Dr. Eugenia Maresch has compiled an extraordinary book that sheds new light on the Katyń Massacre. The name Katyń refers to the Katyń Forest, where in the Spring of 1940, on orders from Stalin and the head of the NKVD, Lavrenty Beria, approximately 4,400 Polish reserve officers were executed, shot in the back of the head and buried in mass graves. In time it would be revealed that roughly 22,000 Polish officers and civil servants were murdered in this fashion and buried in numerous graves throughout western Russia. Those men (and one woman, Janina Lewandowska) murdered at Katyń were discovered by German troops advancing into Russia in April 1943. The Nazis sought to use the discovery to drive a wedge between the West and the Soviet Union, by highlighting the barbarity of the Communists. The result of the revelation was that the Soviet Government severed ties to the London-based, Polish Government in Exile, when they demanded that an international commission investigate the murders.
The documents presented by Dr. Maresch (some for the first time in print), include crime scene reports, British Foreign Office memoranda and analyses, documents prepared for the Nuremberg Trials and the Madden Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, which conducted an investigation of the Katyń murders in 1952. Though the book was published in 2010, recently declassified documents from the U.S. National Archives only reinforce the fact that the Allied governments on both sides of the Atlantic were well aware of Soviet guilt for the atrocity.
The most moving documents for me were the reports from the scene compiled by members of the Polish Red Cross. At certain points, when help was unavailable, these men exhumed the bodies themselves, meticulously describing the entry wounds at the base of each skull and recording the documents and personal effects found inside uniform pockets. It’s important to remember that the exhumations at Katyń, despite there being pressure to use the massacre for Nazi propaganda purposes, were the only serious exhumations and analyses of the victims. Once the Soviets drove out the Germans and retook Smolensk, no independent party had access to the site for several generations. The passage of time and the intervention of the NKVD to destroy or manipulate evidence makes the reports highlighted in this book the most important testament to the fate of those Poles who’s lives were ended in the pits at Katyń.
The contradictions inherent in the behavior of the Allies are well exemplified in a despatch from February 11, 1944, written by Owen O’Malley, ambassador to the Polish Government in Exile, to British Secretary of State, Sir Anthony Eden. After emotionally refuting every point of the report of the Soviet Commission investingating Katyń (know as the Burdenko report), he undermines himself entirely:
“Let us think of these things always and speak of them never. To speak of them never is the advice, which I have been giving to the Polish Government, but it has been unecessary. They have received the Russian report in silence. Affliction and residence in this country seem to be teaching them how much better it is in political life to leave unsaid those things about which one feels most passionately.”
Thank heaven that O’Malley’s advice ultimately went unheeded. The quote by Edmund Burke comes to mind: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Thankfully many prominent Britons, members of parliament and World War II veterans (Airey Neave being one of them), pressured the British government to reveal the truth about Katyń. At one point, out of frustration with the debate in the House of Lords and the repetition of the tired cliche of not opening “old wounds”, Airey Neave angrily replied, “Whose wounds are these?”
Dr. Maresch is to be commended for her exhaustive work to uncover documents that have never before been made public and to present a clear case for critically examining the behavior of the Allies during World War II. The book will appeal to those interested in World War II in the broad sense of international politics and diplomacy as well as those individuals of Polish descent who want to know why and how the truth about Katyń was suppressed for so long.