Wajda’’s Katyń and the Slovenian Antigone

When Andrzej Wajda’’s film Katyń was shown in Slovenia this spring, first in cinemas and then on public television, it aroused enormous audience interest but was met with almost complete silence in the media. Slovenian public opinion is tired of the issue of post-war mass murder and the seemingly endless discoveries of mass graves. The film advertisements talked of exposing Europe’’s greatest lie of the century and of the Polish nation’’s profound trauma.  After the screening a number of film critics analyzed the film’’s aesthetic values and discussed its narrative techniques yet nobody took notice of the universal message of this horrific film, one that has a direct bearing on the trauma of the Slovene nation.  And since some of the organizers of the domestic mass murders have graduated from Moscow’‘s Dzerzhinsky academy, it is no wonder that the organization and methodology of their crimes bore an uncanny resemblance to what we see in the closing scenes of Wajda’’s film. Nobody noticed or wished to notice that in 1945, at a time when Yugoslavia’’s communists were still loyal to Stalin it was, according to information currently available, the same ideological blindness of the Moscow graduates that resulted in the murders of some 4,000 members of the so-called territorial army and many civilians, so-called counter-revolutionaries, including many women.

What made the media response even more peculiar is that hardly a year has passed since a shocking discovery in the abandoned mines near Celje: behind concrete and brick walls, meant to conceal this pointless crime forever, lay around a thousand mummified bodies of murdered people. And Huda Jama [the Evil Cave as this location is called], is only one of many mass graves the government committee for investigating post-war crimes has discovered so far.

This is one narrative line in a story that is practically unknown outside Slovenia, a country that enjoys the status of being a member of the European Union. Beneath the surface of Slovenia’’s success story  – the story of a country that emerged from the disintegration of communist Yugoslavia without getting entangled in the bloody conflict that ravaged the Balkans in the 1990s, managing to integrate its economy and politics fairly quickly into European democratic structures – there is a hidden a legacy that Slovenians are quite familiar with today although until twenty years ago it was a strictly guarded state secret. But even now that they know about it they prefer to remain silent. It is the story of horrific crimes committed after the end of World War II, when the communist country took power by disposing of – this accountancy term has been a staple of both Stalinist and Nazi terminology – its political opponents, in particular the territorial army and along with them a great many civilians, whom it regarded as potential enemies of the new regime. After the war all information relating to these events and all witness accounts were subject to censorship, books published abroad were confiscated by the police at the border, and anyone who had the courage to address these issues in public often ended up in court accused of spreading mendacious hostile propaganda.

Even though the truth finally came to light in the mid-1970s, thanks to dissident writers such as the former resistance figher, the Christian Socialist Edvard Kocbek, and in spite of the fact that following the end of communism Slovene public opinion had to face up to the facts, the Slovenian unburied dead continue to traumatize Slovene society, constituting its dark collective subconscious. And although the hidden legacy has now been illuminated from many angles, its horror remains a taboo of which we are reluctant to speak in public. Even the Slovene Parliament failed miserably, showing itself incapable of taking a firm position in this matter despite a great effort. The last time parliament failed was when it tried to take a decision on the commemorative plaques – the sites of mass murders should at the very least be commemorated by civilized, honest words that reflect the truth. Yet parliament opted for an opaque set of words that disguise the facts rather than revealing them: Victims of the war and post-war murders.  Murders – as if these were common crimes rather than a meticulously planned, organized and implemented political massacre.  And so this great trauma of Slovene history remains in the political subconscious and in terms of political discourse it has never moved beyond the confines of literature. After all,  Slovenian theatregoers had detected the hidden truth in Dominik Smola’’s play Antigone and whispered about it well before Kocbek’s revelations.

It its true that members of the Slovenian territorial army, notorious nationalists and anticommunists, were driven by their opposition to communism to collaborating with the German occupying forces during the war.  Many would have deserved to be prosecuted and punished.  But those of us who claim allegiance to the anti-Fascist and resistance tradition cannot accept the pointless and horrible belief, still surviving in a part of Slovenian society, that the murdered ones received just punishment. As early as in the 1970s, after Edvard Kocbek was almost lynched for having publicly spoken about these horrific events and expressing a very public remorse, the Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Böll said in Kocbek’‘s defence that nothing can justify unlawfully committed mass murder. Even as they were being committed, the killings of civilians and members of anti-resistance units without proper legal proceedings were a deplorable and unlawful act that violated fundamental laws of civilized nations, laws that include the principles of legal responsibility and criminal legislation. The communist leadership regarded army members and civilians, detained in prisons and concentration camps, as either collaborators and traitors or potential political opponents, who could have jeopardized the process of consolidating the new power and the revolutionary process that was just getting underway in a very tense international situation and under difficult circumstances. In spite of this political attitude the post-war massacres represent a grave criminal offence from the legal point of view and a brutal crime from the moral point of view;  in national and social terms they sowed the seeds of deep fear and engendered moral traumas that have divided and branded future generations. Acts for which the then leadership of the communist party was responsible tormented the conscience of many members of the resistance who were innocent – many communists, Christian Socialists, artists and everyone else who did not take part in these post-war actions and had, driven by patriotism, bravely joined the wartime resistance.

That is why in Slovenia Wajda’’s Katyń touched an open wound of Slovene historical memory and that is why – unsurprisingly – it ended up being shrouded in silence once again. Soon after the screening a new Katyń tragedy near Smolensk overshadowed all questions relating to the significance of these events, the horror of the pointless deaths and of 20th century ideological madness.  Katyń did not make anyone think of Srebrenica,  a place on the margins of enlightened Europe, the Europe of human rights and freedom, where at the end of the past century another kind of nationalistic madness killed thousands of people and tried to hide the massacres from the eyes of world public opinion.

Even after the showing of Wajda’s film an unseen Antigone keeps wandering around Slovenia trying to bury her murdered brother. And not just around Slovenia.

Translation: Julia Sherwood

This essay was published in Polish in the daily Gazeta Wyborcza.