłsudski and Petliura did not materialize, while a Bolshevik counter-offensive led by Mikhail Tukhachevsky reached the Polish border by late July and the suburbs of Warsaw in early August.
The Soviets’ aim was not only to push back the Poles’ gains but to overrun Poland, which would be a springboard for a general communist conquest of Europe. On July 23, 1920, Lenin cabled Stalin, then Commissar of Nationalities: “The situation in the Comintern is superb. Zinoviev, Bukharin, and I, too, think that the revolution should be immediately exacerbated in Italy. My own view is that to this end one should Sovietize Hungary and perhaps also Czechoslovakia and Romania.”
The proletariat chooses Mary over Marx and Lenin
The Bolsheviks lacked the military strength necessary to overrun Europe. However, they believed that the oppressed proletariat would meet the Red Army with glee and join the fight against its exploitation. The Soviet propaganda of the time was confident that once the Red Army would reach Poland, it would be welcomed by the working class and peasants, supposedly oppressed by the “Polish lords.”
In Poland, a Polrevkom (Provisional Polish Revolutionary Committee) was founded to foment revolution and establish a Soviet republic in Poland, akin to short-lived equivalents in Bavaria and Hungary. Its chairman was Julian Marchlewski, while the Polrevkom’s de facto leader was one of the most notoriously bloodthirsty communist criminals in history, Feliks Dzierżyński, a Polish aristocrat-turned-Bolshevik who founded the Cheka, the Soviet secret police that was a precursor to the NKVD and KGB.
However, to the dismay of Lenin, Dzierżyński, and company, the Poles did not greet the Red Army as liberators. On the contrary, Poles stormed churches and chapels, praying for God and Mary to deliver them from the red assault.
Józef Piłsudski’s attitude towards religion was complex. He became a Lutheran in order to marry a divorcee but reverted to Catholicism after her death. He was not a regular churchgoer, but he respected the importance of Catholicism in Poland’s history and culture. Piłsudski had a picture of Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn, one of the most important Polish icons, above his bed and prayed through her intercession at times of trial.
Seeing that the Polish troops were dispirited, Piłsudski approached Cardinal Aleksander Kakowski, the archbishop of Warsaw, and implored him to send more chaplains to the Polish Army. While Piłsudski was not very pious, he understood the inspiring role of religion in many Poles’ lives. Kakowski consented, and many chaplains were sent to accompany Polish troops to the front.
Among them was Fr. Ignacy Skorupka, a twenty-seven-year-old priest who was killed by a Bolshevik bullet while administering the sacrament of the anointing of the sick to a wounded soldier. Polish history is replete with priests throughout the ages who defended their nation’s liberty and independence at times of foreign oppression; familiar to every Pole, Fr. Skorupka plays a prominent role in the Polish national pantheon, and in recent years there have been talks of opening a beatification cause for him.
Another priest on whose moral support the Poles could count on was Monsignor Achille Ratti, who two years later would become Pope Pius XI. At that time, Ratti was the papal nuncio to Warsaw. During the Battle of Warsaw, the entire diplomatic corps fled the capital with the exceptions of Ratti and the Turkish ambassador (impressed by King John III Sobieski’s defeat over them at Vienna in 1683, the Turks afterwards maintained a respect for Lechistan and never recognized the Partitions of Poland of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries). Ratti believed it to be his moral duty to accompany the Poles at their time of trial and he visited Polish troops on the front.
For this, Monsignor Ratti gained great respect among the Poles. Last year, a monument to him was unveiled in front of the papal nunciature in Warsaw. More than half a century before the thought of a Polish pope in the literal sense was plausible, many Poles considered Pius XI to be their “Polish pope.” Their love was not unrequited, as Pope Pius XI retained affection for the Polish nation. The great Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski once recalled being invited to Castel Gandolfo by his countryman John Paul II, who invited world-famous intellectuals there for summer chats on metaphysics. Kołakowski noticed a wall painting depicting Fr. Skorupka’s martyrdom in the papal summer residence. Logically, he assumed that this had been installed by Karol Wojtyła. He learned, however, that having wanted a memento of his memorable Warsaw days, Pius XI commissioned it to be executed by the Polish painter Jan Henryk de Rosen.
An apparition for an atheistic army
One of the major turning points in the Polish-Bolshevik War was the Polish victory at Radzymin, about twenty kilometers (twelve miles) outside Warsaw. In Wólka Radzymińska, just outside Radzymin, Mary allegedly appeared to Bolshevik soldiers in the skies on the night between August 14 and 15. In the vision, she held a shield, which made all bullets aimed Polish troops bounce back and hit the Bolsheviks instead. The Red Army was spooked by what they called Mater Bozhya (“the Mother of God”) and retreated in panic.
Interestingly, the Polish troops did not share in seeing this apparition of Mary. This event was related in a book written shortly after the battle by a farmer from nearby Zambrów, who spoke to several frightened, retreating Bolsheviks on August 20. They told him that their army was doing well right until they saw Mary.
In a vision on August 15, 1873, Venerable Wanda Malczewska, a Polish mystic, had a vision of Mary who told her: “Today’s solemnity will become a national holiday for you, the Poles, because on that day you will emerge victorious over an enemy who will try to annihilate you.”
Since then, many Poles have interpreted Mary’s words as having prophesied their victory over the Bolsheviks.
“The Miracle on the Vistula”
On August 15, the Feast of the Assumption, the Soviets ended their advance towards Warsaw, while the Poles recaptured Radzymin. From then on, Soviet defeat was inevitable. An armistice was signed in October, and the Treaty of Riga was signed between Poland and the Soviet Union on March 18 of the following year in the Latvian capital. Pursuant to this treaty, Poland regained some of its historical territories in Belarus and Ukraine.
Humiliated and angry at Tukhachevsky, the Soviets abandoned their plans of European conquest, at least until they signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler on August 23, 1939, in which Germany and the USSR planned to divide Eastern Europe among themselves. Yet once again, with the visit of Pope John Paul II to his native country in 1979 and the formation of Solidarity one year later, the Soviets saw that the faith of Catholics in Poland and elsewhere would be a major obstacle to their attempts at European domination. When Stalin famously quipped that bringing communism to Poland is like saddling a cow, he knew what he was talking about, and he learned this in the summer of 1920.
Lord Edgar Vincent D’Abernon, the British ambassador to Warsaw at the time who witnessed the Polish-Bolshevik War, considered the Battle of Warsaw to be the eighteenth most important battle in history. He aptly wrote:
Had Piłsudski and [General Maxime] Weygand [sent by the Western powers to advise Poland’s government during the conflict] failed to arrest the triumphant advance of the Soviet Army at the Battle of Warsaw, not only would Christianity have experienced a dangerous reverse, but the very existence of Western civilization would have been imperiled. The Battle of Tours saved our ancestors from the Yoke of the Koran; it is probable that the Battle of Warsaw saved Central and parts of Western Europe from a more subversive danger – the fanatical tyranny of the Soviet.
Certainly, Weygand and especially Piłsudski deserve praise for their brilliant military and political leadership. However, the prayers of Polish Catholics and Mary’s protection over her children were just as important, if not more.
In Poland, the Battle of Warsaw is commonly known as “the Miracle on the Vistula.” This term was originally coined by Piłsudski’s political opponents, who were skeptical of his military skills and sarcastically maintained that the Poles won the battle only because of a miracle. Increasingly, though, Poles have come to refer to the “miracle” in the name in a more literal way.
Today, the religious dimension of the Battle of Warsaw seems likely to receive greater recognition. This Saturday, where Mary frightened the Bolshevik invaders, a three-meter (about ten feet) statue of Mary on a five-meter (about sixteen feet) pedestal will be unveiled in Radzymin. It will be only one-hundred meters (about 109 yards) away from the S8 expressway, which cuts across Poland, from Wroclaw in the west to Bialystok in the east, and thus visible to millions of people traversing the country. Meanwhile, a shrine is being built as a vote of gratitude to Mary for saving the Poles in 1920 (donations to its construction can be given here).
The role of Mary and the prayers of ordinary Catholics and their effects are not unique to the Battle of Warsaw. In 1571, Catholics prayed the rosary and succeeded in averting a Muslim invasion of Europe at Lepanto<. By 1955, an astounding one-tenth of the population of Austria pledged to pray through the intercession of Our Lady of Fatima for freedom for their country; shortly thereafter, Soviet troops peacefully left Austria. Likewise, in 1986, Cardinal Jaime Sin, the heroic late archbishop of Manila, appealed to Catholics to pray for an end to the corrupt rule of the fraudulently elected President Ferdinand Marcos rather than rise up in arms. Just days later, Marcos and his wife Imelda, known for their opulent lifestyle while most Filipinos lived in abject poverty, fled to Hawaii.
May these examples remind us that faith can truly move mountains, and praying through Mary’s intercession can bring much good, even major geopolitical changes.
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