I speak of the ‘Cause of the Katyn Massacre’ as being a political cause worth fighting for – in the eyes of the Soviet Union. For them, killing those Polish military and police officiers, along with intellectuals, was entirely moral, justified, and necessary. In retrospect, their decision was the only decision that really mattered, for the very reason that it was decided.
When Winston Churchill concluded that the Soviet Union almost certainly committed the Katyn Massacre, his response was the following: ‘the alliance with the Soviet Union is more important than what happened at Katyn’. In other words, Churchill was content with the mass executions because the struggle against Nazi Germany was decided to trump whatever moral wrongdoing the Soviets may have committed in the process.
Few deny the Katyn massacre was committed by the Soviets. Some Stalinists acknowledge that the killing of thousands of Polish officers and intellectuals was committed under the orders of the Soviet leadership – but deny it publicly because they are concerned that such an admittance would make it unnecessarily more difficult to gain support for their political ambitions in the future. Others conclude that the whole thing was a setup by Nazi Germany – an argument that the evidence heavily stands against. Yet, let us look at what actually drove the desire of the Soviet Union to kill all those people.
Polish territory had been used as a corridor for Germany to attack Russia in World War One. The two countries also had a long history of conflict dating back centuries. Like all states, the Soviet Union was concerned about its security – it is necessary in a world without an international government. Adolph Hitler, now at the head of the Third Reich, had already spoken of his ambitions to advance to the East – and everybody knew of his hatred for Bolshevism. The Soviet Union was naturally worried that the Polish nation – and a people with a long history of nationalism – of siding with Nazi Germany or becoming an enemy of the Soviet Union in the future once the war was over. Removing its future talent, those likely to be enemies rather than friends, was a method to help ensure the safety of the USSR from the Polish threat.
Polish officers and intellectuals were not killed as such. To say so would be to ignore what provoked the decision behind the executions at Katyn in the first place. The NKVD (Soviet Secret Intelligence) were ordered to interrogate the Polish officers and intellectuals. Those that were hostile and held no sympathetic feelings towards the Soviet Union would be shot. Those that were deemed not to pose a threat were not. Clearly, the Soviet Union was driven by feelings of fear more than anything. It is estimated that about half of the officers interrogated were murdered in the Katyn forests. German bullets were used, in order to make it look like the incident was the work of Nazi Germany. Ironically, it was fear that motivated Stalin and other leading figures in the Soviet hierachy to order the executions, and it was also fear that provoked the whole situation to be covered up after the event took place. The Soviets denied that it was committed by their hand until 1989.
At Yalta, the Soviet government insisted that parts of Poland would be partitioned to ensure the security of the Soviet Union. In return, Poland was to be given areas formerly part of Germany. Churchill accepted the proposals on the understanding that the Bolsheviks promised not to try and encroach on Britain interests in Greece. He understood that just like Britain, the USSR had security interests that would not be sacrificed. Eastern Europe was conceded to the whim of the Soviets, a trade initiated in the hope that the Soviets would respect British national interests. Poland’s future had been decided at Yalta by the three dictators: Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union.
Naturally, the Soviet government knew that Poland would not agree to its territory being cut up into pieces, shaped and determined by an outside force, as if sovereignty was an issue only subject to the will of whoever commanded power. Poland’s wishes were nonetheless irrelevant. The Soviet Union had for a long time worried about the position of their borders. They wanted to minimize the chances of what could potentially be a Polish friend from becoming a Polish foe that would cause issue for the USSR during the Second World War and in a post-WW2 era, where the United States, the country that Stalin believed would inevitably end up becoming the USSR’s greatest enemy, seek to challenge it. Much of the Polish expertise would pay with their lives. Alas, their representatives in London could do nothing except beg on their knees and speak of ethics from whence the the USSR had decided to impose its hegemony. For the Soviet Union, with the First World War and the historic legacy of conflict between the two countries still in mind, the question of individual instances of ethics was far less significant than leaving a weakness open to be exploited, located in the position of its borders and those opposed to the Soviet Union capable of paving the road to hell for them. The situation was the classic example of the powerful doing what they can while the weak suffering what they must. Shut up or put up.
Moral philosophers can debate the ethical issues of the executions in the Katyn forests all day. Nevertheless, fundamentally, the Soviet Union was not willing to put its security, political hopes, and citizens at risk only to satisfy those who now decided they had moral principles. But then, Poland too, even though ever ready to employ moral rhetoric – would only be trying to promote their interests just as the Soviet Union sought theirs.
The first state victim of World War Two had opposed the border change proposals put forward by the Soviet Union. What happened at Katyn gave the Polish government-in-exile ammunition to use against the Soviets at the negotiation table – which they tried to do (Even if words were destined to fall hollow before the actual might of the USSR). Three days after Nazi Germany announced the discovery of the graves, the Polish government in London released a statement which promised that those responsible (While clearly highlighting the USSR) would not be able to gain politically from the massacre, suggesting that the Polish representatives were ready to use the event against the Soviets at some later point. While the Bolshevik-led state denied responsibility for the incident altogether (Because the response that would come from admitting guilt would play into the hands of present and potential future enemies), the Polish government exploited what was expected to be regarded as moral outrage, to pursue, like the Soviets, what was regarded to be in their own interests.
“Those who exercise power always arrange matters so as to give their tyranny the appearance of justice” – said La Fontaine. But in fact, for the Soviet leadership, though it may seem the opposite to some, the executions at Katyn were morally justifiable because they were seen as necessary to protect themselves in the context of WW2 and the international situation, along with an understanding of the nature of capitalism – a belief in the tendency of the class struggle to extend aggressively into international life.
The Polish government now calls the Katyn massacre a genocide. They do not try to empathize at all with the historical context. Would that state rather the Soviet Union have lost the war instead of be the giant behind the Katyn massacre? It is essentially what they would be asking if Poland would rather welcome the defeat of the USSR over moral repulsion for the Katyn massacre. But then, did the Soviets ever put Poland’s interests before their own? Poland in the early 21st century, just as the Soviet Union in 1941, is thinking fundamentally not of the victims; but of themselves as a state in an anarchical international system. These questions are important because it can show the real concern that states have for ethics, in a far from ideal world, where history, rather than an abstract understanding of morality, shapes the behavior of one state towards another.
The Polish government, at no point, wanted the Soviet Union to lose the war – even after they condemned the ‘genocide’; ‘the killing of one’s own people’, as they like to say today – before the same people call for intervention, except of course, when it against ones ‘national interests’. The Polish complainers, which is all they were at the time, put up nothing more than abstract moral philosophical rhetoric. And still, because rhetoric is all the daring Polish in London could manage to muster, they ended up consenting to the very crime they claimed to oppose, accepting it, as the British and the United States did, as necessary and justified in the context of the period. It was later, when the Soviet Union, as part of the Grand Alliance, had saved Poland from ruin, humiliation and absolute devastation, that they truly gained the courage to stand upto their once thanked – but now apparently despised, liberators. States sometimes benefit from the slaughter of their own people.
It was realism, and not idealism, that we mostly have to thank for victory over Nazi Germany. If we put principled standards of ethics before context, reality, objectives and necesssity; Britain would have lost the war; the USSR would have lost the war – and you and I could well be speaking German. Objective progress is decided by victory – not by subjective, biased, and out of context complaints, unleashed with too much emotion by good hearted morons.