The irony of the crash of a jet ferrying the elite of Polish society to a joint Russian-Polish memorial for the 22,000 Poles executed by the Soviet army in April, 1940 has not been lost on our media. Seventy years after this brutal and horrendous episode in human history, the Polish people have been forced to mourn all over again. Their President, army chief of staff and several survivors of that original purge perished close by the Russian forest where their countrymen lie buried.
Even 70 years later, one still can’t read the accounts of the Katyn massacre without a sense of shock. Determined to prevent the resurgence of Polish nationalism, Josef Stalin and his lieutenants drew up lists of individuals – politicians, military leaders, intellectuals, professionals and even boy scouts who might in the future pose a threat to Russian control of Eastern Poland. They were arrested, interrogated and then, one by one, led into a padded cell to be shot. Over the course 28 days, some 22,000 Poles died in this way, their bodies interred in a mass grave outside Smolensk.
The disappearance of the Poles remained a mystery until the discovery of mass graves in the Katyn Forest in 1943 following the German invasion of the U.S.S.R. The revelation led to the end of diplomatic relations between Moscow and the London-based Polish government-in-exile. The Soviet Union continued to deny responsibility for the massacres until 1990, when it officially acknowledged and condemned the perpetration of the killings by the NKVD, as well as the subsequent cover-up.
Naturally the crash has focused world attention again on the events of 70 years ago that until now few outside Poland remembered. Part of the reason for the neglect was the the lack of outrage expressed by the Allies at the time the mass graves in the Katyn forest were discovered by the invading Germans. Anxious not to rock the Allied boat at a particularly delicate time in the war against their Axis adversaries, neither Winston Churchill nor Franklin Roosevelt would allow widespread publication of the massacre, despite privately admitting that “Uncle Joe” might not be the jovial enthusiast for freedom they painted him in public.
But if the Katyn massacres proved anything, it was that barbarism was not the province of Nazis alone and that two of the strongest nations on earth had both descended to a level of human degradation that presaged the end of Western civilization. In fact in comparing Josef Stalin with Adolf Hilter, the former emerges as by far the greater killer, having been responsible for the death of nearly 30 milion people, most of them his own countrymen.
With hindsight it is now possible to look back on the 1940s and recognize that they represented a turning point in history, one in which governments had become unafraid of international censure and opprobrium in carrying out exterminationist policies. But equally it displays the acquiescence of democratic governments in failing to uphold their own values. For Poland might not have fallen as quickly and decisively as it did and many of the 22,000 who perished at Katyn may have survived, had Britan and France fulfilled their obligations to the defense of that country, rather than allowing it to crumble within weeks of the German invasion in September, 1939.
In our own day there are still regimes around the world willing to condone massacre not only of others, but of their own populations. In the Sudan, the Congo, Nigeria, Burma and Pakistan, regimes get away with slaughter of their own citizens and no Western government can be compelled to lift a finger. The monthly death toll in the Congo alone is estimated to be at 45,000, a total of 6.9 million over the past twenty years. The United Nations, established in the aftermath of the greatest carnage the world has ever known, sits in New York largely impotent and imperturbable, hemmed in by authoritarian regimes unwilling to condemn the depredations of fellow oppressors. Instead it regularly turns its wrath on democracies such as Israel and even the United States in a macabre reversal of purpose.
Two world wars were fought and won in the last century over the claim that personal freedom and individual liberty were at the risk of extinction. Alliances were forged in both wars between democracies genuinely pledged to the protection of those ideals and regimes for whom such concepts were anathema. It is said that sometimes you need to link arms with the devil to achieve a nobler purpose. But if the memory of Katyn proves anything, it is that there are points at which the devil might use such an alliance as protective cover for the perpetration of evil. The danger of that link is not only what it means for the fate of the devil’s victims, but the kind of damage it does to our own principles, ideals and sense of purpose.