Do you have in your mind a defining moment when the scales fell from your eyes, a moment of clarity in which part of your own personal politics underwent a crystallisation the shape of which has stayed with you to this day? Mine had its origin in a forest in Russia.


I had a sharp reminder of that moment when reading this report in today’s Times concerning Andrzej Wajda’s film “Katyń”, which, it seems, is casting a shadow over the debates that ebb and flow in Poland’s ongoing General Election campaign. How strange it must seem to some of us here that events that took place sixty-seven years ago should impinge so strongly upon modern politics. It is as if someone were to make a film about the Wormhoudt and Le Paradis massacres of 1940 when German troops murdered British Prisoners of War from the 2nd. Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment and 2nd. Battalion Royal Norfolk Regiment which becomes a central issue in the election of 2009 as political parties try to whip up anti-German sentiment as part of their campaign the better to demonstrate their “Britishness”. To us that seems a bizarre thing to do: in Poland, however, this sort of thing is doled out nowadays with mother’s milk.

The Soviet Union connived in the beginning of the Second World War when it signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact with Germany in 1939. The past had a secret Protocol which agreed how the respective interests of the USSR and Germany would be met. By this the states of Northern and Eastern Europe were divided into German and Soviet spheres of influence. In the North, Finland, Estonia and Latvia were apportioned to the Soviet sphere. Poland was to be partitioned in the event of its “political rearrangement”—the areas east of the rivers Narev, Vistula and San going to the Soviet Union while the Germans would occupy the west. Lithuania, adjacent to East-Prussia, would be in the German sphere of influence. In the South, the Soviet Union’s interest and German lack of interest in Bessarabia, a part of Romania, were acknowledged.

In pursuit of this agreement Russia invaded Poland on 17th. September 1939 and quickly advanced towards the agreed line of division. By early October Poland had, for all practical purposes, disappeared as a political entity, though not, as we shall see, as an idea. In the process of their aggression Russia captured some 100,000 prisoners of war to which were added over coming months thousands of intellectuals and professionals whose existence was a threat to Soviet domination of the former Polish State. The officers and intellectual were removed to a series of prison camps the sites of which are now in Belarus, Ukraine and western Russia, but most importantly to sites near Smolensk in the forest of Katyń, the name of which was to become shorthand for the entire episode. At these camps in April 1940, upon the direct orders of Stalin, perhaps some 20,000 members of the Polish intelligentsia were murdered, shot, in circumstances of considerable brutality, by NKVD agents mostly using captured German weapons and their bodies buried in lonely forest plots.

There they lay for the next three years. Meanwhile the USSR was itself invaded by the Germans, whereupon General Sikorski began to make enquiries as to what had happened to the 8000 Polish officers who had been amongst the groups murdered by the Russians. Thus started a cynical cover up over their fate which was to last for forty-seven years until at last in 1990 the Russians were forced to own up to their crimes. The Russians prevaricated and dissembled, trying to suggest that they prisoners had been sent to Manchuria and had got ‘lost’ in the system (thought quite how you can lose 8000 people must have puzzled at the time).

It was not, however until April 1943 that the Germans discovered the fate of the Poles when the mass graves in which they had been buried were discovered and excavated for propaganda purposes. With a considerable degree of brass nerve the Germans, who had by this time murdered many hundreds of thousands of Poles, Jews, Russians and others all over Eastern Europe, brazenly paraded the evidence all over the world as a stick with which to beat the Russians, who maintained that The Germans must, despite their earlier assertions that the prisoners were in the Far East, have over-run the area and killed the officers as they had killed so many others. Plainly someone had, in giving the NKVD their German weapons, been doing some forward thinking. This was not just against the day when their crimes would be discovered but in a clear anticipation that the place where they had been killed would one day be in German hands. No doubt someone in authority believed that they would one day be invaded and lose control of that region.

The Germans, of course, made much of this and did considerable forensic work to prove that it had been the Russians. As some had been shot with Russian weapons, there was enough to be going on with. In the event the Russians at the end of the war took considerable steps to cover up their heinous crime. First some Germans, who may or may not have been guilty of other crimes, were selected and put on trial as the perpetrators of the massacre. Then, at the Nuremburg Trial, Russia tried to lay responsibility for their crime at the feet of the Nazi leaders on trial there: to their credit the British, French and American prosecutors, who knew only too well where the truth lay and sensing that allowing the Russians to pin their crime on the Germans might undermine the whole process, would have none of it. And there it lay until, in 1990, the Russians finally admitted their guilt.

In the meantime Poles in the West and their sympathizers kept the flame of Katyń alive, to the fury of the Russians who continued to blame the Nazis. Shamefully many Leftist intellectuals in the West slavishly followed this Party Line and repeated the lies that the Russians used to conceal their own criminality: it was they who were truly undone when the admission finally came of Russian guilt.

I first knew of the crime at Katyń from a publication by Purnell who serialized in weekly parts a history of the Second World War under the editorship of the late Barrie Pitt in the mid to late 1960s. One week’s part was almost entirely devoted to the Katyń Crime, detailing in a dispassionate way the clear evidence that the perpetrators of the massacres must have been the Russians. Up to that time I had been not much more than a spectator in politics: my parents would host at least once a year a fund-raising event for the local Conservative party and I thus associated politics with perfectly pleasant people having a good time, pausing only now and then to make rather impolite remarks about Harold Wilson. I remember being shocked at hearing our Prime Minister being called ‘a little shit’ by one jocund farmer: regular passers-by will know that I have long since recovered!

The story of the massacres made me think, though, with some care about the nature of the game in which we were then engaged. The history of Katyń held lessons about the nature of both Fascism and Communism and how they viewed opposition. It is difficult to explain to the young today how some people then viewed the Soviet Union, even one or two at a Public School such as I attended. I was in the same class as an individual who, at the age of 14, pronounced himself a convinced Marxist, had a poster of that ugly Butcher Che Guevara in his study and was pleased to tell me that, come the Revolution, it would be the likes of my father and mother and myself who would be put against a wall and shot: his daughter was a contemporary of my son at the same Public School, which tells you pretty much all you need to know the consistency of such people and Champagne Socialism. (I wonder, though, if, when he went to work for the Bank of England, he ever told them of his membership of the Communist Party).

For, in the teeth of the evidence, the USSR and Communism were the hope of the world. The line was peddled that the workers were so happy with their lot that, although they had every freedom in the book, they did not need the sort of democracy we had as their views would be adequately expressed by The Party and, anyway, there was no opposition.

The Katyń Massacres seemed to me, however, to reveal clearly how the USSR practiced its ideas: anyone who was or might one day become the focus of opposition had to be not just marginalized but to be eliminated. That was the true nature of totalitarianism and I understood that should these people ever triumph over us in this country we could expect no better. It seemed to me that such folk were worth fighting. So, I read Animal Farm and 1984. Everything I now know tells me that I got it right. Thus did the fate of 8000 gallant Polish officers in a far away place influence a teenage schoolboy in England.

Ever since I have looked askance at the inherent nature of Socialism. It is with us still (if you doubt it, just look at Gordon Brown who oozes Socialism from every pore in his body) and whether in its mild forms or its extremes, ends up intolerant of opposition, an intolerance that occasionally rises to the surface when one of its lickspittles such as Neil Kinnock indulges himself in a ‘grind the Tory Bastards into the dust’ moment (and gets roundly applauded for it, so they plainly think that way, the lot of them) and it has a ruthlessness about it that makes it easy to understand how they might become totalitarian. One merely has to examine the case of one Arthur Scargill who once had a lot of clout in the Labour Party: it was not difficult to see him as a Beria or a Yehzov in the making.

Churchill, with as bad a lack of political timing as you could wish, chose to suggest in the 1945 election that Socialists had totalitarian tendencies:

“There can be no doubt that socialism is inseparably interwoven with totalitarianism and the abject worship of the state. Socialism is in its essence an attack not only upon British enterprise, but upon the right of the ordinary man or woman to breathe freely without having a harsh, clumsy tyrannical hand clasped across their mouth and nostrils. (Labour) would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance.”

I am quite sure he should never have said it when he did and it no doubt caused offence at the time. But that does not mean he was wrong. Rather he understood only too well the inherent nature of Socialism and where its philosophy has an uncanny knack of leading. After all he had had a political lifetime of viewing Socialism up close and personally.

Since 1997 we have had a whole raft of laws that curb free speech and our ability to speak our minds about things that matter. Who now would feel safe to raise any sort of argument on the long-term nature and effects of Civil Partnerships or the true long-term effects of mass immigration from parts of the world very different culturally from our own or make a philosophical argument (one not based on religious objections) against abortion, lest they call down upon their heads The Anti-Homophobic, Anti-Racist or Anti-Feminist Branches of the Thought Police. Such are the very seeds of totalitarianism and they have their gardeners who are, at this very moment, hard at work fertilizing their deadly crops.

Now Poland is back, asserting itself and the idea of Poland, which has for so long simply been as a place for others to rule. For too long we have been urged to sweep the terrible crimes against Poland under the carpet. Now she has come to take her place at the top table and is not prepared to be elbowed aside once more. And, given her sad history, why should she?

Advertisements