katyn massacre, putin katyn massacre
AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, ALexei Nikolsky, Pool
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin takes part in a wreath laying ceremony at the memorial to
Polish prisoners of war killed by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's secret police in 1940, in Katyn.

Putin Joins Polish PM in Remembering WWII Massacre of Polish POWs

April 07, 2010 02:00 PM
by James Sullivan
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made an unprecedented step toward reconciliation with Poland by inviting Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to the Russian town of Katyn to commemorate the infamous Katyn massacre.

A Gesture of Reconciliation

In 1940, Soviet secret police, under orders from Josef Stalin’s Politburo, executed more than 20,000 Polish prisoners of war captured during the Soviet invasion of Poland. For decades afterward, the events of the Katyn massacre were heavily debated and a source of tension between Russians who sought to preserve the WWII-era Soviet Union’s reputation, and Polish who sought the truth and an acknowledgement of wrongdoing.

According to Robert Smigielski of the Polish Institute of International Affairs in Warsaw, “The anniversary of the crimes at Katyn are very important for the Polish people. ... You can say that [the Katyn Massacre] is the most problematic issue in relations between the Poles and the Russians,” The New York Times reports.

Claims of Innocence

On April 13, 1990, the Soviet Union accepted responsibility for the 1940 executions of imprisoned Polish officers in the Katyn forest, a massacre the Soviets had previously blamed on the Nazis.

The admission came on the 47-year anniversary of the discovery of the mass graves. Previously, the Russian government had maintained that the Nazi regime was responsible.

Nearly 22,000 Polish prisoners of war were executed and buried in mass graves. In 1943, Nazi forces discovered one of these graves near Katyn forest. An international commission of forensic experts exhumed the site and determined it was the work of the Soviets.

The Nazi regime publicized the massacre as a way to undermine the Soviet Union’s relations with its Western allies and the Polish government-in-exile.

The Soviets launched their own investigation and determined that the Nazis had carried out the massacre in 1941. The cover-up was aided by Britain and the United States, who kept news of the massacre silent so as not to irritate their Soviet ally.

In 1990, during the era of Glasnost, the Soviet government finally admitted to the massacre as part of its “more open and honest approach to the history of the Soviet Union.”

Opinion & Analysis: The United States’ role in the cover-up; the Stalin Society

The U.S. government tried to keep news of the massacre silent, in an attempt to maintain good relations with the Soviet Union. Rutgers professor Adam Scrupski believes that historians must now take a closer look at the American role in the cover-up. 

The Stalin Society, formed in 1991 to defend Stalin’s reputation, still asserts that the massacre was carried out by the Nazis. It argues that the story was fabricated by Nazi propagandists as a way to undermine Soviet diplomatic relations.

The United States’ attitude toward Katyn is illustrated in a collection of Time magazine covers from 1943, 1944, 1952 and 1972. The 1943 article suspects that Goebbels’s account is a piece of propaganda, while the 1944 article blames the Nazis. By 1952, the magazine placed the blame on the Soviets.

Reference: Memorial Wall and film


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