Lost but Not Forgotten: Katyn and the Long Quest for Justice
By Eric Svoboda
September 1st, 1939; a date which the world, and especially Poles, will never forget. On this fateful day, Poland was plunged into the darkest era in its history when Hitler’s Nazi armies invaded from the west. Despite being overwhelmed by Germany’s blitzkrieg, there was still hope that Polish forces could hold off the Germans while French and British forces came to their aid. They never would. To the east, however, the Soviet Union was preparing its own invasion. In the days leading up to the invasion of Poland, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed on to an unholy alliance called the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with one goal in mind: to divide Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe between themselves. On September 17th, Stalin upheld his end of the deal and Soviet forces began to pour into eastern Poland. Within a few more days, Poland would be completely occupied by the two totalitarian powers and would soon experience their full malice and cruelty. While most of this cruelty was committed at the hands of the Germans, who sought the complete extermination of the Polish people, the Soviets also had blood on their hands. In the forest of Katyn outside Smolensk and in other locations throughout the Soviet Union, over 21,000 Polish prisoners-of-war and civilians were brutally executed in an attempt to eliminate all opposition to the communist order. With these potential enemies eliminated and their deaths made secret, it seemed as though there would never be justice for the lost.
That all changed, however, in the Spring of 1941 by perhaps the most unlikely of sources. Germany, Stalin’s accomplice in the crime against the Polish nation, betrayed the Soviets and launched the largest invasion in history against them. Within months, the Soviets would suffer tremendous casualties and be driven back to the very gates of Moscow. Only a costly victory at the Battle of Stalingrad would save them from a total German victory. From then on, the USSR would begin to slowly drive the Germans from their recent conquests. With the war not going as planned, the Nazis hoped to reverse their fortunes by turning the Allied powers against one another.
Such an opportunity presented itself in April 1943, when mass graves were discovered in the Katyn Forest. Human remains had been discovered by nearby Polish workers the year prior, but German authorities were uninterested at the time. When German military personnel began uncovering mass graves, however, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels became particularly interested in the gruesome findings, writing in his diary on April 9th:
Polish mass graves have been found near Smolensk. The Bolsheviks
simply shot down and then shoveled into mass graves some 10,000 Polish
prisoners, among them, civilian captives, bishops, intellectuals, artists, et
cetera …. Gruesome aberrations of the human soul were thus revealed. I
saw to it that the Polish mass graves be inspected by neutral journalists
from Berlin. I also had Polish intellectuals taken there. They are to see for
themselves what is in store for them should their wish that the Germans be
defeated by the Bolsheviks actually be fulfilled.
Several days later on April 13th, Berlin radio announced the discovery of the graves to the world. The Soviets immediately denounced the revelation as slander and many other nations looked upon German claims with skepticism. To prove that they were telling the truth, the Germans brought in neutral experts from the European Red Cross to examine the graves. The Katyn Commission, as this group was called, came to the conclusion that the deaths took place between March and April 1940, during the period of Soviet control.
Aware of the criminal nature of both Germany and the Soviet Union and still uncertain about the findings, the Polish government-in-exile hoped to settle the issue once and for all by petitioning the International Committee of the Red Cross to investigate. The ICRC, though ready to send a special team to the scene, had to obtain permission to investigate from all countries involved. Germany was more than happy to comply and quickly agreed in order to show Polish-German cooperation in the matter. The Soviets, meanwhile, fearing an unquestionable verdict, declined the request, which prevented the Red Cross from investigating. With the threat of a Red Cross intervention eliminated, the Soviets took swift retributive actions against the Polish government-in-exile. Diplomatic ties were severed, and the exiled government was delegitimized as German collaborators, which gave Stalin an excuse to support a communist Polish government.
Thus, Goebbels’s hope of turning the Allies against each other was realized. However, it was not as he expected. While Poland and the Soviet Union were no longer allies, the Western Allies continued to back Stalin. The war that was initially fought for the sake of Poland had now encompassed the entire world. Poland was crushed early on while the Soviet Union was doing most of the fighting in Europe. Therefore, to the Western Allies, it was vital to keep good relations with the Soviets so as not to harm the war effort. This would lead them to neglect Stalin’s atrocities and even portray him as a good man and hero instead of the monster he really was. When the Polish government-in-exile began to seek a Red Cross investigation, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Franklin D. Roosevelt did everything in their power to restrain the Poles. When that failed, they decided to help Stalin cover up the massacre. The British and American leaders had obtained strong evidence of Soviet guilt as early as mid-1943, with reports from US diplomats and testimonies from Polish officials and American POWs taken to the scene. Rather than releasing such crucial knowledge, though, Roosevelt and Churchill instead kept it classified and supported the findings of the Soviet Burdenko Commission.
The Burdenko Commission was formed in January 1944 so that the Soviets could obtain their own ‘evidence.’ After conducting an investigation, the commission concluded that it was Germany who committed the heinous act. Burdenko’s investigation, however, was a fabrication meant to ‘prove’ German guilt. Even the title of the report (Report of Special Commission for Ascertaining and Investigating the Circumstances of the Shooting of Polish Officer Prisoners by the German-Fascist Invaders in the Katyn Forest) demonstrates that “the conclusion was predetermined before the investigation began.” In late 1943 when the Soviets recaptured Smolensk, the NKVD quickly went to work covering up the scene of the crime. Witnesses were forced to change their accounts or be branded as German-collaborators, evidence found by the Germans and Red Cross memorials were removed, and documents were planted on the corpses to make it seem as though they were killed after 1941. So, when investigators were allowed to enter several months later, the evidence they uncovered clearly indicated that Germany was behind the massacre. To finish cementing their version of what happened in the minds of the international community, western journalists were brought in to verify. While many of them found flaws in the investigation, they were unable to block the Soviet conclusions, which would become the accepted version for the remainder of the war.
It wasn’t until 1946 during the Nuremberg trials that the Katyn Massacre would be brought up again. The trials were meant to try German war criminals, and since the Germans allegedly committed the massacre at Katyn, the tribunal felt compelled to discuss the matter. Both the Germans and Soviets were allowed to present three witnesses each during the proceedings on July 1st and 2nd, but no Polish witnesses or evidence were admitted. Thus, rather than asking the victims of the crime for their input, two untrustworthy criminal nations took control of the narrative and the court was unable to determine culpability as a result. Moreover, the issue wasn’t even mentioned in the final judgment, which implies that the subject was politically inconvenient at the time. It would seem as though the court was collaborating with war criminals to try other war criminals, which would put the legitimacy of its rulings in doubt. It also wasn’t up to the court to determine Soviet guilt since it was only meant to try German war criminals. As a result of the Nuremberg trials’ inconclusiveness, the issue of Katyn would be shelved once more and hope for the truth left once again in doubt.
While the Western Allies had a history of not challenging Soviet atrocities and violations of human rights, that position soon changed with the dawn of the Cold War. During this time, the United States and the Soviet Union competed for influence across the world while avoiding all-out war. The conflict would, however, heat up at times as the two superpowers aided one side over another in a number of proxy wars. The first, and perhaps most prominent, of these proxy wars was the Korean War, which began in 1950 when communist North Korea, later backed by communist China, invaded the western-aligned South. The US, which had sent troops to aid the South Koreans, was worried about what might happen to them if they were captured and began seeing Katyn as a potential blueprint. Therefore, on September 18th, 1951, a congressional investigation led by Rep. Ray J. Madden commenced.
The Madden Committee, as it’s called, had two goals in its investigation: to determine which country was responsible for the massacre and whether any American officials were responsible for suppressing facts about it. Testimonies from dozens of witnesses from the US, Germany and Italy were gathered and the governments of West Germany, the Soviet Union, Communist Poland, and the Polish government-in-exile were invited to present evidence. The Soviet Union, and by default their puppet government in Warsaw, declined the offer, believing the matter had already been settled and that all the evidence the US needed was present in the report of the Burdenko Commission. Based on the information gathered, the committee unanimously agreed that “evidence dealing with the first phase of its investigation proves conclusively and irrevocably the Soviet NKVD… committed the massacre of Polish Army officers in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk, Russia, not later than the spring of 1940,” and recommended that the US government take the Soviets to the International Court of Justice over Katyn.
As for the second phase, after reviewing documents from various departments and questioning officials, the committee determined that “nearing the end of the Second World War there unfortunately existed in high governmental and military circles a strange psychosis that military necessity required the sacrifice of loyal allies and our own principles in order to keep Soviet Russia from making a separate peace with the Nazis.” Although critical of American policy towards the Soviet Union during the war, the committee was unable to find clear signs of an American cover up. While it could have been a major breakthrough in achieving justice for the victims of Katyn, the Madden Committee report ultimately didn’t go anywhere as the Korean War’s end removed the fear which had prompted the investigation and the death of Stalin allowed US-Soviet relations to improve.
As the Katyn tragedy was being discussed in the halls of Congress, the subject had become politically taboo back in Poland. Following the Second World War, the Soviet Union maintained a heavy presence in Poland, influencing both its foreign and domestic affairs. In accordance with Soviet demands and in an effort to protect its power, the communist government in Poland banned any mention of Katyn and repressed anyone who sought the truth. Most of this repression began in the late 1950s when Poles began actively defending the truth and preserving its memory. Around a hundred cases of Katyn-related offenses were brought to court, but the majority of offenses were dealt with outside the courtroom. Retaliation by authorities and severe punishment awaited anyone who told the truth, and preventative measures, such as mass and careful censorship, were taken by the communist government to further prevent the spread of so-called ‘imperialist lies.’ Beginning in the mid-1970s, the communist government lightened restrictions on Katyn remembrance. Talking about Katyn was no longer forbidden, but one could only blame it on the Germans or leave it anonymous by simply saying ‘died in Katyn.’ Monuments to the victims could also be erected, but they still had to follow the communist narrative. For instance, in 1981 the Polish trade union Solidarity built a monument inscribed with the words ‘Katyn, 1940.’ The monument was quickly taken down and replaced with another reading ‘To the Polish soldiers – victims of Hitlerite fascism – reposing in the soil of Katyn.’ Despite all of this effort to hide the truth about Katyn, Poles would still remember who was truly responsible for the crime, and with the fall of the communist regime, they would continue to press the Soviets until the truth came out.
It was in the late 1980s that the communist world turned upside down. Perceiving the weakness of the communist system and fearing the collapse of the USSR, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev pursued a series of reforms that he hoped would save his country. These reforms, known as glasnost and perestroika, aimed at democratizing the country and making it more transparent. Additionally, Soviet interference in foreign countries was greatly reduced, which allowed countries in Eastern Europe to overthrow their communist regimes and begin the process of democratization. In Poland, this meant that people could now openly discuss Katyn without fear of repression, and soon societies and committees were formed to investigate and obtain justice for the victims’ families. Polish investigations were further aided by historians and journalists within the USSR itself, who were now able to explore state archives where reports of NKVD involvement were uncovered. No longer able to deny the truth both at home and abroad, the Soviet Union officially acknowledged and apologized for its role in the Katyn massacre on April 13th, 1990 – 47 years to the day Nazi Germany announced its discovery of the graves. The admission, it was hoped, would begin the difficult process of mending Polish-Russian relations and give families of the slain final closure on their loved ones’ deaths.
For a while, it seemed as though a reconciliation was possible as the Soviet Union, and later Russia, began a decade-long investigation to uncover the full scope of the crime. In March 1990, Gorbachev ordered the Office of the Soviet (later Russian) Prosecutor General to gather evidence against the NKVD and find missing documents relating to the Katyn case. Lists of prisoners in the three camps were found in the initial phase of the investigation and still-living eyewitnesses and former NKVD functionaries were brought in for questioning. Based on the information gathered, it was already believed that enough evidence was found to blame the NKVD for the massacre. However, crucial files, such as protocols and investigation files on executed prisoners, were nowhere to be found. It wasn’t until December 1991, on the eve of the Soviet Union’s collapse, that the most important documents would appear. As Gorbachev yielded power to Boris Yeltsin and the newly formed Russian Federation, he gave Yeltsin a handful of documents, which he most certainly knew of for some time, and gave him the choice of whether to reveal their contents to the world or not. Yeltsin would keep the contents a secret until October 1992 when he began facing stiff opposition from the Communist Party. In an effort to discredit the party as a criminal organization, the top-secret documents were made public. These contained the NKVD’s order to execute 25,700 Polish prisoners signed by Stalin and approved by the Soviet Politburo, and a note to Nikita Khrushchev mentioning the execution of 21,857 Poles and proposing that any files regarding it be destroyed. This revelation not only cemented the fact of Soviet guilt but also provided vital information on the full extent of the crime, which was previously estimated to be at only around 10,000 victims.
The Russian investigation would continue until September 2004, with its findings being reported in March of the following year. In its conclusion, the Office of the Russian Prosecutor General claimed that out of 14,542 Poles sentenced to death, only 1,803 were executed. It also said that no judicial actions would be taken because those responsible had already died and thus were unnecessary. Furthermore, the Russians denied that the massacre was a genocide, saying instead that the “actions of the NKVD officials of the USSR against Polish citizens were based on a criminal law motive and were not intended to destroy any demographic group.” The results of these findings came as a shock to the Polish nation as it seemed as though Russia was reverting back to its history of denial and that all the progress made toward reconciliation was suddenly reversed. On March 22nd, 2005, the Polish government passed a resolution condemning the conclusions, saying that Russian authorities “seek to diminish the burden of this crime by refusing to acknowledge it was genocide,” and requested that Russia recognize the Katyn massacre was a genocide and hand over all records of the investigation. Russia maintained its position, however, and the long search for truth and justice, which had seemingly been nearing its end, would only continue longer.
Since the end of the Russian investigation into the Katyn case, Polish-Russian relations have only worsened as a result of growing nostalgia for the Soviet Union and the rise of Vladimir Putin. While most Russians don’t want to bring back the USSR, there is, however, widespread bitterness towards its collapse. The destruction of the single market created financial instability, with the ruble becoming nearly worthless, the rise of a shady oligarchy led to rampant corruption in the government, the loss of superpower status and the supposed lack of concern for Russia’s problems by the international community have left Russians feeling humiliated, and the expansion of NATO into eastern Europe created a sense of weakness and vulnerability. For these reasons, people in Russia long for the Soviet Union, and this growing nostalgia has had a major impact on Russian society. The past has been rewritten to glorify the Soviet Union, particularly in its war against Germany where Russians can portray themselves as victims, and its darker parts widely ignored. Soviet atrocities, especially Katyn, and acts of repression are overlooked or even completely denied in Russian history books, and memorials to the victims of such crimes are being removed. Some historians and societies in Russia try to speak out against Soviet repression but are themselves becoming increasingly repressed, which is making it harder for Russians to understand the truth about their past. Finally, there has also been a major change in how Russians view Joseph Stalin, the man who epitomizes Soviet tyranny. Rather than viewing him as one of the worst mass murderers of the 20th century, more and more are viewing Stalin as the savior of Russia and the one who turned it into a superpower. The victim mentality in Russia has given Russians an excuse not to be concerned for the injustices of the past, and this, alongside the whitewashing of Russian history, has created greater mistrust and misunderstanding between Russia and its western neighbors.
Feeding off this nostalgia is the current president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, who has made it his personal mission to restore Russia to its former glory. Under his regime, the Russian economy has stabilized, its military strength rejuvenated, and a sense of national pride restored by the reintroduction of Soviet imagery and a return to prominence in the international sphere. Though much has changed on the domestic level, it is on the international level that Mr. Putin hopes to leave his mark. Russia is attempting to expand its sphere of influence, allying with many leaders alienated from the rest of the international community such as Assad in Syria, and is attempting to regain territories lost after the USSR’s collapse. The most blatant attempt at this was the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. This obsession with regaining lost power has alarmed countries in eastern Europe, including Poland who now fears a future conquest by Russia and a return to Soviet-era repression and atrocities. After all, if Russians are once again dismissing the darker parts of their past, what’s to stop another Katyn from happening? To prevent this, Poland and its NATO allies are expanding their militaries which, in turn, is causing Russia to further expand its military. Thus, what was mistrust and misunderstanding between Russia, Poland, and the rest of NATO has now risen to the point that the threat of armed conflict looms once again over eastern Europe.
While many factors have contributed to these grim circumstances between Russia and Poland, impunity for Katyn has certainly been a contributing factor. The effects of this impunity are not just limited to Poland and Russia, however. Many bad actors across the globe can look at Katyn as a precedent for how they might be treated for committing similar crimes. Genocide and state terror aren’t concepts that ended with the Second World War, they continue even until today. By refusing to seek justice for the victims of Katyn, countries who consider themselves guardians of international peace and justice not only make a bad name for themselves but also encourage enemies to those very concepts to act without fear of retaliation. This not only dishonors the memories of the slain but also poses a potential threat to international security and law and order.
Despite all of the previously mentioned consequences of Russian impunity, no one has suffered the most through this ordeal than the loved ones of the victims. Certainly, grief over the loss of their fathers, brothers, and sons was more than anyone of them should have had to bear; yet they would end up being forced to face even more hardships. Children were not only orphaned because of the loss of their fathers, but also because sometimes, their mothers, unable to bear the loss of their husbands, committed suicide. They would also wander, avoiding death on a daily basis, whether it was due to a lack of necessities or to occupational forces. Many would survive, often fleeing the country, either temporarily or permanently. Others were imprisoned by the German and Soviet occupiers and would meet their ultimate demise in death and labor camps. Others still tried to avenge their families and country by joining resistance movements and fighting in the Warsaw Uprising. There is an unfathomable amount of experiences these families have had to endure and now, decades later, when justice seems possible, little is being done. It’s like a criminal admits guilt, is found guilty but is allowed to walk away free without any consequences. It’s humiliating and only tells these people that their lives and suffering don’t matter. That is why, when finding a solution to this problem, it is important that the families of the victims be given top priority.
So how do we solve the Katyn controversy and fix relations between Poland and Russia? Ultimately, the burden lies upon the Russian people. It was their country that committed this unspeakable act, and so it is up to them to make amends. Russians, however, have been reluctant to take responsibility, believing that they shouldn’t be held responsible for their ancestors’ crimes. This sentiment is understandable, as no child should have to pay for their parents’ wrongdoings. However, Russians today still have a responsibility to move past their dark history, and by not doing so, they become complicit in those same mistakes. By releasing all documents relating to the Katyn murders, acknowledging the crime as a genocide, bringing charges against surviving NKVD members, and giving compensation to the victims’ families, Russia can begin to mend its problematic relationship with Poland. While this is a start, there are more Russians will need to do on a societal and governmental level. Schools ought to teach history as it actually happened and proper homage needs to be paid to all victims of Soviet atrocities, including those at Katyn. Russia also needs to shift away from the lures of totalitarianism and end its expansionist policies to prove its commitment to change. While most of the work will need to be done by Russia, that does not mean that Poland should do nothing in return. For a long time, Russia has been ostracized by the West, and in many ways, this is the reason why Russia is the troubled nation that it is today. That is why Poland needs to help it on its way to self-improvement and to fully embrace it when that time comes. Change is going to be difficult for Russians and is likely going to take a long time. It is not impossible, though, Russia just needs help in doing so, both from within and without. Poles and Russians share many commonalities, and it is unfortunate things are the way they are right now between the two. If they can come to terms with each other, not only will it be beneficial for them, but for the world as well. This can only happen, though, if they find a way to put Katyn behind them for good.
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 “The Mass-Murder in the Katyn Forest, a Documentary Account of Evidence; International Katyn Commission Findings, Germany, 1943,” Warsaw Uprising, accessed July 24, 2020, http://www.warsawuprising.com/doc/katyn_documents1.htm
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 Christian Lowe, “War-Time Allies Hushed up Katyn Massacre of Poles: Documents,” Reuters, September 11, 2012, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-poland-katyn/war-time-allies-hushed-up-katyn-massacre-of-poles-documents-idUSBRE88A0O020120911.
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 Soviet secret police.
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 “Judgment of the International Military Tribunal for the Trial of German Major War Criminals,” Avalon Project – Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy, accessed July 24, 2020, https://avalon.law.yale.edu/imt/judgen.asp.
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 “The Katyn Forest Massacre: Final Report of the Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation and Study the Facts, Evidence, and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre Pursuant to H. Res. 390 and H. Res. 539, Eighty-Second Congress, a Resolution to Authorize the Investigation of the Mass Murder of Polish Officers in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk, Russia,” National Archives Catalog, accessed July 24, 2020, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/6852791.
 Witold Wasilewski, “The Katyn Lie. Its Rise and Duration,” Institute of National Remembrance, accessed July 23, 2020, https://ipn.gov.pl/en/news/4020,The-Katyn-lie-Its-rise-and-duration.html.
 Monika Komaniecka et al., “Katyn Massacre – Basic Facts,” Poland.pl, April 20, 2018, https://poland.pl/history/history-poland/katyn-massacre-basic-facts/.
 Benjamin B. Fischer, “The Katyn Controversy: Stalin’s Killing Field,” Central Intelligence Agency, June 27, 2008, https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/winter99-00/art6.html.
 Mark J. Porubcansky, “Soviets Admit Responsibility for Katyn Massacre,” Associated Press, April 13, 1990, https://apnews.com/c28f061b5edf068cf4baca96300a3113.
 Anna M. Cienciala, Natalia S. Lebedeva, Wojciech Materski, Katyn: A Crime Without Punishment (Yale University Press, 2008).
 Kondratov, V. K, Ответ ГВП на письмо общества “Мемориал” [Answer of the General Prosecutor’s Office to the letter of the Memorial Society] (in Russian), General Prosecutor’s Office of the Russian Federation, 2005.
 “Senate Pays Tribute to Katyn Victims,” The Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Canada, March 31, 2005, https://archive.vn/20050420045807/http://www.polishembassy.ca/news_details.asp?nid=230.
 Adam Taylor, “Why Do so Many People Miss the Soviet Union?” The Washington Post, December 21, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/12/21/why-do-so-many-people-miss-the-soviet-union/.
 Halya Coynash, “Russia Removes Memorial to Katyn Massacre in New Attack on Historical Truth,” Human Rights in Ukraine (Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, May 8, 2020), http://khpg.org/en/index.php?id=1588896084.
 Teresa Kaczorowska, Children of the Katyn Massacre: Accounts of Life after the 1940 Soviet Murder of Polish POWs (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc. 2015).