This difficult book has a long history. Zwyciestvo prowokacji was originally published by its Polish author, then a penniless exile in Munich, at his own expense in 1962. I first read the work in Russian translation some 20 years ago, thanks to the editorial heroism of Nina Karsov, who had brought out a Russian edition in London under the imprint of one of her émigré publishing houses. And, in more recent years, I was a witness to Karsov’s struggle with the Anglo-American publishing establishment, aimed at persuading a mainstream house to bring out the English translation of a book whose thesis was deeply unfashionable and whose commercial potential was at best unknown. Truth to tell, I still can’t believe she’s succeeded.
As I say, it’s a difficult book. Difficult, first, because its author says many things that have never been said before and, second, because some of these things concern places of which today’s Western readers are not expected to know much—places like Poland, Lithuania, and the Ukraine. Such historical data as the author takes for granted are not always in their grasp, with the consequence that what to him is an explosive paradox may easily be construed by them as a routine assertion.
Hence my plea to the English reader to buy a copy of the book, if only to put it on the bookshelf, next to Kant’s Prolegomena or fragments of Sappho, whence it will radiate wisdom and humanity. For I suspect it is sheer folly to count on his abiding interest in an “anti-Communist manifesto,” as this work has been called by an Hungarian reviewer, after every newspaper, magazine, and radio station from here to Timbuktu has told him that communism is dead. That the book “destroys Communist myths which survive the fall of Communism,” as another Hungarian has written, may be a sweetener, but not enough of one to shift copies in this day and age.
So I ought to appeal to the English reader on other grounds. I ought to say to him that, apart from music and the sea, the most beautiful sound in the universe is that of an intelligent man speaking, and Jósef Mackiewicz is one of the most intelligent men we ever heard. This alone ought to put The Triumph of Provocation on a par with Gibbon and Burke, Gobineau and Tocqueville. It may be hackneyed and presumptuous to call an obscure book a work of genius, but that is what this is.
Józef Mackiewicz (1902-85) was born in St. Petersburg to a Polish nobleman who had set up a wine-importing business in the imperial capital. Five years later the family moved to Vilnius, where the child attended a classical gymnasium until, in 1919, he joined the fight against the Bolsheviks in the Russian civil war, a war of attrition in which Poland was to play such an important and equivocal part. In July 1920, Mackiewicz’s regiment covered the retreat of the Polish army from Vilnius, which had fallen to the Reds, and the young man found himself in Warsaw, where he enrolled at the university to study biology. His first literary work appeared in 1922, and from that point on he made a living as a writer and a jobbing journalist.
In September 1939, when the Soviet army invaded eastern Poland, Mackiewicz fled to Lithuania, which, less than a year later, was again occupied by Soviet troops. In poverty and in hiding, unable to write and publish, he worked as a woodcutter and a carter. In July 1941, after the Germans had come, he received and refused an offer from the occupation authorities to edit a newspaper in Polish. Nonetheless, as he later wrote,
I do not agree that the Germans are the worst enemy. The Bolsheviks are worse, because they are more dangerous to any nation, [as] no Pole can simultaneously be a German, [but] every Pole can simultaneously be a Communist.
In 1943 the occupation of Lithuania became the subject of a book entitled The Truth Does Not Hurt, not published until 2002, and another, written after he had made his way back to Poland, entitled Optimism Won’t Substitute for Poland, not published until 2005. There, after a journey to the Katyn Forest, where he witnessed the exhumation of the bodies of Polish officers murdered by the Russians, Mackiewicz’s historical worldview began to form:
There is no analogy between the German occupation of the years 1939-45 and the 1939-41 Soviet occupation. There is no analogy between the German method and the Soviet. Against the Germans, there was a war. A terrible war, but a war. In this war, rightly or wrongly, the whole of Poland took part, and she had to draw conclusions from those barbarous conditions which Hitler had imposed upon her, and which he did not conceal, but plastered on every street corner and every entrance: murder, destruction, prison, camps.
In 1945, fleeing from the Soviet liberators advancing on Poland, the historian reached Rome. Crucially for his later survival in the public eye, an arbitration board of the Association of Polish Journalists cleared Mackiewicz of all charges of collaboration with the Nazis. Whereupon, writes Karsov,
Mackiewicz, commissioned by the Research Section of the Second Polish Corps under the command of General Wladislaw Anders, prepared a white book about the Katyn crime, first published in 1948 as Zbrodnia katynska w swietle dokumentyw [The Katyn Crime in the Light of Documents].
The book, the first ever on the politically divisive subject of Soviet war crimes attributed to the Germans, came out in English in 1951 as The Katyn Wood Murders. In 1952 the U.S. Congress Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation of the Facts, Evidence, and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre heard Józef Mackiewicz in the dual capacity of witness and expert. In 1957, Katyn was followed by Contra, the first ever investigation of the Allied handover to Stalin, foreshadowed at Yalta, of ethnically Russian combatants who had fought on the German side. In 1962 came The Triumph of Provocation.
It is clear that at this stage in his life Mackiewicz has accumulated both the experience and the information necessary to conceive this seminal work. Its subject is not so much the history of totalitarianism in the 20th century as the emotional and political reaction of Western democracies—whose denizens he follows Lenin in describing as “deaf and dumb blind men”—to its mercurial essence and uncontrollable spread.
Of special interest to the modern reader is Mackiewicz’s treatment of the West’s response to the second Soviet perestroika under Khrushchev—the first such maneuver was the anti-Bolshevik about-turn of the early 1930’s, when the term itself was launched by Stalin—which was almost identical to its response to the third round of reforms, under Gorbachev, a quarter of a century ago. Of Khrushchev, personally responsible for the extermination of the kulaks in the Ukraine in the 1930’s, he writes,
Why should the murder of people because they are Jews be worse than the murder of people only because they have achieved a certain social status or because they believe in other ideals? At the same time that Eichmann was kidnapped and hanged, in violation of laws obtaining throughout the civilized world, in full view of the world community, and without a word of protest from any organization for the “defense of human rights,” Khrushchev, in full view of the same civilized world, was decorated with wreaths like a sacred cow in India, spent a night in France in a former king’s bed, and his peace of mind was regarded as so important that some of the émigrés whom he had not managed to kill were deported to an island to ensure that they would not spoil his appetite by arranging a demonstration.
Khrushchev’s reforms were tied to “de-Stalinization,” Stalin’s to “de-Internationalization,” and Gorbachev’s to “de-Communization,” but the nearly uniform assessment of all these political changes of tack on the part of Western observers was characterized by what Mackiewicz, a biologist by training, painstakingly anatomizes as wishful thinking. Totalitarianism’s essence remained, and its health was all the more robust for the mutations.
“Provocation,” in this all-embracing Mackiewicz sense, is a maneuver—political as well as cultural—that totalitarianisms devise and execute in order to provoke a wishful-thinking response from the democracies they use as parasites use their hosts. He quotes the following passage from Lenin, which had only come to light in 1961:
Telling the truth is a bourgeois superstition. . . . While chasing profits in the Soviet market, the world’s capitalists will close their eyes to reality and thus change into deaf and dumb blind men. They will . . . rebuild the war industry we need for our future victorious attacks on our suppliers. In other words, they will be working toward their own suicide.
Times change, and tanks and missiles of “the war industry” from Lenin to Khrushchev have given way to cybernetic engineering and nanotechnology research, but I do not think that the Mackiewicz sense of “provocation” has changed very much since the Soviet secret-police apparatus of the 1920’s launched its “Operation Trust” to persuade the West that the gang of Bolshevik regicides in the Kremlin had evolved into a responsible government with democratic aims.
In short, to Western readers The Triumph of Provocation should prove not only difficult but disturbing. It is a mirror, worthy of Voltaire, that reflects their own blindness, and that of their fathers and grandfathers, who, in the teeth of all available evidence to the contrary, “believed”—no less fervently than did their counterparts in Russia and Eastern Europe under Soviet rule!—that everything that happens is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. For where, under the pain of death from torture, my compatriots “believed” Stalin, as later under the pain of hunger they “believed” Khrushchev and under the pain of social ostracism they “believed” Gorbachev, their Western counterparts “believed” these same creatures of totalitarianism merely out of the Panglossian compulsion to “believe” that all is well with the universe founded on human reason.
On second thought, please forget everything I’ve said. Forget that this book is likely to be difficult. Forget that it is certain to be disturbing. Just buy a copy, and hear Józef Mackiewicz speak.
[The Triumph of Provocation, by Józef Mackiewicz (New Haven: Yale University Press) 256 pp., $48.00]