Far too many horrific and tragic events took place between 1939 and 1945. One of the saddest ironiest of the recent death of the Polish President, First Lady and many prominent Poles in an air crash was that they were on their way to take part in a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre of thousands of Polish Officers by the Soviets in 1940. Its a timely reminder that massacres long ago have very strong resonance in the present day.
This book by Eugenia Marsch is a forensic and exacting attempt to describe the way in which the west – and the British Government in particular – did not, for whatever reason, hold the Soviets to account for what they perpetrated at Katyn. During the war and for many years afterwards the Soviets insisted that the killings must have been carried out by the Germans – after all, the Nazis did have a track record for mass killings. It was only during the 1980’s, and with Glasnost and Perestroika, that the Russians finally admitted to the atrocity.
The first section describes in crystal clear detail how the mass graves at Katyn were discovered. In particular its interesting to read about how the Germans were keen to involve a team of Polish doctors an official from the Polish Red Cross – why would they be so open to invite the Poles to the scene if they were guilty of the killings? And in terms of the forensic and criminological evidence, it is almost beyond doubt that Katyn was perpetrated by the NKVD in the spring of 1940.
The western Governments were faced with something of a dilemma. From evidence, it seems that they were in little doubt that the Russians were responsible – but as they were in a wartime alliance with Soviet Russia, Britain and the US were stuck between a rock and a hard place. They were under no illusions that Stalin was a deeply unpleasant character, but the priority was to defeat Germany, and the bulk of the fighting was being undertaken by the Russians on the Eastern Front. When Winston Churchill was chided by one MP for making a complimentary speech about Stalin, he replied, ‘If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least one complimentary reference to the devil in Parliament’, and I think that sums up the dilemma perfectly.
Of course, as a matter of principle the Western Governments should have pursued the perpetrators in the strongest possible manner. But Governments have to act in the reality of the situation, and the Soviets were of course going to deny their part in Katyn for years. And until several years after 1945, it was in no-ones interests to inflame tensions with the Russians. The war had to be won, and after that, thousands – probably many of them Poles – may have died if the west had confronted them. I guess the Katyn issue is not unlike that of Auschwitz – the Allies knew what was going on there, and of course its easy to think that they should have done something. But the Allies really couldn’t achieve that level of accuracy with their bombing – as seen in the Butt report.
It was only with the onset of the Cold War that the west was able to confront the Katyn issue – in particular a US Congressional committee did much to highlight the affair to the US and the world at large. Even though the Soviets continued to deny it, Historians all but confirmed that the Katyn massacre was carried out by the NKVD.
This is a fine book, and I found it incredibly gripping reading – I have always found Polish history interesting. It is very heavy reading at times – the author includes in full a lot of contemporary documents, and I suspect that the text has been translated from Polish to English. I would like to have seen more engagement with other historians work, as many other writers have looked at Katyn over the years, and it is better to engage within a disourse than to ignore it.
What of the authors argument, that the British Government was hypocritical? Whilst it is impossible not to grasp the strength of feeling, it is hard to see what exactly the diplomats, civil servants and politicians could have done. Sadly though, Britain did not have a great track record of standing up for Poles during the war as seen by the Sosabowski affair after Arnhem. We might wonder how objective it is, in that it was written by a Pole. I think it is about as balanced as we could expect. But Katyn is an important part of the Polish psyche, and that is exactly why what happened there in 1940 should never be forgotten.
Katyn 1940 is published by The History Press