DIPLOMAT has my latest article, featuring the final cable I sent to London from Warsaw as I ended my FCO career in autumn 2007.
Once upon a time there were Valedictory Despatches. The Despatch was an interesting diplomatic genre, an extended essay sent by an Ambassador that looked more deeply/thematically at an issue than the usual Bag letter or telegram allowed. These were received in London and mulled over by the relevant FCO Department. It took a lot of nerve on the part of the Head of Department to disappoint the Ambassador and not send the Despatch for printing: the top form for printing was a general distribution on green paper that produced copies for all Posts and many different parts of Whitehall.
Back in the day when things were taken seriously, Despatches rarely leaked. But it did happen. Here is one of my earliest blog posts describing how I crushed press freedom and won an injunction in the middle of the night to stop Sir James Craig’s trenchant observations on the Arab World from being splashed all over Scotland by the Glasgow Herald.
The Valedictory Despatch was the final despatch sent by an Ambassador before leaving a post. Sometimes it was the Ambassador’s last piece of serious work on leaving the diplomatic service too, so the author would throw in some lofty thoughts on his/her whole career and the changes seen during those long years.
Whitehall eventually grew weary of the too often condescending yet moaning tone of these Valedictory Despatches. It grew very tempting to leak them and embarrass the FCO and the author. The very idea of printing such a tract seemed out of tune with the e-times we now lived in. So they were terminated as an art form.
Here is a book Parting Shots by Matthew Parris that reprints some of the most striking Valedictory Despatches, thanks to the miracles of FOI.
When I left Warsaw, soon after the Despatch form bit the dust, I decided to send two farewell telegrams (by then reborn as eGrams). One in a jocular tome recorded my Crawford Career Oscar Awards. That one is reproduced in Parting Shots – indeed the final one in the book.
However, my substantive contribution was a look at modern Europe and the baleful lingering influence of communism: From Kaliningrad to Mladićgrad – The Final Submission.
This text in an edited form has now been published for a non-official audience for the first time in DIPLOMAT. Here.
Here is a slightly edited full version of the cable that is not without interest given all the latest goings-on in Poland where Jarosław Kaczynski is still in business:
FROM KALININGRAD TO MLADIĆGRAD
THE FINAL SUBMISSION
The Katyn Murders
On 17 September 1939 as Hitler’s army lunged in from the West, Soviet forces invaded Poland from the East to grab Polish territory as per the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Poland fell. Hundreds of thousands of Poles were taken prisoner. In the coming months most were freed.
But thousands of officers and intellectuals were not. They were “hardened uncompromising enemies of Soviet authority”. On 5 March 1940 Stalin and other Soviet leaders signed off a paper from Beria in neat Soviet bureaucratic prose recommending that these officers be shot. In 1994 I saw this document displayed in Moscow alongside the Molotov-Ribbentrop map itself, Europe with a line slashed down the middle.
The full truth is still not known. The Kremlin will not release it. But it is safe enough to say that up to 20,000 victims at different sites included one admiral, 14 generals, 24 colonels, 79 lieutenant colonels, 258 majors, 654 captains, 17 naval captains, 200 pilots, 7 chaplains, a prince, 43 officials, 131 refugees, plus hundreds of professors, doctors and lawyers, engineers, teachers, writers and journalists. Their children, grandchildren, other family members and friends are several million Polish voters today.
Stalin’s Really Big Lie
The significance of all this for the rest of us? The fact that this episode prompted some of the Biggest Lies in European history. And still does.
When the Nazis uncovered the site of the Katyn graves and proclaimed Soviet guilt, Stalin’s propaganda machine screamed that the Nazis had committed this atrocity of atrocities. The Allies found themselves choosing not to confront Moscow lest this weaken the wartime anti-Hitler front. This evasiveness skewed the Nuremberg war crimes trials – and the whole post-WW2 settlement in Europe.
So Stalin got away with it then, and for long Cold War decades afterwards. Successive British governments wriggled and writhed to avoid publicly accepting the truth, as FCO documents published under Robin Cook’s leadership showed.
Truth will out. Gorbachev in 1990 admitted that the Soviet NKVD had perpetrated the massacre. Then President Yeltsin gave Poland key Stalin documents showing the Soviet leadership’s personal guilt. For a few years Polis and Russian experts worked pretty well on related archive issues. But that dried up. Now the Russian authorities are rowing back. They angrily reject any suggestion that Katyn was a war crime, insisting that it was a ‘military crime’ that needs no prosecution or wider historical accountability now.
Today a huge effort (not least by HMG) has gone into exposing the 1995 Serb massacre of several thousand Bosniac/Muslim prisoners at Srebrenica, and to bringing the perpetrators to justice. Some sort of argument can be scraped together than in the hot madness of that conflict Bosnian Serb General Mladić ‘lost it’ and took his own appalling revenge on the Bosniacs who had been killing Serbs from the sanctuary of a UN ‘safe zone’. The Katyn killings were far worse: an Act of Evil aimed at wiping out in one genocidal blow much of the elite of Polish society with ramifications for generations to come, conceived personally in cold blood by the top Soviet leadership whose bureaucrats meticulously recorded their villainy
Should we honour Mladić by renaming Eastern Bosnia Mladićgrad? The question is absurd. Yet Europe has nothing to say about the fact that Kaliningrad is named after titular Soviet leader Mikhail Kalinin, whose name is prominently there (“Kalinin: For”) on the papers ordering the Katyn killings …
So I put it on the public record after playing my own modest role in the 1980’s FCO while it was still shiftily equivocating on Katyn. A territory in today’s Europe carries the name of a Soviet leader who should have faced being hanged for war crimes.
The bland, fiendish leftist intellectual Ellsworth Toohey (modeled on Stalin) laid it out in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (1943), “The soul is that which can’t be ruled … it must be broken. … a man afraid of not being controlled. He feels uncertain, unclean. You won’t need a whip – he’ll bring it to you and ask to be whipped.”
In my final meetings here I have been talking to many top Poles about what these issues really mean for Europe now. One made the point that during the Communist period the authorities pressed a person to sign a simple document indicating a readiness to ‘cooperate’ even when the security police did not care whether the person actually would cooperate or not. What they wanted was the recognition by the person signing of his/her own psychological submission, expressed via just that mean little signature, whose very meanness and smallness and furtiveness somehow made the act of submission even more total.
Polish Politics Today
Polish society in effect divides into five broad categories, and those divisions spill over into today’s politics here:
(1) People on the margins, never important enough to be recruited into the Party or act as informers
(2) The several million people who did openly join the Party.
(3) People who did not join the Party but for one reason or the other (cynicism, opportunism, fear, blackmail) signed up to ‘cooperate’ by spying on friends and colleagues
(4) People who were pressed to sign and/or cooperate but held firm, often at great personal cost.
And (5), the Party and KGB-style elite who presided over this horrible system – and as communism ended busily stacked the deck so that they would continue to scheme and flourish in democratic conditions.
The striking thing is how the psychological force of Submission lives on today. Clamour from Poles and indeed foreigners against opening the secret police archives here comes from different angles. From the former communist elite intending to keep ill-gotten gains by keeping the scale of their plunder and deceit well away from the wider public eye. From the rantings of Lenin’s ‘useful idiots’ in Western media and academic circles (and indeed! How useful they have been to the Communist cause down the generations – the Bolshevik poisoned gift that keeps on giving). Some from well-intentioned decent people who unhappily conclude that even if the cause is just, the pain and disruption (including to the Catholic church) provoked by tackling these problems will not be worth it.
The Kaczynski twins try to open up all this. They are denounced as reactionaries or extremists in ‘progressive’ Polish/European circles. But they press on. Despite their turbulent and in many ways unsatisfactory record since 2005, their Law and Justice Party enter Poland’s October early elections campaign ahead in the polls. Millions of Poles feel uneasy about the Round Table deal between Solidarity and Communists which led to free elections. They are open to populist rhetoric that anyone who has got rich in post-communist Poland must have done so illicitly. In many poor towns and villages big houses are known to belong to people who in one way or the other have fixed things in their favour. Throw in Russia’s media seeking to downplay the significance of Katyn when so many Poles still alive lost distinguished family friends or relatives in the killings. A party that presses these themes must do well.
The Kaczynskis unashamedly force into European discourse profound moral and political questions about historic Rights and Wrongs. This leaves other political forces in Poland (and more widely?) flailing to find a clear policy ledge to park on – somewhere in the middle.
The arguments and the motives differ. The end result is the same. The days trickle into months and years. It all gets … difficult. Complicated. Memories fade. Thus people who slyly presided over or benefited from the communist system are feted as modern European social democrats. Jewish, Polish and other victims of communism who had their property stolen or heroically refused to cooperate appeal to European institutions for justice, and often leave empty-handed. We prosecute elderly Nazis for their crimes. Elderly Communists go free.
The Katyn Question will not die. If anything it could creep up the European agenda as Poland and other former communist states get more confident and skillful at playing the EU game, while the ex-KGB elite running Russia shows a nastier face and re-arms.
So we in the UK eventually may have to decide. Do we make up for all those decades of evasion by pressing publicly that Moscow open up all the Katyn archives and accept Katyn as a war crime? Do we make it a no-brainer new Strategic Priority that European territory can’t be named after suspected war criminals – and call on Russia to change the name of Kaliningrad?
Or do we and the rest of Europe submit to Soviet and post-Soviet Big Lies? Does the EU peer attentively at its expensive shoes when Moscow insists that Katyn is now a closed subject because the archive has been ‘classified’? Does the EU dutifully turn up at Moscow parades commemorating the ‘Great Patriotic War, 1941-45’ which is in good part about airbrushing from history the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and horrendous Soviet crimes at Katyn and elsewhere – with both Russians and Europeans knowing that the Europeans are unwilling to do or even say anything about it? That another generation has submitted?
And what of the howls of rage from different Islamist extremist quarters at allegedly offensive cartoons, demanding that we tolerate the intolerant? Do they look at how Stalin got away with mass murder at Katyn, and think that by being viciously determined enough they can do the same? Do they expect the sheer intensity of their hatred for our pluralism to overwhelm our readiness to defend it? That they too can bring us to Submit? How might we measure if they are succeeding?
Are the world’s Biggest Lies and Biggest Liars by some chance related?