|Millions of Poles were killed by the Nazis during World War II, and every night, candles burn in memorial along the streets of Warsaw. But the most shocking atrocity of all—the murder of at least 4,500 Polish army officers in the Katyn Forest near the Russian city of Smolensk in 1940—is the one that Poles are forbidden to commemorate. Reason: the Soviets have long been suspected of doing the shooting.
The Russians have persistently claimed that the Germans were responsible. Last week, in accord with the British practice of making official records public after 30 years, a secret report from Britain's wartime ambassador to Poland was released by the Foreign Office. It establishes, almost beyond doubt, that the Russians, who in 1940 were allied to the Germans, carried out the Katyn massacre. Based on what he called "a considerable body of circumstantial evidence," Owen O'Malley (now Sir Owen) wrote Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden in 1943: "Most of us are convinced that a large number of Polish officers were indeed murdered by the Russian authorities."
The officers, captured by Russian troops when they invaded Poland in September 1939, were shipped to prison camps in the Soviet Union. But why were they killed? No one knows for certain, though it has been suggested that the Russians sought to eliminate a military elite that they feared would block their postwar designs on Poland. Whatever the reason for the Katyn massacre, the wartime report on how the men died makes chilling reading.
"If a man struggled," wrote O'Malley, "it seems that the executioner threw his coat over his head, tying it round his head and leading him hooded to the pit's edge, for in many cases a body was found to be thus hooded and the coat to have been pierced by a bullet where it covered the base of the skull." When all were dead, the grave was filled in, and shrubs planted over it.
Other documents released by the Foreign Office last week indicate that British officials said nothing about the atrocity to the Russians for fear of disrupting Allied unity. As O'Malley sadly put it, in a message seen only by Winston Churchill's Cabinet and King George VI: "We have, in fact, perforce used the good name of England to cover up the massacre."