I arrived in Poland just as the television announced the tragic death of President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, Maria, and many of Poland’s military and political leaders in an airplane crash at Smolensk in Russia. A week of mourning followed throughout the entire country.
The president had been traveling to Smolensk for a joint commemoration with the Russians of the 70th anniversary of the murder of over 20,000 Polish officers by the Soviet secret police at Katyn in 1940. The officers had been captured by the Red Army when the Soviets invaded, occupied, and annexed Eastern Poland in September 1939 by agreement with their Nazi allies who had invaded from the West. Between them they had destroyed Poland. Molotov, the Soviet commissar of foreign affairs who had signed the pact with Ribbentrop, his Nazi counterpart, to divide the whole of Eastern Europe into Soviet and Nazi occupied sections, cackled, “One swift blow to Poland, first by the German Army and then by the Red Army, and nothing was left of this bastard of the Versailles Treaty.” World War II began in Europe in 1939 as a joint enterprise between these two bandits, and their first victim was Poland.
The Soviets deported one and a half million Poles to Siberia or to their Central Asian colonies as slave labor. Hundreds of thousands of them died from their harsh treatment. A special fate was reserved for the Polish officers, many of them cadets and reservists who, in civilian life, had been professional men, businessmen, and officials. Among them were priests and rabbis serving as chaplains, including Baruch Steinburg, chief rabbi of the Polish army. For many months the Soviets tried to break their religious faith and their attachment to their native land. When this failed, they were taken into the forest, their hands tied behind their backs, their mouths stuffed with sawdust, their coats wrapped round their heads, and shot in the back of the head. Their corpses were secretly buried in this remote place. The NKVD were well practiced in this kind of rapid mass-killing and wore leather butcher’s aprons so as not to be spattered with blood. The murderers used German pistols and bullets that they received in exchange for the Soviet fuel that was used in the Luftwaffe’s bombing of London in 1940. Truly a joint enterprise.
The purpose of this crime was to eliminate the leaders and potential leaders of the Polish nation. Like the Nazis, the Soviets hoped to destroy Polish national identity. Then the bandits fell out, and on June 22, 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. One of the claims made by the Soviets and by their numerous leftist sympathizers in the West has been that the Soviet occupation of Eastern Poland, the Baltic states, and parts of Finland and Rumania was to provide a buffer zone to make it easier to resist such an invasion. Why, then, were the Soviets so hopelessly unprepared when the attack happened? Why was the buffer zone not fortified against attack? Why did they not heed the warnings of the British, the Americans, and even their own spies that the Nazi invasion, Operation Barbarossa, was about to happen? Why had they alienated the people who lived in the countries they had occupied by their cruelty to individuals and their attacks on these nations’ institutions and identity? There was nothing to stop the rapid advance of the Nazi army. The Soviets had no friends, only the enemies they themselves had created.
Now in desperation, the Soviets tried to recruit some of the Poles they had exiled to help fight against the Nazis. Those Poles who had fled west were already fighting alongside British soldiers and submariners and with particular bravery and effectiveness as pilots in the Royal Air Force. The Polish Lt. Gen. Wladyslaw Anders, trying to recruit an army from the Poles in the Soviet Union, now realized that 15,000 Polish officers were missing and gave Stalin a list of their names. In a conversation with the Polish Gen. Wladyslaw Sikorski, leader of the Polish government-in-exile, Stalin absurdly claimed that the officers had somehow ventured into Manchuria, then occupied by the Japanese, and had not been heard from since. By 1942 Anders realized that they had been murdered by the Soviets. All questions by the Americans and the British about the men who might otherwise have been released to fight with their fellow countrymen at Monte Cassino and in Normandy were rebuffed by the Soviets.
There the matter might have remained, but in 1943 the Nazis discovered the mass graves and exhumed the Polish officers. For them it was a tremendous propaganda coup, for the forensic evidence against their Soviet enemy was so powerful that, for once, there was no need for the Nazis to lie or exaggerate. Independent forensic scientists were called in to examine the bodies and the officers’ possessions, and it was clear the men had been killed and buried in 1940 when the Soviets controlled the area. American and British prisoners of war, taken to Katyn against their own wishes, later confirmed that the German account was true. Churchill and Roosevelt accepted that the Soviets were guilty but did not wish publicly to affirm this, lest it cause tensions with the Soviets now fighting hard on the Eastern Front. The Polish government-in-exile wanted an independent inquiry, but it was made clear to them that neither they nor truth or morality now mattered at all.
The Poles’ worst fears were confirmed in 1944 when the Germans retreated and the Red Army came close to Warsaw. At this point the Polish Home Army, that patriotic underground force in contact with the Polish government-in-exile, rose up against the Nazis and took control of much of the city, expecting that the Soviet forces would assist them to drive the Nazis back decisively. Instead, the Soviets deliberately and cynically held back and allowed the Nazis to defeat and crush the Poles and to lay waste to Poland’s capital. The Soviets forced back and in some cases shot down British and American aircraft dropping supplies to the besieged Poles. The Soviets wanted the Polish leadership and Poland’s identity to be eliminated and were happy to have the Nazis do much of the dirty work for them.
The American and British governments went on accepting—indeed, almost endorsing—the Soviet lies about Katyn long after the conclusion of World War II, when their common enemy had been defeated. When the Nazi war criminals were put on trial in Nuremburg in 1946, the Soviet Union had the impudence to accuse Hermann Goering and his codefendants of being responsible for Katyn and introduced forged evidence and perjured testimony in support of its case. The British and American judges carefully buried the paperwork, so as not to have to make any ruling whatsoever. The very presence of a Soviet judge at Nuremburg, a representative of the power that had jointly planned with the Nazis an aggressive war against Poland, rendered the proceedings morally dubious; to have convicted Goering of Katyn, when he clearly had no hand in it, would have been to follow tragedy with farce.
In the United States, the Korean War and fears about the fate of American prisoners there led to a thorough investigation of what had happened at Katyn and revealed that the leftists and appeasers surrounding Roosevelt, who had remained influential after his death, had conspired to conceal and even destroy documents that conclusively proved the guilt of the Soviets. Yet “progressive” thinkers and gutless peacemongers—and, later, revisionist historians—in both the United States and Britain went on denying the truth, despite the overwhelming evidence. When Gorbachev half-admitted and Yeltsin fully admitted that it was an entirely Soviet crime, the leftists simply erased all mention of Katyn from their writings. It had become a matter to downplay and forget. “Genocide in the pursuit of equality is no crime. Humanity in the pursuit of social justice is no virtue. Support murder, deny murder, forget murder.” Such is the leftist creed, as we have subsequently seen in relation to Mao’s China and Pol Pot’s Cambodia.
Britain went to war in 1939 to safeguard the integrity of Poland when she was attacked by the bestial Nazis in collusion with the evil Soviet empire. Britain failed utterly to achieve this aim, and at Yalta the Poles were sold into communist slavery. Those Poles who had come to Britain to fight for a common cause or who became refugees were treated badly. The communists and the left wing of Britain’s Labour Party wanted them sent back to Poland, to a likely death. Those permitted to stay were not allowed to live or to work where they chose but were forced into a limited range of harsh industrial tasks. Polish qualifications were not recognized, and there was strong discrimination against Poles who sought to enter academic life.
The Poles’ presence in Britain was inconvenient because they consistently demanded that the full truth about Katyn, about the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, and about the crushing of the Warsaw uprising be publicly proclaimed. This terrified the spineless British Foreign Office, which forced the council of Kensington and Chelsea in London to cancel plans to build a Katyn memorial in the center of Britain’s capital. Later, the memorial was erected in Gunnersbury in West London, but even here that was a row about the inscribing of the date 1940 on it, the year when everybody knew the Soviets carried out their mass murders. The Foreign Office then tried to prevent British ex-servicemen from attending the inauguration in uniform. Like the British diplomatic service, the Foreign Office always grotesquely overestimates the impact of words and symbols, and both are terrified by strong verbal confrontations. It is the necessary obverse of their gross overestimating of what can be achieved by the polite ambiguity and deception of diplomats—get a paper agreement, however bad, and do not consider the consequences. Could they realistically argue that the Soviets, however irritated, would have gone to war over a Katyn memorial in a British cemetery, when many such memorials existed in other countries, including the United States?
This year, the Russian government has at last come clean. The Soviet documents about the massacre are being published on the worldwide web, and the Polish film Katyn has been shown on prime-time television in Russia. For the first time NATO troops have marched in the parade held in Moscow to mark the anniversary of the end of World War II, and the Polish servicemen have been given pride of place, coming immediately after the Russians.
We can now see that World War II did not end in Europe in 1945, but on June 4, 1989, when the first truly free and independent Polish government was elected, nearly 60 years after Polish sovereignty had been jointly destroyed by the Soviets and the Nazis, which was the cause of the war. Soon all the other socialist governments in Eastern Europe collapsed, and the Soviet Union itself disintegrated. The Poles were vindicated. Free at last.