Katyn Forest Massacre

View of the exhumations from the air. Recovered bodies are laid in rows. In the background, the main road.

View of the exhumations from the air. Recovered bodies are laid in rows. In the background, the main road.

In 1943, Nazi Germany announced the discovery of a mass grave site in the Katyn Forest. They announced that they discovered a ditch “28 meters long and 16 meters wide, in which the bodies of 3,000 Polish officers were piled up in 12 layers.” The Polish government, who were at the time exiled and residing in London, asked the International Red Cross to do an investigation. The Soviet Union denied involvement up until 1990, when Gorbachev admitted that the executions were ordered by Stalin and carried out by the NKVD, the Russian secret police, on March 5, 1940. The number of victims were tallied at 22,000 Polish officers.

Nazi propaganda poster depicting executions of Polish military officers by the Soviets, with caption in Slovak: "Forest of the dead at Katyn"

Nazi propaganda poster depicting executions of Polish military officers by the Soviets, with caption in Slovak: “Forest of the dead at Katyn”

The massacre, executed in 1940, was the result of the partitioning of Poland between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in September 1939. The Soviet Union claimed that it was liberating the Ukrainians and Belorussians from their oppressive Polish rulers. The Soviet Union arrested Polish landlords, officials, intellectuals, and officers, who were then sent to prison camps. The number of arrests ranged in the tens of thousands. Lavrentii Beria, head of the NKVD, considered it inconvenient to feed and safeguard such a high number of prisoners, and thus ordered the executions of some 22,000 of them.

Memo from Beria to Stalin, proposing the execution of Polish officers

Memo from Beria to Stalin, proposing the execution of Polish officers

In the memo that proposed the executions, it was stated that these imprisoned Polish officers were members of the Polish counter-revolutionary resistance groups, and that they possessed a hatred for the Soviet system. It also claimed that these Polish officers were carrying out counter-revolutionary acts in the prison camps. It was recommended that they were to be executed at gunpoint. In 1941 when the Polish general Wladyslaw Anders was organizing his army and requested information regarding the missing Polish officers, Stalin reassured them that all the Poles were freed, but not all could be accounted for because they “lost track” of them in Manchuria.

One historian, Gerhard Weinberg, believed that Stalin signed the executions because he wanted to make Poland weaker, since many of the officers also comprised Poland’s technical and intellectual elite. Stalin foresaw a potential future where a hostile Poland would border eastern Russia. Stalin endeavored to weaken Poland to discourage any hostilities.

In 1990 when it was reveal that the massacre was indeed carried out by the Soviet Union, it was also revealed that Katyn was only one of the sites where the Polish officers were buried. The other burial sites are Piatichatki, Bykivnia, and Mednoye. The Polish officers were massacred not only in Katyn, but in Kharkov, Kherson, Kiev, Minsk, and Tver.

Map of massacres and burial sites.

Map of massacres and burial sites.




Pic 1: http://soviethistory.macalester.edu/index.php?page=subject&show=images&SubjectID=1943katyn&Year=1943&navi=byYear

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9 Responses to Katyn Forest Massacre

  1. jslattery says:

    I find it ironic that the Nazis used the massacre for propaganda purposes. There’s a clear case of “The pot calling the kettle black” if I ever saw one. In Europe, it was Poland that suffered the greatest because they felt the wrath of both the Nazis and the Soviets, and they continued to suffer during the Cold War right up until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

  2. zmartin says:

    I find this topic interesting since I didn’t know of this massacre before reading this. I also agree that the Nazis were hypocritical considering their genocidal actions. It seems that Russia had just as much of an affinity for massacres, which can be seen by their other mass murders(like the Ukrainian starvation).

  3. A. Nelson says:

    Thanks for teasing out the nuances of the dueling propaganda wars over the long history of the Katyn forest massacres!

  4. annapope says:

    Finding out about these little-known massacres makes me wonder about how many other undiscovered travesties were committed and/or approved by Stalin during the World War II.

    • jslattery says:

      Make no mistake, Stalin was a very cruel man. When his son Yakov attempted suicide and failed, supposedly Stalin remarked, “He can’t even shoot straight.”

  5. ccubberly says:

    I also had never heard of this massacre until now. Atrocities between two sides fighting in a war are common but this is a downright war crime. Poland was literally torn between the Soviets and Germans, and neither side was less brutal than the other. It almost seems ridiculous that the Germans would use this as propaganda, as if they could gain Polish support or “put-propaganda” the NKVD.

  6. jmhawkins says:

    I have not heard of the massacre until reading this. I thought it was very interesting and very likely for something like this to happen. I liked the amount of detail you put in your post and the level of inquire.

  7. Kelly Cooper says:

    This was an incredibly fascinating post! This does a great job of showing Stalin’s fears that Poland would fight against the Soviet Union. It is horrifying to see the excessive measures that Stalin went to get rid of whom he deemed to be his enemies. When you listed the other burial and other massacre sites of the Polish officers, it makes one believe that Stalin became quite hysterical and overly suspicious of supposed threats. This was a very interesting read!

  8. afoutz says:

    I find it disgusting that people will not own up to what they have done. To me the people deserve to know what has happened to their loved ones instead of hiding behind a lie to keep up your public image. Although it was probably a smart move to remove the educated elite of Poland, Stalin should not have kept this action hidden for so many years. I’m sure the families of those executed are at some degree became more at peace when they were finally informed about their horrible end. Great and informative post.

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