Friday, May 21, 2010

The Past is Never Dead. It's Not Even Past

 Please welcome this week's guest blogger, James R. Benn.

Jim is the author of the Billy Boyle World War II Mystery Series, published by Soho Press. The New York Times has called his work a “lively (and surprisingly thoughtful) adventure series.”  Today, James will discuss the long reach of history in fact, fiction and speculation.

The past is never dead. It's not even past."
William Faulkner.

In November of 2008, the body of Wladyslaw Sikorski, the Prime Minister of the Polish government in exile in London during the Second World War, was exhumed from his tomb in Krakow cathedral. 
General Sikorski died in 1943 when his aircraft, taking off from British Gibraltar, crashed into the sea, killed all aboard with the exception of the pilot.

The exhumation was ordered by the Polish government, in order to test the remains of a national hero for signs he was murdered.  At the time of his death, he was calling for an investigation into the deaths of thousands of Polish officers at the hands of the Soviets, based on the discovery of mass graves in the Katyn Forest. The British were intent on maintaining good relations with their Soviet allies, no matter what inconvenient truths were uncovered at Katyn.  Various conspiracy theories called the Soviets or the British to account for this too-convenient accident.  A computer simulation program developed by Polish scientists in the 1990s showed that technically, at the speed the aircraft was traveling upon take-off, it could not have accidentally crashed.  But the results of the autopsy did not give credence to these theories.  Sikorski’s body showed only signs of blunt force trauma associated with airplane crashes.

With Sikorski’s death in 1943, the voices calling out for Soviet accountability were stilled.  The war went on, with the Russians contributing much of the manpower that led to the defeat of Nazi Germany.   

Poland, which was the first nation to fight against aggression when it was attacked by both the Nazis and the Soviets, was ultimately abandoned to decades of totalitarian rule.

Fast forward to April 2011.  The Soviet Union is gone, but the legacy of Stalin and his rule continues to wreck havoc. After years of denial, Russia did finally acknowledge the crime of Katyn and the other execution sites.  Notably, the admission was always couched in general terms, to avoid legal proceedings against any surviving killers.  But still, it was an important admission.  So important, that Poland’s political leadership once again boarded an ill-fated aircraft.  Ninety-six died this time, with the Russian-built plane crashing en route to a ceremony commemorating the anniversary of the killings at Katyn in 1940. Sixty years later, Katyn still claims lives.

The revelations of the Katyn Forest Massacre were indeed hushed up during the war. The possibility that we were allied with one monster to fight another was not one that the British or American leadership wanted debated.  It’s easy to sit in judgment sixty years later, but men like General Eisenhower were preparing for the invasion of Europe.  Every Soviet division in the fight drew off German forces that might be faced on the beaches of Normandy. 

For those curious at how these issues were viewed at the time, make a note of my next Billy Boyle World War II mystery, due out September 1st, 2010. 
 In RAG AND BONE, Billy’s good friend, and Polish patriot, Kaz, is accused of the murder of a Soviet official in London.  Against the backdrop of the news of Katyn, Billy must navigate a diplomatic crisis as well as the London underworld, to find the truth behind the murder.  How far will be go to protect his friend?  How far will his government go to protect their ally?  To answer these questions, Billy must question everything, until all is stripped away and he finds himself down where all the ladders start…
Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
The Circus Animals' Desertion
William Butler Yeats

Posted by Leighton, for Jim - Saturday


  1. Brilliant post Jim. So much rumor over here that the plane crash wasn't just a 'accident'. I'm quickly checking email from an internet cafe in Bristol and must zip back for a panel...can't wait to read this...xox from Bristol Cara

  2. The path of Billy Boyle seems to follow the trajectory of my father's war. He served with General Mark Clark in Africa and Italy.

    Katyn is a war crime that never got the attention it deserved. Stalin murdered over 4000 officers and soldiers because the Russians feared these men would form the leadership corps of a Polish army under the government in exile in London or the same leadership corps at the end of the war.

    When the German army found the mass graves, Goebbels commented that no one would believe it had been done by the Soviets. Everyone would presume it was another example of German determination to rid itself of the Poles because of the Hitler's conviction that Germany must control all lands to the east after their victory in the war.

    The recent accident is an example of criminal misjudgment. Why did the Poles think that putting all the leaders of the government on the same plane was a reasonable decision? As I recall, there have been reports recently that voices of people other than the flight crew could be heard in the cockpit. I suppose if the president of the country overrules the pilot, the pilot might feel he had no choice but to continue against his best judgment.

    Cara referred to rumors. Unfortunately, anything to do with Poland seems to raise the specter of anti-Semitism. According to one blogger, a rabbinical delegation canceled their participation on the trip at the last minute, claiming that they could not travel on the Sabbath. According to the intellectually and morally challenged blogger, this was the same plan used by Jews who didn't show up for work the day the World Trade Center was attacked. Poland still cannot seem to escape the worst of its history.

    I enjoy your books and I am looking forward to the one being released in September.


  3. What a fascinating premise for a book. Many have written about WWII, but this seems so much more than a tale of war and heroism.

    And sadly poignant given the recent demise of Poland's military elite and President.

    Headed for my TBR list. Thanks, Leighton, for the heads up.

    Southern City Mysteries

  4. Hi Leighton, Jim-

    Very interesting post.


  5. The Polish people have had such a harsh history. So many countries trashing Poland en route to conquer to others.