In 1943, German troops discovered a mass grave near Smolensk in Katyn Forest. They realized that the Soviets were responsible for the graves as they had uncovered evidence that these bodies were those of thousands Polish officers that had been imprisoned by the Soviets and had been missing since 1940. The Germans announced this discovery in hopes of severing alliances between the Soviet Union and the other Allied Powers, but Stalin, of course, denied this accusation, and the Allied powers turned a blind eye to it in favor of defeating Nazi Germany. The Germans even had residents of Katyn come and see the mass grave so that they could provide a witness on the Germans behalf. Check out this video taken as the grave was discovered. Dmitry Khudykh, a resident of Katyn, provides insight on the discovery of the massacre.
Discovery at Katyn Forest
As I read about the Katyn Forest Massacre, I had so many questions. Why would Stalin need to murder 4,000 Poles? Why would he hide the evidence if he believed his actions were justified? How could the United States and Great Britain simply ignore this massacre? And why had I never learned about this in school until now? I may not have all of the answers, but I certainly have an idea.
In August of 1939, the Soviet Union and Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact; a non-aggression agreement between the two nations which kept the Soviets out of a European war and kept Germany from forming an alliance with Japan. In addition, this pact created ‘spheres of influence’. Border countries, including Poland, were divided into German and Soviet Territory.
In September of 1939, Poland was invaded by both of these nations to claim their territory. The Soviet Union tried to justify their invasion by saying that they were liberating the Ukrainians and Belorussians of their Polish rulers (Seventeen Moments). In return, thousands of Polish officials were arrested. In a top secret order from March 5, 1940 (disclosed in 1990 with the fall of the Soviet Union) the NKVD and Stalin ordered that the prisoners, upwards of 20,000, be executed due to the danger they posed to the Soviet regime.
In 1941 Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union; a direct violation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. This was when the Soviet Union joined forces with the Allies against the Nazis. The Katyn Forest Massacre had already occurred, but had not yet been discovered. When the Germans announced their discovery in 1943, they showcased the skeletons in the Soviet’s closet. If this massacre was proven to be the work of the Soviet Union, it could significantly weaken Allied support and weaken the defense against Germany. Cover-ups and tampering with evidence was not a foreign concept to Stalin and the Soviet regime and as expected, they denied accusations. They even went so far as to send Soviet authorities to the grave at Katyn to falsify documents and evidence to turn blame on the Germans. Residents of Katyn were threatened by Soviet’s to withdraw their previous testimonies they had given to the Germans. Even after the war, Soviet officials were questioned about Katyn during the Nuremburg trials and the truth was not willing given. For almost half a century, the Soviets said “that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.” regardless of the evidence against them and the pure ridiculousness of false Soviet claims and evidence.
This attempt at deception did not fool anyone. Churchill and Roosevelt certainly knew that Stalin was responsible for the massacre, but they could not afford to lose an ally at this point in the war. They put their hands over their eyes and kept on fighting the Germans. After reading a British report of investigation at the scene, Churchill stated “we should none of us ever speak a word about it.”
After World War II ended, the Soviet and the western allies went their separate ways, and the mystery of what really happened at Katyn remained a mystery. Upon the fall of the Soviet Union, Soviet authorities finally confirmed that the NKVD were responsible for the murders and in 1992 evidence was released that tied Stalin directly to the massacre.
The Katyn Forest Massacre further exemplifies the seemingly compulsive actions of censorship and deception from Stalin. Not only does it point out the Soviet Union’s character flaws, but it also paints a different picture of the Allies in World War II. In all of my history books growing up, I never read about the villainy of the Soviet Union during WWII, only after the U.S. alliance with them had ended. It is interesting to see the difference in perspective here, but also to realize how determined the U.S. and Britain had to be in defeating Nazi Germany for them to turn a blind eye to such blatant horror.
Visit the Katyn Memorial website for photographs of the site today and also a brief history of the massacre.
“Order For the Katyn Massacre”