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Expert Analyses Poland's History WWII

The Enduring Relevance of Katyn

Marek Chodakiewicz

Why should we continue to talk about the Katyn Forest massacre of spring 1940, when over 25,000 Polish POW officers and other prisoners were slaughtered on the orders of Joseph Stalin? Indeed, why talk about the past at all? It is because nothing has changed: Historia magistra vitae est. This includes the utility of Katyn to the Kremlin and its deceptive ways.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the point of Moscow’s narrative continuity more than President Vladimir Putin’s soft denial of Katyn. With the Kremlin’s tacit approval, some Russian official historians obfuscate the murders, while a few even deny it outright, bringing back the communist propaganda trope about the alleged German Nazi guilt. Many also publicly relativize the atrocity by claiming that the Poles were guilty of the death of about 100,000 Bolshevik POWs. The latter, in fact, had perished in influenza and cholera epidemics as well as other natural causes stemming from horrific living conditions that impacted not only their Polish guards, but also the Polish – and, indeed, European – population at large, in the wake of the Great War and its depredations. Still others point out that the Polish victims of Katyn were just a drop in the ocean of suffering and, thus, why should one care so much about them in particular?

Well, first,  in the Christian sensibility even one death, in particular an innocent one, is worth remembering. Second, Katyn is a particularly insidious case study of the Kremlin’s deception, cynicism, and mendacity.

Jakov Dzhugashvilli, Stalin’s son, while incarcerated at a German POW camp, upon hearing about the Katyn Forest massacre, asked how many victims there had been. About 5,000, he was told. Stalin, Jr., shrugged and sneered: “Only? That’s not a big deal.” As far as the numbers, he was right by Soviet standards.

Even when we remember that the Polish POW victims murdered in the spring of 1940 amounted to over 25,000, we should consider that Stalin killed at least 25 million human beings before Hitler even fired a shot. Why remember Katyn in particular then?

There are public and private reasons at stake. Public reasons concern the imperative to strive for truth as indispensable to any political decisions. As far as American national interest, Katyn remains a useful point of reference when dealing with tyrannical regimes. It teaches us the uses and abuses of memory and the relativity of facts in service of regimes that are inimical to freedom. Yet, facts are not relative. They inconvertibly dictate that the Katyn massacre did occur.

Moreover, Katyn is a symbol of Soviet terror, deception, and mendacity. Unfortunately, it is also a symbol of craven appeasement of Moscow by the West.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt was a dupe, but Prime Minister Winston Churchill knew exactly what had happened to the allied Polish POW officers: “Let us not talk about this out loud,” the British leader whispered. A massive cover up followed. It resulted in cynical abuse and lies, as well as attempts by London to prevent émigré Poles and their English friends from commemorating the victims. Her Majesty’s government pursued this line actively into the 1970s. Most other Western regimes went along with that. Only the US would perk up from time to time, when American conservatives and anti-communists were on the upswing. But most Western officials either lied, turned a blind eye, or helped in the cover up. Katyn was an inconvenient fact.

This was a craven betrayal of Western ideals. Western leaders thus colluded with the Soviets to perpetuate the Katyn denial. To be in cahoots with the perpetrators translated into a self-imposed paralysis which greatly constrained our moves vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. We were freed from the mendacious yoke of persistent negation when Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev came clean and confessed  Soviet guilt in the Katyn massacre.

Hence, it behooves us to remember Katyn not only for the sake of justice and for the sake of the memory of the victims, but also for the sake of sound statecraft. When dealing with the Kremlin, one should always have Katyn in mind.

Further, it is useful to remember this event to be able to relate to post-Soviet Russia’s security apparatus. The case of Katyn helps us see its deceptions, which is a key component of the post-Soviet counterintelligence state.

Next, a post-KGB narrative, bought by some of our intelligence operators, and almost universally by the mainstream media, serenades us that Soviet intelligence officers were just like our spooks. Nothing can be farther from the truth, yet widely believed. But this common misconception led to many false foreign policy moves. For example, after 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, the United States decided to protect, retain, and cooperate with the communist secret policemen, who transformed themselves into post-communist security men.

IWP’s Professor emeritus Ken deGraffenried warned: “You can buy the KGB, but they do not stay bought.” Hence, he advised “option zero”: to liquidate the communist secret police totally, and replace it with a free, democratic service. Had he been listened to, there would have been no Putin, and many other post-KGB pathologies could have been avoided.  Professor deGraffenried internalized the lesson of Katyn well. He would not be duped.

This was unlike some of his colleagues in the US intelligence community, who either were cynics or fell for the trope of the alleged universal fellowship of spies.  Are American intelligence operators just like the Soviet and post-Soviet ones? Hardly. Let’s take Vasily Zarubin, for example. He was in charge of counterintelligence operations against Polish POW officers. He questioned them and prepared not only their mass murder, but also the terror against their families. Then he moved seamlessly to spy on the US, running the Rosenberg nuclear ring, among other things. Is that what the CIA does interchangeably? Of course not. Please do not compare apples and oranges.

And now for the personal: a personal connection usually makes a historical event more relevant for us. Katyn is personal for me. In August 2010, I took a trip to Smolensk to pay  tribute to Lech Kaczyński, Janusz Kurtyka, and others who were killed in the tragic plane crash that occurred there. But I also wanted to visit the graves of my family members executed at Katyn nearby. There are two: First, it is Symeon Kazimierz Chodakiewicz, a lawyer and  Second Lieutenant with a radio company; he was my paternal grandfather’s cousin. Second, it is Cavalry Captain Jan Fuhrman. He was the Godfather of my uncle, Professor Stan Wellisz of Columbia University. Poland’s Prime Minister General Wladyslaw Sikorski  promised Stan’s father, Leopold Wellisz, that he would inquire about Jan Fuhrman with Stalin. This was also personal for Sikorski. During the Polish-Bolshevik War of 1920, Cpt. Fuhrman was an aide-de-camp of the General. When the Polish leader queried Stalin, he received the infamous response about Polish officers allegedly escaping to Manchuria.

Last but not least, there is a Katyn-IWP scholarly connection. Periodically, we bring up Katyn here.  For example, the author of the first exhaustive Katyn monograph, Professor Janusz K. Zawodny, was on the dissertation committee of our own IWP Professor Jack Tierney. Further, Col. De Vliet’s rapport and other latest Katyn revelations were unveiled here at IWP first by one of the leading Polish-American experts, Krystyna Piórkowska. Thus, Katyń remains with us so long as we live.

You are welcome to forgive, if the perpetrators show remorse and contrition; they and their descendants usually don’t. Once the human rights organization Memorial in Russia sent me a Gulag file of my grandfather, Jan Chodakiewicz, from Stalinogorsk. A letter was appended apologizing for the suffering of my family from the hands of the Communists. I wrote back that the human rights activists should not apologize because they are usually themselves either victims or descendants of the victims of Communism. The perpetrators should apologize.  Unfortunately, the successors to the perpetrators, spiritually and institutionally, still remain in power in Russia. And that is also why it is important to continue to remember Katyn.


Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 20 November 2019


Remarks delivered at a book event with Professor Tadeusz Wolsza on his monograph, Encounter With Katyn, at the Institute of World Politics, 20 November 2019.

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