Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Katyn Forest Massacre (1940)

Title: Mass grave of Katyn Forest massacre
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World War II Soviet atrocity in Poland. On 13 April 1990, the Soviet news agency Tass announced that a joint commission of Polish and Soviet historians had found documents proving the involvement of personnel from the Narodnyy Kommissariat Vnutrenniakh Del (NKVD, or People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs) in the deaths of some 15,000 Polish officers in the Katyn Forest of eastern Poland in 1940. The general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and president of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, handed over a list of the victims to Polish President Wojciech Jaruzelski. In October 1992, Russian President Boris Yeltsin produced more archival documents, helping to determine the burial sites of missing officers not found near Katyn. Even in the light of Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika policies, this admission of Soviet responsibility for the massacre was still a bombshell.

The USSR had consistently denied murdering captured Polish army officers after its occupation of eastern Poland ever since Radio Berlin announced, on 13 April 1943, that German troops, tipped off by local inhabitants, had discovered mass graves near Smolensk. That June, the German Field Police reported that 4,143 bodies had been found in the Katyn Forest, all fully dressed in Polish army uniforms. Some 2,815 corpses were later identified by personal documents in their pockets. Without exception, all the officers, ranking from general to noncommissioned officer, had been killed by shots in the back of the head. Medical examination later showed that a few bodies had jaws smashed by blows or bayonet wounds in their backs or stomachs, probably sustained when the individuals tried to resist execution.

The Germans predictably tried to exploit the Katyn murders for propaganda purposes, pointing out to their wartime enemies that any alliance with the "Bolshevik" perpetrators of this atrocity was too dangerous to continue. By then, General Wladyslaw Sikorski's London-based Polish government-in-exile and General Wladyslaw Anders, then commander of the Polish forces in the USSR and the Middle East, had been worrying for a considerable time over the fate of the missing Polish officers. Following the Soviet-Polish agreement in the summer of 1941, a small but steady trickle of Poles arrived at the reopened Polish Embassy in Kuibyshev. These individuals, from prison camps scattered over the western parts of the USSR, agreed that their fellow servicemen had been transferred to unknown destinations when the NKVD liquidated these camps in April 1940. The arrivals at Kuibyshev turned out to be the few survivors of the Katyn Forest Massacre. The massacre was apparently a Soviet effort to deprive the Poles of their natural leaders, who would undoubtedly protest a Soviet takeover.

After numerous fruitless discussions on the subject with Soviet authorities, including dictator Josef Stalin himself, the Polish government-in-exile came to believe the German announcement of April 1943 and demanded an independent investigation by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). This move caused the Kremlin to accuse the Polish government-in-exile of siding with the "fascist aggressors" and to break off diplomatic relations. The ICRC, pursuing its policy of neutrality, could take no action without Soviet consent. London, although embarrassed by this development, made it plain that it was unwilling to risk the breakup of the alliance with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany over such an investigation. The United States took a similar stance.

When the Red Army finally drove the German armies westward, Moscow determined it needed to present its own investigation results in 1944. A Soviet "special commission," pointing out that the bullets found on the crime scene were manufactured in Germany, concluded that the Germans had killed the Polish officers in 1941. British and American protests notwithstanding, the Soviet prosecution raised the Katyn affair at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, but since the Soviets were unable to prove the Germans guilty, the tribunal simply dropped the case. Throughout the Cold War, the issue of the Katyn Forest Massacre resurfaced time and again, partly due to the efforts of the Polish émigré community. However, it remained unresolved until the demise of the USSR.

Pascal Trees


Further Reading
Katyn, Mart 1940 g.–Sentjabr' 2000 g.: Rasstrel, Sud'by ¿ivych—Echo Katyni, Dokumenty. Moscow: Ves' Mir, 2001.; Lauck, John. Katyn Killings: In the Record. Clifton, NJ: Kingston Press, 1988.; Paul, Allen. Katyn: The Untold Story of Stalin's Massacre. New York: Scribner's, 1991.; Szymczak, Robert. The Unquiet Dead: The Katyn Forest Massacre as an Issue in American Diplomacy and Politics. Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International, 1985.; The Crime of Katyn: Facts and Documents, with a Foreword by General Wladyslaw Anders. 3rd ed. London: Polish Cultural Foundation, 1965.; Zawodny, Janusz. Death in the Forest: The Story of the Katyn Forest Massacre. 4th ed. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1980.
 

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