Lecture “The Last Stands: Poland in 1920 and 1939” by Professor Marek Jan Chodakiewicz

In his lecture, The Last Stands: Poland in 1920 and 1939, Professor Marek Jan Chodakiewicz from the Institute of World Politics presents the inspiring and harrowing accounts of two different examples of Polish resistance in the face of overwhelming odds; the last stand of Polish volunteers against the Bolsheviks in 1920, and the daring defensive action of a mere 700 Polish soldiers against the overwhelming strength of German General Heinz Guderian’s 10th army in 1939. By introducing these examples of Polish heroism, Professor Chodakiewicz means to supplement the work of Michael Walsh, whose successful book Last Stands: Why Men Fight When All Is Lost analyzes famous last stands throughout western history to decipher the factors that have led soldiers and warriors through the ages to make the ultimate sacrifice when faced with insurmountable odds. While providing an overview of the two battles, Chodakiewicz delves far deeper by exploring the complexities of human nature and the spiritual, ideological, and emotional factors that inspire sacrificial courage in defense of nation, hearth, and kin. Most importantly, Chodakiewicz emphasizes the importance of national identity in ensuring the continuity of heritage and values from past to future generations and reveals how this relates to the Polish experience of desperate revolts and resistance, which while almost always brutally crushed, maintained the fire of patriotism and love of country in the hearts of Poland’s people.

The concept of giving one’s life for one’s country is poorly understood in the modern West. It is common to view the sacrifices made by men for the sake of their nations as the tragic result of jingoism and toxic nationalism. This view, however, can only be rationalized within the ideological confines of the present day. Emphasizing the shortsightedness of this prejudice, Chodakiewicz quotes Michael Walsh, who writes in his book that “we seek to bury our past for having the effrontery for not living up to the moral standards of the present.” In order to truly understand past generations, one must immerse themselves in the ideals, ethics, and worldviews which shaped their existence.

According to Michael Walsh, men fight to protect their families and bloodlines. Chodakiewicz builds upon this concept by drawing a natural comparison between the family and the nation. Just as families are sustained from parents to children, nations are the products of cultural and historical memory, preserved in the collective consciousness of a people. According to Chodakiewicz, nations are not mere socio-political constructs but are instead the fullest expression of sovereignty and identity for groups bound together by shared history, language, experiences, and values. Nevertheless, the conceptualization of the nation presented here is not one bound by rigid ethnic criteria or racial classification. Instead, the essence of a nation is its values. Anyone who chooses to contribute to the freedom and wellbeing of a nation can claim to be a part of it regardless of their ethnicity or background. By underlining this point, Chodakiewicz endorses a patriotism that serves to unite people under common values. In an age wary of patriotism and national feeling, this distinction is essential. Those who sacrifice themselves for their nation’s freedom in the face of oppression are not falling victim to meaningless tribal conflict but are instead defending the ideals, values, history, and identity that provide meaning, security, community, and freedom for themselves and their children.

When viewed through this perspective, the stories of Zadworze and Wizna can be appreciated on a higher level. Chodakiewicz gives detailed descriptions of the battles and the overwhelming odds which faced the Poles in each. At Zadworze in 1920, several hundred Polish volunteers from Lwow managed to halt the advance of Bolshevik cavalry commander Simony Budiony. While vastly outnumbered, the Polish troops refused to surrender or withdraw from their positions at the Zadworze train station and repelled six major cavalry assaults upon their positions. When the Bolshevik cavalry finally overwhelmed the Polish defenses, they carried out horrific crimes and murders against the wounded. Several Polish soldiers, including captain Boleslaw Zajaczkowski, preferred suicide to torture or captivity. Out of the 330 Polish defenders, 318 met their deaths at Zadworze. Chodkiewicz drew special attention to the 19-year-old Konstanty Zarugiewicz, a Pole of Armenian origin, whose remains were never discovered.

During the battle of Wizna, fought in 1939 between September 7th and September 10th, a mere 700 Polish troops held unto their defensive positions along the Narew River against over 40,000 Germans under the commander of Wehrmacht General Heinz Gunderian. Multiple German assaults were repelled, and the Wehrmacht could only clear each bunker through heavy fighting as the stubborn Polish defenders refused to capitulate. When the last bunker finally surrendered, the Polish Captain Wladyslaw Raginis fulfilled his vow to never leave his post by committing suicide. 

While the troops who fought and died at the battles of Zadworze and Wizna have received special honors for their sacrifice and courage, they represent a greater tradition of Polish resistance and defiance in the face of overwhelming odds. As a country, Poland has experienced the ravages of war more than many nations in Europe. Any student of Polish history would read the long list of desperate rebellions and failed insurrections and ask themselves if all the suffering and death which resulted from them was worth it. There has even been much debate in Poland concerning the consequences of the Warsaw Uprising, which critics claim failed to achieve anything other than the deaths of 200,000 civilians and the city’s destruction.

To Chodakiewicz, Poland’s freedom fighters’ sacrifices throughout the centuries have not been in vain but are a major cornerstone that provides the foundation for Polish identity. In his definition of Polishness, Chodakiewicz emphasizes continuity, which connects present-day generations of Poles with their ancestors. He asserts that “what I mean by “Polish” is a conscious devotion to the idea of passing the torch of Polish culture from past generations to the current one with a mission to convey it to the next generations in the future.” The sacrifices of Polish patriots who laid down their lives for their homeland can be understood as an essential part of passing the torch of Polish identity and culture to the next generation. Only when seen through this light, can the efforts of Polish patriots be fully understood. Every failed rebellion, crushed uprising, desperate last stand, and column of chained Siberian exiles tempered the Polish spirit. It gave it the resolve and fortitude to understand the value of Poland and fight for it once more. Chodakiewicz eloquently emphasizes the power that historical examples can provide to younger generations, stating, “in the first things that define us, the dead showed us the way, we emulate them, and we hope the unborn will do so as well.”

If it were not for the sacrifices of 1763, 1794, 1812, 1830, and 1863 throughout the humiliation of the partitions, would Poland be the same nation today? Would she have had the strength to resist the pressures of Russification and Germanization during the 19th century or the dark forces of German National Socialism and communism in the 20th? Again, one must consider how the example of previous generations gave future generations of Poles the determination to resist or die trying. There can be no denial that the consequences of defeat for Poles have always been drastic. As the venerable Jan Karski wrote in his memoir, Story of a Secret State, “Other nations may be oppressed and dominated after losing a war; Poland is likely to be destroyed, its land divided, and an attempt made to destroy its very language and way of life.” In the face of such existential threats, the only option that was available to many patriotic Poles was to fight. It was desperate acts of resistance that allowed Poland to resurrect like a phoenix repeatedly throughout its history.

Chodakiewicz’s lecture is complemented by the words of the great early 20th century English Catholic G.K. Chesterton, who reflected upon the Polish victory over the Bolsheviks in 1920 in his article The Polish Ideal. Chesterton asserted that, 

“When the Poles defeated the Bolshevists in the field of battle, it was precisely that. It was the old chivalric tradition defeating everything that is modern, everything that is necessitarian, everything that is mechanical in method and materialistic in philosophy. It was the Marxian notion that everything is inevitable defeated by the Christian notion that nothing is inevitable – no, not even what has already happened.”

By challenging the materialistic assumptions of our modern age, the value of sacrifice for a cause greater than oneself can be rediscovered. Chodakiewicz reminds us that the virtues of honor and courage are not dusty relics of a bygone age but are an essential part of our development as people and as nations. 

by PAC Intern Eliseo Nesci

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