Katyn & Nationalism

Arts & Letters links to Anne Applebaum’s “A Movie that Matters”, a review of Andrznj Wajda’s Katyn, published in the NYRB. (The review is worth reading.) Katyn was a tragedy – compounded by the fabric of lies so unconvincingly told during the long Soviet occupation. Applebaum also explores the nature and need for that great passion, patriotism. She quotes Wajda, who argues that the movie was made for those who didn’t remember – the generation that did is mostly gone.

Instead, he said, he wanted to tell the story again for young people—but not just any young people. Wajda said he wanted to reach “those moviegoers for whom it matters that we are a society, and not just an accidental crowd.”

She later discusses the complicated need for the passion he clearly wants to evoke:

The same emotions that bind people together— inspiring them to work toward common goals, build political institutions, try to make their societies free and fair —are in some sense related to the emotions that make the same people paranoid about foreigners, or distrustful of the unpatriotic people who live down the street and vote for a different political party. Too much patriotism can hamper democracy and diminish civil society. On the other hand, without some patriotism, democracy is not possible at all.

I suspect it is not that too much patriotism any more than too much love is bad. Rationality, proportionality, respect – the absence of these may appear to be an excess of passion, but rather render it incomplete. Your country is ill served by mindless if impassioned sentimentality; jealousy arises from passion but lacks a component – respect. Here, patriotism, like love, is reinforced by such rituals as voting and serving on a jury – rituals that require of us the Enlightenment virtues rather than the romantic passions. But that’s our story.
Applebaum and Wajda see the movie as important in retaining history, building a sense of national self:

If, fifty years from now, there is still an audience in Poland that understands Wajda’s characters and references— an audience that intuitively draws its breath when the general tells his men that without them “there will be no free Poland”—then Katyn, the movie, will still matter.

But, of course, we who are not Polish can, in a different and less intense way perhaps, understand. Fifty years from now, Poles may be moved – perhaps as we are by defining moments in our own history – but their experience is one we, too, should understand, make a part of our understanding of what a national life can be – and how great the loss of a generation can be.

Such tragedy, such feeling for country reaches across the centuries. Arnold felt the tragedy of the Greek histories of thousands of years before when he wrote of that “darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, /Where ignorant armies clash by night.” Of course, we need to understand that patriotism to feel it ourselves, to know something of that passion.

If we don’t know history, if we don’t know these feelings of nationalism, of patriotism, of passion, then much literature and even more history will be meaningless to us. But, I suspect, we need not worry such passions will disappear, such understandings become unavailable. Our institutions may change, but our nature will not.

6 thoughts on “Katyn & Nationalism”

  1. There is a very similar movie that needs to be made about the Romanians who went into the mountains and the forests once the Soviets came. They fought on under impossible odds and they were eventually exterminated, the best of that generation. They were the longest lived of the resistance movements behind the iron curtain. Romania still lags due to their absence.

  2. Many people seem to reason that: “Patriotism was used by the Nazis to gain and keep power; therefore patriotism is bad.”

    Which makes about as much sense as: “Railroads were used by the Nazis to transport people to concentration camps; therefore, railroads are bad.”

  3. Just read the linked article.

    The justification for the murder was straightforward. These were Poland’s best-educated and most patriotic soldiers. Many were reservists who as civilians worked as doctors, lawyers, university lecturers, and merchants. They were the intellectual elite who could obstruct the Soviet Union’s plans to absorb and “Sovietize” Poland’s eastern territories. On the advice of his secret police chief, Lavrenty Beria, Stalin ordered them executed.

    What Applebaum says about Stalin’s motives for murdering 20 000 officers could be also said about Germans murdering Polish intellectual elite. The mass murder happened. I know, I have lived for 8 years in 4-story apartment building where before the War lived members of faculty of Politechnic University of L’wov: all of them murdered by Nazis. It was proven and known in the city, for all those 40 years afterwards. That’s why it was so easy to believe what propaganda was telling us about Katyn – that it was, too, done by the Germans.
    I remember the day, sometime in 1983 or 84, when we listened to a program on Polish radio station (only available in Western Ukraine), when we learned the truth. It was incredible. It appeared then that the rumors were still circulating, but to talk about it loud was dangerous. My FIL said he heard about it but only discussed it with people whom he trusted unequivocally, and only in whispers.

  4. Forgot to say – the scale, of course, was incompatible. 20000 vs. hundreds. But we didn’t know that then. The exact number of the murdered in Katyn was kept secret for decades, even after archives were opened. [looks like they are going to get closed again] And we thought – if there is one occasion we know for sure that it happened, there must be more of the same, in other locales. So we believed. Not all of us, apparently – those who lived thru 30’s and 50’s, they didn’t.

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