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Dirty Hands: Past, Present and Future



General Heinz Guderian and Lieutenant Colonel Gustav-Adolf Riebel together with Brigadier Semyon Krivoshein, Commander of the Soviet 29th Tank Brigade, in Brest-Litovsk, September 1939. (© IWM - HU 85900)


The Soviet Union invaded Poland on 17th September 1939. The invasion was carried out in collusion with Nazi Germany, and the subsequent Soviet occupation of eastern Poland was in accordance with a secret protocol of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which had been signed by Molotov and Ribbentrop on 23rdAugust 1939.1 As a consequence of the Nazi invasion of Poland, Great Britaindeclared war on the German nation on 3d September 1939, but no such declaration followed the Soviet invasion of Poland 14 days later.

The Nazi-Soviet pact brought practical advantages to Nazi Germany, not the least of which was that the Soviets agreed to provide the Nazis with hugeamounts of materiel, which allowed Hitler to bypass the British naval blockade of Germany.2 The British were made aware of what the Soviet invasion meant for Poland by Sir William Seeds, the British ambassador to the Soviet Union at the time. Seeds recognised that the Soviets intended to ‘purge’ the newly occupied territory of any ‘non-Soviet population or classes’ and make it indistinguishable from the rest of the Soviet Union.3 As we now know, that is what happened. Between September 1939 and June 1941, over a hundred thousand Poles were apprehended by the Soviet invaders. Many were fed into the gulag system.4 Josef Stalin, the leader of the communist totalitarian political project, was well on his way to creating what Sir Max Hastings called ‘the greatest edifice of repression, mass murder and human suffering the world has ever seen.’5

None of this prevented the British or the Americans from allying themselves with ‘Uncle Joe’ following the launch of Operation Barbarossa on 22nd June 1941.6 Josef Stalin, the so-called ‘man of steel’ who on 18th April 1941 had approached the German ambassador Friedrich Werner von der Schulenburg and the German military attaché Colonel Hans Krebs at Moscow station and made declarations of national friendship to both men,7 wrote directly to Winston Churchill asking him for help on 18th July 1941. In this ‘personal message’, which was hand delivered to Winston Churchill by the Soviet ambassador Ivan Maisky,8 Stalin now referred to ‘Hitlerite Germany’ as ‘our common enemy’ and asked that Great Britain open a second front in order to relieve the military pressure currently being exerted upon the Soviet Union.9

Churchill said of Stalin’s initial request for a second front, ‘this theme was to recur throughout our subsequent relations with monotonous disregard, except in the Far North, for physical facts.’10 America was still officially a non-belligerentin July 1941, and there was no possibility of a second front on the European mainland at that time. However, the Americans and British did begin to sendmateriel to the Soviets. So it was that the first of the ‘Arctic Convoys’ sailed from Reykjavik in Iceland on 21st August 1941, arriving in Archangel in Russia ten days later.11

In December 1941, Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Secretary, travelled to Moscow to meet with Josef Stalin. The first meeting took place on 16thDecember, and according to the telegram Eden sent to the Foreign Office at 4.15am on 17th December: ‘M. Stalin handed me draft projects of two treaties, one to cover military assistance irrespective of war and [the] other political collaboration now and after the war.’ That was not all, however. Eden noted that: ‘M. Stalin then suggested we should also sign a secret protocol which would embody our joint views for a settlement of post-war frontiers.’12

In a further telegram to the Foreign Office, dated 18th December 1941, Eden elaborated: ‘I was summoned to meet Stalin at midnight and we had a discussion lasting three hours. At the outset Stalin said that he had examined the texts but what interested him was the question of the frontiers of the U.S.S.R. after the war. He would agree that the Polish frontier might be left an open question but he wanted our immediate agreement of his territorial claims in Finland Baltic States and Roumania.’13

Churchill recorded his reaction to Stalin’s proposals in the third volume of his history of the war: ‘As soon as I read the telegrams I reacted violently against the absorption of the Baltic States.’14 In a telegram to Clement Attlee dated 20thDecember 1941, Churchill wrote: Stalin’s demands about Finland, Baltic States and Roumania are directly contrary to the first, second and third articles of the Atlantic Charter, to which Stalin has subscribed. There can be no question whatever of our making such an agreement, secret or public, direct or implied, without prior agreement with the U.S.’15

By the spring of 1942, Churchill had changed his mind. In a telegram to Roosevelt dated 7th March 1942, Churchill wrote: ‘The increasing gravity of the war has led me to feel that the principles of the Atlantic Charter ought not to be construed so as to deny Russia the frontiers she occupied when Germany attacked her. This was the basis on which Russia acceded to the Charter, and I expect that a severe process of liquidating hostile elements in the Baltic States, etc., was employed by the Russians when they took these regions at the beginning of the war. I hope therefore that you will be able to give us a free hand to sign the treaty which Stalin desires as soon as possible.16

The Soviets had indeed employed a severe process of liquidating elements they considered to be hostile in the territories they had occupied at the beginning of the war, in accordance with the secret protocol of the Nazi-Soviet pact. In March 1940, Lavrenty Beria, head of the NKVDproposed that thousands of Polish officers who had been captured by the Soviets, as well as thousands of people labelled by Beria as ‘members of counter-revolutionary spy and sabotage organisations’, should be executed. Stalin and Molotov both signed off on this terrible proposal, and in April 1940, one of the most heinous war crimes in history was committed by the Soviet Union.17

The NKVD interrogated prisoners of war being held in Soviet camps at Starobelsk, Ostashkov and Kozelsk in order to establish their intellectual and moral standing. Any individuals who did not believe in the Soviets’Weltanschauung were sentenced to a violent death.18 At Starobelsk and Ostashkov, the POWs were murdered using the same technique. A prisoner’s name would be checked off a list, then he would be taken into a room where two NKVD agents grabbed him by the arms. The murderer would approach from behind and, using a German pistol, shoot a bullet into the base of the prisoner’s neck. One of the NKVD’s most prolific killers, Vasily Blokhin, is said to have worn a leather apron, leather gauntlets and leather cap as he went about his work. Josef Stalin awarded Blokhin the Order of the Red Banner on 27th April 1940 for his ‘skill and organisation in the effective carrying out of special tasks.’19

The POWs held at the camp in Kozelsk were murdered after being taken to the forest at Katyn, rather than being shot first then taken to the burial site on the back of a lorry.20 Approximately seven thousand people held in other camps were also executed by the NKVD at this time.  In total, more than twenty one thousand human beings were sacrificed in the name of the Soviet totalitarian system.21


Rows of exhumed bodies of Polish officers beside the mass graves at Katyn, 1943. (© IWM - HU 106212)

So these were our allies during WW2. The Soviets were in league with Nazi Germany in September 1939, they provided the Nazis with materiel that allowed the Nazis to get around a British naval blockade, they invaded Poland on 17th September 1939, they forcibly deported thousands of people to the wastelands of eastern Russia, and they committed the appalling crime known today as the Katyn forest massacre.

The British ambassador to the Polish government in exile in London, Sir Owen O’Malley, sent a report to Anthony Eden on 24th May 1943, in which the consequences of the British alliance with the Soviet Union were laid bare.22 In his opening paragraph, O’Malley informs Eden that the report ‘gives grounds for misgivings about the character and policy of the present rulers of Russia.’23

O’Malley goes on to argue for that, by asserting that letters had been received by relatives of the Polish POWs up until March 1940, but not one had been received since.24 SecondlyPolish officials had repeatedly requested information from the Soviets as to the whereabouts of the Polish officers in question. O’Malley states: To none of all these enquiries extending over a period of two and a half years was a single positive answer of any kind ever returned.’25 In the third place, the grave sites had been visited by Polish doctors and representatives of the Polish Red Cross, and many of the bodies had been identified.26 In the fourth place, O’Malley argues that the Germans were far more likely to have kept the missing Polish officers as POWs, in which case someone would have heard from them between 1940 and 1943.27 Finally, O’Malley draws Eden’s attention to the conflicting and quite unbelievable set of lies (as we now know them to be) that had issued forth from the Kremlin on the subject.28  O’Malley reaches the inevitable conclusion: ‘The cumulative effect of this evidence is, as I said earlier, to throw serious doubt on Russian disclaimers of responsibility for a massacre.’29

O’Malley goes on to describe ‘the character and policy of the present rulers of Russia’ in memorable terms: ‘Lenin would have broken apart the heads of ten thousand Polish officers with the insouciance of a monkey cracking walnuts. Did corpses pitching into a common grave with the precision of machines coming off a production-belt similarly satisfy a nature habituated to manipulate blood and lives with uncompassionate detachment?’30 O’Malley provides his own answer to that question later his report: ‘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) which have now been unearthed.’31 As we now know, O’Malleywas correct.

O’Malley was surely correct in his final analysis of the situation tooIn paragraph 20 of his report, O’Malley argues that members of the British government were ‘constrained by the urgent need for cordial relations with the Soviet Government and so ‘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 [the] Poles, to restrain the Poles from putting their case before the public, to discourage any attempt by the public and the press to probe the ugly story to the bottom.’32

In his report, O’Malley leaves room for the possibility that members of the British Government would understand at a personal level that helping the Soviets to cover up a mass murder wamorally wrong. This does not redeem any of those politicians, for in reaching that understanding, they would have to acknowledge that they were deceiving the British people in order to prosecute a war. British politicians had declared war on Germany in September 1939 in order to protect Poland, which they were unable to do, and which they did not do. In 1943, in the midst of what had developed into what is now known asWorld War 2, British politicians helped to cover up the murder of thousands of Poles, the very people they were supposed to have gone to war for in the first place, in order to protect the Soviet Union, who were doing the heavy lifting when it came to fighting the Wehrmacht. And World War 2 was supposed to be ‘the good war’? The evidence does not support that assertion.

At the conclusion of The World at War, ITV’s acclaimed documentary on World War 2, the American historian Stephen Ambrose makes the following statement: ‘The British had as many problems, if not more, in recovering from victory as the Germans did in recovering from defeat. The British ... what did Britain get out of the war? Not very much ... not very much. She lost a great deal. I suppose, if you want to look at it positively, she got a moral claim on the world, as the nation that had stood against Hitler alone for a year and had provided the moral leadership against the Nazis at a time when everyone else was willing to cave in to the Nazis.’33

It is important for all British citizens to recognise that the politicians who wereelected to represent us not only aligned our nation with the Soviet Union during the war, they (to use O’Malley’s languagedistorted the normal operation of their intellectual and moral judgements in order to make that alliance with the Soviet Union work. One is inevitably reminded of Machiavelli’s position in The Prince: ‘A man who wishes to profess goodness at all times will come to ruin among so many who are not good. Therefore, it is necessary for a prince who wishes to maintain himself to learn how not to be good, and to use this knowledge or not to use it according to necessity.’34 Machiavelli explains what he means: ‘And so it is necessary that he should have a mind ready to turn itself according to the way the winds of Fortune and the changing circumstances command him. And, as I said above, he should not depart from the good if it is possible to do so, but he should know how to enter into evil when forced by necessity.’35 The changing circumstances during the war with Nazi Germany may have meant that British politicians entered into an alliance with the Soviet Union out of necessity, and the moral compromises involved in that alliance may be comprehensible if one adopts a Machiavellian view of political life, but the truth about the war should no longer be sacrificed to myth. As British citizens, we have a duty to the men and women who lost their lives to know, and to remember, what really happened during the war.

Some people may very well have believed that British politicians had some kind of superior moral standing as a result of Britain having fought against Nazi Germany during the war. However, the information that is needed to examine that proposition is now available to the British public, and we can see that it is simply not true. And there is absolutely no reason to think that politicians today are any better in that regard. 

In his report to Anthony Eden, O’Malley concludes that: ‘It may be that the answer lies, for the moment, only in something to be done inside our own heart and minds where we ourselves are masters. Here at any rate we can make a compensatory contribution  a reaffirmation of our allegiance to truth and justice and compassion.’36 There is nothing wrong with that, but in a properly functioning democratic society, it is surely the role of the people to keep thepoliticians we elect on the straight and narrow. 

We therefore have a duty to ensure that truth, justice and compassion remain at the centre of our own lives, as the politicians we elect go about the business of running our country. And we have a duty to speak out when we see politicians make moral compromises in our name, even when they claim to be making such compromises in order to achieve a greater good. If the British state visits harm upon its own citizens in order to prevent dissenting voices from being heard, then it is possible that our country will begin to travel down an evil road, and there will be no means of altering course. So we must learn from history, and we must speak out whenever we see politicians act in ways that run counter to our own sense of truth, justice and compassion. The alternative is to risk an uncontrollable descent into a different kind of reality, where knowledge of what happened in places like Katyn will be seen not as reminders of what some human beings are capable of, but as milestones we passed long ago on the road to hell on earth.



References

1. Gilbert, M. The Second World War: A Complete History, Phoenix, p. 9.
2. Moorhouse, R. The Devil’s Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin1939-1941, The Bodley Head, Kindle location 714.  Prior, R. When Britain Saved The West: The Story of 1940, Yale University Press, pp. 9-10.
3. Seeds, W. (Quoted.) Rees, L. World War II: Behind Closed Doors,Random House, Kindle location 632.
4. Rees, L. ibid., Kindle location 728. Moorhouse, R. op. cit., Kindle location 1187.
5. Hastings, M. Armageddon, Pan Books, Kindle location 2255.
6. Gilbert, M. op. cit., p. 198.
7. Nagorski, A. The Greatest Battle, Andrew Nagorski, Kindle location 653.
8. Maisky, I. The Maisky Diaries: Red Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s 1932-1943, Yale University Press, pp. 372-373.
9. Churchill, W. The Second World War Volume 3: The Grand Alliance, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pp. 309-310.
10. ibid. p. 310.
11. Dimbleby, J. The Battle of the Atlantic, Viking, p. 181.
12. National Archives, FO 371/29655 Telegram No. 13 HECTIC
13. National Archives, FO 371/29655 Telegram No. 22 HECTIC
14. Churchill, W. op. cit., p. 493.
15. Churchill, W. op. cit., p. 493.
16. National Archives, FO 954/25A/52
17. Rees, L. World War 2: Behind Closed Doors, Random House, Kindle location 908. Excerpts: Beria letter to Stalin on Katyn, BBC News, 28 April 2010. (Accessed 5th May 2016.)
18. Rees, L. ibid., Kindle locations 929, 937. Moorhouse, R. op. cit.,Kindle location 1195.
19. Rees, L. ibid., Kindle locations 983, 990, 996. Vasili Blokhin, history’s most prolific executioner, Rare Historical Photos. (Accessed 7th May 2016.)
20. Rees, L. ibid., Kindle location 999.
21. Moorhouse, R. op. cit., Kindle location 1223.
22. Rees, op. cit., Kindle location 3166.
23. O’Malley, O. Report to Anthony Eden 24th May 1943 [online]. Franklin D. Roosevelt: Papers as President, The President’s Secretary’s File (PSF), 1933-1945. Box 37, Great Britain, Winston Churchill, 1942-1943, document psfa0499.pdf, pp. 61-68, paragraph 1Available at:http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/archives/collections/franklin/?p=collections/findingaid&id=502&q=&rootcontentid=140122[Accessed 8th May 2016]
24. ibid., paragraph 8.
25. ibid., paragraph 9.
26. ibid., paragraph 10.
27. ibid., paragraph 11.
28. ibid., paragraph 12.
29. ibid., paragraph 13.
30. ibid., paragraph 17.
31. ibid., paragraph 19.
32. ibid., paragraph 20.
33. Ambrose, S. The World at War: Reckoning, 38m 26s [online] Available at: https://youtu.be/U4x69cIeLX4 [Accessed 9th May 2016]
34. Machiavelli, N. The Prince, Oxford World’s Classics, Kindle location 1550.
35. ibid., Kindle location 1677.
36. O’Malley, O. op. cit., paragraph 24.

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