US Documents Provide New Perspectives on Katyn ‘Cover Up’
Today Katyn remains a contentious and highly emotive issue, one that casts a long shadow over Russian-Polish relations. In recent years, some important gaps in our knowledge and understanding of the Katyn massacres – the mass execution of over 22,000 members of the Polish military and intellectual elite and their burial in mass graves in the forests around Smolensk during April-May 1940 – have been plugged. Developments in the post-Cold War period have tended to focus upon the information that has slowly (and often reluctantly) trickled out from the Russian archives, particularly in April 2010, when publication of key documents confirmed beyond any doubt that the mass executions had been carried out by the Soviet NKVD, acting on the direct orders of leader Josef Stalin. It is generally accepted that Stalin approved the massacre to ensure there would be no organised domestic resistance to the extension of Soviet control over Poland after World War II (for more details see my previous blog post about the Katyn massacre and its historical legacy HERE). However, the recent release of over 1000 pages of documentation held by the US National Archives has focused attention on a new and previously under-discussed perspective of this tragedy; assessing the extent of US and UK complicity in hiding the truth about Katyn.
The newly declassified documents, released on 10th September 2012, confirm that both the US and UK authorities were aware of strong evidence pointing to Soviet responsibility for Katyn soon after the initial German discovery of the forest graves in 1943, but deliberately chose not to question Soviet claims that it was the Germans who were responsible for the slaughter, in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary, due to the importance of maintaining good wartime relations with Stalin. Even after the end of World War II, they chose to remain silent about much of what they knew. Several years later, after the wartime alliance had irretrievably broken down and Cold War battle lines had been drawn, a Congressional Committee (‘The Madden Committee’) was established to review the available evidence relating to Katyn. Their official report revised the US stance, determining after a series of hearings held 1951-52 that the NKVD had been responsible for the executions, which the report described as ‘one of the most barbarous international crimes in world history.’ However, the material indicating the full extent of western wartime knowledge of Soviet involvement in Katyn was concealed, and although the committee recommended that the Soviets face trial at the International World Court of Justice, this was never pursued. The Soviets continued to deny any responsibility until the dying days of the USSR, and as recently as 1992, the US State Department maintained that prior to Mikhail Gorbachev’s official admission of Soviet guilt in 1990, they had ‘lacked irrefutable evidence’ to substantiate claims that it was the Soviets rather than Nazi Germany who had carried out the massacre.
The documents released yesterday tell a very different story: comprised of detailed accounts from officials in the Polish exiled government; reports from U.S. diplomats; US army intelligence and testimony from two American Prisoners of War – Capt. Donald B. Stewart and Lt. Col. John H. Van Vliet Jr – all of whom provided strong evidence suggesting Soviet culpability. The testimonies provided by Stewart and Van Vilet Jr are particularly compelling. Theit accounts describe how they were taken to Katyn (which had recently passed from Soviet to German control) by their Nazi captors in May 1943. The bodies they viewed were all already in an advanced stage of decay, indicating that they had been killed prior to the recent Nazi occupation of the area. This was further supported by the good state of the men’s boots and clothing (suggesting they had not remained alive long after their initial capture by the Soviets) and the fact that none of the personal items found on the corpses – including letters and diaries – were dated beyond the spring of 1940. The two men reported all of this in coded messages which were sent back to Washington, expressing their conviction that the evidence of Soviet responsibility for the massacre was ‘irrefutable’. However, their testimony was supressed. At a time when the allies remained desperate for Soviet military assistance, neither Roosevelt or Churchill were willing to risk confronting Stalin. Realpolitik took precedence over any sense of moral responsibility, as illustrated by one telegram Roosevelt sent to Churchill in June 1943, where he strongly urged suppression of any evidence suggesting Soviet complicity at Katyn because ‘The winning of the war is the paramount objective for all of us. For this unity is necessary’.
Thus, when the Polish government in exile in London called for an investigation into the Katyn massacres, Roosevelt advised Churchill to ‘find a way of prevailing upon the Polish government in London … to act with more common sense’. In a letter dated May 1943, British Ambassador Owen O’Malley explained how ‘We have been obliged to . . . restrain the Poles from putting their case clearly before the public, to discourage any attempts by the public and the press to probe the ugly story to the bottom’ and acknowledged that ‘We have in fact perforce used the good name of England like the murderers used the conifers to cover up a massacre’.
The US documents do not contain any radically new information or earth shattering revelations about Katyn. Rather, they simply confirm what most historians have long suspected. However, they do add to our knowledge of events, suggesting that both British and American administrations were aware of the truth about Katyn at an early stage (from at least mid-1943) but chose to conceal the truth, in a deception that extended up into the highest political levels. For this reason, Allen Paul, author of ‘Katyn: Stalin’s Massacre and the Triumph of Truth’ believes that the information revealed in the US documents is ‘potentially explosive’, suggesting that the US decision to cover-up the truth delayed a full understanding about the true nature of Stalinism in America, while George Sanford, author of ‘Katyn and the Soviet Massacre of 1940: Truth, Justice and Memory’ compared western attitudes towards Katyn to their unwillingness to accept or act on early information received about the killing of Jews in Auschwitz in a recent interview with Radio Free Europe.
As Dmitry Babich, a commentator for the Voice of Russia surmised in respnse to the latest findings, ‘No one looks particularly pretty … the moral of the whole story is that everyone behaved very cynically’. The information contained in the US documents could be used to support those who argue that it was Western ‘abandonment’ of the East European countries that left them helpless to resist Soviet expansion after World War II, condemning them to fifty years of enforced communist rule. There have also been suggestions that the new documentary evidence has the potential to negatively influence contemporary Polish relations with the US and UK, although any serious ‘cooling’ in relations seems unlikely.
The documentation released by the US National Archives can be viewed online HERE.
The final report from the Madden Committee (dated 22 December 1952) can be viewed HERE.
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