On This Day

katyn massacre, katyn mass grave, katyn massacre grave
Associated Press
German and Allied officers look over a
partly-emptied mass grave in the Katyn
Forest, May 1943.

On This Day: Nazis Announce Discovery of Katyn Massacre

April 13, 2011 06:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On April 13, 1943, Nazi Germany revealed that it had uncovered a mass grave of Polish POWs in the Katyn Forest in western Russia. The Soviet Union, which executed more than 20,000 prisoners in 1940, blamed the Nazis for the massacre and did not admit responsibility until 1990.

Soviets Carry Out Mass Execution of Polish Prisoners

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On Sept. 17, 1939, 16 days after Nazi Germany invaded Poland from the west, the Soviet Union entered Poland from the east. The Nazis and Soviets, who weeks earlier had signed a secret non-aggression pact that divided Eastern Europe into spheres of influence, agreed to partition Poland, with each country controlling half of it.

The Soviets captured tens of thousands of Polish officers, soldiers and civilians, and placed them in internment camps. They were treated as prisoners of war and closely interrogated.

On March 5, 1940, Lavrentiy Beria, head of the NKVD (Soviet secret police), sent a memo to the Soviet leadership that called for 14,700 Polish internees and 11,000 internees in western Ukraine and Belorussia to “be considered in a special manner with the obligatory sentence of capital punishment—shooting.” The memo was approved by Josef Stalin.

The condemned Polish prisoners were moved to three internment camps in western Russia and Ukraine: Kozelsk, Starobelsk and Ostashkovo. The NKVD carried out executions at these camps, as well as the camps in Belarus and Ukraine, in April and May. The prisoners were handcuffed, shot in the back of the head and buried in mass graves.

According to a 1959 KGB memo, a total of 21,847 prisoners were executed in these months. “The killings probably continued after May 1940, and the total number of victims may have exceeded 27,000,” writes Benjamin B. Fischer of the CIA’s Center for the Study of Intelligence

The Soviets kept news of the massacre a secret. In 1941, after the Nazis broke their pact with the Soviets and invaded the Soviet Union, the Polish government-in-exile and Soviet Union became allies. When the Polish government tried to raise an army from the Soviet POW camps, the Soviets claimed that 15,000 prisoners had escaped.

The fate of the prisoners did not become known until April 13, 1943, when Nazi Germany announced that it had discovered mass graves of Polish military men in the Katyn Forest, located near the Kozelsk camp.

Allied Cover-up

The Nazis hoped the news would undermine the Soviet Union’s relations with its Western allies and Polish government-in-exile. However, the Soviets announced that they had conducted their own investigation, which determined that the Nazis had carried out the massacre in 1941.

The Nazis allowed an investigation by the Red Cross and international observers, who determined that it was the work of the Soviets. Jozef Mackiewicz, a Polish member of the commission sent to exhume the Katyn grave, says, “I personally haven't the slightest doubt, absolutely no doubt that they were murdered by the Bolsheviks.”

Stalin broke relations with the Polish government over its insistence for further investigation. But the Britain and the United States refused to blame the Soviets so as not to irritate their ally. The American and British press dismissed reports of Soviet culpability as Nazi propaganda, while Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill chose not to confront Stalin on the issue.

British journalist Kevin Myers writes: “Far from berating the Soviet leader for the massacres, the two democratic leaders propitiated him, awarding him the Polish land he had stolen even as he seized his future murder victims.”

Soviets Admission of Guilt

On April 13, 1990, the 47-year anniversary of the discovery of the mass graves, the Soviet Union at last accepted responsibility for the massacre as part of Glastnost-era attempts to be more open about Soviet history.

Moscow radio broadcast the admission of guilt: “The sum of evidence points to the responsibility for the crime resting on the then-leadership of the NKVD department. The Soviet side expresses deep regret over the tragedy, and assesses it as one of the worst Stalinist outrages.”

In April 2010, 60 years after the massacre, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made an unprecedented step toward reconciliation with Poland by inviting Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to Katyn to commemorate the massacre. The ceremony was tragically overshadowed by a plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and members of the Polish delegation traveling to a separate Katyn commemoration.

Reference: Memorial Wall

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