Saturday, April 20, 2013


In the first days of World War II representatives of the belligerent parties met with the International Committee of the Red Cross and on September 12, signatories agreed to allow investigatory bodies to enter on their territory to verify any allegations.  The Soviet Union did not sign this agreement, and given the fact that it had not officially entered the war by that date, they were not formally belligerents.  

The Soviets had also never signed the Hague Convention, and this impacted not only on how their captured troops were treated by the Germans, but also how the Soviets allowed themselves to treat their POWs. In the case of the Polish troops, officers were separated from enlisted men, who were generally released, and the officers, border corps, police, prison guards, and even forest rangers were sent to separate camps. Three of the camps were located inside what had been Russian Orthodox monasteries, which by their very nature as walled compounds, were meant to keep outsiders at bay.  No Red Cross inspection visits occurred, and in fact, given the fact that the camps were not controlled by the Army, but by the NKVD, the secret police, there was no option for inspection at any time during the period of 1939-43, thus seemingly,  there was no way to know when the three specified camps were vacated.

With the Polish and German requests before them, the Red Cross attempted to determine what the procedure should be.  By April 19th Pravda had published its article condemning the Polish government and refusing cooperation with the “Nazi collaborators”. On April 20 Izvestia and Tass reprinted that material with the information that it fully reflected the position of the Soviet government. Given that the Soviet Union had accused the Germans of the crime, it would have appeared logical for them to, in fact, invite an IRC committee to investigate, and in such a case as a party to the discussions, the USSR could probably have even set conditions as to the composition of the committee.  As the Polish Government in Exile analysis stated
The Soviet government could easily have asked for suitable guarantees on such matter as the composition of the International Red Cross Commission, passes for its own representatives or the protection of the International Red Cross for the witnesses, etc., and have opposed the investigations if these guarantees had been refused or have interrupted the investigations, had these guarantees not been honoured. Instead of this the Soviet Government at once rejected, without any discussion, the proposal to have the affair investigated by an international institution.

This document also reviewed the period, some seven months later, when the Soviet Union occupied the area, and considered the options open to the Soviet Union at that time.  That, also, was a moment when the Soviet Union could have invited the Red Cross to come in and study the corpses.  That did not, of course, occur.

When, on April 17, the Polish representative to the Red Cross had handed the Polish note to M. Rueger of the ICRC,
the International Red Cross representative told M. Radziwill that the proposals would most probably be considered by the Executive Council of the International Red Cross and announced that a meeting of a special commission of the International Red Cross would be held on 20.4.43 to appoint a neutral delegation. This meeting, however, did not take place, and the attitude of the International Red Cross changed as a result of Russian opposition.

On April 20, the ICRC wrote to the Polish representative noting that:

1) the Polish proposal had been studied with the greatest care and that decisions as to the further course of action to be taken would be communicated as soon as possible;
2) International Red Cross was already prepared to supply families with information concerning the identification of officers as this information became available
3) pointing out that the spirit of the memorandum of 12.9.39 did not permit it to consider sending experts to take part in the technical procedure of identification except with the agreement of all interested parties.

Clearly the Soviets had protested to the Red Cross, and it is even possible that pressure was brought by the Western Allies – who believed that at all and any cost, the Alliance must be maintained.  In any case, the ICRC suggested that Poland attempt to apply for the assistance of the Puissance Protectrice.  Perhaps this agency, charged with representing the interests of POWs could engage in an investigation.  Although it is not clear if the Polish government approached the Puissance Protectrice it is clear that some 12 days later, letters would be sent to the Puissance Protectrice from Oflag IX A/Z, in which the senior US Army officer in Oflag IX A/Z would protest the German orders to travel to Katyn.  A similar protest was filed by the Senior South African officer in Oflag IX A/Z who had also been ordered to travel.  

On April 17, (if one accepts the theory that Goebbels wrote in his diary on the date listed), the Reich Minister noted that if these ten to twelve thousand Poles had offered their lives as victims, presumably, not as innocent ones, given that they had actually provoked this war – then at the least they could now serve the purpose of opening European eyes as to the nature of Bolshevism.  The dead Polish officers were clearly beginning to trod the road from missing to victim to politically inexpedient object.

And on April 20, 1943 the initial ICRC refusal was on record and clearly the Soviets would not consider any request for access, the Western Allies were remaining silent and the Soviets could see a clear route to success in this matter.

©Krystyna Piórkowska