Our Shame Still Lies in Katyn Forest

by Kevin Myers, The Telegraph, London
April 27, 2003

Today Poles all over the world will commemorate the 60th anniversary of the discovery of the war crime which didn't occur. And the non-existence of this atrocity constituted democracy's most sordid exercise in realpolitik of the entire 20th century. The Soviet Union captured 180,000 Polish soldiers during its invasion of Poland in 1939. Most were herded off to slave-camps in Siberia, but 22,000 officers were not. In April 1940, on Stalin's orders, each was bound with barbed wire and executed with a single shot to the head.

This was a colossal undertaking: the death toll was greater than that on the most calamitous day in British military history - the Somme, July 1, 1916. More importantly, the massacres occurred before the German invasions of France and the Low Countries. And although hundreds of Jews in Poland had been murdered, these were improvised butcheries, essentially unrelated to The Final Solution, which had not yet begun.

So the first systematic mass murder of defenceless innocents in the Second World War was not by the Nazis, but by the Soviet Union, just over a year before the USSR became Britain's official best friend. This shouldn't surprise us: after all, it had been the Soviets, and not the Nazis, who invented industrialised murder. From the revolution on, they freely used the word "exterminate" of their enemies. Hitler listened; and Hitler learned, as dictators do. Moreover, the careful murder of so many officers from a single narrow stratum of Polish society was truly proto-genocide: its intent was to eliminate Polish identity by the extermination of all its perceived guardians.

In 1943, via two sources - through a population census within the exiled Polish community living in the USSR, and from the Germans, who had discovered the site of one of the massacres, in the woods of Katyn, outside Smolensk - the British discovered the fate of the Polish officers. A devastating report from the British ambassador to the Polish government-in-exile, Owen O'Malley, left no doubt about the matter.

The British Government's public response was to dismiss the Nazi discoveries as propaganda and tell the Polish government-in-exile to forget Katyn and to proceed with beating the real enemy, Germany.

War is war, and in peace it is impossible to replicate the fevers and the terrors it induces. So no useful moral judgment can be made about those who decided in 1943 publicly to accept lies as fact, and to conceal the truth as regrettable but necessary strategy. But it was statecraft at its most pusillanimous to allow those lies to become a cornerstone of the relationship between the Western allies and the Soviet Union.

That is what happened when the three leaders - Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin - met at Teheran in November 1943. Far from berating the Soviet Leader for the massacres, the two democratic leaders propitiated him, awarding him the Polish land he had stolen even as he seized his future murder victims. And when Stalin jested that they should settle the German problem once and for all by killing 50,000 German officers, Churchill merely protested sulkily, and Roosevelt light-heartedly suggested killing only 49,000.

But nobody mentioned Katyn. How was this possible? For the massacre of the Poles was surely the secret subtext to this grisly exchange, and one by which Stalin was taking the measure of his two confreres. All three knew of the murders, and the bodyguard of lies around them: and silently, all three - two of them abjectly, the third triumphantly - assented to those lies.

Teheran was the true nadir of international diplomacy, morally far more ignoble and strategically far more catastrophic than either Munich five years before or Yalta a year later. And the key to Teheran was Katyn: once Stalin had got away with that, he realised he could get away with almost anything.

Moreover, the fiction of Katyn took root within the Foreign Office. There, nourished on complicit cowardice and malformed in the darkness of pathological guilt, the temporary tactic of 1943 was in time to turn into the diseased plant of enduring policy. It even caused the Callaghan Government in the 1970s vehemently to oppose the erection of a memorial in London to the victims of Katyn.

Denial, in its purest psychiatric sense, of Katyn also infused much consideration of the 20th century: how else could Roy Jenkins have written a life of Churchill without once referring to Katyn, the Great Lie of which the prime minister was prime mover ? How else could so many historians - Norman Davies aside - simply ignore the extraordinary Western collusion in covering up communist atrocities, and the profound impact this must have had on Kremlin thinking ?

On Thursday the FCO publishes a report, British reactions to the Katyn Massacre, in a belated attempt at expiation for Britain's repeated cover-ups of this terrible affair. But it cannot undo the evil of the extermination of the Polish officer corps which, far from being the subject of a war-crimes trial, was embraced and rewarded at Teheran; and from that city, the communism of Katyn was soon to march forth and conquer half the world.