US National Archives releases 1000 documents and photographs, including correspondence about a 1940 Polish massacre.
By Christian Lowe
THE SCOTSMAN, 12 September 2012—Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US president Franklin D Roosevelt hushed up evidence the Soviet secret police had killed thousands of Polish men in the Katyn forest in 1940 for fear of alienating then ally Russian despot Josef Stalin, declassified documents reveal.
An estimated 20,000 Polish officers and intellectuals were massacred at Katyn in western Russia, shot in the head from behind and shoved into mass graves, many after being trucked there from prison camps.
The massacre still casts a shadow over Russia-Poland relations, but the released documents shift the focus to how London and Washington put fears of upsetting the Kremlin before exposing the truth. Instead, for years they backed Soviet claims that Nazi Germany was behind the massacre despite dozens of intelligence reports and witness accounts pointing to Russian involvement.
A telegram from US military intelligence dated 28 May, 1943, responding to an offer of information about Katyn, put the Allied position: “If you mean Katyn affair am interested only if report shows German complicity.”
That telegram was among 1,000 pages of documents and photographs just released by the US National Archives. The documents – many marked secret or confidential – included a series of exchanges between Mr Churchill, Mr Roosevelt, and Stalin about reports emerging in April 1943 about the massacre.
Their concerns focused on a demand from the Polish government in exile in London, for a Red Cross investigation into Soviet involvement in the killings, and a threat from Stalin to break off ties with the Polish government as a result.
Washington and London feared a row would harm the effort to defeat Nazi Germany and a letter from Mr Roosevelt to Stalin said Polish leader General Wladyslaw Sikorski “has erred” in pressing for an investigation.
“I am inclined to think that Prime Minister Churchill will find a way of prevailing upon the Polish government in London in the future to act with more common sense,” Mr Roosevelt wrote.
Churchill made a similar point to Stalin, saying in a note he would “oppose vigorously” any Red Cross investigation.
The documents showed London and Washington had strong evidence of Soviet involvement as early as mid-1943, soon after German forces found the mass graves at Katyn.
This evidence included detailed accounts from officials in the Polish exiled government and reports from US diplomats stating the Polish accounts were reliable. Testimony also came from a US prisoner of war, Lieutenant Colonel John H Van Vliet, who was taken to the massacre site by his German captors and sent coded messages home about what he saw.
One document showed the British government knew the Allies were involved in a cover-up. “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,” wrote Owen O’Malley, Britain’s ambassador to the Polish government in exile, in a May 1943 letter. “We have in fact perforce used the good name of England like the murderers used the conifers to cover up a massacre.”
Mr Churchill passed the comments on to Mr Roosevelt in a letter, and recommended he read them. But in keeping with the desire to keep the affair quiet, he asked Mr Roosevelt to return the document for safekeeping, saying “we are not circulating it officially in any way.”
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