Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Katynń Forest Massacre (1940)

A major Soviet atrocity during World War II that continued to poison postwar relations between the Soviet Union and Poland. The Red Army invaded Poland in mid-September 1939, acting in accordance with the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact of 23 August 1939. The Soviets imposed a brutal regime in their part of Poland, where they had captured more than 230,000 Polish military personnel. Ultimately the Soviets deported some 1.2 million Poles to the Soviet Union.

In April 1940, as part of their effort to deprive Poland of its natural leaders, the Soviets executed as many as 15,000 Polish officers and intellectuals, burying them in mass graves in the Katyń Forest near Smolensk. The Germans discovered these graves in April 1943 following their invasion of the Soviet Union and, grateful for anything that would draw attention away from their own atrocities, announced the Soviet atrocity to the world via Radio Berlin.

The Kremlin steadfastly denied responsibility, and in 1944 when Soviet forces drove the Germans westward from the Katyń Forest area, a special commission investigated the burial site and concluded that the Germans were responsible for the massacre. Demands by the Polish government-in-exile for an independent investigation by the International Committee of the Red Cross led the Kremlin to accuse the Polish government-in-exile of siding with the "fascist aggressors" and to break off diplomatic relations with it. Anxious to maintain wartime cooperation with the Soviet Union, the U.S. government refused to get involved.

Although the Polish émigré community repeatedly raised the issue of the massacre during the course of the Cold War, not until 13 April 1990 did the Soviet news agency Tass announce that a joint commission of Polish and Soviet historians had proved the involvement of Soviet People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) personnel in the Katyń Forest Massacre. USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev, general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, handed over a list of the victims to Polish President Wojciech Jaruzelski. In October 1992 Russian President Boris Yeltsin produced additional documents, helping to determine the burial sites of missing officers not found near Katyń. Gorbachev's admission of Soviet responsibility for the massacre was one of the major events of the end of the Cold War and did much to improve relations between the Soviet Union and Poland.

Spencer C. Tucker


Further Reading
Lauck, John. Katyn Killings: In the Record. Clifton, NJ: Kingston, 1988.; Paul, Allen. Katyn: The Untold Story of Stalin's Massacre. New York: Scribner, 1991.; Zawodny, Janusz. Death in the Forest: The Story of the Katyn Forest Massacre. 4th ed. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1980.
 

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