Katyn Forest is a small wooded area near the Polish/Russian border. In 1940, 4000 Polish servicemen and women were shot and burned there. In 1943, Germans excavated the graves and blamed the deaths on the Soviets, who in turn blamed the Germans. In 1989, under the spirit of glasnost, Gorbachev released papers, written by Stalin, that ordered the deaths of 27,500 Poles, of which the Katyn Massacre was a small part.

A rumor

April 1943. Deep into the Second World War. The Germans had held control of the area around Smolensk in Western Russia since mid 1941. Polish laborers being used by the army had heard rumors from an old man who lived in the Katyn forest. Intrigued by the report of mass graves of Polish prisoners of war who had been massacred by the Russians, they asked for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to investigate (promising protection).

This was not a matter of conscience or humanitarian outcry, but rather it was seen as the perfect propaganda tool to create animosity and anger toward the Russians who were no longer "allies" (in the nonaggression pact1) but the target of the Reich. If successful, it could distance the allies from the Russians and give Germany some time to insure its victory in Operation Barbarossa.


All evidence suggested that the Soviets were indeed to blame and the Polish government, then in exile in England, demanded the ICRC be allowed to do a thorough investigation, which Soviet leader Josef Stalin repeatedly obstructed (this led to severance of political relations between Poland and the USSR and the Soviets establishing their own Polish exile government made up of communist Poles). Finally, Germany was able to get a team of international doctors to look into the mass graves. The rumor was true—hundreds and hundreds of Polish soldiers (easily identifiable due to the excellent preservation as well as the uniforms and personal effects of the victims) were layered in the eight graves.

Some had their hands tied behind their backs, some had coats wrapped around their heads, some were bayoneted. The fatal bullet wounds often were found at the back of the skull and were apparently from close range. Forensic investigation was able to determine the caliber of the bullets and the approximate time of death. The personal effects—papers, certificates, letters—as well as uniforms were able to determine the rank and identity of most of the prisoners.

Almost 4500 bodies were found in several graves in the forest. The victims were mostly from the military (primarily reservists called up after the war began) including officers, but mostly NCOs. There were also numbers of journalists, intellectuals, doctors, lawyers, refugees, clergy, even a prince. Between Katyn and elsewhere (it was not the only site) the Soviets killed almost half of the Polish officer corps. This was only partly because of the war and resistance—it was also to help insure there would be no independent Poland following the end of hostilities.


When Russia invaded Poland, it was thought (due to Soviet propaganda) that they were coming to their aid against the Nazis. This misperception ended soon as cities were taken and people—military and civilian—were rounded up. Officers had to register with the Russians. Thousands were taken and imprisoned, some sent in exile to Russia, some sent to Siberia. Almost 15,000 were interned in three concentration camps in the area. From correspondence to families and a few who managed to escape, evidence of the conditions became known: unsanitary, little and poor quality food, vermin and lice, daily interrogations, forced roll call and formation at all hours of the day and night.

After spring of 1940, all correspondence stops. As if there had been no prisoners.

Pointing fingers away from the guilty

When it became indisputable (to those honestly looking at the evidence), Germany publicly accused the Soviets of the crime. In turn, the Soviets blamed the Nazis. They claimed that they were Poles who had been doing construction work in 1941, when Germany invaded that portion of Poland. Of course, the evidence clearly showed this to be a lie.

Further, the evidence was not unknown to the West, which decided not to press further on the matter for the time being. It was a convenient propaganda item for the allies and the United States and Britain chose to look the other way. Winston Churchill opposed the Polish government's call for intercession by the ICRC.

When the Germans held the news conference that announced the accusation, there were two US prisoners of war in Katyn. One of them submitted a report after the war that stated the Russians were responsible. The assistant chief of staff for intelligence made it "disappear," so to speak. Years later, he stated before Congress that it was necessary not to tarnish an ally whose soldiers would be needed in the Pacific Theater against the Japanese.

Even prior to the end of the war (1944), President Franklin D. Roosevelt commissioned an investigation of the crime. His investigator came to the conclusion that the Soviets were, indeed, responsible. The report was suppressed (FDR claimed he was convinced it was the Nazis) and when the officer asked permission for publication, Roosevelt, himself, sent him a cease and desist order. Despite being a family friend, the officer spent the remainder of the war in American Samoa.

It was simple for those in power: Russia was needed to defeat the Germans (and would be useful against the Japanese) and anything to create anti-Nazi sentiment was encouraged. Essentially, the crime became buried like the thousands of victims.


Certainly a crime of this magnitude (even forgetting about the other 10,000 plus who "vanished") would gain the attention of the most important trial of war crimes in history—even if it had the holocaust to contend with. Well, it did. Sort of. Originally, the crime was on the list of charges—in fact, the Soviets demanded it be (since it was the Nazis who were responsible) but it was dropped and never brought up. Besides this being primarily a Nazi "show," there was also feeling that entering the crime during a trial where the Soviets were (a small) part of the proceedings, would undermine the credibility of the whole process (the Dresden firebombing was unmentioned as well, unsurprisingly).

Covering tracks

As soon as Russian retook Smolensk (1943), work began on obliterating history. The cemetery that had been built by the Polish Red Cross (with German permission) was destroyed. Other evidence was disposed of. The following year, the Burdenko Commission was appointed by the Soviets. It was nothing but a propaganda device to rewrite the "facts." Of course, it "proved" the Nazis were responsible for the deaths. Three US journalists and the daughter of an ambassador were brought in to view the "evidence" and findings of the commission. Of course, they were convinced. It was rigged for that conclusion.

Shortly after, there was a straight-faced ceremony held to honor those who had died at the hands of the German fascists. It was all captured on film for the usual reasons.

Katyn became off-topic for years. References simply were not made to it within Poland or the Soviet sphere; it was taken off maps, out of reference books. What happened, aside from the "official" version, ceased to exist as a part of history. Then, in a cynical and deliberate attempt to obfuscate, a small village in Belorussia (Belarus) was renamed Khatyn and made the site of Belorussian war memorial (1969). While in Russian the words don't look alike or even sound much alike, in English they do. The reasoning behind it is apparent.

Katyn becomes "useful"

After an aborted attempt to make inquiries into the subject in 1949, the Korean War made it politically correct (in an underappreciated use of the term) to look into the matter. The Cold War was "raging" and the Soviets were the "evil empire" (though the appellation was yet to be coined). Also of concern was that the communists might do the same to (US) prisoners of war there. In the words of one congressman, "Katyn may well be a blueprint for Korea"—executions at Smolensk had been filmed and North Korea had been given a copy (www.cia.gov).

So in September of 1951, the House of Representatives appointed a committee to hold hearings. It was the most comprehensive and complete investigation thus far. Dozens of witnesses, exhibits, and depositions were heard and viewed. The conclusion was as expected (and not only because it was exactly what the US wanted and ideology dictated): the Russians were responsible for the massacre. The head of the committee attempted to get the crime brought before the International Court of Justice but by the end of the committee's life, the political will was waning. The war had ended, Stalin had died, and new leadership was in place. US-Soviet relations showed potential for improvement (at that time) and the matter might escalate the Cold War.

Peeling back the layers of the onion

While rewritten and covered up and hidden, what happened in Katyn was not forgotten. Getting the truth and an admission was another matter entirely. In 1981, Poles put a simple memorial saying "Katyn, 1940" at the site. The police confiscated it and replaced it with one giving the official version: "To the Polish soldiers—victims of Hitlerite fascism—reposing in the soil of Katyn."

In 1987, Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, as part of glastnost ("openness," though the extent of which remains open to debate), signed an agreement with Poland to begin discussing certain previously (then currently) censored historical subjects. A step toward a true discussion but Katyn, despite the desire for dialogue on the part of the Poles, was not brought up. A visit to Warsaw in 1988 also was a disappointment as Gorbachev ignored the issue.

The "dodge" led to protests demanding an inquiry. An open letter from Polish intellectuals was sent to the Soviets requesting access to information on the crime. Moscow had to act and it did—rewriting history once again. This time, five hundred Russian soldiers also died and it took place in 1943. Of course, the Nazis were still to blame. Not only did this not placate the Poles, it insulted them and their intelligence (the very fact that the inquiry was so adamantly called for shows they already knew the truth). It also suggested that Moscow didn't give a damn.

Soviet officials, sensing the problems and unrest this could cause warned Gorbachev that some kind of admission needed to be made, even a partial one. A ceremony in 1990 found the president giving a folder of documents to the Poles. But no full disclosure, no admission of guilt. A key piece of missing evidence was a note: the March 1940 execution order (to which we return).

The blame was placed solely on the head of the NKVD (People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs—the secret police). While they were the ones who carried out the massacre(s), it was also a matter of convenience as he and his deputy (also blamed) had been accused of as criminals and subsequently shot after the war.

Another thing left out was that, in total, the number of people who died as a result of executions numbered over 21,000 (the final tally is even higher when all killings are accounted for). All this was an attempt to smooth over things by appearing to be forthcoming, while actually protecting the government (and Stalin, as we'll see) from responsibility—you see, it was the independent actions of a few men, unrepresentative of the Soviet Union. A convenient and a useful lie.

Also in 1990, independent investigation at the National Archives in College park, Maryland, turned up an article written for an intelligence magazine in 1981 by a Central Intelligence Agency officer and an analyst. Using photographs taken by the Luftwaffe before, during, and after the time of the massacre(s), they were able to see the gravesites, which revealed that they had remained unchanged during the German occupation and weren't altered until after they had pulled out. It also revealed the NKVD bulldozing graves and removing bodies. This led to an examination of the original photos which determined two other sites in the area.

The new evidence was given to Polish authorities and in an interview for a German newspaper. That led to an expedition to the area where (under the watch of the KGB, of course) several sites were identified. This became far too much to remain hidden and covered up. In 1992, the execution order suddenly appeared. In it, the head of the NKVD gave the numbers of prisoners and a general description of their rank or occupation. They were "all sworn enemies of Soviet authority full of hatred for the Soviet system."

It is suggested that these "hardened and uncompromising enemies of Soviet authority"2 be tried before special tribunals (to be "carried out without summoning those detained and without bringing charges, the statements concerning the conclusion of the investigation") which would "apply to them the supreme penalty: shooting." The tribunals were nothing but a formality. Apparently even the Soviet Union had its share of bureaucracy.

The proposal was addressed to "Comrade Stalin" and signed by him and five members of the Politburo (including Molotov). This was hardly the act of a couple rogue elements, it was considered and sanctioned at the highest level of the government (of course, by then, Stalin was suggested as a bit of a rogue element, himself).

The order and forty-one documents pertaining to the massacre(s) were handed over the Polish president and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa by then president Boris Yeltsin. In typical style, he used the moment to make it appear he was the forthcoming one (ignoring the necessity to admit guilt in the face of extreme pressure and overwhelming evidence) as opposed to his predecessor Gorbachev, with whom he was battling politically.

In 1993, he made a show of placing a wreath at a memorial in Warsaw for those who had died. He also promised to bring those (living) who were responsible for the mass murder to "justice." That, along with promised reparations has not been honored.

It continues

The wound continued to bleed. Before the "probe" into the massacres ended in 1995, it was announced that thousands of others had been killed: 11,000 Poles who had lived in the western parts of Belorussia and the Ukraine after the Soviets had "incorporated" them and another 3,000 in "panic killings" after Germany attacked them in 1941. These were not unknown to those who had studied the facts. (In fact even before the war, the NKVD used the area as a "killing ground".)

After the investigation ended, Yeltsin made an appearance at a ceremony where the cornerstone to the Polish cemetery at Katyn was being laid. He fell back on the old tricks to make it seem that the Russians were equally victims of the Reich (which, technically is true, but not in this case which is what matters). Now the 10,000 or so bodies at the various sites were from the "most varied nationalities" and "totalitarian terror affected not only Polish citizens but, in the first place, the citizens of the former Soviet Union" (www.cia.gov). Again, cynically capitalizing on the moment and the tragedy for both political purposes and saving face.

No offical apology was made.

Fingers pointing again

In 1998, accusations came out of Moscow, claiming that over 83,000 Russian soldiers died from treatment, conditions, and executions in Polish prisoner of war camps during the Polish-Soviet war of 1919-1921. Poland denied that accusation but offered to jointly search Polish and Russian archives for information regarding the allegation. The offer was not taken by the Russians.

Apparently this was not the first time the story had surfaced. On the other hand, there was also the rumor that Gorbachev had ordered people to search around for something to counterbalance the massacres (certainly the greater numbers suggest a game of one-upmanship). It ended up being spun into a matter of "the case for moral equivalence [being] replaced by a claim to moral superiority" (www.cia.gov), using Poland's denials as a means to smear them and overlook the sins of their own past. (Whether any of these allegations are true or to what extent, I am unaware—but even the claim of moral equivalence does nothing to mitigate a crime against humanity; it is a cynical, dishonest, reprehensible ploy.)

With the easing of restrictions and the coming of (relative) freedom in Russia came more investigation into the massacres and the years surrounding them. It became clear that, with further crimes during the postwar occupation, there was a pattern of behavior involved—if not intentional, somehow inherent in the system as run by Stalin and his men.

The widespread killing brings up the charge of genocide, which may be applicable in this case—limited, though it was, the result was wiping out most of the armed forces, much of the educators and intelligentsia, and a large number of the civil and civilian population (much of this after earlier battles and the compounded by similar "treatment" by the Nazis). This was not done as part of fighting, in the heat of battle, or really for preventative (i.e., "self-defense") reasons. The "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part" (Genocide Convention) the Polish people seem to have been done so that the country could be controlled and made a puppet state under the Soviet domination after the war. And quite successful, one might add.

One might quibble about whether the charge fully applies in this case. That the Soviet Union proposed, sanctioned, carried out, and then tried to excise it from history is undeniable. As is the initial complicity of the allies.

1In August 1939, the Soviet Union and Germany signed a Nonaggression Pact (Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, after VM Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop, the foreign ministers who worked it out). Germany was hoping to invade Poland unopposed and the Soviets were buying time during which to build up their military. Secret protocols appended to it carved up Eastern Europe between them and gave Russia control over the Baltic states. The important thing in this case is that it divided Poland between them.

2Which are enumerated as "14,700 former Polish officers, government officials, land owners, police officers, intelligence officers, gendarmes, settlers in the border regions and prison guards being held in prisoner-of-war camps" and "11,000 members of various counter-revolutionary organisations of spies and saboteurs, former land owners, factory owners, former Polish officers, government officials, and escapees who have been arrested and are being held in the western provinces of the Ukraine and Belarus."

Note: there was a single survivor of the massacres. A Professor Stanislaw Swianiewicz. While waiting to get on the bus going to the site, an NKVD officer pulled him out of line. Being an internationally known expert of on forced labor in both Russia and Germany, he was apparently worth the reprieve. He ended up in Siberia, later released and emigrated to the US where he became an economics professor at the University of Notre Dame.

(Sources: www.cia.gov/csi/studies/winter99-00/art6html; econc10.bu.edu/economic_systems/nationality/ee/poland/KATYN.html; www.katyn.org.au a copy of the "execution order" can be found there; www.britannica.com)

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