Katyn Massacre

From Academic Kids

The Katyń Forest Massacre, also known as the Katyn massacre, was the mass execution of Polish citizens by the Soviet Union during World War II. Initially, the expression referred to the massacre of the Polish officers from the Kozielsk POW camp in Katyn forest near the village of Gnezdovo, a short distance from Smolensk, Soviet Union. More recently, the phrase also became associated with the murder of about 22,000 Polish citizens - POWs from Kozielsk, Starobielsk and Ostashkov camps and inmates from West Belarusian and West Ukrainian prisons, shot on Stalin's orders in Katyn forest and the prisons of Kalinin (Tver), Kharkov and other Soviet cities.

Many Poles had become prisoners of war following the invasion and defeat of Poland by the Nazis and the Soviet Union in September 1939. Many POW camps were used for their internment, including Ostashkov, Kozielsk and Starobielsk. Kozielsk and Starobielsk were used mainly for officers, while Ostashkov was mainly used for scouts, gendarmes, policemen and jailers. Contrary to a widespread misconception, only about 8,000 out of about 15,000 POWs in these camps were officers.

Since Poland's conscription system required every university graduate to become a reserve officer, the Soviets gathered much of the Polish, Jewish and Belarusian intelligentsia.

On March 5, 1940, according to a note to Stalin prepared by Beria, members of Soviet politburoStalin, Vyacheslav Molotov, Lazar Kaganovich, Mikhail Kalinin, Kliment Voroshilov, and Lavrenty Beria – signed an order of execution of "nationalist and counterrevolutionary" activists kept in camps and prisons of the occupied Western parts of Ukraine and Belarus. This resulted in the murder of about 22,000 Polish citizens, including about 15,000 prisoners of war. The broad definition of the accused included significant numbers of Polish intelligentsia, in addition to policemen, reservists, and active military officers.

The discovery of the massacre precipitated the severance of diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and the Polish government-in-exile in London in 1943. The Soviet Union denied the accusations until 1990, when USSR acknowedged that NKVD was responsible for the massacre and coverup.


Soviet preparations

As early as September 19, 1939, the First Rank Commissar of the State Security, Lavrentii Pavlovich Beria (the People's Commissar for Internal Affairs) called the Board of the NKVD of the USSR for Prisoners of War and the Interned (Head: State Security Captain, Pyotr K. Soprunenko) ordered to set up camps for Polish prisoners. These were: Jukhnovo (rail station of Babynino), Yuzhe (Talitsy), Kozelsk, Kozelshchyna, Oranki, Ostashkov (Stolbnyi Island on Seliger Lake near Ostashkov), Putyvli (rail station of Tetkino), Starobelsk, Vologod (rail station of Zaenikevo) and Gryazovets camps.

Missing image
1943 exhumation

In the period from April 3 to May 19 1940 about 22,000 POWs and prisoners were murdered: about 6000 POWs from the Ostashkov camp, about 4,000 POWs from the Starobielsk camp, about 4500 POWs from the Kozielsk camp and about 7000 prisoners in Western parts of Belarus and Ukraine.

A mere 395 prisoners were saved from the slaughter. They were taken to the Yukhnov camp and then to Gryazovets. Those were the only ones who escaped death.

Technology of the massacre

Up to 99% of the remaining prisoners were subsequently murdered. People from Kozielsk were murdered in the usual mass murder site of Smolensk country, called Katyn forest; people from Starobielsk were murdered in the inner NKVD prison of Kharkov and the bodies were buried near Pyatikhatki; and police officers from Ostashkov were murdered in the inner NKVD prison of Kalinin (Tver) and buried in Miednoje.

Detailed information on the executions in Kalinin NKVD prison was given during the hearing by Dmitrii S. Tokarev, former head of the Board of the District NKVD in Kalinin.

Polish money and military badges found in the mass graves
Polish money and military badges found in the mass graves

According to Tokarev the shooting started in the evening and ended at dusk. The first transport on April 4, 1940 was 390 strong and the executioners had a hard time doing their duty with so many people during one night. The following transport were not greater than 250 people. The executions were usually performed with Walther-type pistols supplied by Moscow.

The executions were carried out as follows. After the condemned's personal information was checked, he was then handcuffed and led to a cell insulated with a felt-lined door. In addition, the sounds of the execution were masked through the operation of loud machines (perhaps fans) throughout the night time. After being taken into the cell the victim was immediately shot dead in the back of the head. His body was then taken out through the opposite door and laid in one of the five or six waiting trucks, whereupon the next condemned was taken inside. The procedure went on every night, except for the May Day holiday.

Near Smolensk the Poles with the hands tied behind were led to the graves and shot in the neck.


The fate of Polish POWs was first raised soon after the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, when the Polish government-in-exile (located in London) and the Soviet government agreed to cooperate against Germany, and a Polish army on Soviet territory was to be formed. When Polish general Wladyslaw Anders began organizing this army, he requested the information about the Polish officers, Stalin assured him and Sikorski during a personal meeting that all the Poles had been freed, though some of them may have escaped (for example, to Manchuria).

The fate of the missing prisoners remained a mystery until April 1943, when the Wehrmacht discovered the mass grave of over 4000 Polish officers in the forest near Katyn. Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Nazi Propaganda saw this discovery as an excellent tool to drive a wedge between Poland, Western Allies and the Soviet Union. On April 13 Berlin Radio announced this find to the world: "A great pit was found, 28 metres long and 16 metres wide, filled with twelve layers of bodies of Polish officers, numbering about 3,000. They were clad in full military uniform, and while many of them had their hands tied, all of them had wounds in the back of their necks caused by pistol shots. The identification of the bodies will not cause great difficulties because of the mummifying property of the soil and because the Bolsheviks had left on the bodies the identity documents of the victims. It has already been ascertained that among the murdered is a General Smorawinski from Lublin."

The Allies were aware that the Nazis had found a mass grave, as the discovery transpired, via radio transmissions intercepted and decrypted by Bletchley Park. The Soviet government denied the German charges and claimed that the Poles, war prisoners, had been engaged in construction work west of Smolensk and consequently were captured and executed by invading German units in August 1941. Both German and an ensuing Red Cross investigations of the Katyn corpses soon produced physical evidence that the massacre took place in early 1940, at a time when the area was still under Soviet control.

In April 1943, when Polish Government in Exile led by General Wladyslaw Sikorski insisted on bringing this matter to the negotiations table with Soviets and on an investigation by the International Red Cross. Stalin used the Katyn Massacre unsupported allegiations as the pretext to withdraw recognition to Sikorski's government in Britain on April 26, accuse it of collaborating with Nazi Germany and start the campaign to get the Western Allies to recognize the Soviet puppet Polish government led by Wanda Wasilewska. Sikorski, whose uncompromising stance on that issue was beginning to create a rift between Western Allies and Soviets, died two months later and the causes of his death are still disputed.

Attempts to cover up the massacre

The Katyn Massacre was beneficial to Nazi Germany, whose propaganda machine used it to discredit Soviet Union. Dr Goebbels wrote in his diary: "Foreign commentators marvel at the extraordinary cleverness with which we have been able to convert the Katyn incident into a highly political question". The Germans had succeeded in discrediting the Soviet Government in the eyes of the world and briefly raised the spectre of a communist monster rampaging across the territories of Western civilisation; moreover they had forged the unwilling General Sikorski into a tool which could threaten to unravel the alliance between the Western Allies and Soviet Union.

To the Western Allies, the Katyn Massacre and the resulting Polish-Soviet crisis were beginning to threaten the vital alliance with the Soviet Union at a time when the Poles' importance to the Allies, essential in the first years of the war, was beginning to fade due to the entry into the conflict of the military and industrial giants, the Soviet Union and the United States. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt were increasingly torn between their commitments to their Polish Ally, the uncompromising stance of Sikorski and the demands - often bordering on political blackmail - by Stalin and his diplomats, whose policies where evident in the comments of Soviet ambassador to London, Ivan Maisky, who told Churchill that Poland's fate was sealed as "a country of 20 millions next door to a country of 200 millions".

Having retaken the Katyn area, in January 1944, the Soviet "Special Commission for Determination and Investigation of the Shooting of Polish Prizoners of War by German-Fascist Invaders in Katyn Forest" headed by the President of the Academy of Medical Sciences of the USSR Nikolai Burdenko exhumed the bodies again and reached the "conclusion" that the shooting was done by German occupants.

In private, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed that the attrocity was likely carried out by the Soviets. According to the note taken by Count Raczynski, Mr Churchill admitted on April 15 during a conversation with General Sikorski: "Alas, the German revelations are probably true. The Bolsheviks can be very cruel.”". However at the same time, on April 24, Churchill assured the Russians: "We shall certainly oppose vigorously any ‘investigation’ by the International Red Cross or any other body in any territory under German authority. Such investigation would be a fraud and its conclusions reached by terrorism.". Mr Churchill’s own post-war account of the Katyn affair is laconic. In his memoirs, he quotes the 1944 Russian inquiry into the massacre, which predictably proved that the Germans had committed the crime, and adds, "belief seems an act of faith.".

In 1944 President of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt assigned Captain George Earle, his special emissary to the Balkans, to compile information on Katyn. Earle did so, using contacts in Bulgaria and Romania. Earle too concluded that the Soviet Union was guilty. After consulting with Elmer Davis, the director of the Office of War Information, FDR rejected that conclusion, saying that he was convinced of Nazi Germany's responsibility, and ordered Earle's report suppressed. When Earle formally requested permission to publish his findings, the President gave him a written order to desist. Earle was reassigned and spent the rest of the war in American Samoa.

Missing image
Biggest of the mass graves at Katyn

After World War II, the Polish Communist authorities covered up the matter in concord with Soviet propaganda, deliberately censoring any sources that might shed some light on the Soviet crime. The truth was not publicly known until the fall of communism in 1989.

In 1946, the chief Soviet prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials tried to indict Germany for the Katyn killings, stating that "one of the most important criminal acts for which the major war criminals are responsible was the mass execution of Polish prisoners of war shot in the Katyn forest near Smolensk by the German fascist invaders," but dropped the matter after the United States and the United Kingdom refused to support it and German lawyers mounted an embarrassing defense. Katyn is not mentioned in any of the Nuremberg judgements. In 1951-1952, a U.S. Congressional investigation charged that the Poles had been killed by Soviets.

The question of responsibility remained controversial in the West as well as behind the Iron Curtain. For example, in the United Kingdom in the late 1970s, plans for a memorial to the victims bearing the date 1940 (rather than 1941) were condemned as provocative in the political climate of the Cold War.

In 1989 Soviet scholars revealed that Joseph Stalin had indeed ordered the massacre, and in 1990 Mikhail Gorbachev admitted that the Narodny Kommisariat Vnutrennikh Del (NKVD) had executed the Poles, confirmed two other burial sites similar to the site at Katyn — Mednoje and Pyatikhatki. In 1992 the Russian officials released top-secret documents from the sealed package no. 1. Among them was Lavrenty Beria's March 1940 proposal (http://katyn.codis.ru/fberia.htm) to shoot 25,700 Poles from Kozelsk, Ostashkov and Starobels camps, and from certain prisons of Western Ukraine and Belarus with the signature of Stalin (among others); excerpt from the Politburo shooting order (http://katyn.codis.ru/fpolburo.htm) of March 5 1940; and Aleksandr Shelepin's March 3 1959 note (http://katyn.codis.ru/fshelep.htm) to Nikita Khrushchev, with information about the execution of 21,857 Poles and with the proposal to destroy their personal files.

The investigations that indicted the German state rather than the Soviet state for the killings are sometimes used to impeach the Nuremberg Trials in their entirety, often in support of Holocaust denial, or to question the legitimacy and/or wisdom of using the criminal law to prohibit Holocaust denial. It should be noted that there are some who deny Soviet guilt, call the released documents fakes and try to prove that Poles were shot by Germans in 1941.

Recent developments

During Aleksander Kwaśniewski's visit to Russia in September of 2004, Russian officials announced that they are willing to transfer all the information on the Katyn Massacre to the Polish authorities as soon as it is declassified. In March 2005 Russian authorities ended the decade-long investigation. Russian Chief Military Prosecutor Alexander Savenkov declared that the Massacre was not a genocide, a war crime or a crime against humanity and that there is absolutely no basis to talk about this in judicial terms. Despite earlier declarations, 116 out of 183 volumes of files gathered during the Russian investigation, as well as the decision to put an end to it, were classified.

Because of that, the Polish Institute of National Remembrance has decided to open its own probe. Prosecution team head Leon Kieres said they would try to identify those involved in ordering and carrying out the killings. In addition, on March 22, 2005, the Polish Sejm unanimously passed an act, requesting the Russian archives to be declassified. Sejm also requested Russia to classify the Katyn massacre as genocide.

See also:


External links

de:Massaker von Katyn fr:Massacre de Katyń he:יער קאטין it:Massacro di Katyn ja:カティンの森事件 nl:Massaslachting van Katyn pl:Zbrodnia katyńska ru:Катынь sv:Katynmassakern


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