More than 70 years following the Soviet-perpetrated genocidal massacre of the Polish elite, newly-declassified documents on Katyn reveal FDR’s callous indifference.
By Paweł Piotr Styrna l October 12, 2012
Roosevelt’s decision to sacrifice Katyn truth at the altar of friction-proof relations with Moscow likely facilitated Soviet/Communist gains during the Cold War
On September 10, 2012, seventy-two years following the infamous Katyn Forest Massacre, the U.S. National Archives and Records announced the declassification of over 1,000 pages of records on the Soviet-perpetrated genocidal operation. The three-hour conference dedicated to the release of the documents took place on Capitol Hill in Washington.
The historic event was the fruit of long-time efforts by the Polish-American community—including the families and descendants of Katyn victims, the U.S. Katyn Council, and the Libra Institute—and featured a speech by Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur. The Democratic representative of Polish descent supported the initiative to publicize all available documents on the massacre. Warsaw’s diplomats also addressed the audience while attempting to take center stage. Rather ironically, Radek Sikorski’s foreign ministry—generally so eager to coddle Moscow at any price—sought to claim much of the credit for the declassification success. This effort testifies to the continued significance of Katyn to Poles and Americans of Polish ancestry.
Soviet genocide of Poles
The crime at Katyn was rooted in centuries of cultural and geopolitical rivalry between Russia (more precisely: Muscovy) and Poland (more exactly: the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth). Eventually, during the eighteenth century, Russia gained the upper hand and partitioned the Commonwealth, in collaboration with Prussia and Austria, at the end of that century. In 1795, Poland disappeared from the political map of Europe as an independent state until 1918, when it managed to regain independence. As the young country struggled to reestablish a sovereign state, the Bolsheviks—who had conquered the empire of the tsars—invaded and threatened Poland’s existence. However, the Poles repulsed the Soviets in 1920, thereby derailing Lenin’s plans to spread the Bolshevik revolution westward into Germany and beyond. The desire to avenge this defeat was certainly one of the factors leading to Katyn and other Soviet massacres and crimes against Poles.
Less than two decades later, Stalin—the political commissar of the Red Army’s Southwestern Front in Poland, and Lenin’s successor—got his chance. Even before the outbreak of the next war, in 1937-1938, the Bolshevik regime conducted a genocide (the “Polish Operation” of the NKVD) against approximately 111,000-250,000 ethnic Poles in the Soviet Union, a very large chunk of the USSR’s Polish population.
Furthermore, by signing the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact on August 23, 1939, the Soviets effectively enabled Hitler to invade Poland and launch the Second World War. On September 17, 1939, the Soviets attacked Poland, thereby claiming their part of the bargain. The country was partitioned and both sides proceeded to exterminate the Polish elites—understood as any social strata capable of exercising leadership within the national community—thus hoping to decapitate the newly-conquered nation with a long history of resistance to foreign occupations. A similar scenario was followed in the Baltic states, which the Soviets invaded and annexed in mid-1940. The mass executions of approximately 25,700 Polish officers, policemen, and teachers—conducted by the NKVD at several locations in the European USSR in April 1940, and known collectively as the Katyn Forest Massacre—constituted but an element of a larger genocidal campaign waged by both totalitarian occupiers against the Polish nation.
FDR “didn’t care”
Eventually, the Soviet and Nazi allies quarreled. The Polish government-in-exile queried Moscow about the fate of a large portion of Poland’s officer corps, to which Stalin replied that the Poles were “missing” and most likely “escaped to Manchuria,” a region across the border from the Soviet Far East in China. However, in early 1943, the Germans discovered mass graves, filled with the decomposed bodies of murdered Polish POWs, in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk. While Germans were certainly happy to utilize the issue to split the Western-Soviet alliance, the Soviets were no less eager to sever, in a fit of feigned indignation, all relations with the Polish government, which dared doubt Stalin’s explanations. The Nazis transported a group of British and U.S. captives of war to the NKVD killing field as witnesses. The two American officers present were Capt. Donald B. Stewart, and Lt. Col. John H. Van Vliet Jr., who soon thereafter sent secret messages to Washington confirming that, in their opinion, the Soviets were responsible.
The newly-declassified documents thus show that President Franklin Roosevelt was well aware that the Communists, not the Nazis, were indeed the perpetrators in this case. Yet, he chose to disregard this information and suppress the truth. Quite simply, in the context of the war, appeasing the Soviets, Hitler’s ex-collaborators, took priority over defending Poland, the country which had resisted the Nazis consistently from the very outbreak of the war. As FDR admitted to his ambassador in Moscow, Averell Harriman, that he “didn’t care whether the countries bordering Russia became communized.”
In this spirit, the truth about Katyn and “Uncle Joe’s” empire was intentionally withheld from the American public. Lt. Col. Van Vliet penned two reports on what he witnessed at the mass-murder site, one in 1945, the second in 1950. The former testimony mysteriously disappeared, likely as a result of meddling by Alger Hiss, a highly-placed Soviet mole in the Roosevelt administration. Capt. Stewart was, in turn, ordered to remain silent about the secret messages sent to the U.S. government in 1943. It is quite likely that this cover-up facilitated communist gains in Europe and Asia during the mid and late 1940s.
A casualty of the Cold War
However, as International Communism brazenly showed its true, aggressive face following the victory against Germany and Japan, wartime illusions eventually evaporated. The Reds had not only squashed the already façade democracies in Central and Eastern Europe—which had been handed to them at Yalta—but also blockaded Berlin, took over China, attempted to seize Greece and Turkey, exploded a Soviet nuclear bomb, and invaded southern Korea and Tibet. The Cold War was heating up. A more realistic attitude towards global Communism was surfacing.
Thus, the congressional Madden Committee of 1951-1952 investigated Katyn and found the Soviets culpable, simultaneously recommending that Moscow stand trial at the International Court of Justice. Yet, even this body, headed by the Democratic House member R.J. Madden, attempted to salvage FDR’s reputation, arguing that his administration suppressed the truth about Katyn out of “military necessity.”
Later on during the Cold War, the issue of Katyn became a casualty of détente. Mentioning the genocide was considered counter-productive. After all, why antagonize the Soviets, particularly if their puppets in Warsaw—recognized as the “legal Polish government” throughout most of the world—vigorously protested against any attempts to blame Moscow. Thus, until Gorbachev’s reluctant admission in 1990 that the Soviet Union had indeed been the culprit, the U.S. government officially claimed that Bolshevik culpability could not be conclusively determined. No doubt such a position was strongly influenced by the State Department’s mantra of “stability” űber alles.
The Communist lie
The Soviets naturally denied their role from the very outset, pinning all the blame on the Germans. They even attempted—albeit unsuccessfully—to saddle the German National Socialist leadership with the guilt for Katyn during the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial in 1946. Meanwhile, the “Katyn lie” became one of the main pillars of the communist “Polish People’s Republic” and a cornerstone of Soviet-Polish “brotherhood.” To confuse Western opinion and reinforce the link to the Nazis, the Soviets also promoted their own “counter-Katyn” by publicizing the tragic fate of Khatyn. The hamlet, located to the north of Minsk in Belarus, had long been inhabited by the petty Polish nobility and its descendants. Its denizens were the survivors of the ethnic cleansing perpetrated during the NKVD’s “Polish Operation.” In late March 1943, the Khatynians—men, women, and children—were burned alive in a barn. The culprits were German SS-men reinforced by an auxiliary police battalion consisting of ethnic Ukrainians and former Soviet soldiers. Obviously, the Soviet propaganda machine selected Khatyn as its “counter-Katyn” due to the phonetic similarity of the names of both localities, their relative geographic proximity, and the timing between the pacification at Khatyn and the announcement of the discovery at Katyn. The communists stubbornly and brazenly maintained the charade for decades.
Eventually, the policy of Glasnost’—originally intended to spark a typically Bolshevik mass denunciation campaign—inadvertently opened a Pandora’s Box, however. Long-suppressed information about communist crimes began to break through the cracks of the imploding Soviet Leviathan. Thus, the Kremlin was forced to admit the truth about Katyn. On the other hand, Gorbachev’s April 1990 recognition of Soviet culpability was followed, half a year later (in November 1990), by the last Soviet dictator’s secret decree ordering an immediate and aggressive search for historical materials on episodes whereby the Soviets allegedly suffered losses at the hands of the Poles, such as the canard accusing the Poles of intentionally killing thousands of Red Army POWs during the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1921. Although historically groundless, these charges formed an important element of Moscow’s “counter-Katyn”/“anti-Katyn” strategy. The objective clearly was to justify and relativize Katyn and other genocidal anti-Polish massacres.
Progress and regress in post-Soviet Russia
The Yeltsin years constituted an apogee in terms of official (post-Soviet) Russia’s coming to grips with Katyn. In January 1995, the Committee of Experts of the Main Military Prosecutor’s Office of the Russian Federation even appealed to the Russian president to classify Katyn as genocide in light of international law. Quite instrumental in this push for Katyn justice in post-Soviet Russia were anti-communist dissident circles, such as the “Memorial” historical and civil rights society. This milieu realized that a reasonably healthy Russia could be reborn only on the basis of an honest reckoning with all the crimes of Marxism-Leninism, regardless of the ethnicity of the victims.
Quite predictably, Vladimir Putin sought to reverse this trend. After all, according to the KGB colonel, the fall of the Soviet Empire was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.” And Stalin, while hardly an angel, was, in line with the Putinesque narrative, certainly a strong leader who turned the Soviet Union into a mighty and feared superpower. Thus, focusing on Stalin’s crimes was, from this nihilistic post-Soviet perspective, merely an example of naïve sentimentalism. An outpouring of works, both popular and pseudo-scholarly, “revising” history and rehabilitating the Soviet past in various ways—including pro-Stalinist conspiracy theories once again purveying the “Katyn lie”—is a reflection of the political culture in Putin’s post-Soviet Russia.
Even so, a simple reversal of Gorbachev’s guilt admission (regardless of whether Putin seriously contemplated such an action) would have been untenable in light of the available evidence. However, it was certainly possible to obfuscate and relativize in a quintessentially Chekist fashion.
On the one hand, in April and May 2010 (i.e. right after the tragic Smolensk plane crash), President Dmitry Medvedev stated that it was “obvious that the shootings of the Polish officers in 1940 were willed by the leaders of the USSR at the time, including Stalin.” He also referred to Katyn as a “very dark episode” and stated that war crimes are not subject to the statute of limitations. On November 26, 2010—two decades after the implosion of the Soviet Union—the Russian Duma belatedly condemned Stalin and other Soviet leaders for the executions at Katyn; only the unreconstructed Communist Party voted against the resolution. Finally, Russia had also handed over documentation regarding Katyn to Warsaw, albeit the materials were generally of little value to Polish researchers. Undoubtedly, the files had been carefully vetted for any potential bombshells by the FSB, one of the institutional descendants of the NKVD.
On the other hand, the Russian Military Prosecutor’s Office, which had been conducting an investigation into Katyn since September 1990, closed the case in September of 2004. In March 2005, the post-Soviet prosecutor explained that the NKVD had only “exceeded official authority,” a charge subject to a ten-year statute of limitations, which meant that none of the Chekist genocidaires could be prosecuted. In addition, all the case materials, in addition to the justification of the verdict, were classified. Further, Russia has refused to rehabilitate the names of the Poles slaughtered in 1940, let alone to classify the mass murder as a genocide. Moscow’s cynical approach eventually forced the families of Katyn victims to file a lawsuit against the Russian Federation at the European Human Rights Tribunal in Strasbourg, France. In October 2011, while testifying during the trial, Russia’s Deputy Minister of Justice ventured so far as to claim that no evidence existed that the Polish officers were actually executed. Rather, he continued, they should be treated as “missing persons.” In a letter to the tribunal, the post-Soviet official added that the relatives of the murdered Poles could not have suffered because they did not know the victims. Apparently, the post-Soviets have been moving increasingly towards the “Turkish option,” having no doubt noticed that Turkey, due to its geostrategic importance, has been largely feted on the international stage, in spite of Ankara’s continued denial of Turkey’s genocide of its Christian subjects: Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks.
Protecting the perpetrators, snubbing the victims
To those untutored in the art of KGB-style deception operations, Putinist Russia’s approach towards Katyn may easily appear contradictory and bipolar. Perhaps post-Soviet Russia simply hasn’t quite made up its mind regarding how to treat this Soviet crime? Given that cunning Chekists are in charge, however, it is more convincing to interpret this equivocality as intentional and tactical. The admissions, condemnations, and document transfers allow the Kremlin to escape the opprobrium associated with outright Katyn-denial. Simultaneously, the obfuscating arguments offered by Russian prosecutors enable the surviving perpetrators—and, by extension, the post-Soviet system—to escape even a slap on the wrist. Moreover, an additional motive behind Russia’s refusal to officially apologize and rehabilitate the victims is to preclude any possible reparations claims by their families. But the Kremlin’s attitude was not only driven by pecuniary reasons, for Moscow also wished to humble the troublesome Poles, thus punishing them for their traditional rebelliousness against Russian domination. Having imbibed much of their political culture from the Mongols, the Muscovites have historically viewed other players on the international stage through a Socially Darwinistic lens. The weak and subservient are scorned, while the strong and assertive are respected. Thus, the Putinist regime’s sinister and relativistic attitude towards Katyn—similarly to Moscow’s seemingly careless behavior following the suspicious Smolensk Crash of 2010—are ways to humiliate Poland, thereby demonstrating Russia’s power to a feeble party and contemptuously underscoring Poland’s weakness. The Kremlin therefore appears to be implicitly sending the same cynical message that schoolyard bullies convey: “Yes, we did it, but so what? There is nothing you can do about it!”
Have we learned our lesson?
Post-Soviet Russia’s increasingly brazen “might makes right” Weltanschauung has been largely downplayed in the West. For instance, Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s remark that Russia was America’s “number one geopolitical foe” was ridiculed by the Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden, who joked that the Massachusetts governor had not been informed that the Cold War was over. Most Western leaders—including the current leader of the free world, Barack Obama—do not feel threatened by Moscow’s aggressive hegemonic ambitions towards the “near abroad.” To paraphrase FDR, they do not care whether the countries bordering Russia become subjugated by Putin’s neo-Soviet “Eurasianist” empire. Given Obama’s indifference towards the fate of Poland and other “near abroad” nations, it is likely that anti-American circles there will attempt to interpret the release of newly-declassified documents on Katyn in an anti-U.S. manner. The new revelations of FDR’s callous disregard for Poles slaughtered by the Soviets might be spun as yet another case of America’s unreliability as an ally, implying that Poland must accommodate Moscow, Berlin, and Brussels, rather than seek a more independent foreign policy while aligned with the U.S. Is Washington’s public diplomacy ready to counter such allegations? Are Americans and Poles who recognize the importance of a firm U.S.-Polish alliance prepared for the challenge?
Note: To learn more about the newly-declassified documents on Katyn, please visit Records Relating to the Katyn Forest Massacre at the National Archives and Records Administration website.
Paweł Styrna has an MA in modern European history from the University of Illinois, and is currently working on an MA in international affairs at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC, where he is a research assistant to the Kościuszko Chair of Polish Studies. Mr. Styrna is also a Eurasia analyst for the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to