How Poland saved Western Civilization….Twice!

When most Americans think of Poland, if they think of it at all, they think of it as a faraway place where they make kielbasa and have a serious shortage of vowels in their names. Some, who know a little more about the place know that it has had a very bad time of it in the twentieth century by being located between Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany. Talk about a bad neighborhood. One author called the area “the bloodlands”.  Between being invaded by Germany and “liberated” by the Red Army, it would be hard to tell which was worse, since each event resulted in a soul-crushing foreign rule and mass murder as a tool of government administration. So has Poland always been a victim? And what have the Poles ever done for us? Well, how about helping to win WWII? The Polish 303rd  fighter squadron helped defeat the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain, and Polish scientists helped crack the German secret codes.

Not enough? How about this; the Poles saved Western Civilization….twice!

The first time was in 1683. The Ottoman Empire was at its height and was pushing deep into Europe. The Ottomans had been waging constant war on any part of Europe they could reach and had made much of the European areas bordering the Mediterranean uninhabitable through conquest or slave raids. Now the sultan had laid siege to Vienna, one of the intellectual and cultural centers of Europe, and the gateway to the rest of the continent. The Ottomans were on the verge of victory as they attacked again and again, wearing down the defenders. Of course, the Turks, themselves, were weakening from  the fighting, but they would soon outlast the defenders of Vienna. Once Vienna was taken, the Ottomans would use it as a base to attack the rest of Europe, and to replace European civilization with a repressive Islamic dictatorship. For the Europeans, things looked bleak.

Then the Poles showed up.

The Battle of Vienna, 12 September 1683 | Justice4Poland

Jan Sobieski and the Poles at Vienna 1683


The Polish king, Jan Sobieski had brought a relief force all the way from Warsaw to help break the siege. He swooped down on the Ottomans with 23,000 Polish troops, including the famous heavy cavalry, the “winged hussars”. The Poles charged downhill with 15,000 mounted men, possibly the biggest cavalry charge in history. The Ottomans were overwhelmed, losing thousands of men. They abandoned the siege and retreated back to Istanbul, and leaving their camp and artillery behind. Over the ensuing years, the Ottomans were driven from Hungary and other European areas they had formerly occupied. The Turks never again threatened Vienna and went no deeper into Europe. Europe and Western Civilization had been saved.

The Poles had saved western civilization, but they weren’t through yet.

After the first First World War, the Communists took over Russia and, once they had consolidated their power, decided to spread their revolution to their neighbors. Europe was devastated and mostly bankrupt after the war, and many people were sympathetic to the Communist promises of a better life with less effort. Not everyone realized the hollowness of these promises and the fact that Communist rule meant state terror, shortages, complete loss of freedom, the stifling of all innovation and improvement in everyday life, and the good possibility of state-imposed mass murder. Lenin ordered he Red Army, fresh from defeating the Czarist forces to began a push into Europe to bring the entire continent under the Soviet heel. Once Warsaw fell, the plan was for the Red Army to join revolutionaries in Germany in imposing a Communist regime there and spreading to the rest of Europe. The Poles grimly awaited the invaders, determined to stop them.

army as depicted in 2011 Jerzy Hoffman 3D film "1920 Battle of Warsaw ...

At first, the Polish army fell back in disorder, and as the Russians approached Warsaw, their victory seemed certain, and Europe seemed doomed to become Communist dominated. But the Poles had broken the Russian codes and  Polish Chief of State Józef Piłsudski came up with a plan to exploit this knowledge.

Jozef PiIsudski

In a complex battle., the Poles lured the Russians into a trap and defeated them. The Russians lost over 15,000 killed and had to abandon their plan to foment and assist Communist revolution in Europe and turned inward. This was bad luck for the hapless Russian people, but a lifesaver for Europe. Although Poland would fall to Hitler a few years later, Europe had avoided the fate of Russia, and along with it, 50 years of repression, terror, purges, economic stagnation, and cultural sterility.

So raise a glass to the Poles, and maybe have a kielbasa. We owe them a lot.




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7 Responses to How Poland saved Western Civilization….Twice!

  1. Tomek says:

    Thanks for nice article about our history. One comment: Polish soldiers fought against Nazi Germany on all II WW fronts, not only during Battle of Britain. You may found their graves in UK and Russia, in Norway and North Africa, in France and Italy, in Czech and Holland. And in Poland, of course, dozens of thousands of them…
    We were the 1st country who stopped Soviets (in 1920). Unfortunately we lost in 1939 when Russia attacked us in alliance with Germany. But last ant-soviets partisans fought in Polish forests until half of 50-ties. The last one has been killed by communists in year 1963, near 20 years after official finish of the II WW (West point of view, isn’t it?). Next 20 years later we made Solidarity – peaceful movement for against Soviet domination in Eastern Europe.
    Of course, Polish kiełbasa and pierogi, beer and vodka, jazz and science fiction are perfect. But our main specialty is freedom – as a value for which our ancestors prey, fought and died (the 2nd specialty, in my private opinion, is the poetry – very often about fighting for freedom ).
    Best regards from Warsaw

    • johnreisinger says:

      Kveojur Tomek:
      Thanks for the thoughtful comment. The blog isn’t big enough to list all the great things about Poland or the Poles, but I thought something like saving Western Civilization was something people should know about. BTW, I am currently working on a book about what was going on elsewhere around the world while we in America were having out Civil War from 1861-1865. So far for Poland, I have info on the January Uprising (fighting the Russians even then!) and the Zouaves of Death. Since I am covering most of the world, I can’t go into extensive detail, but do you have any other suggestions for what was happening in Poland-Lithuania for that period? I especially want to highlight interesting people and events.
      John Reisinger

      • Tomek says:

        Hello John
        January Uprising is the most important in this period in Poland.
        Next one Polish rebellion for freedom (Poland was partied this time by Russia, Prussia and Austria).
        The short but good news you find, of course, in wikipedia :-).

        Interesting simple movie on youtube (English text + iconography)

        There is a lot of interesting books about it but in Polish unfortunately.

        I think that for US readers the most important point is:
        These Polish people in 1861 were ready for fighting for freedom even they had to fight against much more powerful army.
        And ready to pay for fresh breath of freedom even the most valuable price.

        83 years later, in 1944 during Warsaw Rising against German occupation, one of Polish insurgents said:
        “We wanted to be free, and freedom itself owe” (if I translated well).

        Of course, we had traitors, we had people who were afraid, who looked only for their safety, families, property.
        As in each nation. But the base of our national soul, our legends and historical heroes, our perceiving ourselves is based on this word: freedom.
        {sometimes even on anarchy level}

        Best regards

        PS We may move to private e-mail if you have more questions.

  2. To these two Polish victories, I would add the Polish defeat of communism. Their Solidarity Trade Union efforts in 1989 along with Pope John-Paul’s efforts set the process in place for the eventual democratization of eastern Europe and the breakup of the Soviet Union. The falling of the Berlin Wall was a great event, but it would never have happened if the Poles hadn’t led the way!

    • johnreisinger says:

      Thanks for the comment. Of course you are right, and I was glad to see that aspect of Polish history highlighted in President Trump’s Warsaw speech. The press mostly either ignored it or distorted it, but the message of standing up for freedom was there, and the Poles were at the center of it.

  3. Carlo Adams says:

    Hello John. Thanks for highlighting these momentous occasions in European History. The significance of the brave and gallant Polish forces victories in these battles, is very much appreciated! Europe, today, would be a very different place if not for these important victories!

    I once heard a commentator mention, that when Jan Sobieski’s mounted ‘winged’ Hussars charged their enemy at Vienna, the resplendent ‘wings’ they wore, glistened and sparkled in the daytime sunlight. This terrified the enemy, as it looked like an approaching band of ‘Angels’ were
    coming at them! This was very interesting to me and I hope it’s true.

    Thanks once again John.

    • johnreisinger says:

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, the Poles live in a bad neighborhood but they are tough and resilient. And I didn’t even mention the Polish Air Force, Army and Navy in England in WW2 plus Polish code breaking efforts.
      I heard the story about the wings as well. Don’t know if it’s true, but they must have been terrifying if they were bearing down on you.

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