Recently declassified materials that point to a U.S. cover-up of a Soviet massacre of Polish officers and prisoners more than 70 years ago may reignite the intense debate over historical memory and wartime allegiances in Eastern Europe, as well as lead to wide-ranging political repercussions, analysts said.
“If you look at the whole story, no one looks particularly pretty,” said Dmitry Babich, an international affairs commentator for the Voice of Russia and a member of the Polish-Russian Journalists’ Club. “It’s the reason we are still seeing new documents released, and obviously not very willingly – neither in Russia nor in the West.”
A trove of new documents made public by the U.S. National Archives on Monday suggests the United States ignored reports of the 1940 mass killing in western Russia’s Katyn forest – in which around 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals were executed on the orders of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin – in order to maintain good relations with Moscow, a key wartime ally.
The new information casts fresh light on an issue that strikes a painful nerve in Poland’s collective memory and one which has long plagued generally tense Polish-Russian relations.
Ties between the two countries had warmed briefly after then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s acknowledgement of the Stalin-ordered massacre, as well as his show of support after the April 2010 plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and a slew of other Polish leaders as they traveled to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the massacre in Smolensk.
Yet analysts said the publication of the U.S Katyn files may play into the hands of critics of both Russia and the United States by rehashing the history of secrecy and deception that colored those countries’ moves during the Second World War, as well as their treatment of wartime Poland.
The documents, first reported by the Associated Press, find that American prisoners of war relayed to Washington coded messages in 1943 detailing long-decayed corpses in the Katyn forest, in the western Russian region of Smolensk. The American prisoners had been taken to the site by their Nazi captors in hopes of scoring a propaganda coup and driving a stake between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Historians and researchers had long speculated whether then-U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew about the massacre. The opening of the documents to the public, heavily lobbied for by Polish-American U.S. Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, appears to prove exactly that.
The documents included a June 1943 telegram from Roosevelt to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that urged “the obvious necessity of creating the most favorable conditions for bringing the full weight of the armed forces of all the United Nations to bear upon the common enemy,” according to a summary published on the archives’ website. “The winning of the war is the paramount objective for all of us. For this unity is necessary."
The Soviet version of events, which the allies chose not to question, maintained that the prisoners had been killed by the invading Nazis in 1941. It was only in 1951, after the Cold War had begun in earnest, that the U.S. House of Representatives established the so-called “Madden Committee” to investigate the Katyn massacre – and deduced that the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, had been responsible for the killings, after all.
The Katyn affair has long been among the most painful events of the 20th century for Poles, whose country was simultaneously occupied by both Nazi and Soviet occupying forces during the war, with little or no resistance from the allied powers. Stalin’s order to execute the prisoners, a majority of whom were military officers but who also included intellectuals and other professionals, was widely seen as a move to decapitate the core of Polish leadership.
Katyn expert Allen Paul, author of "Katyn: Stalin's Massacre and the Triumph of Truth," told the Associated Press the documents are “potentially explosive,” especially in light of the Poles’ version of the story.
"The Poles had known long before the war ended what Stalin's true intentions were," he said. "The West's refusal to hear them out on the Katyn issue was a crushing blow that made their fate worse.”
Russian-Polish relations remain strained, rooted largely in the conflicts of the past as well as in Poland’s steady European integration. Relatives of Katyn victims have even taken Russia to the European Court of Human Rights, charging that Moscow failed to adequately investigate the executions.
In a bizarre turn of events, Stalin’s grandson, Yevgeny Dzhugashvili, even asked on Tuesday to be included in the case in order to defend his grandfather, Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza reported.
The Polish authorities welcomed the opening of the documents, though in a statement posted on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ website, they remained tight-lipped on the potential impact of the documents on contemporary foreign relations.
“Thanks to the initiative of the U.S. Congresswoman and the engagement of Polish diplomats and the Polish-American community, researchers, historians and journalists will now be able to benefit from the rich collection of records released by the U.S. National Archives and put online.”
Analysts, however, say the development could serve as a boon on the home front to right-wing Polish politicians currently in the opposition, whose nationalistic voters comprise roughly a third of the electorate and are most affected by memories of the Katyn massacre as well as anti-Russian sentiments.
“For the Poles, it was an attack at the very heart and soul of the nation in the sense that it was the elites that perished there: lawyers, doctors, engineers, officers,” said Jakub Parusinski, a Kiev-based Polish journalist. “The Polish approach here is that it wasn’t just 22,000 people killed – but 22,000 individuals, who each represented their own story and part of the Polish nation.”
While the event remains buried in a tumultuous history long surpassed by the collapse of communism throughout Europe and the forging of new global alliances, the disclosure of the documents – as well its contents and timing – may serve to worsen the already cool U.S.-Polish relationship.
Relations between the two countries have soured amid U.S. President Barack Obama’s bid to improve ties with Russia, Poland’s traditional nemesis, as part of his “reset” policy. The uncovering of the Katyn documents, Parusinski said, is unlikely to make things better.
“A lot of people see this as somewhat of a cynical move by the Obama administration, which is trying to cozy up to Polish voters who frankly have fallen out of love with the U.S. in recent years,” he said.
Meanwhile, analysts say the documents are unlikely to have much of an impact in Russia, where the truth behind the Katyn massacre was first unveiled during the Soviet Union’s twilight years.
Babich, the Voice of Russia commentator, said the Katyn affair – as well as the way it was mobilized by both the U.S. and the Soviet Union during and after the war – instead represents the complexity of the relationship between the two superpowers at the time.
“Basically, the moral of the whole story is that everyone behaved very cynically in the 1930s, 40s and 50s,” he said. “The Americans started to bring attention to the matter only when relations with the Soviet Union deteriorated politically.”