PARIS. — Traveling to Warsaw from Krakow, cities from which, after two generations of communism, a dense pollution -- both moral and material -- has begun to lift, a traveler is witness again to what the Soviet Union has done to Poland. The question which insists on an answer is how can the Poles ever forgive Russia?
But how can the Poles forgive the Germans? How can the Jews ever forgive the Germans? The question of forgiveness is absolutely central to the future not only of Eastern Europe but of Western civilization. It is the hardest of all questions. History is against forgiveness.
In Croatia, in late August, the new Croatian government's defense minister said of the impending battle with Serbia, ''We have been waiting for this moment for eight centuries.'' Last week, a friend of mine, an artist and connoisseur, a cultivated man, a Serb, said to me, ''We must first have justice for the crimes the Croatians committed against us in the war.'' At the same moment another Yugoslav expatriate, an art historian, a Croat, was writing in the French press that the Serbian siege of the great Renaissance city of Dubrovnik is an attempt ''to destroy it, because it is the symbol of our national identity.'' No forgiveness there.
Take the Polish example. What the Germans and Soviets did to Poland was unprovoked. Prussia, with Austria and Russia, had partitioned Poland between the 18th Century and 1918, and the Poles certainly had struggled against that. After the First World War they fought with Bolshevik Russia over their eastern border, but finally accepted a line far short of the frontier of pre-partition Poland in 1772.
They did nothing between the wars to invite Hitler's invasion. That was motivated by a racial theory which held that Poles and other Slavs were subhuman beings fit only to be slaves, and Jews a threat to be exterminated, and by a geopolitical program of German territorial aggrandizement.
The result for Poland was 6 million civilian dead, including most of Poland's Jews; and a half-million military fatalities, many suffered while fighting in exile under the command of the Allies. (By comparison, total U.S. battle deaths in World War II were 292,000). When the war ended there were a million Polish war orphans and half a million war invalids. The country had lost roughly 40 percent of its material assets (Britain, by the same calculation, lost 0.8 percent; the U.S. gained).
The Poles' only provocation of Stalin had been that Poland existed, and was not communist. His attack in September 1939, coordinated with Hitler's, was followed in 1945 by a Soviet refusal to admit any permanent political solution that did not install the Communist Party in power in Poland.
London's Observer newspaper last Sunday published evidence produced by a Soviet military investigation of the murder of some 15,000 Polish officers in the spring of 1940, meant to destroy a leadership that might later resist Russia's control of Poland.
A former Soviet secret-police officer, now 89 and blind, told the Russian inquiry that the 6,000 Polish officer-prisoners under his control were individually shot, at a rate of 250 a night, by a team of NKVD men led by three officers specially dispatched from Moscow for the task. They killed 300 the first night, but had not finished before dawn, and ''they had a rule that everything must be done in darkness.'' So afterward they killed 250 a night -- first taking down name and serial number.
How long did it take? ''Work it out for yourself,'' the old man said. ''Six thousand men at 250 a night. Allowing for holidays, that makes about a month, the whole of April 1940.'' They had also brought an excavator from Moscow to dig the graves.
A note that must be added: The bodies from these executions, in mass graves near Kalinin, north of Moscow, were being exhumed last summer, in the presence of Polish observers, when the attempted Soviet coup d'etat occurred in Moscow. KGB men arrived on the site the same day and ordered a halt. The soldiers doing the work refused.
How can this calculated destruction of an elite, meant to decapitate a people, be forgiven? The only answer is the same one that must be given to the general question of forgiveness. It is that there is no alternative. Forgiveness is the foundation upon which any hope for peace in Eastern and Central Europe must rest.
Germany's Chancellor Willy Brandt went to Poland and knelt, weeping, at the Warsaw Ghetto. The Soviet government under Mikhail Gorbachev a year ago began the investigation of the Kalinin, Katyn Forest, and Kharkov murders of Polish officers. Germany, the U.S.S.R., and Poland have signed their treaties and agreed to leave their frontiers where they are today. The Poles have forgiven because they have to forgive.
At some point there has to be forgiveness. What happened to the Poles, as to the Jews, was much worse than anything that has happened to Serbs or Croats. It is unimaginably distant from anything that has ever happened in North America, or to the West European states since the wars of religion. However the Poles have forced themselves to forgive. That was not magnanimity: It is realism. What else can they do?
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.