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Story of a Secret State by Jan Karski - Book Review

On the night of the 23rd August 1939, Jan Karski, a brilliant young Polish student, was enjoying himself at a party held by the Portuguese Minister in Warsaw. Joking with friends, drinking wine and dancing with the Ministers’ beautiful daughters, he was in a carefree and festive mood.

The next day Germany invaded Poland and within 11 weeks Warsaw lay in ruins. A despairing Karski was searching for a way to fight back…

The Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World chronicles Karski’s journey from young student and Polish artillery officer to resistance fighter in the Underground, a secret state set up to fight back against the conquering Nazi regime.

As Karski carries out his duties as a courier between the Underground and the Polish Government-in-exile and propagandist in the Underground’s Secret Press division, he must thwart detection by the Gestapo to accomplish his military objectives. Something he fails to do on one occasion - torture by the Gestapo and SS follows. Only after an unsuccessful suicide attempt (the thought of another beating was too much to bear) does he manage to escape with the aid of his fellow clandestine compatriots.

Torture and escape from Hitler’s Secret police is one of many adventures brought to life in this riveting wartime memoir; escape from a Russian prisoner of war camp (and an almost certain execution at Katyn*) is another. 

However, it is the revelation that the Allies knew about the Nazi concentration camps prior to the end of the war, for which Karski’s report is most renowned.

Karski had delivered his first-hand accounts of Nazi barbarity to Roosevelt, Eden and other members of the West’s elite in 1942 and 1943. A lack of photographic evidence, likely combined with an inability to believe such depravity could exist within a European state, meant the leaders of the free world took little to no action to save the Jews. Memories of such passivity haunt the West to this day.

Roosevelt was more interested in Karski’s detail of the Polish resistance movement than saving Jews. And whilst it should never be forgotten that Karski was the first man to reveal the horrors of Nazi atrocities to the West, his primary motivation for writing his report (which was first published in 1944, selling over 400,000 copies) was so that ‘the free peoples all over the world will be able to form an objective opinion as to how the Polish people reacted during the years of German conquest’; he wanted the world to know that the Polish people never gave up the fight against their Nazi oppressors and no Pole ever collaborated.

In fact, the Secret State ruthlessly enforced (if necessary) non-collaboration by punishment of death to any Pole found colluding with the German occupiers. As one of the Underground’s most eminent organisers puts it “It is harder to kill a German on Polish territory than it is to kill a Pole”.

Story of a Secret State feels so historically significant it should be part of every pupil’s secondary education, ensuring every generation never forgets the evil that can rain down upon us all if power lay in the wrong hands.

Karski’s writing style is eloquent, fluid and descriptive, bringing to life his daring escapades but also the horrors of what he saw. And it is those horrors that wrench the gut and will (probably) bring water to the reader’s eyes.

With true stories of wartime espionage, chilling descriptions of murder and torture and jaw-dropping acts of heroism, it is a fascinating read, both melancholic and uplifting and would be of interest to anyone who wishes to deepen their understanding of the Polish Resistance during World War Two or readers of spy thrillers.

At the back of the book is an Afterword by Professor Andrew Roberts’ (author of the bestseller Master and Commander) which succinctly distils the book’s main elements as well as other supporting material, including photos of Jan Karski as a student, as he dictates his memoir to a bi-lingual secretary and later as a Professor (after the war he taught at Georgetown University Washington D.C. for 40 years). However, it is the photo of text entitled The Jewish Mass Executions, drafted by Karski and read out** on the BBC in May 1943, which, above all else, makes for essential reading.

*A series of mass executions of Polish nationals carried out by the Russians during WWII

**Arthur Koestler read on Jan Karski’s behalf

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