WW2 Relevance

|   7 May 2010

The Poles, Katyn and the recent plane crash.

The Polish flag flies at half mast at the Polish Centre, West London

Someone once asked me a really unexpected question: of all the sites of death and destruction that I had ever visited, which did I think still felt the saddest today?

It wasn’t a question I’d ever considered before – despite having traveled to many places in the world which have an extremely depressing history. Most obviously Auschwitz, of course, but also some terrible battlefields like Vyazma, west of Moscow, where I remember seeing rusting military equipment still lying amidst the trees, or the fields around Stalingrad where each spring human bones still push their way up through the thawing earth.

So I had to think a bit before I gave my answer. And in the end I could only narrow it down to two locations – each of which seemed as desperate as the other. The first was the site of Treblinka death camp. What was so dreadful about this place was the immensity of the crime committed here – around 900,000 people were killed on this one spot – combined with the scale of the camp. Treblinka was tiny. Only a few hundred meters square. And the reason it was so small was because it only had one function – murder. Almost everyone who came here was dead within a few hours of arriving.

And the other site that had the most profound impact on me was a forest near Smolensk in Western Russia. A forest called Katyn. It was here in April 1940 that the Soviet secret police – the NKVD – shot around 4,000 Polish citizens, the vast majority of them officers in the Polish Army. (Over 20,000 members of the Polish elite were murdered that April in total, since there were two other related murder sites elsewhere in Russia).

Before visiting Katyn I had read reports of the NKVD interrogations with many of the Polish officers and had been moved by their resilience and courage. The Poles knew that if they supported the Communists then they would receive better treatment. But most refused and stuck to their principles. And then they died for their principles.

Then there was the corrosive way in which the Soviets reacted when the bodies at Katyn were uncovered by the Germans in 1943. Stalin, of course, knew he and his colleagues had ordered the murders, but he insisted on blaming the Germans for the crime and then broke off relations with the Polish government in exile when they appeared not to immediately accept his nonsensical story. It’s the best example I know of Stalin’s vast capacity for cynicism. I’ve always thought that he had contempt for human beings as a whole. He thought that by torture or oppression they could be made to do anything: to break any principle, to accept any lie. And if the lie – like his lie about Katyn – was obvious, then watching as people were forced to accept it gave him considerable amusement.

The Polish nation thus had to suffer twice over this crime. Rather like the rape victim who is assaulted once as the crime is committed and then once in the courtroom as she is questioned by her attacker. The Poles mourned for their murdered officers and then had to watch as the master criminal not only escaped all punishment but blamed them for accusing him. It was only with the fall of Communism twenty years ago that – finally – the truth was admitted by the Russians. A truth that anyone who had studied the evidence already knew.

It’s this background that adds an added poignancy to the recent tragedy near Smolensk airport when a plane carrying Polish dignatories crashed, killing many of those on board, including the Polish President, Lech Kaczynski. These members of the Polish elite were on their way to attend the 70th anniversary of the murder of many previous members of the Polish elite at Katyn. And because of the history of lies and deception on the Russian side around the subject of the Katyn massacre I am not sure – if I was Polish – that I would ever accept completely the evidence that this was a tragic accident. Even though intellectually I might be convinced this was an accident, the history of Katyn would prevent a small part of my mind ever emotionally accepting this reality. Two massacres of the Polish elite at Katyn – 70 years apart – how could that possibly be a coincidence ? (Even though, sensibly, I would know this was so…)

When I heard news of the plane crash last month I thought of the words a Polish woman said to me many years ago. She had suffered at the hands of the Nazis only then to suffer at the hands of the Soviets once they occupied Warsaw. Her suffering did not end until 1989, along with the destruction of the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. ‘They say suffering makes you strong,’ she said to me. ‘It’s a lie. This suffering just makes you sad. Sadder than you can imagine.’

One Response to “The Poles, Katyn and the recent plane crash.”

  1. lagerlout says:

    Ok the Poles have had a bad history. But it’s because of geography. They are the meat in a sandwich between Germany and Russian. Not a healthy place to live.