From Odd Nansen’s dairy, Thursday, July 9, 1942:
“At dinnertime I was called down for questioning in the Vermittlung [registration office]. It was Herold who did the questioning. My entire life was unrolled, from the cradle to the present day. . . . Clearly the point was just to get a résumé of my whole career and make it look—in its entirety—like a menace to the Third Reich. I was confronted with a good-sized collection of “anti-German” remarks I’ve made throughout the years in lectures and articles on the refugee question. . . . I felt positively flattered by so much attention.
He confronted me with things I was supposed to have said to one of the drivers at Grini. [For example, that] I didn’t believe in the Russian atrocities they were using as publicity. Katyn, etc.”
That single word, “Katyn,” is the subject of today’s blog.
On this date 76 years ago, the Nazis stunned the world with a major propaganda coup. Official Nazi radio announced on April 13, 1943 that the remains of thousands of Polish prisoners had been found, all shot in the back of the head, and buried neatly in mass graves in the Katyn Forest, near Smolensk.
German forces quickly overran Smolensk following the start of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, which began on June 22, 1941. Eventually, news of the massacre reached German occupation forces in the area, leading to the discovery and exhumation of the graves.
Despite clear and convincing proof of Soviet culpability (Stalin was intent on destroying anyone who might resist Soviet efforts to control Poland after the war), Moscow actually blamed the Germans for the massacre, a position they staunchly maintained throughout the war. The Polish Government-in-Exile, which had earlier agreed to ally with the Soviets (despite their invasion of Poland in September 1939) in a common struggle against Germany, now demanded an impartial investigation by the International Red Cross. Stalin refused to allow the Red Cross to investigate, and broke off relations with the Polish government.
This left the United States and Great Britain on the horns of a dilemma. While it was quickly apparent to all that the Germans were entirely correct—the massacre had been perpetrated by Soviet forces, the Soviet Union was also clearly bearing the brunt of the Allied fighting against the Wehrmacht; the opening of the so-called Second Front (i.e., D-Day) was still over a year away. So the Allies deferred to Realpolitik, and kept their well-founded suspicions to themselves, an awkward silence that the Nazi propaganda machine tried to take full advantage of.
The official Soviet position remained one of steadfast denial for 50 years after the fact. With glasnost ushering in a new policy of transparency, the Soviet Government under Mikhail Gorbachev finally acknowledged what had been an open secret for decades. On April 13, 1990, it officially admitted to the murder of thousands of Polish officers and others, all at the express order of Stalin. It is believed that almost 22,000 Polish nationals, primarily army officers but also including doctors, lawyers, professors, and engineers, were killed at Katyn and similar execution sites.*
But here’s the riddle: Although there were rumors of Soviet atrocities circulating in the Katyn region soon after the murders took place in April 1940—it’s awfully hard to shoot thousands of prisoners and bury them, even in a remote forest, without the locals knowing something about it—almost all the accounts of the event maintain that German authorities only learned of the massacre in late 1942 or early 1943. Senior German officials only heard the news in March or April 1943.
From Nansen’s diary, it is clear that he was sufficiently knowledgeable about the event to discuss it openly with a German soldier working at the Grini camp in Oslo in July 1942. How did Nansen come across this intelligence, fully nine months prior to the German radio broadcast in April 1943? In occupied Norway at the time, the Nazis controlled the airwaves. The news could not have come from the BBC (or, as Nansen refers to it in his diary, the “west wind”) as they, too, were unaware of the story, and in any event buried almost all mention of it even after April 1943 lest they antagonize their ally.
So, while the mystery of the real perpetrators of the Katyn massacre has now long since been put to rest (despite some deniers in Russia today), the riddle of Odd Nansen’s awareness of this key episode of World War II, so many months prior to its public dissemination, remains an enduring riddle which we may never be able to unravel. But at the least, subsequent histories of Katyn may need to revise their timeline to account for an earlier public awareness of the event than traditionally has been the case. Yet another reason why Odd Nansen’s diary is such an important historical document.
[* The Katyn tragedy claimed yet more victims in 2010. On April 10 of that year, an airplane carrying Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, and 87 other Polish politicians and military officers crashed just outside the Smolensk airport, killing all on board. The purpose of the trip was to attend a ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of the massacre.]