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.
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.
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.
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.