Beyond Tragedy: The Katyn Reconciliation

One side-detail of the tragic plane-crash on Saturday that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski along with much of that country’s political, military, and even financial elite was that the reason all these worthies were headed to a Russian provicincial backwater like Smolensk in the first place was to participate in a very solemn ceremony there. That was to have commemorated the mass-execution, which began exactly seventy years ago, of around 20,000 Polish officers and other prominent citizens by the Soviet secret police, who had had them fall into their hands as a result of the USSR’s invasion of Poland (coordinated with Hitler’s Germany) in September, 1939. This prompted some commentators to write ponderously of a doom-laden Katyn parallel: Poland’s intelligentsia wiped out there in 1940, and then once again in 2010.

Unfortunately, these grim events are now totally obscuring the remarkable progress represented by the very fact that such a delegation of eminent Poles, headed by the President, was being allowed to go there in the first place – and by the no-less remarkable fact that Russian premier Vladimir Putin and his Polish counterpart Donald Tusk had in fact participated in a commemoration ceremony there just last Wednesday. Looking back now at news coverage of these developments – that is, written before this past weekend’s tragedy – produces a very bittersweet feeling, especially from two articles on the Katyn legacy from among the elite of the German press, here the Süddeutsche Zeitung and Die Welt. In particular, the latter piece begins with the sentence “Seldom has the Polish public looked at Russia with so much hope as in these days” – on a webpage where, at the very same time, you can click over on the right-hand side (under “Current Videos”) to see a news-film of rescuers searching through the crash-site in the Russian forest!

(By the way, you could be sure that the German coverage of Katyn’s legacy was going to be thorough and high-quality, and not only because Germany’s sheer size of population and cultural inheritance ensures good journalism. Remember that, for decades, it was German soldiers who were alleged to have been at fault here, so you can be sure that German journalists will always be on top of this story to ensure the historic record remains set straight.)

Yes, Die Welt writer Gerhard Gnauck reminds us that the Katyn Massacre was “one of the greatest crimes and at the same time . . . one of the greatest historical lies of the 20th century.” It was the Soviets who did it, of course, specifically the NKVD, as one expression of Stalin’s conviction (one thing he shared with Hitler) that Poland needed to be wiped off of the map (again), and that liquidating the cream of that society’s intellectuals was a good first step towards that. Nonetheless, the Soviet Union was successful for decades in propagating its own “Big Lie” blaming the Germans for the tens of thousands of corpses discovered buried in the woods, going so far as to include the incident in its indictment of top German officials at the Nuremberg Trials, and even erecting a memorial at a West Russian town named “Chatyn” – it bore no actual relation to the massacre itself, but had been burnt to the ground by the Wehrmacht and so was a handy site to which to (mis)lead tourists seeking more information about the Polish victims and their deaths.

This façade of denial lasted almost as long as the USSR itself did; Mikhail Gorbatchev finally admitted Russia’s guilt, but it was not until Boris Yeltsin presided over a new state, the Russian Federation, that the Polish government was allowed to erect a memorial on the site and key historical documents started to be handed over. And then, in 2004, the wall of secrecy slammed shut again: the Russian military prosecutor initiated an investigation into the “Katyn Crime,” which meant of course that all related documents had to be kept confidential again. But by then Boris Yeltsin was gone, replaced by his hand-picked successor Vladimir Putin, who was much more interested in rehabilitating the reputation of Josef Stalin and making Russians proud of the USSR’s history once more.

That’s why the joint Putin-Tusk commemoration ceremony at the Katyn memorial is so significant. (Die Welt’s Gnauck calls it “a historical-political sensation.”) Could the Russians finally be coming back to a sober acceptance of their country’s (and, in particular, Stalin’s) guilt for what happened there? And it wasn’t only Putin at that ceremony; on Good Friday Russian state television broadcast the 2007 film “Katyn” by Oscar-winning Polish director Andrzej Wajda, followed by a panel discussion about it among a group of prominent historians and politicians. (They concluded that the film was an impressive indictment against totalitarianism, and not anti-Russian at all. By the way, Russian television once again broadcast “Katyn” just last night – Sunday, 11 April – i.e. after the plane-crash tragedy; I don’t know whether there was any on-air discussion this time.) What is more, the Russian NGO Pamyat’ (Memory/Memorial) has sent an open letter to President Medvedev urging that 1) The Russian government take up again an investigation into Katyn, so that 2) It can publish a list of all victims, 3) Name the names of the guilty, and 4) Prosecute them criminally (any of those who still might be alive, at least).

Stalin Again on the Up

Good progress, then, right? Well, there has been no reaction to that open letter from Medvedev, and no indication that there ever will be any. Meanwhile, Frank Nienhuysen reports in his SZ article that members of the Communist Party (the second-biggest in the Russian parliament, the Duma) are now pushing for the publication of archive documents that they claim will show that it was the Germans who were behind the Massacre after all. For it turns out to be rather hard to do anything to spoil the warm feeling Russians have deep down about their victory over the Germans, under Papa Stalin. Indeed, in a first since the end of the USSR, Moscow city officials have approved the hanging of portraits of Stalin in the city’s streets next May 9, during the annual World War II victory parade.

As it happens, Polish President Kaczynski had started negotiations with the Russian authorities to go attend that Moscow victory ceremony for the first time. That’s now beside the point, of course; Poland will in any case be busy for a while in mourning, and then with rebuilding its elite and replacing the many political figures who perished in the woods near Smolensk. Unfortunately, that also means that those encouraging Russian gestures towards acknowledging Katyn (including the “historical-political sensation” of Putin at the memorial) must fade completely into the background – out of sight, out of mind for the Poles and everyone else. Except perhaps for the Russians themselves; and, at this stage, isn’t their own coming-to-terms (namely “whether,” and if so, “how”) with what Stalin’s NKVD did seventy years ago in their name the only remaining important question?

UPDATE: Then again, I could be overly pessimistic here, at least according to Jarosław Kurski writing in Gazeta Wyborcza (Let this death unite us, whose English-language translation was published in the Guardian).

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