We Don’t Get to Pick the Truth

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History is subjective; it shouldn’t be that way, but it is. Text books tell history selectively to fit the mold of a curriculum, and a historian tells it another way.

History can be dragged out over time and so covered with lies that it becomes a shell of what it once was. Other times the present can be so covered with lies that it takes a century for the truth to come out.

And then there’s shadow games, little lies mixed in with the truth. History is rampant with the worst kinds of lies; lies of omission. And that’s where the conjecture kicks in.

One of the greatest victim of history is Poland.

Their story hasn’t been told as diligently as it should have been. For instance, very people know how the conflict in Poland began in WWII.

During the night of 31 August, the Gleiwitz incident, a false flag attack on the radio station, was staged near the border city of Gleiwitz by German units posing as Polish troops, in Upper Silesia as part of the wider Operation Himmler.

The German regime needed an excuse to justify invading Poland.

By US Miltary (Photo #: USA C-543 (Color)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At the time, it wasn’t necessarily in the Soviet Unions best interest to stand in the way of the German regime.  See the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact.

Nero fiddled while Rome burned.

The plight of Polish doesn’t improve very quickly either.

In fact it gets downright horrific, and furthermore, it provides us with an insight into the fickle nature of historical accuracy.

The Katyn Forest Massacre

The massacre was prompted by Lavrentiy Beria‘s proposal to execute all members of the Polish Officer Corps, dated 5 March 1940. The number of victims is estimated at about 22,000, with 21,768 being a lower bound.

At first, everybody assumed that the Nazis had murdered the victims. History changed again though;

An investigation conducted by the Prosecutor General’s Office of the Soviet Union (1990–1991) and the Russian Federation (1991–2004), has confirmed Soviet responsibility for the massacres.  In November 2010, the Russian State Duma approved a declaration blaming Stalin and other Soviet officials for having personally ordered the massacre.

And the story continues to ‘evolve’ because just recently it was discovered that American POW’s sent coded messages to the Allies explaining the events in detail.

The American POWs sent secret coded messages to Washington with news of a Soviet atrocity: In 1943 they saw rows of corpses in an advanced state of decay in the Katyn forest, on the western edge of Russia, proof that the killers could not have been the Nazis who had only recently occupied the area.

The Soviet secret police killed the 22,000 Poles with shots to the back of the head. Their aim was to eliminate a military and intellectual elite that would have put up stiff resistance to Soviet control.

Again, history is shaped as much by omission as it is by admission.

In the early years after the war, outrage by some American officials over the concealment inspired the creation of a special U.S. Congressional committee to investigate Katyn.

In a final report released in 1952, the committee declared there was no doubt of Soviet guilt, and called the massacre “one of the most barbarous international crimes in world history.”

Despite the committee’s strong conclusions, the White House maintained its silence on Katyn for decades, showing an unwillingness to focus on an issue that would have added to political tensions with the Soviets during the Cold War.

For the sake of the people involved, it’s important to get the facts right.

The silence by the U.S. government has been a source of deep frustration for many Polish-Americans. One is Franciszek Herzog, 81, a Connecticut man whose father and uncle died in the massacre.

It may seem simple minded or nitpicky, but we have a responsibility to get history right, so that it doesn’t repeat itself, and so that justice, to whatever degree, sees it’s day. Only remembering the parts of history that we like makes us inaccurate, and that’s what leads to repeating mistakes.

As Herzog said in his AP interview;

“There’s a big difference between not knowing and not wanting to know,” Herzog said. “I believe the U.S. government didn’t want to know because it was inconvenient to them.”

All in all we can learn a lot about ourselves now by how we treat history. If we believe the convenient parts of history, we’ll most likely believe the convenient facts in the present, but past or present, we don’t get to pick the truth.