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Subject: Katyn: German defense team clobbers Soviet claims

Archive/File: places/germany/nuremberg/tusa/katyn-hearing
Last-Modified: 1995/08/26

"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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