The August Trials: The Holocaust and Postwar Justice in Poland by Andrew Kornbluth
Reviewed by Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
In The August Trials: The Holocaust and Postwar Justice in Poland (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 2021), Andrew Kornbluth argues that whereas the “Nazis” did kill the bulk of Poland’s (and Europe’s) Jews, the rest, perhaps over 200,000, fell victim to their “Polish neighbors.” The author variously describes the crime as “ethnic cleansing” (p. 156) or even “genocide.” However, somewhat contradictorily, he explains that “most of these crimes involved the denunciation or capture of Jews, rather than their ‘technical putting to death’” (p. 200). So the charge should be accessory to murder and not genocide. That notwithstanding, according to Kornbluth, it was a collective endeavor where the Poles “manned the stations along the conveyer belt of genocide” (p. 234). The reasons for the crime stemmed mainly from antisemitism and covetousness of Jewish property (p. 49).
The murderous project was propelled allegedly by a great mass of common Polish perpetrators, or “ordinary men” (p. 50), who were “overwhelmingly peasant” (p. 253). Polish institutions aided them. “Genocidal infrastructure” operated thanks to “the village self-government, the [Navy] Blue Police, and the underground” (p. 47). Hence, there was an integral, Polish executed stage of the Holocaust, perhaps even a separate “Polish” Holocaust within the Holocaust.
This is, arguably, the most significant and shocking general synthesis of a new interpretation of the Holocaust. The author’s gory vision, which he presents as if it were a self-evident truth, sets up the stage for everything else. Accepting this initial revisionist narrative leads to one’s openness to further historical distortions predicated on flawed logic and incompetent reading of sources. What passes next for Kornbluth’s central thesis is, in fact, an afterthought of his Holocaust revisionist narrative that wholly violates the historical truth and invites more revisionism in its wake. After indulging in a Holocaust revisionist exercise of such enormous proportions, no proposition that follows should be too hard to swallow for the reader. It sets up the stage for any contrivance, no matter how incoherent and flawed.
Namely, according to the ostensible central thesis of The August Trials, after the Second World War, the Polish people, the Polish judiciary, and the Polish Communists (including apparently the secret police) collectively colluded to shield the Polish perpetrators from justice for the mass murder of Polish Jews. It was done for a variety of reasons. At the lowest level, relatives and neighbors mendaciously protected their own. At the court level, the judges and lawyers cooperated to help the perpetrators escape Communist justice, which most viewed as illegitimate. This was a clear case of judicial sabotage from within. Moreover, finally, the Communists allegedly turned a blind eye to such practices and even participated in them; first, to avoid wild cleansing actions (epuration) against the collaborators; second, to legitimize themselves among the captive and hostile Polish population and elite but mostly to restore tranquility and foster national unity under the Communist rule, so to speak, over the dead Jewish bodies.
To prove his point, Kornbluth focuses on the so-called “August Decree” of 1944, ostensibly aimed at “fascist-Hitlerite criminals” and their collaborators, issued by the Communist regime of the occupation by proxy in Poland. In the next twelve years, about 32,000 “August” trials took place. Over 20,000 people were found guilty, and 1,835 were sentenced to death, making it about a 50% conviction rate. However, where Jewish victims were involved, the guilty verdicts concerned only 14% of the accused. Over 400 trials concerned Poles killing Jews, while about 400 trials regarded Polish-on-Polish murder in the context of the German occupation (pp. 7-9, 262, 274).
The scholar finds the August Decree relatively congenial or, at least, a good enough tool to punish the “fascist-Hitlerite criminals” and their collaborators. On the other hand, basing himself on Judith Shklar, he embarks on a scathing criticism of Roman law (pp. 129, 161). It irks him that some opposed the August Decree because it introduced punishment for a crime it invented retroactively. Civilized Western norms dictate that the law does not work retroactively (Lex retro non agit/Lex prospicit non respicit). There were sufficient legal tools in non-Communist Polish legal tradition to punish anyone for the crime of mass murder and treason. However, the August Decree and other such Soviet tools overrode Polish law.
Nevertheless, Kornbluth fails to note sufficiently that since the Soviets imposed the regime, it lacked democratic legitimacy and, hence, the legal instruments it introduced were illegal. Further, he downplays the origin of the August Decree in comparison to the similar Soviet Decree of 1943. The latter was driven not so much by the desire to mete out blind justice but to inflict ferocious revenge on all and sundry. Nevertheless, for the scholar, the Soviet factor was largely irrelevant because the courts in Poland were “independent” (p. 4), a shocking conclusion that will surprise many a student of the period. In fact, he insists that even the special courts were not Stalinist (p. 132). In addition, he further believes that “postwar retribution,” including apparently the Stalinist trials under the August Decree, had “some democratic quality about it” (p. 200).
However, pace Kornbluth, Soviet law was the paradigm and chief point of reference for all future legal actions in “People’s Poland.” Likewise, Soviet institutions, including the judiciary and secret police, served as a model to establish analogous structures in the occupied Polish state.
The August Decree copied the Stalinist matrix, albeit with slight changes. For example, its Article 7 introduced special criminal courts. Further, no introduction of the novel (to the Soviets) death by hanging appears in the Decree, as death by hanging had been customary in Poland under the Polish Criminal Code (PCC). This is one example of the adaptation of a Polish legal practice by Communist law. The August Decree invoked the PCC in this regard to deceive the public into believing that the Soviet-made, Polish-language ukase (decree) was a native legal instrument. However, the invocation of pre-war law was swiftly neutralized by separate regulations that gave the secret police – personnel of the Security Office (Urząd Bezpieczeństwa) – precedence over the judiciary in its investigative procedures.
All this is lost on Kornbluth. However, he did find it to his liking that the more Sovietized and totalitarian Poland became, the more stringent the sentencing, including the shift from individual to collective responsibility (p. 232).
Last but not least, the Soviet interrogation and torture techniques played a prominent role in the system. The procedure was simple. The Communist Party issued a general command to the secret police to apprehend a quota of “fascist-Hitlerite criminals” and their collaborators; make them confess invariably through torture or its threat; bring the confessions to court and turn the actual or alleged perpetrators over for sentencing. The confession part was crucial for the guilty sentence. None of this is evident in Kornbluth’s revisionist tract.
To a large extent, the scholar is a victim of his sources of two kinds: primary and secondary. The former his graduate school training failed to prepare him to decipher correctly. The latter consider the incestuous leftist academic echo chamber he enjoys participating in.
In particular, Kornbluth relied on the neo-Stalinist school of Holocaust “studies.” The school’s founder, Jan Tomasz Gross, launched it about twenty years ago with his incendiary and profoundly flawed attempt at a case study of the mass murder at Jedwabne. The school neglects research in favor of critical race theory. They have converted the American racist paradigm to apply to the relations between Polish Jews and Christians during the Second World War and its aftermath. Instead of seriously delving into the archives, the epigones of Gross prefer theorizing and affirming only those oral testimonies and documents which tally with the school’s prejudices while rejecting all other evidence. Lastly, the neo-Stalinists regurgitate old Stalinist propaganda garbed in post-modernist and deconstructionist jargon to shame its opponents and indoctrinate the public at large in congruence with the Howard Zinn paradigm, which has wreaked so much damage on the United States.
Kornbluth not only takes all of the above for granted as far as his “methodology,” but he himself also happily embraces such post-modernist practices. Moreover, he duly dismisses any evidence, whether primary or secondary sources, that contradicts his non-logocentric preferences. For instance, he pontificates about the [Navy] Blue Police without sufficiently being conversant in the topic, while completely ignoring latest cutting edge scholarship, for instance Policja granatowa w Generalnym Gubernatorstwie w latach 1939–1945, ed. by Tomasz Domańskiego and Edyta Majcher-Ociesa (Kielce and Warsaw: IPN, 2019).
Further, it appears that Kornbluth is unaware of pertinent case studies, undermining his central thesis, on the ubiquity of Communist torture by Przemysław Piątek, Przestępcze wymuszenie zeznań w postępowaniach przygotowawczych prowadzonych przez organy bezpieczeństwa publicznego w latach 1944–1956: Studium kryminologiczno-prawne (Katowice and Warsaw: IPN, 2018); and on the August trials targeting peasants accused of allegedly harming Jews in the Cracow region by Roman Gieroń, Półmrok: Procesy karne w sprawie przestępstw okupacyjnych popełnionych przez chłopów wobec Żydów w województwie krakowskim (Cracow: IPN, 2020). Also, Kornbluth nonchalantly dismisses as irrelevant any thorough studies that demolish the arguments and expose the shoddiness of the neo-Stalinist school. In particular the author sneers at the fine work of Tomasz Domański, which nullified the baseless musings of Jan Grabowski along Holocaust revisionist lines (p. 314, n. 10). Likewise, and for the same reason, nowhere in The August Decree will we find a trace of superb scholarship of Piotr Gontarczyk or Bogdan Musiał. On the other hand, Kornbluth effusively cites Dariusz Libionka about group murder of Jews allegedly by the Polish nationalist underground outside of Kraśnik in 1942 but fails to include a decisive rebuttal of Libionka’s thesis by Rafał Drabik (p. 291, n. 17).
Thus, Kornbluth remains either ignorant of mainstream historical debates in Poland or, even worse, he chooses to ignore them so as not to have to deal with the cognitive dissonance that afflicts his attempts at scholarship. Suppose everyone he relies on tends to agree with him. In that case, there is no need to either revise his revisionism or relate to anything that challenges the straight jacket of his critical race theory and other post-modernist contrivances.
In essence, to arrive at his conclusions about the Poles as prominent mass perpetrators of the Holocaust and the post-war Polish collective conspiracy to cover up the Jewish genocide, Kornbluth subconsciously must have plagiarized the Stalinist briefs for prosecution. Throughout, in general, the scholar’s innocence is mindboggling (e.g., p. 152) as he fails to register the Communist reality of ubiquitous terror and violence. Hence, he cannot comprehend the context at large and the system it spawned, including the historical documents it generated that he attempts to work with.
Then, he fails to grasp the ideological and organizational nature of the “justice” system in Soviet-occupied Poland, including the paramount role of the political imperative and the secret police in carrying out Marxist-Leninist objectives. Indeed, in a Marxist system, virtually everything is political and politicized, including the courts. Third, the scholar takes at face value most of the documentary evidence he reads, including the confessions which were tortured out of the victims who, according to him, “confessed spontaneously” (p. 143). Indeed, Kornbluth mentions torture a few times only in passing and invariably with tacit approval (pp. 156, 251). At one point, he even deadpans that “the coercion by the UB [secret police] was not an uncommon excuse of witnesses who altered their stories in the later stages of an investigation” (p. 204). Perhaps it was the other way around. The UB forced people to confess or confirm an untruth, and the witnesses recanted as soon as they could. Incidentally, The August Trials is chock-full of allegedly false Christian witnesses but only a single Jewish (self-confessed) one (pp. 224-225). What are the statistical odds for that?
Moreover, the historian fails to note the politicization of the trials and their manual control by the secret police according to directives from above. He assures us that, but for one case, he found “no sign of manipulation from above” (p. 220). Obviously, he must have never heard about the case of a dog that did not bark at night. It is naïve to expect everything to be written down in court documents. Some orders were passed down orally, but the system worked on unspoken signals and symbols in most cases. Anticipate what the powers that be wanted or suffer the consequences. This should be obvious to anyone who has any idea about the inner workings of totalitarian systems.
Next, Kornbluth falsely identifies the judges, instead of bench jurors (ławnicy, which the scholars awkwardly call “lay judges,” (pp. 109, 133)), as the drivers of the proceedings. The latter were appointed by the Communist Party to oversee the judges whom the reds often considered unreliable. Indeed, as we have already mentioned, for the author, the courts were “independent” (p. 4).
To consider any institution “independent” under Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism (which for Kornbluth started only after 1948, (p. 226) is problematic, to say the least. Let us briefly consider another study on a related institutional topic.
When post-Communist historian Włodzimierz Borodziej wrote Od Poczdamu do Szklarskiej Poręby: Polska w stosunkach międzynarodowych 1945-1947 [From Potsdam to Szklarska Poręba: Poland in international affairs, 1945-1947] (London: Aneks, 1990), a study of the first two years of the foreign policy of Soviet-occupied Poland, some chuckled that it was indeed hard to write a book about a non-existent topic. It is evident that Stalin was in charge, and Poland could not make any sovereign decisions. Nonetheless, the Polish Communists did launch their Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Soviet stooges occupied the most crucial posts. However, many non-Communists and even anti-Communist pre-war diplomats, non-party experts, and coalition political appointees manned a plethora of technical and other positions. The machinery of diplomacy simply could not have functioned without them. And so what – it did not make the institution either autonomous or sovereign.
The Soviet advisors – some of them pretending to be Poles, others on assignment from Moscow’s secret police – ran the show on behalf of the Kremlin dictator. Moreover, the natives obeyed as required; they accommodated the Soviet power, and only infrequently did they deviate from the Moscow line, with great peril for themselves and their families.
We find a similar paradigm resurrected in Kornbluth’s The August Trials. However, unlike Borodziej, who largely glossed over in silence the dependency of Poland’s Foreign Ministry on Moscow, Kornbluth believes that the institutions he focuses on – the law and the judiciary – were “independent” and sovereign. That is nonsense, of course.
There are plenty of other problems with Kornbluth’s monograph. For example, in the context of the German occupation of Poland, the claims of “democratic” self-government and “democratic elections” at the village level (pp. 48, 291, n. 35) are as warranted as perhaps similar “elections” to the Jewish ghetto council would have been “democratic” under the circumstances. Voting under duress was not democratic. It was a way to comply with the German demands for individuals who would be held responsible for any future failure of the community to follow the Third Reich’s orders. In essence, “the elected” officials were hostages.
Moreover, the Germans considered them their assets, obligated to inform the authorities on any and all developments. How is that for democracy? I explicate this in detail in my case study Between Nazis and Soviets: Occupation Politics in Poland, 1939-1947 (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2004), which remains the only comparativist endeavor at the microlevel of its kind, naturally unknown to Kornbluth.
Had he bothered to read it, perhaps he would be capable of assessing the evidence of the crimes tried under the August Decree appropriately. For example, on the question of the so-called Jewish “banditry,” the scholar believes it to be an “ex post facto contrivance” (p. 214). The Polish defendants allegedly used it to excuse their violence against the Jewish fugitives. Jews could not be bandits, could they? Well, any fugitive, including a Jewish one, had to eat. If he ran out of funds, he could not buy food. If begging for food failed to produce desired results, he would have to resort to stealing, even robbing. Otherwise, if he did not eat, he would die. Stealing or robbing property led to conflict with the impecunious peasants who themselves suffered hunger because of the Third Reich’s forced food quota policy. The charge of “banditry” is then not an “ex post facto contrivance,” but a harsh fact in an unforgiving Hobbesian world of German-occupied Poland, particularly in 1942 and 1943, when the occupier’s food confiscation machinery was at its most ruthless and efficient.
Kornbluth also stumbles as far as the Soviet occupation of Poland is concerned. He insists that Stalin’s entry into Poland from 1944 was “liberation” when it is evident that the Soviet dictator pushed West to enslave everyone (pp. 56-57, 64). The scholar then advances the idea of “civil war” in Poland after 1944 (pp. 119, 221). His talking about a “civil war” is simply bizarre when the center of command was in Moscow, when the decisive fighting force was the Soviet secret police and military, when the native Communists openly admitted as such, and when most Polish troops involved on the red side were forcibly drafted like the recruits in the colonial armies to serve often under foreign officers. One should not confuse Soviet imperialism, which was directly at work in Poland from 1944 for mere domestic strife. If that had been a civil war, the Communists would have been wiped out in a week, but for Stalin.
There are a few mistakes and misprints: e.g., it was Jerzy Makowiecki, and not “Mazowiecki” (p. 290, n. 13). Marshall Józef Piłsudski died in 1935 and not 1926 (p. 177). Nevertheless, that is relatively minor compared to a multitude of other problems stemming from Holocaust revisionism, ahistoricism, flawed methodology, cognitive dissonance, and ingrained leftist bias.
All in all, studying the August Decree-driven Special Courts alone is like studying the cobbler shop at Auschwitz without researching the rest of the camp, including the Third Reich’s national socialist ideology that gave birth to it. At best, it would give us a look at an institution outside the context of the rest of the concentration and death camp system. At worst, it would produce something akin to Kronbluth’s imagined universe of Soviet-occupied Poland and its judiciary. Ignoring the Soviet occupation of Poland after 1944 is like overlooking the German occupation of Denmark from 1940. It is a woefully inadequate way to study the topic of any institution or other phenomena contained therein.
At any rate, the monograph on The August Trials is a re-make of Kornbluth’s doctoral thesis at UC Berkeley. Although the author coyly assigns the blame for any mistakes to himself, in this instance, one should hold his doctoral advisor, John Connelly, accountable for allowing such egregious scholarly malpractice. This handicap can be solved only when the logocentric paradigm triumphs again.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 15 June 2021