Last week in Warsaw the world saw for the first time exactly how the Soviet Union intended to fight a nuclear war in Europe. A top secret map for a 1979 Warsaw Pact war game — titled “Seven Days to the River Rhine” — was released at a press conference that marked the opening of the Poland’s heretofore secret communist-era military intelligence files.
It was chilling. The map showed large red mushroom clouds along a line from the Danish border through Germany and Belgium to the French border. They blotted out such cities as Hamburg, Frankfurt, Munich, Antwerp and Brussels. These cities would have been utterly destroyed by Soviet nuclear warheads that, because of their relative inaccuracy, had to be much larger than NATO’s precise tactical nuclear weapons.
Not that tactical nuclear weapons would have spared all that many lives. The map also shows smaller blue mushroom clouds representing the Soviet guess of where NATO would aim its nuclear missiles — along the lines of the River Vistula to block Warsaw Pact reinforcements from Russia. Warsaw and Prague are among the cities that would have perished. And according to Radek Sikorski, defense minister in the new conservative Polish government who opened the archives, the dead would have included approximately 2 million Polish civilians.
Millions of Poles have died in the past to defend and liberate their country. They did so in World War II. If Poles had died in a real version of “Seven Days to the River Rhine,” however, almost all but a handful of Polish communists would have died as unwilling allies of a Soviet Union brutally occupied their country. They would have died to maintain their enslavement.
That sensitive point is one reason the Warsaw Pact plan was presented at the time as “a counterattack” to a NATO invasion. The armed forces of communist Poland had to be given at least the fig leaf of an argument they were defending their country against a militaristic West. But the military-cum-political realities of the day were of a pessimistic West retreating before Soviet advances on several fronts.
Massive SS-20 missiles were being planted in Eastern Europe and aimed at Western cities. (The red mushroom clouds show their destinations.) “Peace rallies” throughout Western Europe, partly funded by the KGB, were frightening governments into rejecting installation of America’s deterrent missiles. A world-class Soviet navy was being built up. The Kremlin, about to invade Afghanistan, boasted that the international “correlation of forces” was tipping in its favor. And U.S. President Carter was still bemoaning our “inordinate fear of communism.”
A NATO invasion of Eastern Europe therefore was not really thinkable. The Warsaw Pact’s “counterattack” looks very much like a plan for a first-strike invasion of Western Europe. One tipoff: Neither Britain nor France is attacked in the war game. This is a plan for a lightning dash to the Rhine followed by a cease-fire, an offer of negotiations, and a “peace settlement” allowing the Soviet Union to swallow all Germany and dominate a nominally independent Franco-British rump of NATO.
That it never happened is partly because three extraordinary people — a Polish pope, Britain’s first woman prime minister, and a Cold Warrior from Hollywood — all arrived in power to rebuild Western strength and morale and to give hope of liberation to “captive nations” behind the Iron Curtain.
A bloody invasion of Europe was, however, a real possibility. Thus we had a narrow escape.
Mr. Sikorski’s revelations have naturally annoyed the Russians. They have also been seen by some media cynics as a response to Russia recently playing anti-Polish power politics over energy and gas pipelines. That might well have been a subsidiary motive, and reasonably so. Russia needs to know that if it tries to bully its neighbors such as Poland or Ukraine, they can at least embarrass their old masters and warn the West of what the Kremlin planned and did until the day before yesterday.
But the main motive behind these revelations, in Mr. Sikorski’s own words, is “to bring to an end the era of post-communism.” He is therefore opening the archives not only on Warsaw Pact war games but a large range of military intelligence, including the martial law suppression of Polish Solidarity and Poland’s role in the Kremlin’s crushing of the 1968 “Prague Spring.”
Until now knowledge of these and other communist-era crimes has been quietly suppressed throughout Eastern Europe. “Post-communism” has been a transition to democracy in which the truth about communism has been sacrificed in the interests of social peace. As a result, communist-era public figures have survived and even flourished; post-communist networks have exercised a shadowy political influence; and, in response, cynicism about democracy has spread.
Latin America and South Africa had their own “post-authoritarianism” immediately after military dictatorship and apartheid. But that was followed by a period of “truth and reconciliation” in which an honest, if sometimes partial, public reckoning of past crimes was attempted.
There is a deep hunger beneath the familiar cynicism throughout Central and Eastern Europe for such a reckoning. This is not a desire for vengeance or even just punishment — though some victims of murder and torture and their families would certainly support the latter — but an admission of past crimes, a cleansing of public life and a fresh democratic start.
What is needed is a Europewide Truth and Reconciliation Commission of scholars and elder statesmen of undoubted democratic loyalty, who would hold hearings and report not just on the crimes of communism — class genocide, mass murder and widespread torture — in Eastern and Central Europe, but also on those in the Soviet Union itself and even on the culpable failures of Western statesmen to halt the culprits.
Who might serve on and lead such a commission? There is no lack of brave dissidents, eloquent historians and distinguished elder statesmen who could perform these tasks — Robert Conquest, author of the classic “The Great Terror” (who a week ago received the Medal of Freedom), former Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, historian Paul Hollander, novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, former Italian President Francesco Cossiga, French philosophers Bernard-Henri Levy and Alain Finkielkraut, and Anne Applebaum, columnist for The Washington Post and author of the recent Pulitzer prize-winning history of the Gulag, who in private life is Mrs. Radek Sikorski.
But the first step should be an approach from the U.S. Congress to the European Parliament to propose jointly fostering such a commission.
For if we refuse to examine the communist past, it will continue to poison the democratic present — not only in Poland and Eastern Europe but also in those Western democracies that looked the other way while millions died.
John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of the National Review and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.