Presented to the general public for the first time, here are key extracts from the final diplomatic cable that Charles Crawford sent to the FCO in autumn 2007 before he stepped down as Ambassador to Warsaw and left the diplomatic service
THE KATYN MURDERS
On 17 September 1939 as Hitler’s army lunged in from the West, Soviet forces invaded Poland from the East to grab Polish territory as per the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Poland fell. Hundreds of thousands of Poles were taken prisoner. In the coming months most were freed.
But thousands of officers and intellectuals were not. They were “hardened uncompromising enemies of Soviet authority.” On 5 March 1940 Stalin and other Soviet leaders signed off a paper from Beria in neat Soviet bureaucratic prose recommending that these officers be shot. In 1994 I saw this document displayed in Moscow alongside the Molotov-Ribbentrop map, Europe with a line slashed down the middle.
The full truth is still not known. The Kremlin will not release it. But it is safe enough to say that up to 20,000 victims at different sites included one admiral, 14 generals, 24 colonels, 79 lieutenant colonels, 258 majors, 654 captains, 17 naval captains, 200 pilots, seven chaplains, a prince, 43 officials, 131 refugees, plus hundreds of professors, doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, writers and journalists. Their children, grandchildren, other family members and friends are several million Polish voters today…
STALIN’S REALLY BIG LIE
What’s the significance of all this for the rest of us? The fact that this episode prompted some of the Biggest Lies in European history. And still does.
When the Nazis uncovered the site of the Katyn graves and proclaimed Soviet guilt, Stalin’s propaganda machine screamed that the Nazis had committed this atrocity of atrocities. The Allies found themselves choosing not to confront Moscow lest this weaken the wartime anti-Hitler front. This evasiveness skewed the Nuremberg war crimes trials – and the whole post-World War II settlement in Europe.
So Stalin got away with it then, and for long Cold War decades afterwards. Successive British governments wriggled and writhed to avoid publicly accepting the truth, as FCO documents published under Robin Cook’s leadership showed.
Truth will out. Gorbachev in 1990 admitted that the Soviet NKVD had perpetrated the massacre. Then President Yeltsin gave Poland key Stalin documents showing the Soviet leadership’s personal guilt. For a few years Polish and Russian experts worked pretty well on related archive issues. But that dried up. Now the Russian authorities are rowing back. They angrily reject any suggestion that Katyn was a war crime, insisting that it was a ‘military crime’ that needs no prosecution or wider historical accountability now.
Today a huge effort (not least by HMG) has gone into exposing the 1995 Serb massacre of several thousand Bosniac/Muslim prisoners at Srebrenica, and bringing the perpetrators to justice. Some sort of argument can be scraped together that in the hot madness of that conflict Bosnian Serb General Mladić ‘lost it’ and took his own appalling revenge on the Bosniacs who had been killing Serbs from the sanctuary of a UN ‘safe zone’. The Katyn killings were far worse: an act of evil aimed at wiping out much of the elite of Polish society in one genocidal blow with ramifications for generations to come, conceived personally in cold blood by the top Soviet leadership whose bureaucrats meticulously recorded their villainy.
Should we honour Mladić by renaming Eastern Bosnia Mladićgrad? The question is absurd. Yet Europe has nothing to say about the fact that Kaliningrad is named after titular Soviet leader Mikhail Kalinin, whose name is prominently there (‘Kalinin: For’) on the papers ordering the Katyn killings …
So I put it on the public record after playing my own modest role in the 1980’s FCO while it was still shiftily equivocating on Katyn. A territory in today’s Europe carries the name of a Soviet leader who should have faced being hanged for war crimes.
In my final meetings here I have been talking to many top Poles about what these issues really mean for Europe now. One made the point that during the communist period the authorities pressed a person to sign a simple document indicating a readiness to ‘cooperate’ even when the security police did not care whether the person actually would cooperate or not. What they wanted was the recognition by the person signing of his/her own psychological submission, expressed via that signature, whose very meanness and smallness and furtiveness somehow made the act of submission even more total.
POLISH POLITICS TODAY
Polish society in effect divides into five broad categories, and those divisions spill over into today’s politics here:
(1) People on the margins, never important enough to be recruited into the Party or act as informers.
(2) The several million people who did openly join the Party.
(3) People who did not join the Party but for one reason or the other (cynicism, opportunism, fear, blackmail) signed up to ‘cooperate’ by spying on friends and colleagues.
(4) People who were pressed to sign and/or cooperate but held firm, often at great personal cost.
(5) The Party and KGB-style elite who presided over this horrible system, and, as communism ended, busily stacked the deck so that they would continue to scheme and flourish in democratic conditions.
The striking thing is how the psychological force of submission lives on today. Clamour from Poles and indeed foreigners against opening the secret police archives here comes from different angles. From the former communist elite intending to retain ill-gotten gains by keeping the scale of their plunder and deceit well away from the wider public eye. From the rantings of Lenin’s ‘useful idiots’ in Western media and academic circles (and indeed! How useful they have been to the communist cause down the generations – the Bolshevik poisoned gift that keeps on giving). Some from well-intentioned decent people who unhappily conclude that even if the cause is just, the pain and disruption (including to the Catholic Church) provoked by tackling these problems will not be worth it.
The arguments and the motives differ. The end result is the same. The days trickle into months and years. Memories fade. Thus people who slyly presided over or benefited from the communist system are feted as modern European social democrats. Jewish, Polish and other victims of communism who had their property stolen or heroically refused to cooperate appeal to European institutions for justice, and often leave empty-handed. We prosecute elderly Nazis for their crimes. Elderly communists go free.
The Katyn Question will not die. If anything it could creep up the European agenda as Poland and other former communist states get more confident and skilful at playing the EU game, while the ex-KGB elite running Russia shows a nastier face and re-arms.
So we in the UK eventually may have to decide. Do we make up for all those decades of evasion by pressing publicly that Moscow open up all the Katyn archives and accept Katyn as a war crime? Do we make it a no-brainer new Strategic Priority that European territory can’t be named after suspected war criminals – and call on Russia to change the name of Kaliningrad?
Or do we and the rest of Europe submit to Soviet and post-Soviet Big Lies? Does the EU peer attentively at its expensive shoes when Moscow insists that Katyn is now a closed subject because the archive has been ‘classified’? Does the EU dutifully turn up at Moscow parades commemorating the ‘Great Patriotic War, 1941-45’ which is in good part about airbrushing from history the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and horrendous Soviet crimes at Katyn and elsewhere – with both Russians and Europeans knowing that the Europeans are unwilling to do or even say anything about it? That another generation has submitted?
And what of the howls of rage from different Islamist extremist quarters at allegedly offensive cartoons, demanding that we tolerate the intolerant? Do they look at how Stalin got away with mass murder at Katyn, and think that by being viciously determined enough they can do the same? Do they expect the sheer intensity of their hatred for our pluralism to overwhelm our readiness to defend it? That they too can bring us to submit? How might we measure if they are succeeding?
Are the world’s Biggest Lies and Biggest Liars by some chance related?