You have two sides, opposed to one another ideologically and in every other way. Disputes between these two opposing forces are sharp, accusations fly, the blame game begins, the rancor escalates and the spin doctors work overtime to spew propaganda to gain favor with the public. Truth becomes the casualty as the public seeks to understand how credible either side is in the debate. Even if you’re aligned with one of the two parties, you still reserve a degree of skepticism for what is said by them. Your cynicism is well deserved because of each party’s record of distorting the truth. You’re left wondering whom to believe, realizing that discerning the truth is very important yet difficult.
While the description above might seem to fit the current bickering in congress, that’s not what it refers to. It refers instead to one of the greatest but least known tragedies of the 20th century: the mass execution of members of the Polish officer’s corps and intelligentsia by Stalin during April of 1940. The tragedy is more properly called the Katyn forest massacre, a reference to the mass execution and grave in the Smolensk region of Russia, and it is superbly documented in Allen Paul’s “Katyn – Stalin’s Massacre and the Triumph of Truth”. This work is clearly a labor of love for Paul whose heart for the people of Poland is evident.
Poland was the initial flashpoint in the inferno that would become World War II. The Nazis invaded from the west on September 1, 1939; the communists from the east a short time later. Hitler and Stalin, who were at the time allies, had already agreed on a plan to partition Poland. When the dust cleared, the Nazis and the Communists occupied Poland, and Stalin wasted no time deporting the educated class of Polish society to Russia – these were the professors, engineers, teachers, lawyers, doctors, policemen as well as the officer corps from the remnants of Poland’s army. Stalin’s goal was to “Sovietize” Poland, so this first step was to rid society of the intellectual element most likely to oppose him.
The executions took place in the Katyn forest. Trains brought loads of Polish prisoners to the site, where they were led into a soundproofed room, forced to kneel and then shot in the back of the head. The bodies of 21,857 victims were buried in a mass grave. There, but for a twist of fate, might this horrible secret have remained permanently shrouded. The revelation of this brutal act began when Hitler decided to betray Stalin and invade Russia, opening up an eastern front in the war. In April 1943, the Nazis occupied the Katyn forest region, with the headquarters for the Wehrmacht’s 537th Signal Regiment just a short distance from the mass gravesite. A wolf digging in a mound uncovered some human bones.
The Nazis began to investigate and soon realized what they had uncovered. Since Hitler had become Stalin’s enemy, the exiled Poles in Russia were allowed to muster their forces to help fight the Nazis. But where were the officers? The families and comrades of the executed men only knew that they were missing after having been taken prisoner during the ’39 invasion. Stalin feigned ignorance, suggesting that they had escaped into Manchuria. The Nazi’s grisly discovery revealed the shocking truth: bodies still in uniform with identifying personal effects in their pockets. The Nazis, masters of propaganda, exploited the discovery to the fullest to divide the allies. Stalin countered with disinformation claiming the Nazis had planted the evidence to cover-up what was their massacre. Which lying regime was to be believed?
It became increasingly clear to those who studied the evidence that Stalin was responsible for the brutal executions. Churchill and FDR both came to understand the crime was Stalin’s, but refused to speak out. Even after the war, these governments did not condemn the act even while the Nuremburg trials were condemning and executing Nazis for similar crimes. Ironically, On April 13, 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged his nation’s guilt for the massacre after almost a half century of Russia steadfastly claiming its innocence. Yet after Gorbachev’s acknowledgement, attempts to discredit it began, keeping the decades old wound between the Poles and the Russians open.
The Nazis surely weren’t surprised that the world didn’t believe its version of what happened at Katyn. Even though the Nazi account in the end was the truest one, a government or organization can’t become the purveyor of truth just by virtue of having the truth. If it isn’t first a trusted source, it has no hope of being believed when conflicting accounts of the truth are in play. For this reason, organizations should zealously guard their reputations so that when it matters most, their credibility doesn’t interfere with transmitting the truth.
The story of Katyn also shows us that those institutions we count on to be beacons of truth and justice are capable of failure, as is any human institution. Churchill and FDR feared that confronting Stalin about the atrocity at Katyn would jeopardize the allied effort to win the war. The risk was that Stalin would negotiate peace with Hitler, leaving the remaining allies to go it alone against a more concentrated army of the Third Reich. Perhaps in light of the greater atrocity of the holocaust, turning a blind eye toward Katyn was necessary – temporarily – to rid the world of even greater evil. But even so, why didn’t the confrontation occur at the war’s end? Where was the attempt to get the truth out? Why continue the cover-up?
There’s an interesting quality to “truth” in that it has a way of getting out. It may take decades, but like Tolkien’s ring, it wants to be found. We can aid and abet the revelation of truth through discernment. It’s wise to inspect the motivations of those who offer different versions, to ask difficult questions and not accept an account of the truth on face value. As Ronald Reagan said, “trust, but verify.” It might seem like I’m advocating cynicism, but the intent is to encourage intolerance of governments, organizations, politicians and parties who cover-up or rewrite the facts for the sake of expediency.
The tragedy of Katyn has a sad epilogue. In April 2010, the plane carrying Polish president Lech Kaczynski and his entourage crashed enroute to Katyn for a memorial commemoration. All on board were killed. Former president Aleksander Kwasniewski said afterwards, “It is a damned place. It sends shivers down my spine.”