The mass execution of twenty thousand Polish POWs by the Soviet security police (the NKVD) is one of the most notorious atrocities of World War II. Stalin and the politburo authorized the executions on March 5, 1940, following their receipt of a memorandum from Lavrenti Beria, the head of the NKVD. Beria reported that NKVD prisons held a large number of Polish army, police, and intelligence officers who were unremittingly hostile to the Soviet system, engaged in anti-Soviet agitation within the camps, and eager to escape and to participate in counterrevolutionary activities. Because these prisoners were all "hardened and uncompromising enemies of Soviet authority," Beria recommended they should all be indicted by a special tribunal of the NKVD, and then shot.
According to NKVD records there were 21,857 such executions during March and April of 1940. Most of the victims were Polish officer POWs who had been captured by the Soviets when the Red Army invaded Eastern Poland in September 1939. The executions took place at a number of locations in Russia and the Ukraine; most famously in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk.
By the standards of Stalin's Russia, these executions were not a particularly large-scale affair. Indeed, they formed part of a much larger process of political and ethnic cleansing occurring in Western Belorussia and Western Ukraine from 1939 to 1941. These territories had been lost to Poland as a result of the Soviet-Polish war (1920–1921). Following their reconquest by the Red Army, however, these disputed territories, were brutally and bloodily incorporated into the Soviet system. In the process, hundreds of thousands of people were persecuted, uprooted, dispossessed, deported, imprisoned, and/or executed. Among the many victims were the families of the Polish POWs who were executed at Katyn and elsewhere. These families were rounded up by the NKVD and deported to Kazakhstan, in Soviet Central Asia.
The Polish officers who were held as POWs, together with other "bourgeois" elements among Polish captives, were incarcerated in special NKVD camps that were designed to isolate them from the imprisoned rank and file of Poland's armed forces. Initially, the aim was to educate them into being passive, if not good, citizens of the new Soviet order in Eastern Poland. The prisoners were bombarded with propaganda for many months and forced to take part in lectures, discussions, and other events extolling the virtues of the Soviet system. It was the pathetic failure of the NKVD's indoctrination program that led Beria to propose execution as the solution to the problem of what to do with these POWs.
The timing of the executions was probably prompted by a number of circumstances connected to the Soviet-Finnish war (winter, 1939–1940). The Soviets feared that an Anglo-French intervention in that conflict would encourage resistance activities in the POW camps and might even forge links with escaping prisoners. It is possible, too, that Beria wanted to clear the way for an anticipated batch of Finnish POWs. But most important was the fact that Beria's proposal to Stalin in March 1940 was fully in accord with the established Stalinist practice of physically eliminating those who were considered to be the worst class and ideological enemies of the Soviet regime.
In the 1930s Stalin had presided over the imprisonment, deportation and execution of millions of Soviet citizens, so it is unlikely that he dwelt long on this particular decision. But the murder of the Polish POWs turned out to be by far the most troublesome and embarrassing of Stalin's atrocities.
The problem was that after the German invasion of Russia in June 1941, Stalin found himself in alliance with his erstwhile Polish enemies. In July 1941, a treaty of alliance was signed with the Polish government in exile in London, and Stalin subsequently agreed to an amnesty for all Polish detainees in the Soviet Union. Hundreds of thousands of Poles were released from Soviet prison camps during 1941 and 1942, many of whom joined a Polish army that later fought in North Africa and Italy. It soon became apparent to the Polish authorities that a large number of officers and officials remained missing—in particular from three camps: Kozelsk in the Smolensk region; Starobelsk in Eastern Ukraine, and Ostashkov in northern Russia. Stalin was personally pressed on a number of occasions to explain the whereabouts of these disappeared POWs. He feigned ignorance and suggested they had somehow left the country.
The truth finally began to emerge in April 1943, when the Germans, who occupied the Smolensk area, announced the discovery of a mass grave of Polish POWs at Katyn. Moscow immediately denied all responsibility and blamed the Germans for the massacre. The Polish government in exile, however, had long been convinced of Soviet culpability, and it supported calls for an independent inquiry into the murders. The Soviets retaliated by severing diplomatic relations with the London-based, exiled government. Later in the war Stalin established his own Polish provisional government.
When Smolensk was recaptured by the Red Army in January 1944, the Soviets established a special commission to conduct a forensic examination of the Katyn massacre site. The commission, headed by Academician N. N. Burdenko, chief surgeon of the Red Army, concluded that the POW camps had been overrun by the Germans and that the shootings had been carried out in the autumn of 1941. In light of the record of German atrocities on the Eastern Front, this was not an implausible scenario. The commission's verdict was largely accepted by Allied public opinion.
Given the wartime grand alliance between Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union, it was highly expedient for the Western governments to blame the Germans too, notwithstanding suspicions that the Soviets were the guilty party. But after the war, doubts grew about the authenticity of the medical evidence and about witness testimony presented by the Soviet commission of enquiry. Polish émigré organizations, in particular, waged a long campaign to expose the truth about the crime of Katyn. In 1952 a U.S. congressional committee concluded that the NKVD had conducted the massacre. This was very much a cold war verdict, but most independent observers also agreed that the Soviets were responsible for the murders. Questions remained, however, about the precise circumstances in which the massacre took place. Were the killings a panic measure in the face of German invasion in 1941? Was this a local action by the NKVD, acting on its own initiative rather than on orders from Moscow? How much did Stalin and the Soviet leadership know about the murders?
It was Mikhail Gorbachev's campaign for glasnost (openness) in the Soviet Union that led to the final resolution of these questions. The reforming Soviet leader was committed to the view that there should be no blank spots in Soviet history, and in October 1990, Gorbachev handed a over number of archival documents to the Polish government. These demonstrated beyond any doubt that the NKVD had carried out the killings. Gorbachev's initiative was partly the result of the discovery in June 1990 of the mass graves of the executed POWs from the Ostashkov and Starobelsk camps. Gorbachev had not, however, made public any of the politburo documents detailing the role of Stalin and the Soviet leadership in the decision-making process leading to the murders at Katyn and elsewhere. That task was carried out by Russian President Boris Yeltsin in October 1992. These revelations led to an extensive discussion in post-Soviet Russia of the Katyn affair.
Polish Cultural Foundation (1965). The Crime of Katyn: Facts and Documents. London: Polish Cultural Foundation.
Katyn': Plenniki Neob'yavlennoi Voiny (Katyn: Prisoners of an Undeclared War) (1997). Moscow: Mezhdunarodhyi Fond "Demokratiya."
FCO Historians (2003). Katyn: British Reactions to the Katyn Massacre, 1943-2003. London: Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
"Stalin's Order to Shoot the Polish POWs in 1940." Available at http://www.katyn.org.au/beria.html.
U.S. Congress (1952). The Katyn Forest Massacre: Final Report of the Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation and Study of the Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre. Union Calendar No.792, House Report No.2505. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office.