Katyn Forest Massacre

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On 23 August 1939 Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin signed the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact. A secret protocol appended to the treaty divided up German and Russian spheres of influence in eastern Europe and opened the gates to war. Nazi Germany invaded Poland from the west on 1 September 1939, followed by the Soviet Union from the east on 17 September 1939. From September 1939 through June 1941, the Soviet Union occupied half of the territory of Poland. During a September 1939 campaign against the retreating Polish army, which had already been defeated by the Germans, the Red Army took approximately 250,000 Polish soldiers and officers as prisoners of war. The captive Polish officers, some ten thousand in all, did not represent a typical officer corps. Most of them were reservists mobilized at the time of the war, men with university education and advanced degrees, many prominent in their professions, including several hundred judges and university professors from legal, medical, and engineering faculties. Captured officers were put into three prison camps in the Soviet Union, in Kozelsk, Ostashkov, and Starobielsk, where they were interrogated by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police.

After Nazi Germany launched its assault on the Soviet Union in June of 1941, the USSR joined the Allied cause, and the Polish government in exile, which was based in London, renewed diplomatic relations with the Soviets. A treaty was signed between the two governments, and several hundred thousand Polish citizens who had been arrested and deported by the Soviet authorities during the previous twenty months were released in the Soviet Union. General Władysław Sikorski, prime minister of the Polish government in exile, signed the treaty with the Soviet Union in the face of vigorous protests from leading Polish politicians in London, who were disturbed by Stalin's refusal to renounce territorial acquisitions made by the Soviet Union in 1939 and guarantee postwar restoration of Poland within its prewar borders. Sikorski, nevertheless, decided that he must sign the treaty without delay since scores of Poles lingering in Soviet captivity were dying each day from mistreatment and destitution. As part of the treaty provisions, able-bodied men who were released by the Soviets could join units of a new Polish army in designated assembly points.

While the Polish army was being organized in the Soviet Union by the newly released General Władysław Anders, Polish authorities were unable to locate thousands of officers who had been taken prisoner in the eastern part of the country during the September 1939 campaign. Polish envoys repeatedly asked the Soviet authorities to find these men and release them promptly, both to fulfill the treaty obligation and because they were needed to staff the newly created military units. But to no avail. All trace of several thousand men, many identified by released colleagues or family members with whom they had corresponded briefly from captivity, vanished in the spring of 1940. In one of the most absurd and cynical dialogues of the war, Prime Minister Sikorski, most amicably received during his first visit to the Kremlin by Joseph Stalin, insisted that he had a list of several thousand officers who had been held in captivity by the Red Army and were not released. Stalin replied, "It is impossible. They must have escaped." "Where could they escape?" demanded a surprised General Anders. "Well, perhaps to Manchuria," retorted Stalin without missing a beat (Kot, p. 194).

Then, in April of 1943, inside a former Soviet secret police (NKVD) compound in the vicinity of a hamlet called Katyń, a German communications unit disinterred from a mass grave the remains of executed Polish officers. They were buried in uniform, many with bullet holes in the back of their skulls and personal documents and letters from home stuffed in their pockets. The Nazis immediately seized on the gruesome discovery to bolster their anti-Bolshevik propaganda. The Polish government in exile called on the International Red Cross to appoint a commission to carry out an exhumation and to issue an expert opinion about when, and therefore by whom, the crime had been committed. The Soviet government, which all along claimed that the German discovery was a hoax contrived by the Germans to mask their own war crimes, broke off diplomatic relations with Poland on 25 April 1943.

The truth about the mass grave of Polish officers in Katyń remained a closely held secret. A document preserved in the Soviet presidential archives, dated 5 March 1940, revealed that the Politburo of the Soviet Communist Party had issued the order to have Polish prisoners executed. Stalin's signature, together with those of Vyacheslav Molotov, Kliment Voroshilov, and Anastas Mikoyan, appear on the document. On the basis of this decision, 21,857 people (some 15,000 of them POWs; the rest were Polish policemen, civil servants, and other prisoners deemed politically dangerous) were put to death. Of this number, 4,421 were executed and buried in the mass graves at Katyń. For decades the USSR denied any complicity in the crime. After the Red Army reconquered the area near Smolensk that included the Katyń forest, a Soviet commission of inquiry (called the Burdenko Commission after its chairman) carried out some exhumations, interviewed local people, and declared as proven that the Germans had murdered Polish officers. Soviet prosecutors at the Nuremberg trials charged the Germans with the Katyń massacre, but the International Military Tribunal refused to accept the charge, and Katyń was not mentioned in the final verdict. Nevertheless, since all German war criminals were declared guilty as charged by the tribunal, the Soviet government, media, encyclopedias, and official history claimed that Germans were guilty of the crime. Finally, in April of 1990, President Mikhail Gorbachev made a tacit admission of Soviet responsibility, and on 14 October 1992 Russian president Boris Yeltsin gave copies of the 5 March 1940 Politburo decision ordering the massacre to Polish president Lech Wałęsa.

See alsoOccupation, Military; Poland; Soviet Union; War Crimes; World War II .


Katyń Forest Massacre Hearings before the Select Committee. Eighty-Second Congress, First and Second Session. Washington, D.C., 1952.

Kot, Stanislaw. Listy z Rosji do gen. Sikorskiego. London, 1955.

Wosik, Ewa, ed. Katyń: Dokumenty ludobójstwa: Dokumenty i materialy archiwalne przekazane Polsce 14 paździer-Katyn nika 1992r. Warsaw, 1992.

Zawodny, J. K. Death in the Forest: The Story of the Katyń Forest Massacre. Notre Dame, Ind., 1962.

Jan T. Gross