Historians Have Yet to Face Up to the Implications of the Katyn Massacre

tags: Katyn Massacre

Mr. Scrupski is professor emeritus, Rutgers Graduate School of Education.

Harvey Klehr will be speaking on the morning of 22 May 2004 at the NAS conference in the New York City's Roosevelt Hotel. He will referring to the theme of his and John Earl Haynes's In Denial, their study of the continuing refusal of American left-liberals, in the face of recently revealed evidence, to acknowledge the barbarities and in some cases outright genocide of the Soviet Union during World War II. As Klehr and Haynes demonstrate, the denial is particularly strong at all levels of academe, where the"ideal type" of left-wing ideology finds its cosiest home. There, constrained, relatively exclusive contact with like-minded anti-capitalist and anti-anti-Communist true believers permits the development of"academic Stalinophilia."

I can recall an incident at Rutgers when the most prestigious of our professors of education actually lamented the absence of a movement to re-establish Josef Stalin's reputation as a positive force in human affairs. Today such a disposition is complemented at secondary education levels by history teachers who, according to my own experience in New Jersey, refuse to countenance any criticism of the Soviet Union. Walter McDougall has called the effects of such teachers' ideological persuasion"a quiet conquest of America's schoolrooms."

To illustrate the "denial," Klehr and Haynes cite liberals' continuing repression of the Katyn Forest massacre, Stalin's World War II extermination of the core of the Polish elite, regular and reserve officers who had been made prisoners as a consequence of the collaboration between Stalin and Hitler that began the war. I recently experienced the denial first-hand when, in a conversation with a west coast history professor, I suggested that we had had enough discussion of the number of those executed by the Soviets and that historians should begin to examine the cover-up of Katyn on the part of the Roosevelt administration. There was no response to my suggestion. I had touched a sensitive ideological nerve; I had had the temerity to impugn one of liberal academe's most dearly embraced historical memories, the integrity of the Roosevelt administration in its alliance with Stalin during World War II. Nevertheless, I suggest that Klehr and Haynes's treatment of the American response to Katyn be extended somewhat to include the significance of the American cover-up in later years.

 No one who was not alive and aware in the United States during the war can imagine the deference to the Soviet Union and its war effort exhibited by Franklin D. Roosevelt's war-time administration and the American media. For example, not only did the Office of War Information blame the Katyn executions on the German army; OWI also implicitly threatened to remove licensure from the Polish language radio stations in Detroit and Buffalo if they did not cease broadcasting the details of the executions. In all the long years when Alan Cranston served as U.S. Senator from California no one mentioned his part as an OWI functionary in the intimidation of the Polish-American radio station managers. The London-based Polish government-in-exile, whose leaders had requested a Red Cross investigation of the affair, was characterized as having "stupidly walked into Goebbels' trap". Was that the initial manifestation of what later became America's favorite ethnic stereotype?

It was the heroic Sidney Hook who responded to the discoveries at Katyn, not with the fear of displeasing Stalin that characterized Roosevelt and his advisers, but with the hope that the revelation of the identity of the Soviet perpetrators would in some way slow the accumulating adulation of the Soviet Union among the American citizenry. Hook noted:

As the evidence assembled by the Swiss Red Cross showed that this horrible deed was the work of Stalin and his henchmen, the Soviet government dismissed it as a piece of Nazi propaganda . . . . The American press, following the lead of the Office of War Information, played down the story or treated it as another Nazi atrocity.

Hook reported that at the time, Oscar Lange, a pro-Soviet Polish emigre who "tried to pin the responsibility for the massacre on the Germans," challenged his view of the crime. Hook felt strongly enough about the issue to agree to participate in a public debate with Lange, to be held at Columbia University. Unfortunately, the debate did not come off and Lange returned to Poland to work for the Communist regime that Stalin was installing there. Needless to say, to the great disappointment of Hook and others, there was no slowing of the American rush to beneficent judgment of Stalin's regime.

Probably, the worst directly effective consequence of the refusal to publicize the truth about Katyn was Franklin D. Roosevelt's accommodation of Stalin's post-war imperialistic aims at the Teheran Conference, held in fall 1943. It was at that conference that Roosevelt secretly agreed with Stalin to allow him to retain the pre-war Polish territory that he had been granted in 1939 by Hitler. Roosevelt actually took the Soviet leader into his confidence, committing Stalin to secrecy over the Polish settlement because he was facing a presidential election the following year and needed the Polish-American vote. Note the comments of the British journalist Kevin Myers:

[I]t was statecraft at its most pusillanimous to allow those lies [about Katyn] 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 . . . . 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 realized he could get away with anything.

The execution of the Polish officers was not the only wartime instance of Stalin's genocidal approach to Polish soldier-patriots who, if they were permitted to survive the war, would have become troublesome for Stalin's already planned control of postwar Eastern Europe. A year later, on 2 August 1944, the Polish Armia Krajowa ("Home Army"), responding to Soviet radio broadcasts, rose up within Warsaw to help approaching Soviet forces liberate the city from Hitler's occupiers. Stalin then not only halted his armies on the banks of the Vistula but refused to allow British or American planes to use Soviet landing fields to refuel after projected air-drops of munitions and supplies to the AK. ( The British and American air forces had already been using Soviet airfields to refuel after bombing industrial targets in Eastern Germany.) Hitler, whose troops had been leaving the city until it was clear that the Soviet forces had halted, ordered his army to "wipe out" the AK, which it proceeded to do while Stalin's forces sat on the other side of the river. When Churchill suggested to Roosevelt that the aid be given to the AK anyway and that Stalin could hardly deny permission to land when British and Anerican planes approached Soviet airfields, Roosevelt responded that he had information to the effect that the uprising had collapsed. The AK fought on for four more weeks.

George Kennan said in his memoirs that Stalin's betrayal of the AK should have been followed by an American decision to terminate all Lend-Lease aid to the Soviet Union, thus demonstrating American opposition to Stalin's plans to have his own way in Eastern Europe. However, given what we know about the Roosevelt administration's policies vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, it is doubtful that such a decision would at that time have been anywhere near the realm of practicality for Roosevelt and his advisors or even for the American people at large, given the unalloyed adulation of their Muscovite co-belligerent.

But Kennan, in a preface to his comments on the Soviet betrayal of the AK, had lamented that "when it came to the murdered officers, I had no proof -- nothing more than a general intuitive idea, in fact, based on experience and on the limited evidence available -- as to what was likely and what unlikely to have been the case." Kennan's implication is clear; if he had had definitive knowledge concerning the murderers of the Polish officers, his recommendations for sanctions or at least leverage designed to constrain the Soviet Union's intention unilaterally to determine the future of Eastern Europe might have been overtly pressed or perhaps have come sooner. If the western allies had a year earlier confronted Stalin with evidence of his responsibility for the Katyn massacre, and if the American people (and the world at large) had been truthfully informed about the Katyn killings, Stalin, by the time of the Warsaw Rising, might have been compelled by western and world public opinion to moderate his aggressive campaign to desert the AK and make Poland the keystone of his East European empire. In any case, it has been persuasively argued that publicizing the truth about Katyn would at least, as Sidney Hook had hoped, have alerted the American people to Stalin's revolutionary-imperial paradigm and his never-ceasing attempts to implement it. And it would have constituted fealty to an ally who had made significant contributions to the Allied war effort, in defeating Hitler's air force in the skies over Britain, and later, in clearing the road to Rome at the battle of Monte Cassino and in the costly airborne attack at Arnhem.

In recent years some defenders of the functionality of the Katyn cover-up for Soviet-American wartime collaboration, have cited the possibility of Stalin making a separate peace with Hitler as a reason for American placation of Stalin by covering-up the Katyn executions. But there has been no serious consideration given to the likelihood of such a contingency by historians of the period. In spring, 1943, Stalin had aready turned back the German armies at Stalingrad and the preference on the part of German soldiers to surrender to western rather than Soviet forces precluded a separate peace for both Stalin and Hitler; surely, given Roosevelt's fierce commitment to the unconditional surrender policy, there was no threat of an American and British-initiated separate peace with Hitler that would offer Stalin a beat-them-to-it motivation. Neither Kennan, nor Herbert Feis, nor Averill Harriman, nor any other historian or memoirist awards any credence to the threat of Soviet participation in a separate peace or even to the belief in the existence of such a threat in spring, 1943.

Meanwhile the memory gnaws.

This article first appeared on the blog of the National Association of Scholars and is reprinted with permission.

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Piotr Uzar - 6/3/2008

Could you please share which/whose textbooks you examined?

John J. Kulczycki - 5/21/2004

The discussion of the role of the Left or of the Right is irrelevant to the main point: the ignorance of the Katyn Forest Massacre. In a recent survey of the way Eastern Europe is dealt with in six representative Western Civilization textbooks, I found that only two mention Katyn, one giving 1941 as the date of the massacre, that is, the date that the Soviets cited to blame the Nazis. I doubt if the authors of all these textbooks but one are "Leftists" no matter how defined.

Daniel B. Larison - 5/20/2004

For what it's worth, Chris, I agree strongly with you about the corporations. I would also refer you, with some qualifications, to Ivo Mosley's short book, "Democracy, Fascism and the New World Order." The book is uneven, and at times I don't know where Mosley gets his sometimes bizarre claims, but there are some excellent criticisms of corporations and their collaboration with the state.

Multinational corporations, in particular, and statists feed off of each other and reinforce each other. As an aside, I consider this to be an important reason why the major political factions supremely dislike both small-government conservatives who also attack corporations and anti-corporate greens and liberals who attack the abusive government. Such criticisms risk exposing the mutual dependency of government and big business in a way that makes the fake opposition between the parties clear, so it is much easier to dismiss such people as fringe maniacs and get each party's kept journalists to spread the word to that effect.

At a very rudimentary level, there will always be some kind of a market, in the sense that people are always interested in exchanging goods and services. Corruption and exploitation in purely unregulated exchange necessitates a certain level of law, and so of government, in order to provide the transparency that allows markets to function more or less 'rationally'. So, to answer your question, there must be some government to have what any reasonable supporter of "the market" would recognise as such. What little legitimate function governments do have is to supply a certain amount of order and certainty to these exchanges.

Certainly,the government's regulation of the currency is one of the things that makes significant levels of exchange possible. Practically all finance and banking could not take place if there was not considerable confidence that the money being circulated had some relatively stable value and guarantee behind it, if only the "credit" of the government. Incidentally, I would advocate a return to specie-backed currency, but that has as much chance of happening as Ron Paul has of becoming president--both would be great, and neither will happen in the current atmosphere.

In my view, the worst abuses of corporations have come through their alliance with the apparatus of the state, both in what the state enables them to do and what they urge the state to do in their cause. It is through that mechanism that they are provided the cover or opportunity to operate in ways that would otherwise cost them too much in either reputation or money. If much of the coercive apparatus of the state were removed (I know, easily said, but how?) and its supports for corporations likewise removed, I don't doubt that corporations would still pose serious problems, but they would not be able to impose their solutions through the state on the rest of us with nearly the same ease.

The other thing to be done would be to convince enough people that this oligarchy in the corporations has nothing to do with the principles of the free market, which ultimately do not recognise responsible agents beyond the individual, and to make people recognise that this oligarchy is a blot on the idea of economic liberty. It is undoubtedly difficult, when the leading business journals--all of them perfectly satisfied with the current state apparatus--are supposed by many to be the advocates of the free market. The main stumblingblock in this recognition is the fear among many middle-class folks that for them to criticise business is to criticise their own economic interests, out of the fear of redistributionists lurking around the corner.

Well, there are some suggestions. I realise they are pretty vague, and perhaps not practical. They are also well off the subject of Katyn, so I'll stop here.

chris l pettit - 5/19/2004

Human rights based "social democrats", "socialists", "communists", etc. are hard to find (I use quotes since the words mean what you want them to according to your perception).

I despair over the lack of care for humanity I see in supposedly caring socialists (I'll use that as my overarching term). To somehow defend atrocities committed in the name of socialism or the people is as absurd as defending Bush's war in Iraq.

I think those of use who actually care on any side of the spectrum are actually getting to the same ultimate point...for true capitalist ideology and true socialist ideology end up at the exactly same place. The question becomes what is the best way to get there based on the historical and economic situation we find ourselves in. I think this is where you and I differ Daniel, for I see that corporations already have way too much control and even if we remove all corporate welfare and regulations, the market is already way too slighted to get to where we would like to go. I see you have voiced your concerns on the socialist model...and they are absolutely correct. By the way...it looks like we get to have our economics discussion my friend and would love for you to elaborate a little more. By the way...I have never gotten a satisfactory answer to the question of whether a market can actually exist without government? It seems to me impossible as the governments always set the market as soon as you introduce currency into the equation. I guess we could get into a chicken and an egg discussion over what existed first (I suspect you would claim the market) but of course we would have to narrowly define our terms so we understood each others meaning.

As for apologists...what is with people who seem to want to deny atrocities in order to defend their position? Stalinism was an awful thing to behold...as was Nazi Socialism...why defend or apologise for either unless you are somehow sympathetic?


Daniel B. Larison - 5/18/2004

Scandinavian social democracy is a far cry even from classical socialism of the 19th and early twentieth centuries, but inherent even in social democratic assumptions is that significant coercion through the state for progressive goals is legitimate and desirable. It is only a question of the nature of that coercion that differentiates the social democracry from the socialist dictatorship--the government intrudes almost as much in each, but in the social democracy it does so ostensibly at the request of the population. The coercive power of the state, and the legitimacy bestowed upon that coercion, is not seriously questioned by leftists, except when it comes to the use of the military, and even then it is not clear that all social democrats today oppose aggressive war.

Nonetheless, the tendency has been that full-blown socialist states, rather than social welfare democracies such as we see in Europe and elsewhere today, are authoritarian, abusive and brutal. In keeping with the radical theories of 19th century socialism (see The Lost Literature of Socialism), most revolutionary socialists and many of their sympathisers through the 1970s were willing to condone widespread political violence and the use of political terror, on the (usually faulty) assumption that the 'reactionary' or 'bourgeois' elements being terrorised in this fashion "deserved" it.

Historically, most people of a leftist persuasion have been willing to justify or explain away such violence by blaming the nature of the social or economic system of the country in question. Once covered up in the rhetoric of historical materialism and the language of inevitability, relieving the actors of any real moral burden, later it was expressed in populist terms of "justice" against oppressors, etc. In Latin America, revolutionary and populist movements also have often had recourse to the abuse of theology to justify bloodshed in an inverted idea of liberating sacrifice. At bottom, the belief in general equality and the intention to realise this equality have inevitably led to coercive mechanisms of party or revolutionary cadre control, and this has almost never been a temporary measure as some interpretations would like it to be. The collectivist impulse within leftism can very easily lead to the trampling of rights and the destruction of myriad lives. I think it is a fair statement that the more leftist one is, the more willing one is to believe that the ends justify the means. Such a person is also more willing to accept extensive violence as part of the means of revolution.

Perhaps there are no liberals today who would cover up for, or at least justify, Stalin's crimes (though I wouldn't be so sure), but in the 1930s it was commonplace among American and European leftists to either deny Stalinist crimes or make excuses for them. The New York Times cover-up of the Soviet-imposed Ukrainian famine/genocide is perhaps most obvious example of this political bias at work. The same bias can be found in the widespread lack of interest in liberal circles in commemorating the slaughters that took place under communism, resulting in the elevation of Nazi terror as the single, unapproachably worst thing in history (when the horrors of Stalinism are only vaguely known, this is a natural result). It is also a common leftist assumption that Nazi terror is somehow the counter-example or opposite extreme of communist terror (hence the remark about conservatives 'covering up' for the Nazis, as if they would have any ideological affinity with such people equivalent to leftist affinities with communists), when they are both the fruit of the same revolutionary, levelling and destructive impulse.

I am sure there have been, and continue to be, humane socialists and leftists in the world who would repudiate all of this brutality and claim that it is alien to their view of the world. My point would only be that such people are not working from the same assumptions that most leftist and socialist parties and movements have used in the past. Nonetheless, today, we still have a considerable constituency on the left, be it so-called 'neoconservative' or 'neoliberal', that is perfectly willing to defend the indiscriminate use of violence to achieve their ends. The chief difference is that they have chosen to direct this violence outwards at other countries, rather than using violence to purge their own societies from within.

Mark Andrew Newgent - 5/18/2004

Scrupski writes,

"Neither Kennan, nor Herbert Feis, nor Averill Harriman, nor any other historian or memoirist awards any credence to the threat of Soviet participation in a separate peace or even to the belief in the existence of such a threat in spring, 1943."

In the introduction to Klher and Haynes book Venona:Decoding Soviet Espionage in America they write that the Venona project started because of distrust of Stalin and the fear that he would create a separate peace with Hitler. When the Venona decrypts were decoded they did not reveal a Soviet push for a separate peace but a vast Soviet espionage operation in the United States.

The threat may have not existed, but the fact that Venona was initiated to investigate that threat means that someone obviously felt that it existed.

Van L. Hayhow - 5/17/2004

It depends on what you mean by the left. If you mean communists and socialists then perhaps communism may be the logical conclusion of their ideology. Its not certain, after all, Scandanavian countries have a fair amount of socialism and don't look like Stalinist states. As for liberals, the comment is absurd, although I have heard many conservatives try to make the argument. I don't know of any liberal democrat who tries to cover-up the crimes of Stalin, any more than I know of any conservatives who try to cover up the crimes of Hitler.

Van L. Hayhow - 5/17/2004

It doesn't compare? Why not?

Robert Smale - 5/17/2004

Historians on the right continue to mis-diagnose the failings of Stalin and his true crimes. The execution of the bourgeois and middle class leadership of a counter-revolutionary army does not even compare to perfidity of his murder of good communists both inside and outside of the Soviet Union. During much of the twentieth century communism advanced across the globe inspite of Stalin's ineptitude.

Earl Wayne Williams - 5/17/2004

Thank you Professor Scrupski for this enlightening article.The refusal of the far left in academia and elsewhere to acknowledge the crimes of Stalin and communists generally was one of the great moral outrages
of the twentieth century.Whittaker Chambers said something to the effect that all leftists even those who
believe in democracy have an investment in communist regimes because they know deep down that communism,Stalinism, the Gulag etc are the logical conclusion of their ideology.