Monday, May 20, 2013


 Everyone who has read or viewed feature films about Lisbon during the war has been presented with a clear image of a city where every nation not only had its diplomatic corps, but where every intelligence service had its operatives – both overt and covert – and where every civilian was presumed to be in the service of some power.  Certainly, Portugal served as an escape point for Jews and other ‘undesirables’ from France or those who could get to France, albeit many simply stayed in Spain once they crossed the border from France.  Myriad are the stories of purported contacts between Admiral Canaris of the Abwehr and the head of MI-5 and ‘Wild’ Bill Donovan of the OSS.   Lisbon, at the western edge of the Iberian Peninsula and Istanbul, at the extreme cusp of Europe, were the two cities fabled for their intelligence networking and sources and seemed to serve as counterbalances at either end of the Mediterranean Sea.

One of the individuals who factored greatly in the US documentation of the Katyn Massacre was George Earle, Special Emissary (Envoy) to the Balkans, who was stationed in Istanbul, where just as in Lisbon, German diplomats were also stationed.  Earle (a former governor of Pennsylvania) had served in Vienna where he had befriended certain German diplomats who later joined the anti-Hitler opposition.  In the Istanbul of 1943, Earle had access to the International Medical Commission reports and crime scene photographs, which will be discussed.

However, in the Berlin Arbeit Lager, presumably after the Other Ranks and Stroobant had been returned, Lt. Col. Van Vliet noted that

We gathered from the Germans that the front office didnt (sic) know what to do with us. There was some hopeful amplification that we might be released possibly through Spain.

Certainly, the Germans should have been able to get the POWs through to Spain, even to the border with Portugal.  Once there, crossing the border, even officially, would not have been a problem.   This added to the fact that there was no outcry from the officers that this clearly was a German atrocity, could have led the Wehrmacht and the Propaganda Ministry to believe that the officers were of the opinion that it was a Soviet atrocity.  The primary goal of each of these institutions was the same – a break-up of the British-Soviet-US Alliance – although the ultimate goal differed.

Certainly, if the Germans wanted to make public the views of the English-speaking witnesses, they were aware that the officers would not make a public statement while POWs – clearly a treasonous act – however, they could speak out if they were released and might even do so if they were in ‘neutral’ territory.

Why, then, did the Germans fail to transfer the POWs to Portugal? Although this matter is not specifically discussed in any known document, there is a tantalizing clue in a recently (June, 2013) declassified document from the US National Archives. 

As earlier mentioned, one of the members of the International Medical Commission was a Spaniard, Dr. Piga, who upon his arrival in Berlin visited the Spanish Embassy and then immediately declined travel to Katyn – feigning – as Goebbels referred to it, in a letter of July 17, 1943, ultimately directed to the Spanish Foreign Minister Jordana and General Muñoz Grandes, an illness of a ‘diplomatic character’.  Apparently, although it had taken almost three months, the Germans had discovered the nature of Dr. Piga’s ‘illness’.

Recently declassified State Department materials contain a report of a 1952 interview conducted with Dr. Piga in the US Embassy in Spain.  In the document, Dr. Piga is quoted as stating that, apparently, the US government had learned of the planned presence of Dr. Piga as part of the IMC, and had contacted the then Spanish Foreign Minister Jordana.  They pressured the Foreign Ministry to such an extent, that Dr. Piga was instructed to withdraw from the Katyn trip, albeit he received the message only upon his arrival to Berlin.

Clearly, the United States, and particularly, Franklin D. Roosevelt did not want the credibility and good guy image of ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin to be damaged by such a highly public visit of known forensic specialists to the Katyn site, particularly if they would affirm Soviet guilt in the matter; this, at a moment when the Soviets were bearing the brunt of losses, both in dead and wounded.  This then would indicate that there was US State Department certainty, nay, even more, FDR’s certainty of clear Soviet guilt even prior to the end of April, 1943 – this can be stated with some certainty – since many matters which would appear to be minute – including the issuance of passports to US citizens did often pass through FDR’s hands – witness the case of Oskar Lange and Stanisław Orlemański.  Although no State Department minutes have yet been disclosed on the subject – there had to be directives from Washington to force a local diplomat to pressure the Spanish Foreign Ministry.  But a decision to intrude on this high a level could not have been taken by an underling at the State Department.

This knowledge, that the Spaniards had been influenced by the United States to such an extent that they ‘betrayed’ their German allies in such an important propaganda mission, might have caused some concern on the part of the Germans as to how the Spaniards would proceed if the group of POWs were brought into Spain to either then cross in Portugal or perhaps be released in Spain.  The Germans would have no certainty that the POWs would be allowed to speak publicly, or that the US government would not pressure them to present the ‘pro-Soviet’ version of the massacre.

Thus, if one is to presume that the Germans were aware of the US pressure on the Spaniards, which the letter to the Spanish Ministry implies, they would have major concerns about releasing the POWs on Spanish territory – or into murky Lisbon.  Therefore, if there was no guarantee of a presentation of Soviet guilt in the massacre, the decision was clear there was no benefit to releasing them – the POWs would be returned to their camps. 


© Krystyna Piórkowska