tragedies versus statistics

By Diogenes (articles ) | Feb 05, 2008

Historian and Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum is something of a maverick in her interest in and success at making the history of Soviet atrocities known to a generation of intellectuals uneasy at learning bad things about Leftists. Her book Gulag: A History (2004) introduced many people to Stalin's network of concentration camps. In this month's New York Review of Books she has a review of a film based on the 1940 Katyn Massacre. Her article is called A Movie That Matters:

Katyn, as its title suggests, tells the story of the near-simultaneous Soviet and German invasions of Poland in September 1939, and the Red Army's subsequent capture, imprisonment, and murder of some 20,000 Polish officers in the forests near the Russian village of Katyn and elsewhere, among them Wajda's father. The justification for the murder was straightforward. These were Poland's best-educated and most patriotic soldiers. Many were reservists who as civilians worked as doctors, lawyers, university lecturers, and merchants. They were the intellectual elite who could obstruct the Soviet Union's plans to absorb and "Sovietize" Poland's eastern territories. On the advice of his secret police chief, Lavrenty Beria, Stalin ordered them executed.

But the film is about more than the mass murder itself. For decades after it took place, the Katyn massacre was an absolutely forbidden topic in Poland, and therefore the source of a profound, enduring mistrust between the Poles and their Soviet conquerors. Officially, the Soviet Union blamed the murder on the Germans, who discovered one of the mass graves (there were at least three) following the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941. Soviet prosecutors even repeated this blatant falsehood during the Nuremberg trials and it was echoed by, among others, the British government.

Unofficially, the mass execution was widely assumed to have been committed by the Soviet Union. In Poland, the very word "Katyn" thus evokes not just the murder but the many Soviet falsehoods surrounding the history of World War II and the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939. Katyn wasn't a single wartime event, but a series of lies and distortions, told over decades, designed to disguise the reality of the Soviet postwar occupation and Poland's loss of sovereignty.
As Applebaum suggests, what is remarkable about the Katyn phenomenon is not simply the tactical Soviet mendacity, but the willingness of the European and American intelligentsia to excuse or ignore Stalin's crimes in order to burnish the myth of the moral superiority of progressives in general and the Left in particular. In a collection of essays by former Marxists called The God That Failed, poet Stephen Spender drew attention to his own hypocrisy in the matter:

"When I saw photographs of children murdered by the Fascists, I felt furious pity. When the supporters of Franco talked of Red atrocities, I merely felt indignant that people should tell such lies. In the first case I saw corpses; in the second only words. I gradually acquired a certain horror of the way in which my own mind worked. It was clear to me that unless I cared about every murdered child impartially, I did not really care about children being murdered at all."

By way of perspective, at the time of the Katyn Massacre Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II, was five weeks short of this 20th birthday.

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  • Posted by: - Feb. 07, 2008 5:35 AM ET USA

    Ah, the older I get, the brillianter my father becomes. How many times did I hear him curse the Communists, mostly for the Katyn Massacre, when he returned from Europe after fighting the Nazis during WWII. "The Flower of Poland" he called the victims.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 06, 2008 4:59 PM ET USA

    I am looking forward to seeing this film. Wajda is one of the great filmmakers of our time. The more I learn of modern Polish history, the more I am surprised - and horrified - by the complicity of our Western powers in subduing Poland for strategic gain. Everyone says it was "realistic" and "necessary", but did anyone ask the Poles? And yet they have kept the faith. Amazing people.

  • Posted by: - Feb. 05, 2008 12:54 PM ET USA

    If memory serves me correctly, the late former Congressman Roman Pucinski was a news reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times who stayed on top of the Soviet atrocities at Katyn. Mr. Pucinski belonged, alas, to the Democratic Party when the Party was indeed democratic and welcomed fairly conservative members like himself. Now the Party seems to have become an American mirror of Putin's Russian party with tolerance only for those who toe the ideological line.