Katyn Massacre Records Show Need to Prioritize Disclosure of Historical Information with Significant Public Interest

On February 25, 2020, the Wilson Center commemorated the 80th anniversary of the executions by Soviet intelligence forces of over 22,000 Polish prisoners in the Russian provinces of Smolensk, Kalinin, and Kharkiv in Ukraine. The prisoners represented a majority of Poland’s governing elite—military, police, and civil society leaders captured in 1939, when the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany invaded and divided Poland by secret diplomatic agreement. A long history of deception and denial about who killed the Polish patriots began in the spring of 1943, when Nazi troops—then invading Russia—discovered and verified the Soviet atrocity at mass graves in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk.

At the Wilson Center commemoration, the Polish History Professor Andrzej Nowak recounted how the Soviet Union falsified investigations to blame Nazi Germany for the Katyn Massacre—and that following the western alliance with the Soviet Union to defeat the Nazis, such distinguished leaders as President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill declined to acknowledge Soviet responsibility. In 1943, Prime Minister Churchill explained to a Polish diplomat that although it was obvious, the Allies would never admit Soviet responsibility, because that would compromise their cooperation in the war against the Nazis.

In 1951, as Cold War tensions increased between the United States and the Soviet Union, the U.S. House of Representatives established a Select Committee to investigate which nation perpetrated the Katyn massacre, and whether any American officials had covered up the relevant facts. Chaired by Rep. Ray J. Madden (IN), the Congressional investigation found the Soviet Union entirely responsible for the executions. The Madden Committee also concluded that if American officials had not deliberately prevented public disclosure of evidence regarding Soviet responsibility since 1942, contemporary U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union might have been different.

Ironically, hopes for an improvement in U.S.-Soviet relations after the death of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) resulted in a return to the same official neglect of the Katyn records by U.S. officials that had prevailed during the alliance of the Second World War.  It was not until 2011 that Congressional Representatives Marcy Kaptur (OH) and Daniel Lipinski (IL) requested President Barack Obama to release all pertinent U.S. Government records, and the National Declassification Center (NDC) at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) led a multiagency project to identify and review records documenting the Katyn Forest Massacre.

Coordinated by the NDC, the Government-wide search included photographs and film, as well as the line-by-line review of documents, from the records of the Department of State, the War Department, the United States Army, the Office of Strategic Services, Congress, and the prosecution of war crimes committed in the Second World War. In September 2012, the NDC declassified and released over 1,000 new pages of previously unavailable materials for public access. NARA also provides online access to a selection of 100 scanned Records Relating to the Katyn Forest Massacre, and an online finding aid to a selection of the records.

As well as commemorating the sacrifice of Polish patriots, echoes from the Katyn Forest underscore the need to prioritize the review of historical records for timely public release, consistent with the mandate of the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) since its establishment by Congress in 2000.  Subsequent PIDB recommendations have urged Federal agencies to prioritize historical records for public access and consideration by policymakers, see: Transforming the Security Classification System (2012); Transforming Classification Policy Forum (2009); and Improving Declassification (2007).

In Setting Priorities: An Essential Step in Transforming Declassification (2014), the Board recommended the implementation of a centralized approach to the declassification of historically significant records based on topics of the greatest public interest.  It would be useful now to evaluate the progress made on the declassification of Federal records relating to the specific topics recommended for review in that report.

By completing the special project to disclose the Katyn Forest records, the NDC demonstrated its ability to coordinate the identification and declassification of records across the Federal Government. Prioritizing historical records for declassification and improving these efforts remains crucial to overcoming the bad consequences of Government secrecy, which Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the sponsor of PIDB’s founding statute, argued can impede American democracy by “making it much harder to resolve key questions about our past and to chart our future actions.”

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