Silent forest of Katyn

by ALLEN PAUL

During the war, Poles received no wartime Allied support in explaining the Russian crime against Polish officers.

The terrible crime committed at Katyn has hung like a black cloud over Polish history for almost 80 years. The Soviet authorities and subsequent Russian governments have to this day not managed to fully account for what happened in 1940. 

The last Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, revealed some of the details of what actually happened in Katyn in 1990. In 2010, ceremonies took place in the Katyn forest, attended by the then Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin. But in fact, these two episodes were more of a showpiece than the manifestation of a genuine desire to be honest and fully accountable for that crime. This has an ongoing impact on Polish–Russian relations and blocks the opportunity to build fair mutual ties.

The fate of the Polish officers is one of the best documented crimes of the Second World War. By May 1940, 21,768 Polish soldiers captured in 1939 were shot in the back of the head, when the Russians (in accordance with the provisions of the Ribbentrop–Molotov Pact) shared conquered Poland with the Germans. Almost half of the victims of the Katyn massacre were officers – the elite of pre-war Poland. All the victims were buried in mass, anonymous graves. The criminals must have hoped that this massacre would forever remain buried.

That is not what actually occurred. In 1943, the Germans discovered what had really happened to the Polish officers. However, there was no sign of contrition on the part of the Kremlin. Quite the opposite, in fact. Stalin thought that the Polish indignation at the crime committed by the Russians was a convenient excuse for him to simply break off relations with the legitimate Polish government operating in London. He then began to take control of Poland – and de facto decided the fate of the country for more than 40 years after the war. And this is the true measure of the tragedy that took place in Katyn in 1940. 

I have never heard a statement from Russia that the post-war fate of Poland was the consequence of the Katyn massacre. However, it is equally true that Poland did not receive support from the Allies in explaining the causes of this crime during the war. This was because the Allied States were deeply in conflict at the time. The Poles knew what the Russians had done to the Polish officers. The Allies also knew this after British Ambassador Owen O’Malley drafted a report in 1943, in which he described the Katyn crime and identified those responsible for it, and passed it on to British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden. 

Except the government in London in no way wanted to hear about any such report. It preferred instead to pretend that it knew nothing about the Katyn massacre, primarily because it didn’t want to irritate Stalin. The Allies preferred to avoid any quarrels with him, because he was fighting on the eastern front and was constantly sending questions to London and Washington asking when the second front would come into being. The weakened West was unable to respond to his calls. It was not until June 1944 that it managed to carry out the landing in Normandy and attack the Germans from the west. Previously, all those questions from Moscow were very troublesome, so it preferred not to risk opening up other uncomfortable topics.

O’Malley’s report wasn’t the only one that was too problematic for the Allies. The report prepared by Jan Karski met with a similar fate. The Polish emissary described in detail the concentration camps being organised by the Germans, mostly in occupied Poland. His testimony was one of the first serious studies on the fate of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. Karski presented the details of the Holocaust to the highest American authorities, including President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. However, the report by the Polish emissary provoked no reaction from the United States.

I am ashamed to admit it, but I am convinced that the President was not interested in what Karski had to say to him. This lack of response heralded what happened after the war. The Allies decided that the need to defeat the Germans was more important than Poland’s independence. The silence that fell in London and Washington over O’Malley and Karski’s reports determined the fate of Poland for more than four decades after the war.