The Katyn Forest Massacre Remembered

  Category: 20th Century
On the 17th September 1939, the Red Army invaded Poland from the east, fulfilling their role in the ‘bargain’ known as the Nazi-Soviet pact. Ten days later, Poland surrendered and the victorious Germans and Soviets divided Poland between them. Following the Soviet invasion, there were arrests, extensive deportations, and widespread executions. The first victims
were the conquered Polish government and the Polish army. More than a million Polish individuals were rounded up and sent to labour camps in Siberia or executed by other means. Approximately 4,000 Polish victims of Soviet foreign policy would find their resting place in a mass grave in Katyn situated in modern-day Belarus. The majority of victims were Polish army reservists quickly called up to active service following the Nazi invasion and then arrested and captured after the Red Army’s assault on eastern Poland. These Polish servicemen were not even official prisoners of war. The Soviet Union had not declared war on Poland and the Polish commander in chief had ordered his troops not to engage Soviet forces. [1] The Katyn contingent of prisoners included lawyers, doctors, scientists, businessmen, engineers, professors, writers, and journalists. Such collective social prominence ensured they were specifically singled out by the ‘People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs’, more commonly know as the NKVD.
In the early months of 1940, Joseph Stalin deliberated over what to do with this large group of Polish officers. For the time being, these prisoners were being held in three camps, one of which was Kozelsk, a short distance from Smolensk in Russia and nearby to the Katyn Forest. When the time came to discuss the fate of the Polish captives, the meeting turned out to be surprisingly candid. Marshall Grigory Kulik, the Commander of the Polish Front, put forward the idea that the Poles could be freed. Marshal Kliment Voroshilov, fellow planner of the Soviet invasion of Poland added to this unexpected proposal by agreeing with Kulik’s suggestion. However, Lev Mekhlis, also a Commander on the Polish Front, argued that there were many enemies to found amongst the Poles. [2] Stalin initially prevented the release of the prisoners, but when Kulik persisted with his argument, Stalin eventually conceded a rare example of compromise. Some Poles were released but 26,000 officers were kept in captivity and their eventual fate determined at a Politburo meeting on the 5th March 1940.[3] Sergo Beria, son of the infamous Lavrenti, would later claim that his father argued the Poles might prove useful later and was against the massacre. [4] Despite Sergo’s claim, his father reported that the remaining ‘counter-revolutionary’ Poles should be tried as “spies…saboteurs…enemies of Soviet power”.[5] The minutes of the Politburo meeting reveal that the Poles were to be “considered in a special manner with the obligatory sentence of capital punishment - execution by firing squad.”[6] Typical Soviet justice would ensure that the fate of the Poles be “carried out without the convicts being summoned and without revealing the charges; with no statements concerning the conclusion of the investigation and the bills of indictment given to them.”[7] Stalin put his signature on the Poles fate first, followed by the other members of the Politburo.[8] It appears that Stalin’s aim was to eliminate the elite from Poland’s social strata, a pre-condition of his intentions to politically dominate Poland’s future.
The task of putting the Poles to death fell into the hands of the NKVD. Blokhin, the man who took personal charge was a veteran executioner of the Lubianka prison and his hands were personally stained with the blood of many thousands of victims. Along with a group of Chekist accomplices, he organised a padded and soundproofed hut in which to carry out his ‘black work’[9] and decided on a tally of 250 executions a night. Dressed in his butchers leather apron and cap, Blokhin almost typifies the horror of the psychopathic murderer. Using a German Walther pistol to help cover his tracks, he personally killed 7,000 individuals in twenty-eight nights. There were three separate locations used for the actual executions but Katyn become the name synonymous with this gruesome episode in history. The bodies were interred in various places but approximately 4,500 were actually buried in Katyn Forest.[10] Stalin’s policy of exterminating all political opponents in countries he intended to use as a ‘buffer zone’ against future incursions on Soviet soil had found its horrifying precedent. It has been suggested that Stalin’s refusal to intervene in the 1944 Polish uprising in Warsaw, a move that led to the extermination of the Polish ‘Home Army,’ was an extension of the ‘black work’ carried out in the Katyn Forest.[11]
In 1943, the occupying Nazis discovered the mass grave at Katyn. By using Joseph Goebbels propaganda machine, Nazi officials tried drive a wedge between the Soviet Union and its Western allies by publicizing the grave and correctly accusing the Soviets of the massacre. At the same time the Nazis promoted the killings as part of an ideological Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy, this despite the complication that 700-900 of the victims were Polish Jews.[12] In April 1943, a memorandum from the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Berlin declared that the incident “must be brought home not only to England but to the whole world, what the peoples of Europe….could expect form a victorious, drunken Soviet Army of occupation[13] The Kremlin denied the charge and claimed the Nazi’s were attempting to cover up a German atrocity; a ludicrous idea given that the Nazi’s would not have brought attention to the site if Moscow’s accusation were indeed true. The exiled Polish government in London tried in vain to get the American and British allies to recognise the Soviet atrocity. The British Ambassador to the Polish government-in-exile, Sir Owen O’Malley forwarded a lengthy and detailed report regarding the discovery of Katyn to Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Secretary. In his account, O’Malley points to “serious doubts on Russian disclaimers of responsibility for the massacre” and appears “half-convinced that a large number of Polish officers were indeed murdered by the Soviet authorities.[14] Strong evidence pointed to the fact that the Kremlin was behind the massacre, but British and American interests were focused elsewhere. The Polish government-in-exile called for an investigation by the International Red Cross into the incident but Winston Churchill opposed such a move. Stalin took this opportunity to break off all diplomatic relations with Poland and provide himself with an opportunity to test the political unity of the wartime alliance. If the western Allies would contrive to deny the Soviets blame for Katyn, Stalin could perhaps push for more concessions in the future.[15] The Soviet leader’s instinct proved to be right. Stalin assumed that as long as the rest of the word ‘believed’ that the Nazis were responsible, there was no reason why the Soviet Union should not actively promote this version of events. In November 1941, the Polish Ambassador Stanislaw Kot questioned Stalin concerning the whereabouts of the Polish officers. Stalin produced a charade that involved a ‘concerned’ phone-call to Beria and a quick change in topic of conversation. Incredibly, in December 1942, Stalin claimed that the Poles had escaped to Manchuria.[16] However, perhaps the most ghastly evidence of Soviet duplicity came in the guise of a National War Memorial site erected in Byelorussia in a village called Khatyn. The sites main characteristic was the similarity in name to the massacre area at Katyn forest, a deliberate and cynical effort to propagate a historical myth. For years, tourists and schoolchildren were blindly led to Khatyn in order to pay ‘homage’ to victims ‘barbarously murdered by the fascist invaders’.[17]  
From the Western perspective, the Katyn massacre remains a disturbing and shameful episode; indeed, it has been noted that the very nature of the West’s overall reaction to Katyn has “constituted democracy's most sordid exercise in realpolitik of the entire 20th century”.[18] There are many examples of western complicity and at the highest levels of government. Colonel John H. Van Vliet, a United States serviceman was a prisoner of war brought to the Katyn site in 1943 as part of the Nazis international news conference to publicize the massacre. When Vliet returned to Washington in 1945, he wrote a report that concluded the Soviets were responsible for the murders. Vliet gave the report to General George Marshall's assistant chief of staff for intelligence, who subsequently buried the information in state bureaucracy. The action was later defended before Congress on the account that it was not in American interests to ‘embarrass an ally whose forces were still needed to defeat Japan.’[19] In 1944, Franklin Roosevelt assigned a United States Captain, George Earle, to investigate and compile information relating to Katyn. Earle also concluded that the Soviet Union was responsible. However, Roosevelt rejected Earle's findings and remained convinced of Nazi Germany's responsibility.[20] Incredibly, at the Nurembergwar crime tribunals, and despite the Western Allies being fully aware that the massacre was a Soviet war crime and Polish officials knowing the NKVD were responsible, Katyn was cited on the list of crimes attributed to the Nazis. The issue was later dropped over concern that revelations about the massacre would again embarrass the Soviets.[21] The matter of discerning ‘responsibility’ for the massacre and concerted attempts to keep the affair hidden provided a common theme in the years after. For example, one of the men who carried out the killings was still alive in the early 1990’s and was interviewed by the KGB. The man was questioned on how the Katyn murders were carried out and a tape of the interview was handed over to the Polish cultural attaché in Moscow. Curiously, it was never suggested by Moscow, Warsaw, or anyone else that the man be put on trial.[22] However, the memory of the Katyn massacre proved to be remarkably resilient considering it was perhaps just one episode in an endless list of controversial hangovers from the Second World War.
In 1959, the Chairman of the KGB informed Nikita Khrushchev that any files relating to the Katyn killings should be destroyed in order to safeguard against the possibility of “exposure of the operation with all the undesirable consequences for our state”.[23] Fortunately, for historical prosperity, Khrushchev declined the suggestion and the files remained hidden and not destroyed. In 1972, a privately organised plan to erect a memorial in Kensington, London, dedicated to the victims of Katyn was declined permission by the local council having faced pressure from the Foreign Office. British officials had come under political pressure from Moscow who feared an anti-Soviet backlash over the incident.[24] The memory of the massacre also festered in Soviet-Polish relations throughout the Cold War, and it continued to strain the links between the Russian government and Warsaw long after the Cold War had evaporated. However, in 1987, a joint Soviet-
Polish group of historians set out to uncover the truth behind the Katyn murders and in February 1990, their findings were published in the new free Soviet press.[25] Only two months after this publication, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev finally admitted Soviet involvement in the Katyn Forest massacre. However, despite Gorbachev’s apparent display of ‘openness’, it has been strongly proposed that the Soviet leader was more inclined to keep the files secret if possible. In 1988, the files became accessible to Gorbachev who then preferred to keep them ‘unavailable’.[26] It seems that the Soviet-Polish historians had forced the issue. Nevertheless, in 1992, the Kremlin handed over previously secret documents to the Polish President Lech Walesa, which showed Joseph Stalin had directly ordered the killing of the Polish army officers. In 1995, Walesa and relatives of the Katyn forest victims attended a memorial service at the site of the massacre. Boris Yeltsin was invited to take part in the ceremonies but declined to attend the service.
More recently, in 2004, Professor Leon Kieres, head of Poland's Institute for National Remembrance of the War, visited Moscow along with Polish war crimes prosecutors in order to elicit a positive response from the Russian government. However, Russian prosecutors informed the Professor that the crimes were consigned to history and therefore could not be acted upon. The Russians did however concede a share of information with Warsaw, but insisted that the massacre could not be classified as ‘genocide’, practically bringing the prospect of prosecutions to a standstill.[27] As recently as April 2006, the political and personal wounds inflicted by Katyn massacre continue to resonate in modern history. Relatives of Polish soldiers killed in Katyn attempted to bring Russia to the European Court of Human Rights in a bid to get the Kremlin to disclose the full truth about murders. Despite such efforts, Russia currently refuses to prosecute surviving suspects or even reveal their names. The Russian government still keeps the vast majority of files on the subject classified, and has classed the murders as an ‘ordinary crime’ whose statute of limitations has expired.[28] Despite all the past and recent opposition and the fact time and time again, attempts have been made to remove Katyn from Poland’s official history, it is impossible to erase the Katyn forest massacre from historical memory. The massacre in Katyn forest proves to be a durable historical tragedy amongst a mountain of tragedies.


References and Notes:
  1. ^ Benjamin B. Fischer, The Katyn Controversy- Stalin's Killing Field.
  2. ^ Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (Phoenix, London, 2004) p.340.
  3. ^ Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (Phoenix, London, 2004) p.340-341.
  4. ^ Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (Phoenix, London, 2004) p.341.
  5. ^ Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (Phoenix, London, 2004) p.341.
  6. ^ Excerpt from the minutes number 13 of the Politburo of the Central Committee meeting on the 5th of March, 1940 – resolution P13/144 regarding the matter submitted for consideration by the NKVD/USSR.
  7. ^ Excerpt from the minutes number 13 of the Politburo of the Central Committee meeting on the 5th of March, 1940 – resolution P13/144 regarding the matter submitted for consideration by the NKVD/USSR.
  8. ^ The other signatures included Voroshilov, Vyacheslav Molotov, and Anastas Mikoyan. Mikhail Kalinin and Lazar Kaganovich gave their assent by phone. Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (Phoenix, London, 2004) p.341.
  9. ^ ‘Black Work’ was the term given by Stalin to such actions, which he saw as ‘noble Party service’. Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (Phoenix, London, 2004) p.201.
  10. ^ Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (Phoenix, London, 2004) p.341.
  11. ^ Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (Phoenix, London, 2004) p.485.
  12. ^ Benjamin B. Fischer, The Katyn Controversy- Stalin's Killing Field.
  13. ^ British Foreign and Commonwealth Files. Intercepted telegram from Braun von Stumn, dated 14th April 1943.
  14. ^ British Foreign and Commonwealth Files. Owen O’Malley dispatch to Anthony Eden, dated 24th May 1943.
  15. ^ Norman Davies, Rising ’44 ‘The Battle for Warsaw’ (Macmillan, London, 2003) p.48.
  16. ^ Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (Phoenix, London, 2004) p.341.
  17. ^ Norman Davies, Rising ’44 ‘The Battle for Warsaw’ (Macmillan, London, 2003) p.519.
  18. ^ Excerpt from an article by Kevin Myers entitled ‘Our Shame Still Lies in the Katyn Forest’, 27th April 2003. Taken from
  19. ^ Benjamin B. Fischer, The Katyn Controversy- Stalin's Killing Field.
  20. ^ Benjamin B. Fischer, The Katyn Controversy- Stalin's Killing Field.
  21. ^ Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps (Penguin Press, 2003) p.390.
  22. ^ Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps (Penguin Press, 2003) p.506-507.
  23. ^ Dimitri Volkogonov, The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Empire (Harper Collins, London, 1999) p.220.
  24. ^ Brian Crozier, Remembering Katyn, Hoover Institution, Hoover Digest, 2000 No 2. In 1976, a Katyn memorial was built in the cemetery at Gunnersbury on the outskirts of London.
  25. ^ Dimitri Volkogonov, The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Empire (Harper Collins, London, 1999) p.221.
  26. ^ Dimitri Volkogonov, The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Empire (Harper Collins, London, 1999) p.529.
  27. ^ Excerpt of an August 7th, 2004 article in The Independent by Andrew Osborn.
  28. ^ Excerpt of an April 24th, 2006 article in The Independent by Andrew Osborn.