Readings — From the December 2012 issue

St. Paul’s Curse

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From a May 24, 1943, memo to British foreign secretary Anthony Eden, from Owen O’Malley, the British ambassador to the Polish government in exile, in the collection of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. This September, the National Archives released more than a thousand pages of previously classified documents concerning the U.S. and British governments’ roles in covering up the Red Army’s 1940 Katyn Forest massacre of 22,000 Polish prisoners. The bodies were found by Nazi forces in the spring of 1943.

Sir,

The men who were taken to Katyn are dead, and their death is a very serious loss to Poland. Nevertheless, unless the Russians are cleared of the presumption of guilt, the moral repercussions may well have more enduring results than the massacre itself; and this aspect of things deserves attention. We, who have access to all the available information, though we can draw no final conclusions on vital matters of fact, have a considerable body of circumstantial evidence at our disposal, and I think most of us are more than half convinced that a large number of Polish officers were indeed murdered by the Russian authorities, and that it is indeed their bodies (as well, maybe, as other bodies) that have now been unearthed.

In handling the publicity side of the Katyn affair, we have been constrained by the urgent need for cordial relations with the Soviet government to appear to appraise the evidence with more hesitation and lenience than we would do in forming a common-sense judgment on events occurring in normal times or in the ordinary course of our private lives; we have been obliged to appear to distort the normal and healthy operation of our intellectual and moral judgments; we have been obliged to give undue prominence to the tactlessness or impulsiveness of Poles, to restrain the Poles from putting their case clearly before the public, to discourage any attempt by the public and the press to probe the ugly story to the bottom. In general, we have been obliged to deflect attention from possibilities that in the ordinary affairs of life would cry to high heaven for elucidation, and to withhold the full measure of solicitude that, in other circumstances, would be shown to acquaintances situated as a large number of Poles now are. We have in fact perforce used the good name of England like the murderers used the little conifers to cover up a massacre; and in view of the immense importance of an appearance of Allied unity and of the heroic resistance of Russia to Germany, few will think that any other course would have been wise or right.

This dislocation between our public attitude and our private feelings we may know to be deliberate and inevitable; but at the same time we may perhaps wonder whether by representing to others something less than the whole truth so far as we know it, and something less than the probabilities so far as they seem to us probable, we are not incurring a risk of what—not to put a fine point on it—might darken our vision and take the edge off our moral sensibility. If so, how is this risk to be avoided?

As the late Mr. Headlam-Morley said, “What in the international sphere is morally indefensible generally turns out in the long run to have been politically inept.” It is surely the case that many of the political troubles of neighboring countries and some of our own have in the past arisen because they and we were incapable of seeing this or unwilling to admit it.

If, then, morals have become involved with international politics, if it be the case that a monstrous crime has been committed by a foreign government—albeit a friendly one—and that we, for however valid reasons, have been obliged to behave as if the deed was not theirs, may it not be that we now stand in danger of falling under St. Paul’s curse on those who can see cruelty “and burn not”? If so, we ought maybe to ask ourselves how, consistently with the necessities of our relations with the Soviet government, the voice of our political conscience is to be kept up to concert pitch. It may be that the answer lies for the moment only in something to be done inside our own hearts and minds, where we are masters. Here, at any rate, we can make a compensatory contribution—a reaffirmation of our allegiance to truth and justice and compassion. If we do this we shall at least be predisposing ourselves to the exercise of a right judgment on all those half-political, half-moral questions that will confront us as the war pursues its course and draws to its end; and so, if the facts about the Katyn massacre turn out to be as most of us incline to think, shall we vindicate the spirit of these brave unlucky men and justify the living to the dead.

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