Saturday, April 13, 2013


Surprising as it may seem, the first war crimes agency in military history was created by the Germans during World War I, and then recreated by them in World War II. Given that the original agency was created under the Ministry of War and the second was similarly placed, this time within the Wehrmacht, it raises questions about the professional officer’s perception of how the war of 1939 would be conducted.

Alfred-Maurice De Zayas wrote in detail about the Militaruntersuchungsstelle für Verletzungen des Kriegsrecht, which was formed by the Germans during World War I and which functioned under the aegis of the Ministry of War. The responsibility of the Untersuchungsstelle was the compilation of data on war crimes committed by the Allies, and it was prepared to present this accumulated information in an international court. 

Of course, once that war had ended in total defeat for the Germans, any thought of conducting a case against the victors evaporated.  It truly must be noted that this was the first governmental agency to undertake the issue of war crimes, and it can be said that it served as a model for similar agencies formed by the Allies (with the exception, it must be said, of the USSR) during the succeeding world war.

 In September 1939, the Germans determined to recreate this organization, naming it the Wehrmacht-Untersuchungsstelle für Verletzungen des Völkerrechts (German War Crimes Investigative Office) and placed it within the Wehrmacht structures; the head of the office was Johannes Goldche, who had served as deputy director of the agency during World War I. It is the Wehrmacht-Untersuchungsstelle für Verletzungen des Völkerrechts which oversaw the analysis of the crime scene in Katyn, and it is this agency that Wehrmacht Medical Commission reported into.

In order to understand the process of the German exhumations, it is necessary to distinguish between the three groups of experts who arrived in Katyn, and who conducted the scientific analysis of the crime.  These three groups are frequently confused and/or conjoined, although in reality each of the groups worked separately.

·         The German Medical Commission represented the Wehrmacht-Untersuchungstelle in Katyn, and it was headed by Dr. Buhtz (who remained on site practically during the entirety of the exhumations), and it served, one might say, as the host of the premises, as concerned the scientific aspects.

·         The second group to arrive after the discovery of the graves was the Technical Commission of the Polish Red Cross, which remained in Katyn until June, 1943.

·         The last was the International Medical Commission (IMC), which arrived in Katyn at the end of April. 

As mentioned earlier, the German Medical Commission had been on site well prior to the official announcement, while the Technical would arrive mid-April, finally, the IMC arrived at the very end of April.  Nonetheless, the German Commission under Dr. Buhtz oversaw the entirety of the process and the physical laborers who removed the corpses from the graves reported to the GMC.

Finally, the German wire service, Trans Ocean, did, on the 13th sent out cablegrams announcing the discovery of the graves, two days after Radio Berlin had broadcast it.  This date has become erroneously fixed as the date of the announcement of the Katyn Massacre.

©Krystyna Piórkowska