Review: My Report to the World: Story of a Secret State (Georgetown University Press, 2013)

Editor’s Note: Though this book, so insightfully and thoroughly reviewed, is not our customary work of theological ethics, it is a work of historical and moral significance with implications for today’s world. It might well be considered in tandem with Mary Solberg’s A Church Undone: Documents from the German Christian Faith Movement, 1932-1940, which was reviewed in the March 2016 issue of JLE.

[1] My Report to the World: Story of a Secret State was first published in 1944 when the world’s nations were fully engaged in both the European and Pacific theaters of World War II. Though the outlines of a final outcome might have possibly been seen, the end to hostilities was still only imagined and hoped for. This book was a memoir of the war experiences of Jan Karski, a Polish national, soldier, and an operative of the Polish Underground between 1939 and 1943 who would spend most of the rest of his working life during the Cold War and following as a European politics professor at Georgetown University. So why reissue it now complete with photographic records and a foreword by former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright?

[2] Perhaps because thirty years after he was acknowledged for being one of the Righteous among the Nations from Yad Vashem (and twelve years after his death in 2000), United States President Barack Obama would award him the Medal of Freedom Award (2012). Perhaps in anticipation of the Polish Government declaring 2014 to be the year of Jan Karski after having been a persona non grata to his home country throughout the Cold War. Perhaps, too, because it is a fantastically good read that explores the intersections between moral choice and courage, and where public needs and personal responsibility mesh under the duress of crisis. And perhaps because Karski cuts a singular figure working for peace and freedom and against injustice and tyranny under tremendous odds opening the discussion of whether heroes are born or made. What is clear is that Karski, a liaison for the Polish Underground and the Polish State in Exile wanted to make his message of genocidal mass murder, systemic and institutionalized extermination, and courageous resistance known in spite of any political tendencies to do nothing or to see military objectives as more important than human ones.

[3] The book begins where pre-World War II Poland ends. The author paints a picture of pure collective and personal naiveté amongst the social and political elites who would be called upon to defend their homeland from a changing Europe and German menace that they scoffed at over rounds of champagne at one of dozens of summer parties. Untested as officers, called up to serve in cavalry, infantry, and artillery units more adapted to previous conflicts, and technologically overmatched, Karski and those like him are late to fight, or overrun and overpowered, and most often in retreat to a rapidly shrinking rearguard that is also being taken over by soldiers of the Soviet Union – where the choice faced becomes being killed in ongoing action against the Nazis or made a prisoner of war (with no remaining sovereign state) by the Russian army. Karski and what remained of his unit choose capture (and for some, suicide) believing in a solidarity of Slavic brotherhood only to become little more than slave labor at Soviet work camps. By exchanging identity from an officer to a private, Karski is able to “volunteer” for a prisoner exchange between the Soviets and the Germans with the hope of being able to find like-minded patriots to fight another day. He is searching for a remnant of the Polish identity, culture, Polish state, and Polish patriotism among the multiple layers of betrayal – by the rest of Europe, the Soviets, and the Nazis. This was symbolized by his speech to his fellow prisoners on the train, his refusal to believe that the army was vanquished, and his leaping escape from the livestock, alias prisoner transport train into the unknown future which is his…and Poland’s…and those in Poland whose borders formerly provided relative safety. Nurtured with food, clothing, and shelter, and, yet challenged by Polish peasants over the country’s real state of affairs, the ex-officer, ex-prisoner of war, now civilian Karski is set on the road to what was left of the country and capital city of Warsaw in search of a cause, the enemy, and what he hopes might one day be a new Poland.

In Poland, there is a meaning to defeat that perhaps is unknown in countries differently situated. Along with a strong sense of unity as a people, there is present an awareness that a defeat in war entails unique and drastic consequences…When a Polish soldier was beaten on the battlefield, the specter of total annihilation swooped down upon the entire nation; its neighbors would pillage and divide up the land, and try to destroy its language and culture. That is why to us, war took on the character of total war. And that is why, to those who are conscious of how deeply a defeat would affect their personal lives, only two reactions are possible. Either a protective optimism tends to dispel the realization of the true state of affairs; or full knowledge is apt to bring with it a sense of personal annihilation…(p. 46).

[4] What Karski finds (or what finds him) in Warsaw is an old school friend who is a type of recruiter and an initial vetting process into service for the Polish Underground movement, and the Secret State of the book’s title. These two goals – to depict the legitimacy of the Polish Underground and its State in Exile as a legitimate form of authority working under crisis conditions, and to portray himself and his missions as an agent of this Secret State working together with countless others and networks – carry the contextual content of Karski’s memoir.

[5] The question of state legitimacy is not a small question especially when to the outside world sovereignty has been lost. After all, the Nazi war machine, its cultural propaganda, its surrogate leaders, and power over daily life are accounted for in various ways. The annihilation of the Polish military; the removal of the Polish language; the purposing of economic activity for the Nazi regime; the theft of land and property from Polish ownership to German ownership; the importance of collaboration, and the inability of any Polish state to secure its borders and people (the concentration camp system and resulting Holocaust) are all documented. Classic variables of statehood and sovereignty are controlled by others…but illegitimately through force, fear, and tyranny.

[6] So it becomes important to document the Underground’s relevant and accepted leaders, an integration process among decentralized groups on the ground, descriptions of governance mechanisms, the work and differences among political parties in preparation for a future democracy, and the popular acceptance by the Polish people that the Underground Movement worked and represented their interests. The concerns of what constitutes state and governing institutional legitimacy alongside sovereignty and self-determination are as important in today’s world and its systems as in World War II Poland. They make these memoirs fresh and current whether considering the lasting ambiguities among the Balkan states, questions over Crimea and Ukraine, chronic concerns as in Palestine, and perhaps even the relationships between regional institutions and their constituent states and peoples. Certainly they make the book worthy of republishing after sixty years.

[7] One is also confronted in Karski’s memoir at how fleeting are the lives who work at making a legitimate, secret state. At almost every point in the narrative, the author proceeds to tell what happened to the recruiter, or his first supervisor, or the family who rescued him, and others along the way. They died, were executed, were tortured, were never seen again; rewards of their efforts to “live in the protective optimism that tends to dispel the realization of the current state of affairs.” Which leads to the second vehicle of Karski’s narrative. His role in furthering that legitimate but secret state.

[8] Karski’s “job” in the Polish Underground was primarily as a liaison gathering and moving information between different internal groups and levels of institutional agency thus making him extremely valuable (and vulnerable) to Poland and Germany. This meant that over time, he had access to the most central and important policy decisions, and some of the most sensitive information of that area of the war. For a short period of time he was also engaged in producing counter-propaganda measures to offset Nazi dis-information. His capture would obviously have been a prize for any German unit.

[9] His work as a liaison unfolds as a series of increasingly difficult journeys/missions, across ever more territory and borders, incurring additional amounts of risk and danger. Like the Apostle Paul and his ever-widening geography of mission, Karski’s expanded travels confirms both the increased degree of trust placed upon him by his superiors and network in Poland and the exiled government first in France and then England, and his rising importance for the movement. From seeing firsthand the “new Poland” under German rule, the brutality of executions in a German concentration camp, to ascertaining the willingness among disparate cell groups to link with Warsaw authority, to moving across Europe to inform and conform the visions for Polish resistance both intra-nationally and internationally, Karski’s vantage point of the war shifted between on the ground granularity to systemic policies and international negotiations.

[10] It was his capture by the SS, torture by the Gestapo, and unwillingness to “crack” under pressure which made him, perhaps, too valuable of an asset to become another short lived martyr for Poland. His rescue from an SS run hospital almost reads like a comedy of errors were it not for the systematic revenge administered by the Nazis on the community and cells who saved and hid Karski to do his counter-propaganda while he recuperated. And all this for the ultimate tasks of getting inside information about the war, the Nazi regime, the Underground’s activities, the reality of the Holocaust and what was happening to the Jewish population to the Allied command in London – to Winston Churchill and also to Franklin Roosevelt in Washington. These latter liaisons to London and Washington having seen firsthand the various death systems deployed by the Nazis against Europe’s Jews in Polish camps, and risking all to provide that information to Allied country leaders in 1943 and 1944 would nearly forty years later gain for him the honor of being named one of the Righteous Among the Nations.

[11] So one can read Story of a Secret State as a war story; as a spy story; as a story of intrigue and tremendous heroism; or as a story of clear good and clear evil. But the author does not shy away from the many ambiguities faced under constant threat and crisis, or the many moral dilemmas that such conditions supply for individual human beings, their principles, and their communities. Anecdotes that question personal and collective responsibility and guilt, the importance of deception over truthfulness, having knowledge of tragedies and allowing those tragedies to unfold are transparently displayed for the reader so that they, too, can become engaged analyst or one who ignores any discussion over moral turpitude.

  • Tracking personnel, those who follow others in the movement to alert them about the Gestapo, must be hired knowing that their job life expectancy is just a few months.
  • One witnesses the faces of those who are being singled out for death or work, for the death train or the gas chamber, as Karski did, and must stay in character as an executioner-guard unable to do or save anything.
  • Leaving the field of operation in Poland well before the end of the war to get to relative safety in England and America for the purpose of sharing valuable information – but information that will not be acted upon.
  • Being a witness to the murder of a collaborator, though escaping punishment on account of wartime needs.
  • Questioning how much risk is necessary, how many casualties to be sustained, in order that a larger objective by successfully obtained.
  • When confronted with systemic evil and violence, should one expect that any normal decision-making process still apply?

These are the stories and questions that weave their way through the heroic legacy of Karski the liaison officer and the pragmatic philosophical concerns of disputing and proving the legitimacy of the Polish Underground state offering insights into horrible human tragedies, choices, and the price of courage. Each anecdote is human, with a name or names, and these become those whose benediction was, “I never heard from him/her again;” “she and her colleagues were taken into custody and presumed dead;” “he got his wish to fly airplanes and was reported shot down over France.” One can easily write them off as part of the costs of war or the more modern moniker of just so much collateral damage in pursuit of larger, better, more righteous, more legitimate causes.

[12] So it is because of this dimension of Story of a Secret State that one can compare it to and lay it alongside books focused on the realities of the Second World War, the narratives and sub-narratives being used to justify behaviors and choice, or personal and collective agency. It thus becomes more than just a war story without leaving the context of human violence and our abilities to manage and perpetrate violence. It keeps company with books such as Phillip Hallie’s Lest Innocent Blood be Shed, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letter and Papers from Prison, or Langdon Gilkey’s Shantung Compound.

[13] Some of Karski’s final words in his memoir accompany his story of first speaking with British leaders and then speaking with Roosevelt. They return the narrative back to the level of states and international regimes perhaps preempting what would follow the end of the war and surely must be some of Karski’s own assessments of his work and achievements.

The outside world could not comprehend the two most important principles of Polish resistance. It never could understand or estimate the sacrifice and heroism entailed in our nationwide refusal to collaborate with the Germans. It could not estimate the fact that our unyielding attitude had prevented a single Quisling from arising, nor imagine what this attitude was like. Nor could the outside world conceive of the Underground in any terms indicative of its real nature. The whole notion of the Underground state was often unintelligible to them. In no other country had the Underground attained an analogous triumph. The idea that a State-with a Parliament, government, judicial branch and army-could function normally but in secret seemed to them utterly fantastical. (p. 362-363)

One can only speculate from this Karski’s thoughts regarding later forms of Polish resistance, those that would follow between 1945 until 1990, with what he knew to be the case during World War II.

[14] In closing, there is a life size seated figure in bronze of Karski on the campus of Georgetown University in Washington, DC, the home he never left after delivering his messages to FDR. The statue’s plaque reads, “Messenger of the Polish People to their government in exile; messenger of the Jewish people to the world – the man who told of the annihilation of the Jewish people while there was still time to stop it; a noble man walked amongst us and made us better by his presence – a Just Man.” What could one be better remembered for than to have been a person for whom justice was a calling.

Michael Kuchinsky

Michael Kuchinsky, M.Div., Ph.D. recently retired as Professor of Political Science and Global Studies at Gardner-Webb University.