Residual guilt about this Soviet atrocity may be preventing Andrzej Wajda’s film Katyn from getting the coverage it deserves in Britain
The career of the Polish film director Andrzej Wajda is filled with cinematic attempts to rediscover Poland’s history in the 20th century. In 2007, he turned his attention to one of that country’s greatest tragedies, made worse by the fact that the truth about it could not be spoken for so long: the 1940 massacre of 22,000 Polish officers by the Soviet NKVD (the KGB’s predecessor).
The film is called Katyn, after the best-known of the three camps where the slaughter took place. In 1943, the Germans uncovered a mass grave and self-righteously called the world’s attention to it. The evidence that the massacre had been carried out by Soviet forces was overwhelming, but the West refused to listen, for what seemed like admirable reasons. Soviet forces were doing most of the fighting against Germany so, it was reasoned, their allies should support them, if necessary, by telling lies about what happened to the Polish army – even though Poland was also an ally. These lies carried on after the war, through the Nuremberg trials and beyond.
Telling the truth about Katyn, even in the West, proved to be very difficult in the post-war era, partly because of deliberate obfuscation by fellow-travellers and partly because of a lack of curiosity. In Eastern Europe, the truth could be spoken only in whispers. In 1990, the Soviet Union finally acknowledged responsibility for the crime. Recently, though, several official Russian media outlets have reverted to the story of the Nazis murdering the Polish officers. Understandably, the Poles took this latest example of historical revisionism hard.
Wajda’s film has been a huge success in Poland. In other countries reaction has been somewhat more muted. In Russia, there have been only a few screenings in private clubs and in Italy a mere 12 cinemas have shown it, according to a columnist in Avvenire. But nobody in Britain (with the honourable exception of Peter Hitchens) has paid any attention to the fact that the film has been shown here publicly just once, at the National Film Theatre. After almost two years, it was scheduled for general release in Britain in March, but the date has now been pushed back to June. This cannot be because there is no interest in Second World War films – there has been a whole spate of them. Is there still residual guilt about the way the Poles were treated? Or is Britain, unlike the rest of Eastern Europe, still not ready to come to terms with recent history?