In July 1963, at the height of the Cold War, I joined a small group of adventurous British academics on a four-week visit to Poland. Our hosts were Polish academicians at the University of Lodz. It did not take our group very long to determine that there were two categories of academic at Lodz, a majority, who were members of the Communist Party, and who for the most part were stupid hacks, and a minority, who were Catholics, and who tended to be much more intelligent. For the most part, our group steered clear of the Communists, though this was not easy because the Catholics were held on an extremely short leash throughout our visit.
We traveled extensively through Poland during our visit, to Krakow and Zakopane in the south, to Oswiecim ( Auschwitz) in the East, to war-battered Warsaw, and to the Katyn Forest, where 22,000 Polish prisoners had been massacred in 1940, during the early years of World War Two. It was during our visit to the Katyn Forest that we witnessed a serious dispute over the facts concerning that massacre. All the Poles expressed anger about the event. But they fought between themselves over who had perpetrated that act of genocide.
The Communists fingered Adolf Hitler and the German National Socialists as the murderers in question. The Catholics fingered Josef Stalin and the Russian Communists (well actually they referred to Russians always as ‘those primitive savages’). The site officially – and inevitably given that Poland was subjugated under Russian jackbooted soldiers – blamed Hitler and National Socialism. Our group, in public, took the issue under advisement, though privately we understood that the ‘primitive savages’ most likely were responsible, just as they had been towards the end of the war, when they deliberately held back their armies outside the gates of Warsaw to allow the Germans to annihilate the Poles during the Warsaw ghetto uprising.
Well, when the Russian archives were unveiled during the early 1990s, under the briefly benign rule of President Yeltsin, the Russian dictator Josef Stalin (Uncle Joe, as FDR fondly called him) was exposed as being uniquely culpable for the Katyn massacre. President Yeltsin forthrightly and then- Prime Minister Putin more circumspectly, conceded this responsibility. Not so the Russian parliament (the Duma) which until now has consistently foot-dragged against making any formal statement of Russian responsibility.
On Friday November 26, 2010, after a two-hour debate, the Russian parliament acknowledged that the archives ‘show that the Katyn crime was carried out on the direct orders of Stalin and other Soviet leaders.’ The Communist Party minority in the Duma angrily voted against this acknowledgement. Even now, the socialists deny the truth about the evil of Josef Stalin’s rule.
The issue of the origin of the Katyn Forest massacre pitted two versions of socialism – Communism and National Socialism - against each other. As Karl Popper had noted much earlier in his seminal book, The Open Society – the truth inevitably suffers under either variant of this common-based, virulent disease. The Poles now know who was responsible. As Russia slides backwards into dictatorship, any chance of financial compensation for the families who lost their loved ones to an act of genocide is remote indeed. So far, there is no indication that the Russian government will apologize to Germany for this slander on its (admittedly otherwise dreadful) wartime reputation.