Katyn Massacre and Related Atrocities
Contributor: John Radzilowski
ww2dbaseThis article is about the 1940 massacre of Polish officers; for the 1943 massacre of the Byelorussian village, see Khatyn Massacre.
ww2dbaseFollowing the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland in 1939 in cooperation with the Nazi invasion of Poland, a large number of Polish prisoners fell into Soviet hands. Poles were considered by the Soviets to be implacable enemies of communism and of Russian national aspirations. Joseph Stalin had a particularly intense hatred of Poles following the Soviet defeat in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919–20.
ww2dbaseSoviet policy toward prisoners of war was part of a larger strategy of occupation in eastern Poland. The Soviets sought to destroy the Polish ethnic population in its new territories along all traces of the Polish state. During the September campaign, Soviet NKVD and Red Army troops shot numerous Polish prisoners when they surrendered, especially officers. Members of ethnic minorities—Ukrainians, Belarussians, Jews, and Lithuanians were encouraged to settle scores with local Poles for any real or imagined mistreatment.
ww2dbaseThe civilian population suffered extreme repression. Approximately 1.5 million civilians were deported to the gulags. The majority were ethnic Poles, but later waves of deportation also included Ukrainians, Belarussians, and Jews (especially Jewish refugees who had fled east to avoid the Nazis). Many of the deportees were taken in the middle of winter in unheated cattle cars and tens of thousands died along the way. Many more would die from starvation, overwork, or execution. In addition to the deportations, many prominent citizens were arrested, tortured, and killed.
ww2dbasePolish reverse officers captured by the Soviets were especially vulnerable. Many were educated professionals—doctors, lawyers, professors, civil servants, business people, teachers, clergy, and members of the aristocracy. These were precisely the type of people the Soviet leadership wanted to liquidate. Early on the officers were separated from the enlisted men. Many of the enlisted men ended up in Soviet labor camps.
ww2dbaseIn the spring of 1940, Stalin and Lavrenty Beria planned to liquidate this potential source of opposition to Soviet control and gave orders to murder over 20,000 Polish officers. The murders were carried out at several sites. The most famous was the NKVD burial ground at Katyn, near Minsk (today in Belarus), but killings were also carried out at Piatikhatki (near Kharkiv in Ukraine) and at Mednoye in Russia. Other killing sites were never identified, although it is believed that another group of officers was placed on old barges towed out into the White Sea near the Arctic Circle and used for target practice by the Soviet Navy.
ww2dbaseThose who died at Katyn included an admiral, two generals, 24 colonels, 79 lieutenant colonels, 258 majors, 654 captains, 17 naval captains, 3,420 NCOs, seven chaplains, three landowners, a prince, 43 officials, 85 privates, and 131 refugees. One female air force officer was among the dead. Also among the dead were 20 university professors; 300 physicians; several hundred lawyers, engineers, and teachers; and more than 100 writers and journalists as well as about 200 pilots. Although the majority of victims were ethnic Poles, there were also a number of prominent Polish Jews killed, including the Chief Rabbi of the Polish Army.
ww2dbaseFollowing the German attack on the Soviet Union and the temporary re-opening of Polish-Soviet relations, the Polish government made inquires on the fate of officers. Soviet responses were incomplete and little information could be gained, though from postcards sent to family via the Red Cross, the officers were known to have been alive as late as April 1940.
ww2dbaseIn April 1943, Nazi officials announced the discovery of the mass grave at Katyn containing the bodies of thousands of Polish officers. The German government immediately used this discovery as a propaganda tool. They called for an international Red Cross investigation. The Soviets denounced the massacre as a German crime. The Polish government, however, had long suspected the Soviets of the crime and agreed to the Red Cross investigation. Both U.S. and British intelligence had ample evidence of Soviet complicity, but both countries followed the Soviet line and declared it a massacre committed by the Germans. As the result, the Poles were isolated in the Allied camp and denounced by Soviet sympathizers in the West as disloyal allies. The Soviets promptly broke diplomatic relations with the Polish government and set up a Polish communist puppet regime. By the autumn of 1943, Soviet partisans began an offensive against the Polish underground and Polish partisans in northeastern Poland, which included most massacres and denouncing Polish resistance workers to the Nazis.
ww2dbaseFollowing the war, the U.S. government officially revised its position and agreed that the killing had in fact been carried out by the Soviets. This position, however, was not accepted by many academics who continued to believe the Soviet version of events for decades. In 1990, the Soviets finally admitted complicity in the crime and released a limited set of documents related the crime including orders signed by Stalin and Beria. Nevertheless, the Russian government refused to turn over all documents, reveal the names of perpetrators, or reveal whether any direct participants in the crime are still alive. The Russian government also refuses to classify the massacre as either a war crime or an act of genocide.
ww2dbaseSources: Katyn: The Untold Story of Stalin’s Polish Massacre, Poland's Class of 1936, Stalin's Killing Field.
Last Major Update: Jan 2006
Katyn Massacre and Related Atrocities Timeline
|8 Sep 1939||Lavrentiy Beria organized two NKVD operational groups, to be based in Kiev in Ukraine and Minsk in Byelorussia, for near-future deployment to eastern Poland to arrest resistance elements. The two groups in Ukraine and Byelorussia were led by Ivan Serov and Lavrentiy Tsanava, respectively.|
|28 Sep 1939||Vsevolod Merkulov sent his superiors in Moscow, Russia a report, noting his NKVD Operational Group No. 1 had arrested 923 Polish officers, policemen, land owners, Ukrainian nationalists, etc. in eastern Poland.|
|3 Mar 1940||In a session of the Soviet Politburo in Moscow, Russia, Joseph Stalin and the five Politburo members approved the execution of captured Polish officers and land owners.|
|5 Mar 1940||The Soviet Politburo declared the Polish officers in captivity "enemies of the Soviet Union" and ordered death sentences for all of them, fearing that, if released back into the population, they would organize resistance movements against the Soviet occupation.|
|20 Mar 1940||Lavrentiy Beria dispatched 11 NKVD killing squads to Ukraine and Byelorussia to arrest, execute, and deport resistance elements.|
|3 Apr 1940||Katyn Massacre: Over 20,000 Polish police, military officers, and intellectuals were massacred by the Soviet NKVD.|
|12 Apr 1943||Germans announced the discovery of over 4,000 bodies of Polish officers, reportedly deported by the Soviets in 1940, in a mass grave near Smolensk, Russia.|
|17 Apr 1943||In response to the German discovery of a mass grave near Smolensk, Russia, the Soviet Union insisted that the massacre was committed by the Germans. The Polish government-in-exile in London, England, United Kingdom requested the International Red Cross to investigate the matter.|
|18 Apr 1943||The Soviet Union claimed that the German Gestapo was responsible for the Katyn Massacre.|
|1 May 1943||The International Medical Commission completed its investigation on the Katyn Massacre, concluding that the Soviet Union was responsible for the atrocity.|
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945