HH at the memorial cross in honour of the victims of the Katyń killings… there’s nothing left to say but, “Вечная память”.
The publication on the internet of American National Archives documents on the Katyń killings, with archival material from the State Department, CIA, and FBI carefully collated and packaged, led to a debate about long-forgotten events in Poland. If the American and the British leadership knew the truth about the summary execution of Polish officers by Stalin’s secret police in 1940, why didn’t they reveal the truth as soon as they could? Why did they wait until the zenith of the Cold War in the early 1950s to make formal accusations? It was only in 1953 that the Madden Committee (headed by Congressman Ray Madden (D-IN)), which was investigating the matter, came out with an official statement blaming the Soviet side on the basis of materials available in the USA.
Allen Paul, an American historian who researched the Katyń affair, acknowledged that Roosevelt knew about the execution from several former American POWs, whom the Germans brought to Katyń for propaganda purposes in 1943. Paul understood why Roosevelt didn’t question Stalin’s version of events until 1945, but he declined to excuse Roosevelt’s successors for the continued cover-up. In an interview with Channel One of Polskie Radio, Paul said, “In 1943, Russia was still bearing the brunt of war; the [allied landing in] Normandy was still one year ahead. We didn’t have that many good cards with the Russians at the time, but in 1945, it was a different matter; I don’t think this could be justified”. However, the news disconcerted ordinary Poles, as their tragic twentieth century past, as well as years of post-1989 propaganda, led them to view Americans as their natural allies. Krystyna Piorkowska, a Polish history researcher, in an interview with Polskie Radio said, “I still can’t believe it that the governments of the USA and England knew the truth about Katyń as early as 1943, that they were told it by their own people, and nothing came of it”.
For years after the collapse of communism in Poland in 1989, Katyń-related accusations, suspicions, and revelations were directed (and rightly) against Stalin’s henchmen. Some of them were also directed (this time not always deservedly) at the handling of the topic by the post-Soviet Russian state. Poland almost forgot the problem of the Western cover-up. Meanwhile, documents and research by American historians show that FDR knew the truth about the executions as early as 1943. Certainly, his guilt in the cover-up was greater than the guilt often unfairly imputed to the Russian people, the vast majority of whom had no chance to learn the truth or to make it public. In the USSR, it was impossible even to question the matter publicly until an official announcement by TASS in April 1990 revealed that the Soviet leadership acknowledged that the summary execution at Katyń was the work of Stalin’s police and not of the Nazis, as they stated previously. It’s a historical fact, confirmed by research, that only the Politburo members knew the full extent of the Katyń crime. One could probably add high-placed officials of the NKVD (Lavrenty Beria’s feared People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, which included the secret police).
Another problem, so far touched upon by researchers only with great caution, consists in Stalin’s motives for the execution of 22,000 Polish officers in spring 1940. Why did the executions end abruptly in May? Why were the remaining Polish officers, no less anti-Soviet than the Katyń victims, not only spared their lives, but also allowed to leave in a few months? Why did Stalin take an overnight decision to start executions in early March 1940? Natalya Lebedeva, a researcher at Moscow’s Institute of World History, who “opened” the subject of Katyń in the Soviet media in 1990, said, “Truth is, Stalin as a politician was formed by his experience during the Russian Civil War of 1918-21, when Russia was invaded and ravaged by a combined Franco-British intervention and a revolt of Czech POWs (the so-called White Czechs) inside Russia. When the special services reported in spring 1940 that the British planned to intervene in the Soviet-Finnish War and that the French had plans to launch air-raids against Soviet oil infrastructure in the southern Caucasus from Syrian bases, obviously, Stalin had some flashbacks from his Civil War past. He stopped the war in Finland so as not to provoke the British and he decided to nip in the bud a remake of the White Czech story by destroying the Polish officers”.
In summer 1940, Hitler, unexpected by many, crushed French resistance in several weeks, making it clear to Stalin that the German Nazis, not a coalition of Britain and France, would face the USSR in a future war. In this situation, the remaining Polish POWs became useful allies for Stalin, since they wanted to fight the Germans, liberate Poland, and help the British. Therefore, Stalin let them join the British army in Iran. Lebedeva, a respected historian, who wrote several books on Katyń published in both Russia and Poland, said that some of her Polish colleagues shared her conjectures about Stalin’s motives. In the Western media, this story has a lot less circulation than the usual parallels between Hitler and Stalin. Why? It tells the uncomfortable truth. The uncomfortable truth is that not only the USSR and Germany, but also many other countries, behaved dreadfully during the 1930s and early 1940s, making a horrendous war possible.
12 September 2012
Voice of Russia World Service