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Nazis or Soviets: the Katyn Forest Massacre

Picture of the mass grave with the bodies that were recovered lined up. Source: Krasil’Nikov, Iu.: Katyn. 1999.

The Katyn Forest Massacre was announced to the public via German radio in April of 1943. I discovered this piece of history on the seventeen moments blog when looking through the World War 2 time period. A mass grave was discovered near the Katyn forest, near where the Soviet security forces allegedly carried out executions of thousands of Polish officers.

Although the Russian’s denied that they had anything to do with the mass grave exposed by the German’s, there was a letter between the Commissariat for International Affairs and Stalin in March of 1940 that say that many former Polish officers, policeman, intelligence personnel, and others were being held as prisoners of war in Ukraine and Belarus. The Commissariat said that many, if not all, were part counter-revolutionary movements and anti-nationalist movements. The letter then goes on to tell the officers holding the Polish as Prisoners of war to try them, then, if found guilty, shoot them.

This correspondence is stated on the Seventeen moments blog as the order for the Katyn Forest Massacre, but still the Russians denied they were responsible for the ordeal. In fact, neither Germany nor the USSR were reprimanded for the massacre at the Nuremberg trials. There was never enough conclusive evidence, supposedly, found to convict either of the countries.

I found this really awesome piece on the CIA website that talks about the political struggle in the US over the issue of the Katyn Massacre, who to blame, and how this affected the politics during the time period. FDR even organized someone to research the massacre, but refused to accept the researchers conclusion because he wanted to believe, and was completely convinced, that Nazi Germany was to blame.

While it doesn’t say who exactly was responsible, it points to new evidence that proves that the Soviet’s did in fact massacre the Polish people. This is also seen in the NKVD letter to Stalin. The issue of who to blame for this massacre continued into the Cold War period.

It is just interesting that although the USSR is supposed to be on the allied side, it is obvious they had their own wartime agenda that the US and other allies completely overlooked. They needed the help to win the war against the Nazis, but they sacrificed calling the Soviet’s out on their wartime atrocities for the sake of beating the Nazis. I had never heard of the Katyn Massacre until discovering it on the Seventeen Moments archive, and did not realize that it caused such a political upturn in the US.

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  1. Wow. Thanks for writing about something that most of us probably hadn’t heard about before. I wonder why FDR was so pro-Soviet. I wrote about George Kennen’s “long telegram” and in it he warned FDR about befriending Stalin and the USSR’s agressive actions. I wonder how many people were found at the grave site.

  2. K. Gamble

    I actually chuckled when I read that Russia denied the accusations when it is pretty obvious that it was something they did. It just seems like a very “Russian” thing to do. I hadn’t heard about this massacre either, so this was really interesting to read about! I’m a Political Science major, so I’ve learned a lot about the international struggle surrounding conflicts such as this one, so that was an especially cool read for me! Well done with all the sources you found/used! Great post.

  3. Drew Snell

    The Katyn Forest Massacre is a really interesting topic. Mystery surrounds the wartime agenda but also who to blame for the atrocities, and you do an excellent job analyzing/providing sources that examine all sides. The CIA source was particularly fascinating, as even FDR was unconvinced of Soviet involvement.

  4. Good detective work here! The fact that the real story didn’t emerge until the very end of the Cold War suggests how awful this chapter in Russian-Polish relations was. The debate about who the real perpetrators were and mutual blame game just highlights how challenging it can be to get to the truth about war crimes, especially when the alliances shift after the conflict ends.

  5. Brittany Worstell

    This is a really interesting post! The fact that I had never heard of this massacre makes me wonder how many other events happened throughout WWII and all of history in general that most people aren’t aware of. Great job!

  6. Andy Kapinos

    It is interesting how the US overlooked a lot of Soviet crimes while we were allied, but after the war we rehabilitated Germany and demonized the Soviets. That kind of politicking probably didn’t help make the truth about Katyn any clearer. Those are some neat sources you found- well done!

  7. Evan Plivelich

    I had no idea that this was an event of the war before your post! Your comment about how the USSR had its own agenda during the conflict and the Allies looked the other way showed our dedication to defeating the Nazi’s. While the Russians should have been tried for some of their crimes during the war, it was easier for the allies to fight only the Nazi’s rather than the Nazi’s and the Soviets. Even when it was investigated like you said FDR only wanted to pin it on the Nazi regime as the sole “bogeyman” of the conflict.

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