Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Note on Secret States

Story of a Secret State by Jan Karski is a book I chose to read despite the other names on the cover: Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton and Abe Foxman. The praise for Karski of these war criminals and apologists has much to do with his subsequent career as a Cold Warrior. My interest in the book stemmed from its promise of an on-the-ground account of the conspiratorial and political methods employed to develop a mass resistance under brutal occupation, in this case the Polish Resistance under Nazi occupation during World War II. My hope is that the book will be translated into Arabic, Dari, Pashto and Kurdish, and read in Afghanistan and Palestine, as well as in rebel strongholds and refugee camps of Syria.

If it is so read, then my hope is that it will be read with an eye to the weaknesses of the Polish Resistance, which become apparent in spite of Karski's effectiveness as a public relations agent capable of portraying his cause in the most flattering possible light. Consider his understandable pride at the fact that there were, uniquely in Poland among the occupied nations, no Quislings. He attributes this to the strict rule, disseminated through the Underground to the population at large, of no collaboration with the enemy. One suspects, however, that the lack of Quisling-style high-level collaboration had more to do with the peculiarities of Nazi racial theory and the political economy of their war machine, in which Poles were to fill the role of hewers of wood and carriers of water for the allegedly superior "Nordics," fit to be ruled over but not to rule. There were fascists in Poland who, like their co-thinkers elsewhere, would likely have teamed up with the Nazis had they been allowed.

And there was high-level collaboration in Poland, though of a different sort. Each of the Jewish ghettos had its own Judenrat, in which respectable figures, drawn largely from the right wing of the Zionist groupings or the Polish nationalist political parties, oversaw the starvation and extermination of their own people. Nor would this have been possible without low-level collaboration from the Polish Christian population--the Polish police (albeit recruited disproportionately from the Ukrainian minority) who helped throw Jews out of their homes, businesses and apartments and force them into the ghettos, and the ordinary Poles who took up occupancy in those vacated premises. At one point in his narrative, Karski describes an unfortunate Polish woman who was forced to take in Nazi officials as boarders, and suffered the social opprobrium associated with willing collaboration. Yet at another point, as he is being smuggled into the death camp at Belzec to witness its horrors, the last stop in his journey to the camp was "a little grocery store that had once belonged to a Jew. The Jew had been killed and since then it was being run, with the permission of the Gestapo, by a local farmer who was, of course, a member of the Underground."

I felt sick at that moment. How is it that being forced at gunpoint to lodge a Nazi official was considered "collaboration," but running, for profit and with the permission of the Gestapo, a business that had been expropriated from a murdered Jew, was not?

What becomes clear through Karski's narrative is that three of the four large political parties that constituted the Polish Underground--the National Democratic Party, the Christian Labor Party and the Peasant Party--explicitly defined Polish identity in sectarian terms, as Christian in nature. Only the leftmost, the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), which included the Jewish Bund as a semi-autonomous Yiddish-language section, included the Jews in their vision of past, present and future Poland. (And that was not consistent on their part: Marshal Pilsudski, the dictator who had taken power in a 1926 coup, originally was the leader of the PPS military wing, and led what was until the Nazi takeover of Germany of 1933 one of the most anti-Semitic regimes in Europe.) As far as I can tell from Karski's narrative, the leaders of the Polish Underground wrung their hands over the Nazi massacres, were glad to publicize them to the wider world to encourage the Allies to take more aggressive action against Germany, and even provided arms and logistical support to the Jewish Underground's last desperate stand in the Warsaw Ghetto. But throughout the war, Jews were seen as an alien presence in Poland, and the saving of their lives left mainly to the charitable impulses of individual citizens, rather than a concerted act of self-defense by the besieged Polish polity.

That left its mark on the postwar outcome. Poland had the misfortune of being the only country under occupation where communists did not play a leading role in the resistance. That was because before the war, Stalin had systematically dismantled Poland's Communist Party as part of his overall destruction of revolutionary Bolshevism. All its leaders and many of its rank-and-file activists ended up either dead or dying in Siberia. Without an in-country set of puppets to install, the Soviet Army, as it advanced across Poland, had to construct new political bodies capable of exerting control. To do this, the Soviets halted their assault at key points--even at the very gates of Warsaw--long enough to allow the Gestapo to crush the local Underground. They would then roll in and sweep up as many of the demoralized activists as they could, then turn the NKVD on anyone who didn't play along. (Czeslaw Milosz's novel The Seizure of Power is a compelling fictionalized portrayal of this process.) It is unlikely that any political strategy on the part of any component of the Underground could have prevented this outcome. But the sectarian nature of the underground made almost inevitable the legendarily hostile reception met by those few Polish Jews to survive the Holocaust. Trying to find a place to lay their heads, they found their homes occupied by local Christian Poles responding, "we thought the Germans took care of you," and a local Stalinist government bureaucracy which, lacking much in the way of local support, opportunistically adapted to local anti-Semitism. In a cruel set of ironic twists, many of those Jews fled back into Germany as refugees, ended up in Bergen-Belsen (transformed from concentration camp to refugee camp), where they were beset by Zionist groupings trying to recruit them as "Gahalniks" ("volunteers from exile") to the Haganah, where they, in turn, would dispossess Palestinians, turn them out of their homes and farms, and take possession.

Karski's own politics at the time of the war are hard to pin down, likely because among his responsibilities was to serve as a diplomatic liaison between the various groupings within the Underground. Though his family background put him firmly in Warsaw's pre-war governing elite, at several points in the book he expresses frank admiration for PPS and Bund activists and their ideals. Had there been some way to reconstruct Poland as an independent state with a broadly social-democratic government, I suspect he would have taken part. Instead, as the Russian takeover mounted, he became, like many Polish emigrés in the west, a vociferous Cold Warrior. (Since the Soviet Army was the force that was finally freeing Jews from such death camps as Belzec and Auschwitz that Karski had helped expose, several Jewish organizations--and Stalinists hiding in their skirts--accused him of anti-Semitism at the time.)

As the encomiums from the likes of Clinton and Albright show, Karski's book has become part of the required reading list for the "if only" brand of human rights imperialism. As we see in Syria today and Rwanda 20 years ago, these types do nothing that would stop or even mitigate the massacres and human suffering they bemoan, but instead take only such actions as will ensure their own dominant states' ability to carry out and control such massacres when it suits them. But it can also be read for ideas of how to resist the imperial powers, who remain the greatest murderers in the world today.

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