The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

The Katyn Hearing

"But first, the judges had to clear a problem which had occasionally surfaced from the time the indictment was drawn up - the Russian allegation that the German army had murdered up to 11,000 Polish officers in Katyn wood near Smolensk. The Russians had embarrassed their colleagues by insisting on including this charge; most people suspected that the Russians themselves had been responsible for the killings. Their subsequent handling of the matter had increased that embarrassment, incensed the defence, and irritated the judges. When first raised in court in February during the Russian prosecution case, Pokrovsky had called the Katyn murders 'one of the most important criminal acts for which the major war criminals are responsible.'[1] Yet in spire of such a large verbal claim he had considered it adequate to summarize briefly a report on the atrocity by the Soviet Extraordinary State Commission and then to submit that report as the sole evidence for his allegation. The defence clamoured for a fuller hearing of the charge. Had they merely called for a chance to prove Russian guilt in order to establish a damaging case of tu quoque, they would undoubtedly have been overruled by the Tribunal. As it was the judges themselves were far from satisfied with Pokrovsky's perfunctory presentation of such a grave matter. On 12 March they summoned the Russian chief prosecutor, Rudenko, and insisted he call witnesses to substantiate the charge and to face cross-examination. [2] Rudenko's high-handed response increased their determination to hold a more thorough examination - he not only protested against their ruling on witnesses, he made the indefensible claim that the report of the Extraordinary State Commission must be treated as irrefutable evidence. On 6 April Biddle expressed to him in no uncertain terms the judges' view that the report would only be given as much weight as any other official report - that is to say, just as much as the Tribunal deemed appropriate. And, furthermore, they had now decided they wished to hear three witnesses each for the defence as well as the prosecution in this matter [3].

When the hearing on the Katyn massacre finally took place on 1 and 2 July, scepticism about the Russian charge can only have been increased by their evidence, and doubts about the desirability of raising it at all deepened by the particularly inept way in which the Russians did it.[4] Both the Russian and the defence cases turned on establishing the date when the Polish officers died. The Russians claimed that the shootings had taken place in the autumn of 1941 when German troops occupied the area. They brought as witness a Bulgarian pathologist who had been a member of an international investigation team set up by the Germans in 1943 which had fixed the date of the massacre as early 1940 - when the Russians were still in control of the district. He now, however, denounced that report, stating that its medical arguments were faulty, that the experts had only been allowed to examine a few bodies chosen for them by the Germans and had signed a prepared summary of their findings while waiting to leave from a military airport (more or less, he implied, as a condition of take-off).

The Bulgarian now declared that forensic evidence clearly pointed to autumn 1941 as the date of the murders, as did a Russian pathologist who had taken part in the State Commission's examination of 925 corpses at Katyn in 1944. The Russians added that papers, letters, diaries found on the bodies supported this dating, and that the calibre of bullet and method of execution (shooting in the back of the head or the back of the neck) were exclusively German. The Russian case became even more specific. They named as the culprits a unit 'camouflaged' under the title 'Staff Engineer Battalion 537' commanded by a 'Lieutenant Colonel Arnes.'

This attempt at precision rebounded on them. The defence produced in court not 'Lieutenant Colonel Arnes' but Colonel Ahrens, the former commander of the Signals Regiment 537, units of which had moved into the Katyn area from the late summer lf 1941. Ahrens said he had seen the mound containing the Polish bodies soon after he arrived in November, that he had ordered an ivestigation in 1943 after wolves had disinterred bones and when local people told him they had always feared that bodies had been buried there since hearing shots and screams in the wood in 1940. He, too, claimed to have seen written evidence on the bodies, but that it was never dated later than 1940. Ahrens and the two other German witnesses, both from his regiment, emphasized that a Signals Regiment would never have been considered suitable for carrying out executions, let alone on such a scale, when they were already overstretched by the tasks of moving into Smolensk; and that they were never equipped with automatic weaponsof the calibre used to kill the Polish officers (though some Russian units were).

The Tribunal did not investigate the facts of the Katyn murders extensively during this two day hearing. Its duty was not to act as a commission of inquiry into the atrocity. Rather it was to open the Russian allegation to defence challenge, a challenge the Russians had not withstood. As their case was exposed, they veered away from their confident accusation against the 'Staff Engineer Batallion' and replaced it in court with the sudden allegation that an Einsatzgruppe was present in the district in autumn 1941 - but without producing any evidence to connect it with the crime. The Russians were perhaps fortunate that the judges chose to make no mention of the Katyn massacre in their judgement. Conclusions very different from those they desired might well have been drawn from the evidence they presented; a tacit hint that they had merely failed to prove their case let them off lightly. (Tusa, 410-412)

End Notes:

1. IMT Vol. VII
2. Tribunal minutes, 12 March
3. Tribunal minutes, 6 April
4. IMT Vol. XVII

Work Cited

Tusa, Ann & John. The Nuremberg Trial. Birmingham, Alabama: The Notable Trials Library, Division of Gryphon Editions, Inc., 1990

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