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The Katyn Massacre: Deceitful diplomacy and mass murder


A confidential letter arrived at the Foreign Office from the British Embassy in Washington informing them that the American Committee had been formed to investigate the Katyn massacre of 1940.

This committee was established largely through the efforts of Julius Epstein, a journalist who published two articles on Katyn in The New York Herald Tribune in July 1949. Later, in February 1952, Epstein put a question on Katyn to Churchill, who was giving a press conference in New York. Epstein put it in writing and awaited a reply, which came after Churchill had left for England. An acknowledgement came from the British Embassy in Washington, indicating that ‘Mr Churchill did not wish to reply.’

It had been nearly a decade since 13 April 1943, when a German radio broadcast announced the discovery of a mass grave of 3,000 Polish officers in the woods outside of Katyn, and yet governments on both sides of the Atlantic still did not wish to reply to inquiry. They still did not want answers to one of the most shocking events of the Second World War, where 22,000 prisoners of war were murdered – hands tied, shot in the head at close range, and buried in unmarked mass graves.

Epstein’s efforts earned him the post of executive secretary of the American Committee. Chaired by Arthur Bliss, it included William Donovan, Allen Dulles, George Creel, James Farley, Constantine Brown, Mrs Clare Booth Luce, George Sokolsky, Samuel Levitas, Charles Rozmarek, Virginia Starr Freedom, Blair Gunther, James Walsh and Rev. John Cronin.

The British Embassy in Washington could not assess the degree of official support for the Committee. In conversation, Bliss was not perturbed by the State Department’s apparent ‘hands off’ attitude, but was disappointed at the lack of support from the American Bar Association, who had originally intended to conduct the investigation, but probably under government pressure decided not to participate. He had hoped that a group of independent jurors would undertake a semi-judicial investigation. He was also unable to persuade the State Department to release the important report of Colonel Van Vliet’s visit to Katyn in 1943.

The Foreign Office, on receiving the despatch, advised the Americans to lay off Katyn as it was associated with Joseph Groebbels’ anti-Soviet propaganda. Besides, it has been reported that the US report was missing from the Defence Department. The Committee continued its work for almost three years under the chairmanship of Senator Ray Madden. Its task was to record the evidence, and to establish the guilt of the nation that perpetrated the greatest crime of genocide. The Select Committee consisted of Daniel Flood Thaddeus Machrowicz, Foster Furcolo, John Dondero, Alvin O’Konski, Timothy Sheehan, John Mitchell, Roman Pucinski and Barbara Brooke, secretary. The hearing began in October 1951 with Lt Col Donald R. Stewart testifying that he was one of the American prisoners of war, who, together with Col John van Vliet Jr., were taken by the Germans to view the Katyn exhumation in May 1943. Vliet’s original report written in 1945 was conveniently lost in the bowels of the Pentagon and he was asked to rewrite it from memory.

In March 1952 Sir Oliver Franks, the British Ambassador in Washington, informed Sir Anthony Eden that House of Representatives has authorised the Committee to continue its investigations in Europe and they were en-route for London, Paris and Frankfurt. On their agenda was access to the British documents on Katyn and possible witnesses for interrogation. The British refused these requests and none of the named persons appeared before the Congressmen. Due to strong objections to an open hearing by Anthony Eden, Madden’s Committee was assigned to a closed, private sessions to collect individual statements in a hotel with no press or public present.

The Committee gathered 32 statements from Polish witnesses and departed for Paris. As a result, the crime was not properly adjudicated at the Nuremberg trials in in 1945, which touched a raw nerve of the Americans as well as the British. The Katyn massacre was never adequately revealed to the American people, nor the rest of the world.

It was not until November 2010 that Russia approved a declaration blaming Stalin and other Soviet officials for ordering the massacre, though there has still been no admission of war crimes.

By Eugenia Maresch

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