Culprits in Poland's World War II massacre become clearer

Medill News ServiceMay 4, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Documents published for the first time on a Soviet government website last week confirmed what the West has known for decades: The 1940 massacre of nearly 22,000 Polish prisoners of war in Russia's Katyn forest was approved by top Soviet leadership and carried out by the Soviet security police, not the Nazis who had long been accused of the atrocity.

But experts say there's much more in the Russian archives on Katyn that has yet to be revealed, including key pieces of information that would offer further insight into one of the largest wartime massacres of the 20th century.

"There is a sign that this is the tip of the iceberg," said Slavic studies scholar and expert Ewa M. Thompson of Rice University in Houston.

Part of that iceberg, according to Thompson and other experts, is the details of U.S. complicity in the crime's initial cover-up and past efforts by the U.S. government to suppress what it knew about Katyn.

The massacre, its Soviet cover-up — and U.S. knowledge of both — will be discussed at an international conference at the Library of Congress on Wednesday.

When German soldiers announced in 1943 that they'd found a mass grave containing thousands of bodies in a Russian forest, the Soviet government blamed them for the crime, and continued to do so until Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev finally admitted Soviet guilt in 1990 and disclosed the location of two more mass graves in the Katyn forest. The three graves contained the remains of almost 22,000 Polish officers, prisoners of war, each with a bullet hole in the base of his skull.

A 1951-52 U.S. congressional commission concluded an extensive investigation by unanimously finding the Soviets responsible for the crime. It also revealed that a number of individuals in the State Department, Army intelligence, the Office of War Information, the Federal Communications Commission and other government agencies had "failed to properly evaluate the material being received from our sources overseas," and that information about Katyn was "deliberately withheld from public attention and knowledge."

While U.S. archives on Katyn, which include the congressional report, are extensive, they are also incomplete; some information is missing and may have been illegally destroyed, according to Kyle Parker, Russian expert and policy adviser to the U.S. Helsinki Commission.

"There are certainly good reasons one could argue for keeping a certain prudential silence on Katyn at the time," Parker said, adding that there's a big difference between a cover-up and silence.

The Kosciuszko Foundation called Tuesday for the release of U.S. documents about Katyn, including a 1945 report by Army Col. John Van Vliet, who as a German prisoner of war had been taken to the Katyn gravesite in May 1943.

Upon his return to the U.S., Van Vliet described his observations, concluding "emphatically and unequivocably (sic), that he was convinced the Polish officers were murdered by the Soviets," according to the congressional report. By the time the congressional report was published in 1952, Van Vliet's report had disappeared. According to the congressional committee, "the Van Vliet report was either removed or purposely destroyed in Army Intelligence."

The Soviet documents released last week provide technical details: Josef Stalin's signature on the execution order and Soviet security police head Lavrenty Beria's letter to Stalin suggesting the executions.

But according to Thompson, those documents are, in a sense, irrelevant. No decision of the magnitude of the Katyn massacre is made without discussion, she said, and nothing with regard to meeting minutes or discussions has ever been released.

"Where is the process?" she asked. "I want to know the person or persons who came up with the idea. We won't really understand Katyn until we understand the process. We don't know how it came to be."

Russian archives hold not just documents from the time of the crime, but from the 1990s, when Russia opened an investigation into the crime after Gorbachev's admission. Those documents have since been reclassified, according to Parker.

"We can imagine one of the reasons is that Russian prosecutors spoke to a number of people who under some certain circumstances should be indicted and face charges," he said. Additional questions remain that the opening of Russian archives could reveal, Parker said.

The executed prisoners were taken from three camps: Kozelsk, Starobelsk and Ostashkov. Some 400 Poles were spared from a combination of the three camps, but it has never been determined why and what sort of criteria was used to spare them, according to Parker.

Just how these crimes will be dealt with uncertain.

Soviet Union expert and analyst Paul A. Goble said that because the former Soviet state was a victor over Hitler's Germany, crimes like Katyn are a "cultivated blind spot."

As a result, it is unlikely Russia will admit its guilt to the extent desired by most Poles.

"No matter what (Poles) are given," he said, "it won't be enough. This was a horrific crime. None of the people were ever punished."

Ironically, Katyn's modern chapter is also a tragic one: A plane carrying the Polish president and key government officials and prominent Poles crashed April 10 near Smolensk, Russia, on its way to a Katyn memorial ceremony.

All 97 passengers were killed. They included family members of Katyn victims.

(The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Jablonska, a graduate student in journalism from Chicago, covers foreign policy.)

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