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Warsaw 1920, by Adam Zamoyski

The year the east and west were won

Poland in 1980 was when communism was peacefully pushed into history's bottomless dustbin by the workers of the union, Solidarity. Poland in 1940 was when 20,000 of Europe's intellectuals, doctors, teachers and army officers were taken out and shot on Stalin's orders - a mini-Holocaust not matched by Hitler until the following years. Poland in 1920 was where Lenin's attempt to convert Europe to Bolshevism at the end of machine guns and bayonets came to a dead end.

Now we have a thorough, beautifully written account of one of the great turning-points in Europe's history. Adam Zamoyski knows Polish, Russian and European archives as few others do, and writes with the dash of a Polish cavalry officer.

In 1920, Lenin ordered the invasion and occupation of Poland as a prelude to exporting the Russian revolution into the heart of Europe, Germany. In a desperate war in the spring and summer, the Poles held off much greater Russian armies, culminating in the Battle of Warsaw in August 1920. Lenin's military ambitions were defeated and Europe was saved from the full-scale dictatorships that arrived in Germany after 1933 and the eastern half of Europe after 1945.

Lenin thought the huge numbers he could muster would be enough to see off the Poles. Giant cavalry armies raced for Warsaw. The Russians invented a new weapon - a machine gun mounted on a horse-drawn pram. These raced across battle-fields with scything effect. But as the lines of communication got longer and longer, the Poles were able to cut off and mash up the various red armies.

The Poles broke all the Russian codes and were able to listen to all communications. The training proved vital two decades later as Polish code-breakers and the Polish underground's capture of the Wehrmacht's Enigma coding machine let London read German war plans. The Red Army had no time for hearts-and-minds campaigns. Women were raped, peasants slaughtered and the Jews blamed as the capitalist paymasters of the hardly philo-Semitic Poles under Pilsudski. Trotsky ordered leaflets to be printed in German as he believed fondly that first Polish, then German workers and peasants would rise up to embrace their Russian liberators.

London was caught up in its own crises in Ireland and Palestine. British unions tried to block trade to Poland in the name of workers' solidarity with Sovietism. No one in Poland noticed. The French took events more seriously. General Weygand, later responsible for France's defeat in 1940, worked with the Poles, as did a young major, Charles de Gaulle. He never forgot that, between attachment to an ideology and attachment to the nation, the latter always wins. Zamoyski is indulgent to his beloved Poland in arguing that the 1920 war gave Poland two decades of freedom. Yes, in the sense of autonomous rule, but the record of authoritarianism, Jew-hatred and politics that defied all common sense is hardly noble. 1920 prevented Soviet dictatorship but Europe was unable to rise to the challenge of constructing something different. That had to wait until after 1945 and the arrival of Nato and the EU.

Today, again, Poland and Britain are linked as hundred of thousands of Poles and Brits live in each other's nations, commute, settle and form households. The Poles know and cherish Britain's history as do few other European nations. Now Zamoyski is repaying the compliment as he rightly insists on the centrality of the Polish narrative to understanding Europe.

Denis MacShane MP was Minister for Europe when Poland joined the EU in 2004; his first book was an account of Solidarity