Buffers and Civilization

I have yet to find a culture that didn’t want some kind of buffer or wall between civilization (theirs) and Others. This was especially true when one or more of those Others happened to be, oh, nomadic raiders, or an ambitious empire (or a country with an ambitious monarch who firmly believed that his personal glory was that of his country as well [*coughLouisXIVcough*]). If geography provided that buffer or wall, that was good. Egypt had deserts, South Asia had the Himalaya, as did China, and so on. Other people were not so fortunate. Poland has turned out to be the poster child for “people stuck on the best route between us and them.”

2020 marks the 100 year anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland, and the subsequent defeat of the Red Army by the Poles at the gates of Warsaw. The Poles give a lot of credit to Our Lady of Czestochowa, and for those unfamiliar with the, ah, long and warm relationship between Russia and Poland, it looked like a miracle had to have happened. Not to say that one didn’t, because Poland is Poland and the rules are somewhat different there, but dogged determination and white-hot hatred also played a role.

WWI did not end in 1918, at least not in Eastern Europe. Unsettled borders, the Russian Civil War, and other problems kept the region flaming or smouldering through 1923 at least. Poland had been created anew after almost 250 years of erasure from the maps of Europe. Poland, however, only had (and has) a geographic barrier on the south – the Tatras Mountains. The east is open to Russia, the north is the Baltic, and the west has some hills but not many and they are not all that high. Any trouble to the east or west might spill over, as the Mongols and Russians and Prussians had done.

In 1919-1920, trouble spilled over. Poland needed a buffer zone. It had always been the buffer zone, the odd Slavic Catholic duck between Orthodox Russia and the Holy Roman Empire. Whenever the Russians and Swedes got into a spat, they came through Poland. Germany had invaded through Poland in WWI. The Poles had no desire for the re-worked Russian Empire to nestle so close, and so when the US, UK, and others gave up on trying to intervene in the Russian Civil War, and Germany ignited in a Communist-fueled civil war of its own, Poland had enough.

Poland wanted a buffer, and aimed east, toward what was then Ukraine (Russia). Historically, the area had at various points in time been part of the Grand Duchy of Poland-Lithuania, and Poles had been known for beating up on Ruthenes (Ukrainians). One reason Ruthenes had liked the Austrian Empire was the Austrians didn’t tolerate the Poles picking on Ruthenians. So, as is always the case in that part of the world, there was a bit of a history there. The Poles invaded, trying to establish a defense in depth against the Red Army.

The Soviets struck back, and hit hard. The Poles staged a fighting retreat, aided by American and other mercenaries, and bloodied the Soviets. But still the Russians pushed forward. At last, at the very edge of Warsaw, a brilliant diversion and lateral attack by General Pilsudski, and the intervention of Our Lady, stopped the Soviets. The Red Army collapsed and a route began. The Poles drove the Soviets back out of Poland. The West ignored it for the most part. Poles remember, and added it to their long list of “reasons we do not like what comes on an east wind.”

Poland is still the buffer, the west-looking Slavic nation. Today Poles are tenacious in their defense of Western Civilization, much to the dismay of the Eurocrats in Brussels. Poland has joined Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, and now Austria in standing up to the EU and defending their culture and religious heritage.

Poland got stuck with the unenviable position of being a flat place on the easy invasion route. I’ve joked that the very early name for the region probably translated “Oh no, here they come again!” They are not the only part of the world so blessed (?), but they are one of the best known. Too much history has happened there for the peace of the Polish people. It’s hard being the buffer, the watchman at the gate, the trumpeter in the tower.



28 thoughts on “Buffers and Civilization

  1. This explains a lot. I have occasionally sort of wondered why Poland of all the Eastern Bloc nations was where the anti-Soviet revolt that worked began, and also why the Polish are so much more energetic than Western European nations about their military and working with the US on mutual defense policy. Sloppy thinking on my part – I should have realized that there are still plenty of Polish people who remember what life was like under Russian rule.

  2. The Shrine to Our Lady of Czestochowa (Doylestown, PA) is amazing, but the pilgrimages keep the ominous tone – “don’t annoy us, or Her”.

    For stellar empire building, it’d be better to place a Polish national planet off the main transit routes, but defended to the teeth. The Nebular Hussars will challenge all comers.

  3. There is something to be said for big oceans east and west and friendly northern cousins.

  4. ‘route’/’rout’
    Only a few years ago, the world at large learned that the Poles had broken the Soviet military codes. That secret was kept 40 years longer than the Poles’ role in breaking Enigma.

    • Much like the Iowa jokes (made by Iowans to try to keep Californians away, I suspect..) it would NOT surprise me to discover that (almost?) all “Pollack” jokes were invented by Poles as cover. It can be good to be misunderestimated.

      • A guy I worked with would use that type of joke. Bright and a good practical engineer, knew how to hold a grudge (ear and nose). We got out of the way when he used that, because the recipient was about to have new orifices made, supplying oxygen to his brain space.

      • As someone whose 1/2 Polish father collect Polack jokes, I’m sure they started them. As for the intelligence of the Poles, Marie Curie, the first female Nobel Laureate for Chemistry was Polish.

    • What was their role in breaking Enigma? I have never heard such. Book recommendation please if possible.

      • They had partially broken earlier, related code systems and they got their work, and what they knew of Enigma, out of Poland just hours ahead of the German army.

        I’ll see if I can remember or locate my sources. But their success with the WWI and Soviet codes implies some formidable skill.

        The father of a colleague of some years ago had worked at Bletchley (on loan from the USA, and a future NSA employee) and was in possession of a captured Enigma machine. His son rewired it to operate on about 3/5 of the design voltage so the lamp life would effectively be centuries. Those lamps are irreplacable.

        • Yes, I remember reading about the Polish success in breaking Enigma in one of my books about WW2 cryptanalysis, but I can’t remember which one. It might have been in The Code Book by Simon Singh, but I can’t find my copy so I can’t confirm that. In any case, the story is true. IIRC in 1938-39 the Polish managed to break several Luftwaffe codes that were encrypted with an early version of the Enigma machine. After the German invasion that information was deemed utterly vital, and it was one of the few things the Polish Army managed to send to England before Poland fell.

          I can never think about Poland in WW2 without a twinge of tragedy. The whole Western world went to war over the Nazi invasion of Poland, but the Poles got nothing out of it except six years of brutal repression by the Nazis followed by another forty-plus years of equally brutal repression under the Soviet Union.

      • Polish mathematician Marian Rejewski was the first to crack the Enigma code. Paul Gannon’s “Colossus, Bletchley Park’s Greatest Secret”, Chapter 4 briefly covers this work – Rejewski and two of his colleagues escaped from Poland in 1939, bringing with them a Polish (reverse-engineered) copy of the German Enigma machine. It was this that gave Bletchley Park its start on methods of decipherment for Enigma traffic. Often overlooked, too, is the work that the Polish Resistance did later in the war collecting intelligence for the Allies on Hitler’s V-weapons then being developed at Peenemunde, often under the noses of the Gestapo and the German Army. R.V. Jones’ “Most Secret War”, Chapter 45 has quite a bit on that.

  5. Apparently, the reason I never heard about the Poles defeating the Red Army before this week was that It Wasn’t Mentioned during the hegemony of the USSR over Poland, and that of course a lot of US historians were leftists. Plucky Finland was too big a trope to kill off, but “the Soviets murdered all those Polish officers in Katyn Forest because the Polish officers had kicked the Red Army’s butt” was not apparently important.

    However, it does add a little oomph to “why didn’t the Polish Communist Party do more against Solidarity?” Maybe not only because there was a bit of a grudge from WWII, and Eastern Europe got treated like a redheaded stepchild; but there also was a tiny hidden bit of triumphalism over those Soviet sore losers.

  6. And *this* is why I’m glad we’re moving some of those soldiers that annoy our German allies so much over into Poland. If someone’s gonna be a buffer zone, may as well use the flat spot to buff it up.

  7. And if Putin’s power structure decides he is losing the ‘near abroad’ he may lose some of his support. Which might lead to him grasping harder.

    All of this links to the age-old question: do you gain moe by making or taking. And to the problem that the judgement of the agent (government) may serve the agent more than the people.

    • So long as he “takes” in the direction that threatens Iran or Red China, he can run rampant for all I care.

    • One of the interesting things is how “Poland” and “Ukraine” wandered all over the map, once you get away from Krakow and Warsaw (P) and Kiev (U). Plus, if he was Uniate (Eastern Rite Catholic), that’s an OK match. And love’s blind.

      • My Russian teacher in college, as a child, had briefly lived in Poland, Russia, and Germany (maybe Ukraine too) without ever moving house.

        His family got the heck out of Dodge and came over here.

  8. I remember reading somewhere that the area between Berlin and Moscow is one giant plateau, relatively flat, and that is why that area has been fought over repeatedly – it is a prime invasion route for armies to move through. Is my understanding correct? Anyone?

    • Not exactly. You’re looking at the northern European plain, the area that was heavily glaciated, then shifts to mostly rolling before you get to the Tatras Mountains in the south. On the southwest, Poland now abuts Moravia and Germany at the edge of the Bohemian Massif, an uplifted area that is cut by the Danube and that eases into the Ore Mountains and then the Tatras as you go east. So Poland is between the uplands, the mountains (north edge of Carpathian formation) and the Baltic. It’s not a plateau, but it is flat, especially as you go north. Then it’s very flaaaaat and has sandy soil that grows pine trees and wheat, but not much else.

  9. Old joke, which I will abbreviate considerably here: A Pole finds a mysterious bottle, lets out the djiin and get 3 wishes. He wishes for the Mongols to sack Poland, and repeats this for the second and third wish as well. The flabbergasted djinn asks: “why does a Pole want the Mongols to sack Poland 3 times?” and the Pole answers with a happy smile: “Because they had to go through Russia 6 times!”.

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