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Allies Buried Misgivings Over Katyn Killings, Papers Reveal

The United States and Britain correctly suspected that the Soviet Union executed 22,000 Polish prisoners, many of them officers, in Katyn Forest, in April and May 1940—but kept silent to avoid riling Joseph Stalin. The cover-up is chronicled in 1,000 pages of documents released last fall by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

The Allies ignored the evidence and blamed Germany for the killings, which wiped out much of Poland’s intelligentsia and facilitated a postwar Soviet takeover. One American general said he only wanted to see evidence about the massacre if it “shows German complicity.”

Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland in  September 1939, planning to divide the country under a non-aggression pact. The killings occurred before Germany broke the pact and attacked the USSR in 1941.

German troops found and excavated the mass graves in Katyn Forest in April 1943. The Germans set up an international medical commission to investigate the massacre. The panel ruled that the killings occurred while the Soviets controlled the area, a finding Germany trumpeted in an effort to strain U.S.- British-Soviet relations.

America and Britain, eager to please Russia, looked the other way. But Polish prime minister in exile Władysław Sikorski wanted an inquiry by the International Red Cross.

In an April 1943 letter the Archives released, President Franklin D. Roosevelt told Stalin that Sikorski “has made a mistake” and reassured the Soviet dictator that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill would “find ways and means…of getting the Polish Government in London to act in the future with more common sense.”

But the Allies had little doubt that Russia did the killing. Owen O’Malley, British ambassador to the Polish diplomatic delegation, concluded a May 1943 report by writing,“Most of us are more than half convinced that a large number of Polish officers were indeed murdered by the Russian authorities.”

O’Malley wrote that a Russian official “who had drunk more than was good for him” in the company of a Polish diplomat had in effect confessed, referring “to the disposal of these officers as ‘a tragic error.’” O’Malley said he regretted that “the good name of England” was used “like the little conifers” in Katyn Forest “to cover up a massacre.”

In August 1943, Churchill forwarded O’Malley’s report to Roosevelt, calling the document “perhaps a little too well-written” and asking for its return “as we are not circulating it officially in any way.”

The new evidence “underlines what we already know,” says historian Timothy Snyder, author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin: “that the Americans knew at the time that their Soviet allies were guilty of murdering much of the officer class of their Polish allies. It was a complicated war, more complicated than we like to remember, because our crucial ally in Europe was also the author of this and many other policies of mass killing.”

The papers were declassified at the request of Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) and Daniel Lipinski (R-Illinois). Both are of Polish descent.

Poland to Wolf’s Lair Management: More History, Less Hoopla

Poland is rescuing the Wolf’s Lair—Hitler’s woodland command center—from obscurity and commercialism as the Polish government tries to thwart the rise of political extremism.

Hitler built the Wolfsschanze, a sprawling, hidden network of bunkers in the forests of what was then East Prussia, to oversee operations on the Eastern Front following Germany’s 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union. It was at the Wolf’s Lair in July 1944 that Lieutenant Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg planted a bomb in a failed attempt to assassinate Hitler.

East Prussia reverted to Poland after the war, and the wartime compound became a tourist attraction.

After the Iron Curtain fell in the late 1980s, a private company leased the property, building a hotel and restaurant but otherwise letting the Wolf’s Lair disintegrate and making scant attempts to cast the place as an educational experience. “Suffering from a lack of adrenaline? Want to test your sniper skills?” the Wolf’s Lair website asks, attracting customers to a firing range in what had been the bunker of General Alfred Jodl, executed as a war criminal in 1946. Another attraction lets visitors pose in Nazi uniform.

But with political extremism on the rise, the Polish government rewrote the Wolf’s Lair lease so that as of February 2012 the operator has a duty to maintain the site as a historical location, with outdoor exhibits and a museum. “At this moment, one does not feel the tragic dimension of this place,” Tomasz Chincinski, a historian working on the project, told the New York Times. “We need to work on new ways of telling history, to make young generations want, need, to learn it and understand it.”

Discovery Documents Former Commander’s Enmity for Hitler

During World War I, Fritz Wiedemann commanded Adolf Hitler, recommended him for the Iron Cross, and was a father figure to the future Führer. But in 1940 Wiedemann turned on Hitler, convinced he was leading Germany to disaster. Assigned a diplomatic post in San Francisco, Wiedemann approached British and American officials, offering inside information on Hitler and seeking their help to overthrow the Third Reich.

Newly found material deepens and broadens the context for Wiedemann’s stance and actions. University of Aberdeen historian Thomas Weber began to uncover Wiedemann’s machinations while researching his 2010 book Hitler’s First War. After that book appeared, Weber was working in Yale University’s archives when he encountered the papers of British businessman and sometime intelligence operative Sir William Wiseman.

Among the documents are notes Wiseman made on an October 1940 meeting with Wiedemann. The diplomat told Wiseman that Hitler had less popular support than commonly thought, and reported that several high-ranking German officials were ready to move against the Nazis. Among them was Hjalmar Schacht, Germany’s central bank chief. Wiedemann’s account, as documented by Wiseman, suggests that Schacht may have been telling the truth when he said after the war that he had opposed Hitler even at the height of his power—a claim long dismissed as self-preserving.

According to Wiseman, Wiedemann also described how Hitler thought himself superior to Napoleon and dismissed America as “a country of gangsters without any military importance whatever.” In that conversation, more than a year before Pearl Harbor, Wiedemann offered to speak to the press to rally American opinion against Hitler. But the Roosevelt administration muzzled him. “The official reasoning was that it would undermine the work of American diplomats in Germany,” Weber says.

Wiedemann said he initially accepted Hitler’s 1930s-era claims that Germany was rearming only to defend itself, but came to see that Hitler envisioned a vast war of conquest. His outspokenness on the topic got him banished to America and later to China. During the war, Wiedemann arranged the escape from Germany of several Jews who had served with him in World War I. Afterward, he testified in the Nuremberg Trials and urged the death penalty for Nazi leaders.

Leave Runways Alone, Ford Island Advocates Say

The airstrip on Pearl Harbor’s Ford Island endured the Japanese assault on December 7, 1941. Now local history buffs say it’s under attack again—by a U.S. Navy energy project that would fit the historic runway with 60,000 solar panels. The plan, backed by war veteran Senator Daniel Inouye and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, would save $1.5 million on electricity the first year and help the navy meet a mandate that by 2020 all its land installations get half their energy from alternate sources.

But the Pacific Aviation Museum, also on the 330-acre island, is rallying opposition. “We ask the reader to consider the hue and cry should a 60,000-panel photovoltaic project be located at Gettysburg or Valley Forge,” a petition said. (Solar panels have been installed at the Civil War battlefield park at Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia.)

Located by Battleship Row, Ford Island was bombed and strafed in the 1941 raid. The airstrip, Luke Field, dates to 1919. Amelia Earhart crashed there in 1937. Since its 1999 deactivation, the strip has not been maintained. The navy says the solar array would include visual elements that honor the field’s involvement in the Pearl Harbor attack.

Of several Hawaii sites being eyed for solar use, Ford Island is “ideally located and sized,” says U.S. Navy spokeswoman Agnes Tauyan. The island has been a National Historic Landmark since 1964, so the work would need approval from Hawaii’s Historic Preservation Division.


Originally published in the February 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.