Story of a Secret State by Jan Karski
Story of a Secret State: My Report To The World
Penguin Classics, Paperback; 421 Pages
Scepticism is not the exact word for my attitude when starting to read Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World, but it comes depressingly close. I felt fatigued regarding histories of spies (those whose review blurbs include the phrase “real-life James Bond” in particular) and the Second World War in general. Chiefly to blame is the Yesterday TV channel: who can resist their 24-hour barrage of WWII and Secret Service documentaries when there is nothing else to watch during the grim early hours of insomnia. There’s a guilt that comes with being blasé about stories of heroism and sacrifice, particularly when some of its characters are possibly alive and kicking, but I was simply not relishing the prospect of digesting the same tropes of ‘60s war films presented as an autobiography in Secret State. The Gestapo, La Résistance, the near-disasters and the ultimate triumph presented in the all-too tempting dramatic arc charted by the war itself: does it even matter, sixty years removed, if the book is fact or fiction?
Jan Karski’s exceptional memoir dispelled that disillusionment handily. The memoir is an intriguing fusion of two distinct non-fiction genres. On the one hand we have a classic (autobiographical) spy story. This is well told; the author avoids Flashhart self-aggrandising and has a good knack for the page-turner, ending several chapters just as he is captured, meets a mysterious stranger, etc. This alone would be, unavoidably, a tad too familiar to hold anyone’s attention for 400 pages. See, for example, such well-known props as the microfilm hidden in a razor handle, the cyanide pill in a locket in case of capture, the meeting on the Orient Express, the constant cryptic passwords; in short, the usual accoutrements are all present and accounted for.
On the other hand, the book is also a much more scholarly political and sociological treatise on the inner working of the Polish government apparatus both in exile and underground during the war. These learned ruminations mix with the swashbuckling spying and sneaking across Europe as perfectly as gin with vermouth: the socio-political analysis of the ersatz bureaucratic structures could well have been too dry for general (or at least my) enjoyment without the stories of their interplay with Karski’s own adventures.
A demographer by trade or at least by education, Karski also records the fascinating relationship between the Polish government-in-exile (first in Paris, later in London) and the ever-capitalised Underground. The model the Polish adopted will be familiar to most from recent history: the ‘cell’ system, wherein each component of the organisation is strictly isolated in case of capture and interrogation, yet capable of receiving top-down instruction through limited intermediaries. The myriad ways the Polish Underground struggled with the tensions of maintaining its self-image as a legitimate, even democratic, government while being forced to adopt such clandestine structures is intriguing. Karski acted as one of the intermediaries between cells of the main Underground as well as other organisations, allowing him access to a wider view of the network than the mole’s-eye view most Underground operatives would have had. His critical analysis of the system’s effectiveness is well juxtaposed with anecdotes showing both its successes and failures, and the wide cast of characters he was able to meet through his intermediary work are interesting in their own right (a few too many are lionised, but this deserves a free pass for reasons I’ll come on to shortly).
Karski’s anecdotal pen is charming in his sometimes idiosyncratic English idiom, but its bluntness is a strength during some of the book’s most disturbing scenes. Karski managed the feats of smuggling himself both into the Warsaw Ghetto shortly before its uprising and into a death camp in the Polish countryside. His descriptions of adolescent German boys hunting elderly Jews through the dark twisting Warsaw streets is haunting, and his stripped-down language on a Nazi practice of using overcrowded rail-road cars and quicklime as means of mass-murder in the camp loses none of its power to disgust through the prose’s clinical voice.
With a step back from the text, the story of the book’s publication is a great one, albeit one not fully described in the memoir itself. The book is just begging for a well-written introduction; why someone (say, Antony Beevor) was not dragooned into penning half a dozen pages is beyond me. As it happens, Karski was playing the Cassandra role of desperately informing the world of the horrors being perpetrated in Eastern Europe at a time when rumours of the atrocities committed in the fog of war were only half-believed. Karski first published Secret State in America in 1944 while on assignment from the Polish government-in-exile to gather public support for the Polish plight from influential Americans. While this motive could tempt a writer towards dramatisation, Karski presents both his personal experiences and the story of the Polish state with as much objectivity as can be hoped for in a book written while his home was yet to be ‘liberated’ by the Soviets (whose bloody work in the Katyn forest is, perhaps strangely, not mentioned by Karski despite its international publicity by 1944. This is a particularly big omission given how near he must have come to being another of Beria’s victims when he was captured as a Polish artillery officer in the war’s early days).
The tragedy of the memoir, and indeed of this period of Polish history, is compounded by Karski’s steadfast belief in a silver lining to Poland’s clouds of tribulation. An ardent supporter of social democracy (inasmuch as a playboy who spent the eve of the war waltzing at a Portuguese embassy ball can be), Karski continually emphasises the importance of representative political parties in the Underground, and blamed the authoritarian ‘Sanatian’ political system for Poland’s swift defeat in 1939. His optimistic conviction that the post-war Polish state was destined to be a parliamentary democracy is all the sadder knowing how Poland was to suffer under communism.
As spy stories go, this one is remarkably educational on an often neglected aspect of the war: everyone knows a story or two about the French resistance, but the Poles had to deal with yet more brutal oppression, for far longer, with virtually no international help. An introduction or afterwards telling us more about Karski’s post-war life and more about why the book took so long to be published in Europe would be an improvement. Nonetheless, this is an excellent memoir, for many reasons, and even if there is another wave of WWII inundation in the media coming as we approach the 70th anniversary of the war’s end, this is a unique piece of writing which deserves to be read.