The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

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.


Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin, pictured at the Yalta conference in 1945. By this point, the western leaders knew that the Soviets were responsible for the Katyn massacres, but chose to ignore the evidence and focus on attempting to maintain good relations with Stalin.


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’.



A memorial inWarsaw, commemorating the 22,000 members of the Polish military and intellectual elite who were massacred by the Soviet NKVD in 1940 (Photo Credit: AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)


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.


September 12, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Smolensk Air Crash & The Fateful Legacy of Katyn.

This week heralded two significant dates in the history of modern Poland. 10 April saw the first anniversary of the 2010 Smolensk air crash, widely regarded as the worst national disaster to befall Poland since World War Two and resulting in the death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 other victims, including many members of the Polish political and military elite. Today (13 April) also marks 68 years since German radio announced the discovery of mass graves in the nearby Katyn forest in 1943, the result of a brutal cull of almost 22,000 Polish army officers carried out by the Soviet NKVD in April-May 1940. One year on from the Smolensk crash, Poland is still grieving, but attempts to commemorate Poland’s most recent tragedy have been overshadowed by political tensions and rising anti-Russian sentiment, which also threatens to re-open older historical wounds.


Wreckage from the plane crash outside Smolensk in April 2010. The crash claimed the lives of 96 people, including Polish President Lech Kaczynski.


The Fateful Legacy of Katyn

Despite occurring 70 years apart, the two tragedies are indelibly connected in the minds of most Polish people. On 10 April 2010, when his plane crashed after hitting trees while attempting to land in thick fog just outside the Russian city of Smolensk, Lech Kaczynski was leading a Polish delegation on their way to a memorial service to mark the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre. Even placed into a much longer historical tradition of antagonistic Polish-Russian relations dating back at least as far as the Middle Ages, Katyn remains a particularly painful episode in Polish history due to the subsequent level of Soviet disinformation about the tragedy. As Anna Berezowska recently surmised, even today, ‘For Poles, a single image is conjoured when we visualise Katyn: lies’ .


The exhumation of mass graves in the Katyn forest after their discovery in 1943. The graves contain the bodies of around 22,000 Polish Officers, shot by the Soviet NKVD in April-May 1940.


Throughout the post-war period, the Soviets continued to deny any responsibility for the Katyn massacre, claiming instead that it had been carried out by the German army, who had subsequently occupied the area and then used by Hitler as propaganda in an attempt to discredit the USSR. In Poland, the communist authorities forbade any public discussion of Katyn and while many Poles remained convinced of Soviet culpability, to openly express such beliefs was a punishable offence. It was only in 1990 that the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev finally admitted Soviet responsibility for the massacre. In recent years more comprehensive evidence has emerged from the Soviet archives, finally resulting in the online publication in April 2010 of documentation dated 5 March 1940, confirming that the massacre had been carried out by the NKVD on the direct orders of Soviet leader Josef Stalin. In November 2010 the Russian State Duma also formally recognised the massacre as a ‘crime of the Stalin regime’, and since the Smolensk disaster last April, Moscow has made more than 137 volumes of documents relating to the Katyn massacre available to Warsaw, although over 40 other volumes have yet to be sent, a process which Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recently promised to complete.


Memo written by Lavrentiy Beria, head of the NKVD, dated 5 March 1940. The memo recommends the execution of the Polish Army Officers held at Katyn and is authorised by Josef Stalin's signature, plus the signature of other Politburo members.


Despite the development of a more open dialogue between the two states in the post-communist period, neither side has been willing or able to fully face up to the legacy of Katyn, which continues to cast a long shadow over Polish-Russian relations. Only a few days before the fateful crash in August 2010, the first joint Polish-Russian memorial took place at the Katyn cemetery, attended by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk. Transcripts of the speech Lech Kaczynski was due to give in Smolensk also acknowledged that Katyn had ‘poisoned relations between Russians and Poles for many decades’.


After Smolensk

In the aftermath of the Smolensk crash, hopes were raised about the potential for further rapprochement and the possibility of healing old wounds. Current Polish President Bronoslaw Komorowski has urged ‘healing rather than recrimination’ in response to the tragedy, and earlier this week, in a ceremony to mark the first anniversary of the disaster, Komorowski and Medvedev laid wreaths at the crash site before bowing their heads to observe a minute of silence as a solo bugle mournfully sounded. This was followed by a visit to Katyn itself, to commemorate the victims of the 1940 massacre. This display of togetherness was swiftly followed by an announcement about the formation of a new ‘Centre for Dialogue and Understanding’, to be based at twin sites in Moscow and Warsaw, with the aim of ‘promoting projects conducive to a dialogue in Polish-Russian relations’. According to a statement on President Komorowski’s website, the Centre aims to help overcome ‘barriers and stereotypes [and] help to counter the dangerous attempts to falsify history’, which continue to threaten relations between the two countries.


Polish President Bronoslaw Komorowski and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev commemorate the first anniversary of the Smolensk air disaster together.


Despite conciliatory gestures from both sides however, some wounds are proving hard to heal. A Russian investigation into the Smolensk crash concluded in January 2011 by blaming the crew for attempting to land the plane in adverse weather conditions despite warnings from Russian air traffic controllers on the ground in Smolensk, claiming they may have come under pressure to land from Lech Kaczynski himself. This verdict has proved controversial however, and many Poles have refused to accept the investigative findings, criticising Russian handing of the disaster and blaming bad communication and lack of support from ground controllers for the crash. Questions have been asked about why the airport remained open, if landing conditions were so bad. Some even subscribe to more extreme conspiracy theories: it has been alleged that the Russians artificially created the fog and gave the pilots misleading information in order to deliberately bring the plane down, a theory that has also been publicised by the Polish media. While only a small minority really believe that the crash was not accidental – 8% according to one recent poll – the same poll indicated that 78% of respondents did not consider the circumstances around the crash to have been adequately resolved and supported further, more independent investigation into events. An alternative Polish-led investigation is currently underway, but the investigators say they are still waiting to receive important documentation from Russia.


Papering Over the Cracks?

One year on, the organisation of commemorative events to mark the first anniversary of the Smolensk crash have highlighted deep divisions within Poland and cast a shadow over recent attempts to improve Polish-Russian relations. Official commemoration of the anniversary began at 08.41am on 10 April, as Polish politicians, flanked by crowds, gathered at Warsaw cathedral to mark the time that the plane crashed in Smolensk. However, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, (the late Lech Kaczynski’s twin-brother and current leader of the main opposition ‘Law and Justice Party’), who has declared that Russia are ‘directly responsible’ for the crash and that the victims have been ‘betrayed’ by the current Polish government, boycotted the official ceremonies, choosing instead to hold his own ‘unofficial’ ceremony, laying a wreath outside Warsaw’s Presidential Palace, in a gesture of defiance that was supported by a 3000 strong crowd holding nationalist banners and shouting “Here is Poland!”. The weekend before the official commemoration a 2000 strong protest also took place in Warsaw, with one Polish man arrested after burning an effigy of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in front of the Russian embassy. This has fuelled fears that the ‘politicisation’ of the Smolensk tragedy in Poland is reawakening traditional suspicions of Russia and undermining still fragile attempts to build closer relations between the two states.

When in power, Lech Kaczysnski was a divisive political figure due to his conservative nationalist agenda and despite a genuine outpouring of grief in the aftermath of the fateful crash, controversial proposals to bury Kaczynski and his wife in Wawel Cathedral in Krakow soon split popular opinion. His death, particularly under such tragic circumstances, has also proved divisive, leading to charges that some parties in Poland are using the tragedy for their own political ends. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, in particular, has been accused of using the death of his brother to exploit ‘Russophobia’ in Poland and gain political leverage. The imminent prospect of an election by October 2011 – and a recent poll putting Kaczynski’s opposition Law and Justice party just 4% behind Donald Tusk’s ruling Civic Platform in the polls, gaining 28% and 32% respectively – have led to charges that Jaroslaw was effectively using this week’s commemorations to launch his own election campaign.

Now, a new squabble has broken out over the Smolensk crash site, after Russian authorities replaced a Polish plaque placed by relatives of the victims in November 2010 which referred to the 1940 deaths as a ‘genocide’ with a dual-language plaque that omits any mention of Katyn. Russian authorities have since claimed the original plaque was replaced because Russian law prohibits memorials written solely in a foreign language and in an attempt to quell rising tensions Medvedev and Komorowski have announced that a joint Russian-Polish panel will be set up to design a mutually acceptable commemorative plaque which will permanently mark the site.

April 13, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 5 Comments