The Secrets of Katyn

Now rentable on iTunes, Amazon and other VOD platforms for $5.99, “The Last Witness” is a narrative film about the Katyn massacre of 1940. This joint Polish-British production is well worth seeing both for its dramatic power and for its probing examination of how England served Stalin’s Great Russian chauvinism by covering up the massacre that left 22,000 elite members of the military, academy, church and legal professions secretly buried in the forest near Smolensk, even after the Cold War had begun.

This is now the second film about Katyn I have reviewed for CounterPunch, the first being Andrzej Wajda’s 2007 “Katyn”. Like Wajda, the director and screenwriters of “The Last Witness”—Piotr Szkopiak and Paul Szambowski—are Polish nationalists. For the Poles, the 1940 occupation and mass murder of the country’s elite has cast a shadow over their history just as the 1932-33 famine does for Ukrainians.

As an issue, Katyn flared up again recently when Jersey City’s park official proposed relocating a monument to the massacre to a less-traveled locale because he found it “a little gruesome”, adding that “I can’t imagine how many mothers go by and have to explain it to their children.” This infuriated local Poles and even became enough of an provocation that Polish president Andrzej Duda decided to visit Jersey City and voice his disapproval. As it happens, Duda has his own issues with downplaying mass murder. When he pushed through a law in February that calls for prison terms of up to three years for attributing Nazi crimes to Poland or referring to Nazi death camps as Polish.

When an Israeli journalist pressed Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on whether this absolved Poles who collaborated with the Nazis, he replied that there were Jewish collaborators as well—thus adding fuel to the fire. One gathers he made the mistake of reading Hannah Arendt’s account of how the Judenrat (Jewish council) helped the Nazis police Jewish ghettoes. It would be appropriate for the Polish President or Prime Minister to turn the tables on Israel for its expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 but it is likely that they wouldn’t have bothered. Like the Syrians who have endured seven years of murderous attacks by Assad, they cannot count on the support of any government in the world, either in the East or West.

Wajda’s film was made from the perspective of a Polish officer eventually killed in Katyn while “The Last Witness”, set in 1946, is from that of a British journalist named Stephen Underwood (Alex Pettyfer) who is puzzled by the suicide epidemic of Poles who have ended up in displaced persons camps in England after the war has ended. This leads Underwood to begin asking questions among the interned men, including one who turns out to be a Russian peasant who ended up witnessing the executions. Appalled by the killings, he assumed the identity of a Pole named Michael Loboda (Robert Wieckiewicz) and fled to England where he becomes the eponymous “last witness”.

Sensing that Loboda is hiding something, Underwood uses his access to the camp (his brother is an officer there) and purloins a journal that Loboda salvaged from a mass grave in Katyn. It is filled with details about the killings, the same device Wajda used in “Katyn”. Letters that the doomed Polish officer wrote to his wife end up being used to reconstruct war crimes. Both films use archival footage of disinterred corpses to lend the realism needed to remind an audience of the needless brutality Stalin was capable of.

Underwood’s investigative reporting leads the forces of reaction in England to try silencing both the reporter and Loboda by any means necessary. Paul Szambowski’s screenplay co-written with director Piotr Szkopiak sustains considerable tension as the noose tightens around both men in a fashion that evokes a John le Carré film. The higher up you get in the British state and military, the more you run into rationales for officialdom’s malfeasance. The film has a noir aesthetic that matches well to the immediate post-war malaise, capturing the same mood as Orson Welles’s “The Third Man”.

While focused on a distant period, the filmmakers obviously hope to reflect on anti-Polish xenophobia present now in England. When Underwood is having a drink in a pub, he spots Loboda for the first time standing at the bar trying to get his mind off Katyn and displacement by sipping quietly on a beer. When his Slavic accent is noticed by an Englishman standing close by, he is told to go back where he came from and to stop stealing their jobs.

While the Soviet government is obviously determined to keep its responsibility for Katyn a secret by continuing to put the blame on the defeated Nazi state, the British Labour Government comes in a close second. It must be said that the extreme measures taken by the British and Stalinist repressive forces depicted in the film likely never happened historically but as is most frequently the case, this is necessary when you making a narrative film rather than a documentary.

As I watched “The Last Witness”, I had lingering doubts over why the British would want to continue to deny Soviet guilt after the war had ended. Since the Cold War began almost immediately after the end of WWII, signaled by Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech, why would the British be so opposed to a newspaper article revealing that the USSR had been responsible for the Katyn massacre rather than the Nazis? After all, hadn’t Stalin replaced Hitler in the Orwellian Two Minutes of Hate ritual?

As is inevitably the case, East-West relations are often more complex than depicted by those of a Manichaean bent. To some extent, an unwillingness to blame Stalin for such crimes can be attributed to the lingering goodwill Western intellectuals and journalists bestowed on the “socialist experiment” and the Red Army’s victory over Nazism. For example, Waverly Root, the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post’s foreign correspondent for three decades, wrote a three-volume “Secret History of the War”, whose final instalment titled “Casablanca to Katyn” included forty-six pages devoted to defending the Soviet version of Katyn.

Additionally, in the immediate post-war period, the WWII allies were still operating under the power politics framework of Potsdam. With Europe being divided up by the victors, it was still necessary not to push too hard against the Soviets for fear of a backlash. After all, the Red Army was a powerful presence throughout eastern Europe and capable of pressing westward even though that was probably the last thing Stalin sought. In this context, raising a stink over Katyn might have been an inconvenience when larger strategic goals were in play.

Even the USA, which was ready to start World War Three, was reluctant to point fingers at the USSR, the target of its genocidal weaponry. In 2012, over 1,000 pages on Katyn were released by the U.S. National Archives indicating that the USA was not willing to blame Stalin, not even up until 1990. The excuse was that it did not want to add to Cold War tensions. Considering the number of H-Bombs that were being tested in the 1950s, this rings rather hollow.

A minority of American journalists and politicians were willing to make Katyn a cause célèbre. A campaign initiated by journalist Julius Epstein and former American ambassador to Poland Arthur Bliss Lane tried to put Katyn on the front burner in the early 50s. They formed a committee that was a virtual rogue’s gallery of anti-Communists, among them OSS chief William Donovan, CIA chief Allen Dulles, Max Eastman and Clare Booth Luce. The goal was to undermine the reputation of the USSR through revelations about a war crime that the USSR blamed on the Nazis. It was only in 1990 that Gorbachev admitted Soviet guilt.

Consistent with post-Communist Russian disavowal of Stalin, Putin met with Polish leaders in 2010 to pay his respects to the victims at Katyn. He said, “For both Russians and Poles, the truth about the past is of the utmost importance, no matter how hard or uncomfortable that truth may be. And we shall do everything to make sure our people know the truth.” To his credit, Putin included a showing of Wajda’s “Katyn” as part of the ceremonies. True to form, the Communist Party in Russia continues to blame the Nazis for the killings.

As for Poland today, the drift is toward the right-populism that exists throughout Eastern Europe, which can arguably be described as fueled by the same capitalist contradictions that created fascism about a century ago. Like the ruling parties in Hungary and the Czech Republic, Poland is virulently anti-immigrant, patriarchal and opposed to the EU. Ironically, the ruling Law and Justice Party originated in Lech Walesa’s Solidarity, at its inception a hopeful movement, and enjoys considerable support from trade unionists. It is also “pro-family” in the Catholic Church sense, opposing gay marriage and abortion. One of its top leaders, Mariusz Błaszczak, is on record stating that he would like to be like “Charles the Hammer who stopped the Muslim invasion of Europe in VIII century”. And only 80 years ago, German politicians were saying the same sort of things about Jews.

Like every other country in Europe, Poland is desperately in need of a socialist renaissance. Despite the sorry state of the country’s politics, it was once a beacon of hope for working-class internationalism as this 1880 Letter to the Polish Socialists by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Paul Lafargue, and F. Lessner would indicate:

The cry, “Long live Poland,” which arose at that time throughout entire Western Europe, was not only an expression of sympathy and respect for the patriotic warriors, crushed by brute force; with this cry it still joyously welcomes a nation all the uprisings of which–so unfortunate for itself–always dammed the counter-revolutionary current, and her bravest sons everlastingly conducted the war of counter-attacks, fighting everywhere under the banner of the people’s revolutions.

The trade union men who vote for Law and Justice because it keeps their wages high and women in their place couldn’t be mistaken for the Poles that the early socialist movement hailed. However, there have been signs that the spirit of rebellion has not been fully extinguished at least when it comes to Polish women. In 2016, the Law and Justice Party sponsored legislation that if enacted would have banned all abortions, including those resulting from rape or incest. Massive protests put the sexist parliamentarians back on their heels, including 30,000 men and women who assembled in Warsaw’s Castle Square, chanting “We want doctors, not missionaries!” and carrying placards bearing messages such as “My Uterus, My Opinion” and “Women Just Want to Have FUN-damental Rights.”

The legislation was aborted.

This year the fetus-fetishists are at it again, with the Law and Justice Party hoping to take advantage of the reactionary mood gripping all of Europe, even though it does not seem to have much power when it comes to a woman’s right to control her own body as the Irish referendum would indicate. When a protest took place on March 23, 2018, the NY Times reported on the continuing readiness of ordinary Poles to defend their rights, a hallmark of a country that once was regarded as the most rebellious in all of Europe:

Carrying a flag with a silhouette of a woman with a lightning bolt, the symbol of the rally, and wearing a sticker of a pregnant woman in the place of Jesus on the cross, she joined thousands of others as they marched from Parliament to the headquarters of the governing party.

Along the way, they chanted, “Your rule will end, but your shame will last.” Many women, and the men that joined them, wore stickers with a woman, fist clenched, declaring, “We have had enough.”

There will come a time when the words “Your rule will end” take on a universal significance. I am confident that Poles will be part of the vanguard helping to turn the words into deeds.

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.