‘Miracle of Vistula’: When Our Lady Saved the World From Communism

In 1920, in the face of Soviet aggression, Catholic Poland stood alone.

LEFT: The Black Madonna of Czestochowa. RIGHT: A Polish 120 mm battery during the Battle of Warsaw in 1920.
LEFT: The Black Madonna of Czestochowa. RIGHT: A Polish 120 mm battery during the Battle of Warsaw in 1920. (photo: Public Domain)

The first victim of the Soviet Union’s international socialist crusade was Catholic Poland. By the spring of 1920 Poland was under attack from the Soviet Red Army.

At the national Marian shrine of Czestochowa candles were lit and desperate prayers intoned beside the icon of the Black Madonna. The intercession of Our Lady of Czestochowa was never more needed.

On May 20, 1920, the newly created Red Army crashed through the Polish frontier with one intention: to destroy all before it. 

Bolshevik leaders meeting in Moscow for the Second Congress of the Communist International had already begun to prepare plans for a Communist-inspired world revolution starting with the nations of Central and Western Europe. Lenin had ordered that Warsaw be taken without delay. 

Now the Red Army raced toward Warsaw, advancing to the banks of the Vistula River that flows through Poland from the Baltic to the southernmost part of the land. For the Poles, all looked lost — especially as their pleas for help to the Western powers went unheeded. Prime Minister Lloyd George told the British Parliament that Poland had to accept “her fate.”

Now only a miracle could save Poland.

On Aug. 5, sensing the urgency of the situation, Pope Benedict XV exhorted all to pray for “God’s mercy for Poland ... to join all the faithful in imploring the Most High God that through the intercession of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary may save the Polish Nation from her final defeat and may turn away this new plague from Europe.”

With no military aid offered from abroad, Poland’s leader, General Piłsudski, realized that this might be his nation’s last stand. After spending a night in prayer, Piłsudski began to assemble soldiers — as many as could be spared for a major assault on the Soviet left flank. The plan appeared foolhardy, an imprudent last-ditch attempt at survival. 

On Aug. 10, the British government sent a telegram to the Polish government urging it to surrender to the Soviets to avoid annihilation. Instead, Piłsudski began to handpick his favorite military divisions to join those assembling near Lublin for the proposed counterattack scheduled to begin on Aug. 17.

Opposing him stood a 100,000-strong Red Army, soldiers filled with revolutionary fervor ready to destroy Warsaw and all those whom they found there.

On Aug. 12, Piłsudski prepared to leave Warsaw to join his strike force aiming to counterattack the Soviets. As he departed, Piłsudski turned to his wife Aleksandra saying, “It is in the hands of God.”

On Aug. 13, 1920, the Soviets attacked Warsaw. Encountering little resistance, they captured the outer suburbs in the southeast and northwest of the city. Everywhere, it appeared Polish forces were in flight. The Soviet artillery unleashed a devastating bombardment upon all those now left in central Warsaw. 

Warsaw began to take on a surreal appearance. The city was swollen with terrified refugees, with people camped out in public parks next to hastily-prepared and wholly-inadequate defenses. A special train carrying almost the entire foreign diplomatic corps left the capital bound for Poznan. One of the few foreigners who remained was Poland’s then-papal nuncio, Cardinal Achille Ratti, the future Pope Pius XI. Ratti organized a perpetual prayer for deliverance and, with monstrance held high, he led a Eucharistic procession through Warsaw’s streets as the Soviet shells rained down.

Polish generals, seeing that Warsaw could not hold out until relief from Piłsudski's flanking maneuver arrived, urgently telegraphed him: Attack!Piłsudski was shocked to hear the rapid deterioration of conditions in the Polish capital but agreed to launch his assault.

On the morning of Aug. 15, the Feast of the Assumption, wave upon wave of Soviet soldiers continued to attack Warsaw. Yet that morning, from within the city, Polish forces managed somehow to stem their advance. And then, against all odds, they began to retake ground that the Red Army had won. The Soviets started to wonder how the Polish army, which they had seen defeated for many weeks, had begun to fight back with fresh heart against a superior foe. A Soviet counterattack ensued, but it was futile. The Red Army was unable to vanquish the defending Poles. In fact, as the day of Aug. 15 progressed, Polish soldiers seemed to become bolder in counterattack. 

Strange rumors began to circulate in Warsaw. Some claimed that in the sky above the Polish lines had appeared the Black Madonna of Czestochowa. 

While the Poles fought with a new resolve, the Soviets, curiously, lost theirs. One Russian rifleman was later to comment that by the afternoon of Aug. 15, “The moment had come when not only individual units but the whole mass of the army suddenly lost faith in the possibility of success against the enemy. It was as though a cord that we had been stretching since the [invasion] had suddenly snapped.”

To relieve Warsaw and to break the Soviet advance, the counterattack had begun with Piłsudski at its head. Expecting to discover a significant Soviet force at any moment, the charging Poles were surprised to find their path mysteriously clear. As they advanced further, they found themselves all but unopposed. Piłsudski worried that the Soviets were setting a trap — that they were planning to encircle his men with a superior force once they had advanced sufficiently and escape was impossible. Yet for almost two days, Polish forces raced onward, brushing aside what few Bolshevik units they encountered. Piłsudski could not believe his eyes.

On the night of Aug. 17, Polish forces finally made contact with significant concentrations of Soviet troops. But the Soviets were taken unawares by the sudden appearance of this major Polish force. The outcome for the Red Army was catastrophic: many were killed, including large numbers of high-ranking officers. On the banks of the Vistula the Polish strike effectively eliminated the massed Soviet troops, as well as disrupting their communication lines, thus preventing incoming Soviet reserves from reaching Warsaw. 

In the days that followed, the seemingly invincible Red Army slouched back eastward whence it had come. On hearing of what had happened on the banks of the Vistula, Lenin declared that the army had suffered an “enormous defeat” and promptly put on hold his plans for a bloody world revolution. 

Meanwhile, Poles returned to the shrine of Czestochowa. Again, candles were lit, once more to cast a faint glow upon the enigmatic face of the Black Madonna. 

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Many years later, Pope John Paul II wrote: 

You know that I was born in 1920, in May, when the Bolsheviks marched toward Warsaw. And that’s why since my birth I have carried the great debt toward those who died fighting against the aggressor and who won, giving their lives for their country …

Then ... communism appeared as very strong and dangerous. It seemed that the communists would conquer Poland and would march to Western Europe, that they would conquer the world. 

But it did not happen. 

The Miracle on the Vistula — the victory of Marshal Piłsudski in the battle against the Red Army — stopped the Soviets.

Francisco de Zurbarán, “The Family of the Virgin,” ca. 1650

Why Do We Ask Mary to Pray for Us?

“After her Son’s Ascension, Mary ‘aided the beginnings of the Church by her prayers.’ In her association with the apostles and several women, ‘we also see Mary by her prayers imploring the gift of the Spirit, who had already overshadowed her in the Annunciation.’” (CCC 965)