The publication on Internet sites of the American National Archives of the documents on Katyn killings, with archive materials from the State Department, CIA and FBI carefully collected and put together, led to a long forgotten debate in Poland.
If the American and the British leaders knew the truth about the summary execution of the Polish officers by Stalin’s secret police in 1940, why didn’t they reveal the truth as soon as they could? Why did they have to wait until the cold war reaches its zenith in the early 1950s to make their accusations formal? It was only in 1953 that congressman Ray Madden’s Commission, charged with investigating the matter, came out with an official statement putting the blame on the Soviet side on the basis of the materials available in the US.
Allen Paul, an American historian busying himself with the Katyn story, acknowledges that Roosevelt knew about the execution from several American former POWs, who were brought to Katyn by Germans for propaganda purposes in 1943. Paul understands why Roosevelt did not question Stalin’s version of events until 1945, but refuses to excuse Roosevelt’s successors for continued cover-up.
“In 1943 Russia was still bearing the brunt of war, the [allied landing in] Normandy was still one year ahead. And we did not 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,” Paul said in an interview to the first channel of Poland’s Public Radio.
However, some of the regular Poles, whom their tragic twentieth century past, as well as years of post-1989 propaganda, taught to view Americans as their natural allies, were disconcerted by the news.
“I still can’t believe it that the governments of US and England knew the truth about Katyn as early as 1943, that they were told it by their own citizens, and nothing came out of it,” said Krystyna Piorkowska, a Polish history researcher, in an interview to Polskie Radio.
For years after the collapse of communism in Poland in 1989 Katyn-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 post-Soviet Russian authorities’ handling of the issue. The problem of the Western cover-up was almost forgotten in Poland. Meanwhile, the documents and the research of American historians show that president Franklin Delano Roosevelt knew the truth about the execution as early as in 1943. Certainly, his guilt in the cover-up was greater than the guilt often summarily put on the Russian people, whose vast majority had no chance to learn the truth or to make it public. In the Soviet Union, it was impossible even to question the matter publicly until the official announcement of the TASS news agency in April 1990, in which the Soviet leadership acknowledged that the summary execution in Katyn forest was the work of Stalin’s police and not of German Nazis, as it had been stated previously. It is a historical fact, confirmed by long research, that only the Politburo members knew the full extent of the Katyn crime. One could probably add several high-placed officials of the NKVD (Lavrenty Beria’s feared “people’s commissariat for the internal affairs,” which included secret police).
Another problem, so far touched upon by researchers only with great caution, consists in Stalin’s motives for the execution of 22 thousand 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 Katyn victims, not only spared their lives, but allowed to leave in a few months? And why did Stalin take that overnight decision to start executions in early March 1940?
“The truth is that Stalin as a politician was formed by his experience during the Russian civil war of 1918-1921, when Russia was invaded and ravaged by the combined efforts of the Franco-British intervention and the revolt of Czech POWs (the so called White Czechs) inside Russia,” said Natalya Lebedeva, a researcher at Moscow’s Institute of World History, who “opened” Katyn subject in Soviet mass media in 1990. “When his intelligence reported in spring 1940 that the British planned to intervene in the Soviet-Finnish war and that the French had plans to make air-raids against the Soviet oil infrastructure in south Caucuses from their bases in Syria, Stalin obviously had some flashback memories from his civil war past. He stopped the war in Finland 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, unexpectedly to many, crushed the French resistance in several weeks, thus making it clear to Stalin that in future war the Soviet Union would face not a coalition of Britain and France, but the German Nazis. In this situation, the remaining Polish military POWs became useful allies for Stalin, since they wanted to fight the Germans, liberating Poland and helping the British. So, Stalin let them go to join the British army in Iran.
Lebedeva, who wrote several books on Katyn story, published both in Russia and Poland, is a respected historian and says her guesses about Stalin’s motives are shared by some of her Polish colleagues.
In the Western media, this story has a lot less circulation than the usual parallels between Hitler and Stalin. Why? Because it tells the uncomfortable truth. And the uncomfortable truth is that not only the Soviet Union and Germany, but also lots of other countries behaved terribly during the 1930s and early 1940s thus making the terrible war possible.