Directed by Andrzej Wadja
The revolutionary Victor Serge called the period of Hitler and Stalin “midnight of the century”. Hope for a better future, for peace and democracy in Europe, seemed extinguished between parallel dictatorships.
Katyn is set in this context. It tells of the mass murder of Polish officers and intellectuals in 1940 in the forest of that name and in three other locations.
That this film took until 2007 to be made indicates the depth of the pain felt by the victims’ families and the extent of the official cover up after the war.
The director—Andrzej Wadja (born 1926)—had his father taken from him in the massacre.
The film emphasises the long struggle for Polish national rights and the brutality of Stalin’s Russia. But understanding these requires some knowledge of the wave of revolutions at the end of World War I and the history of the Polish nationalist movement.
Poland had been independent until the 18th Century, but was twice “partitioned” between the surrounding empires of Germany, Austria and Russia. The collapse of all three dynastic empires, plus the Ottoman Empire, following the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the exhaustion of the war, unleashed struggles by oppressed national-ethnic groups from Finland in the north to Arabia in the south.
The Russian Bolsheviks rapidly made peace with imperial Germany in February 1918 to end the war and stabilise the revolution. But the revolution in Germany from November 1918 opened the possibility for the trans-European overthrow of capitalism. The Bolsheviks granted national rights to oppressed groups across the former Russian empire.
But in Poland mistakes made by the Bolshevik Red Army in the civil war following the revolution led to many Polish nationalists becoming alienated from the new socialist state.
What began as skirmishes between the Red Army and Polish nationalist forces, as a side-struggle of the Bolsheviks’ fight to defeat the White armies trying to crush the Russian Revolution, became all-out war in 1920.
The Bolsheviks aimed to defeat the pro-capitalist Polish forces and allow Polish national rights within a socialist federation.
Josef Stalin’s role here sheds light on later events portrayed in Katyn. He was the political commissar of one of the Bolshevik armies operating in Poland. His ambition to be central to a decisive victory against the Poles in part led to the defeat of the Red Army outside Warsaw. He was humiliated for his poor judgement by other Bolshevik leaders, including Leon Trotsky.
By 1923 the German revolution was defeated and the Russian socialist state was isolated from the rest of Europe, and struggled to survive the economic backwardness it inherited.By 1927 the bureaucratic dictatorship headed by Stalin dominated the “Soviet” Union. The gains of the revolution were unwound as Stalin’s faction forced through rapid industrialisation at the expense of peasants’ and workers’ rights and lives. Trotsky called Stalin the gravedigger of the revolution.
The 1930s were a period of terrible upheaval as the world economy slumped and democratic forces were defeated by fascist police regimes.
As Nazi military power grew, Stalin gambled that Hitler could be bargained with to divide Eastern Europe between the two powers. Poland would yet again be partitioned. The infamous Hitler-Stalin Pact of August 23, 1939 agreed the German army would take western Poland, while the Russians would take the eastern part of the country.
The following week Hitler’s army ignited World War II by invading Poland. Sixteen days later the Russians marched into Poland from the east, completing the (secret) provisions of the pact. Katyn shows refugees fleeing the Nazis meeting refugees fleeing the Russians!
It is during this period—when more than 20,000 officers and intellectuals were in the hands of the Russian political police (the NKVD)—that Stalin approved the mass murder.
By 1941 Hitler was confident enough of military success in Western Europe to attack the USSR.
After the end of the war and the consolidation of Russian control of Eastern Europe the story of Katyn was buried. The new Polish client state and officials of the former USSR cooperated to pin responsibility on the Nazis, who of course had also massacred huge number of Poles, especially Polish Jews.
Some Western communist historians failed to believe that the massacre was carried out by the Russians. Yet Stalin’s career—like Hitler’s—was typified by the “liquidation” of real and imagined opposition and by a ruthless indifference to human life.
By the time of the Katyn massacre he had already murdered the leaders of the Polish Communist Party, who fled the Pilsudski dictatorship in the 1920s and 1930s, and he had staged the Moscow Trials of 1938 to remove any opposition to his dictatorship.
See it for an insight into the darkness of the midnight of the twentieth century.
By Bruce Knobloch