The murder of 21, 857 Polish Officers and intellectuals, a war crime covered up by Russia, Britain, and the US for 50 years, was called “the worst single unpunished crime in history”, reports Paul Hurley, SVD
Most people are, or ought to be, familiar with the names Auschwitz and Dachau and their horrible significance. But few probably know anything about Katyn, or have even heard of it. This is not surprising when one knows something about the terrible and unique war crime committed there, and how it was denied and hushed up for so long.
World War II began on 1 September 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Britain and France, having pledged in the Polish-Franco-British Pact of 25 August to defend Poland, if attacked, then declared war against Germany. But two weeks later, when Soviet Russia also attacked Poland, the British and French took no action against the Russians – in accordance with a clause in their Pact – who then occupied the eastern half of the country. A week before their invasions, the world’s most powerful dictatorships, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia had also secretly decided, on 23 August, to attack and occupy Poland.
This Nazi and Soviet collusion ended two years later, on 22 June 1941, when Germany attacked Russia. The German armies, advancing swiftly, drove deep into Russia; in three weeks they captured Smolensk, two-thirds of the way to Moscow, whose suburbs they later reached. They also took huge numbers of Russian soldiers as prisoners. Threatened with total destruction, Soviet Russia had to seek help from Britain.
The Polish Government, in exile in London, seized this opportunity to ask Russia for the immediate release of all Polish soldiers held as prisoners-of-war by the Soviets since their invasion two years earlier. A Polish-Soviet agreement, signed in London on 30 July 1941, obliged the Russians to grant an amnesty to all Poles held prisoner by the Soviets so as to mobilize an army in Poland to fight Nazi Germany. (Polish soldiers and airmen later fought with great distinction in the Battle of Britain, in Western Europe, Italy and North Africa.)
The Polish Government gave this task to General Anders, who was released from Moscow’s infamous Lubianka prison on 4 August 1941. Twelve days later, he had his first of many meetings with the Soviet authorities, led by General Zhukov (later Marshal), at which he asked how many Polish soldiers, still held as prisoners-of-war by the Russians, might be available for the new Polish army, and was told around 20,000 men and 1,000 officers. But when he asked about 15,000 Polish officers known to the Polish Government to have been imprisoned in three camps (at Kozielsk, Starobielsk and Ostashkov in Russia) he was informed that they were unable to answer the question, but that they would try to obtain exact information. Anders kept asking this question at five consecutive meetings with the Russians without getting any satisfactory answers.
Professor Kot, Poland’s ambassador in Moscow, also had many meetings with the Russians. At the first, when he met Andrey Vyshinsky (later Soviet Foreign Minister) on 20 September, he stated that only about 2,000 Polish officers, of some 9,500 taken prisoner in 1939 and deported to Russia, had been traced by the Polish authorities and had joined the new army. “What happened,” he asked, “to the remaining 7,500 officers? I could have understood if a few dozen were missing, but not several thousand.” Vyshinsky, visibly embarrassed, gave no clear answer. At a later meeting Molotov, Russian Foreign Minister, told Kot that all Polish prisoners had been set free, but that “owing to a great shortage of transport in several districts, they still remain in places where they have been living up to the present.”
At Kot’s fourth meeting with Vyshinsky, on 1 November 1941, the conversation went as follows:
Kot: Many of our officers have not yet been set free in spite of their right to liberty under the 30 July (Polish-Soviet) Agreement. Your NKVD (Soviet Secret Police) or your Gulag (labour camps) headquarters have all the necessary information. Will you please let me send delegates who,accompanied by NKVD officials, could visit the camps where these men are detained?
Vyshinsky: Mr Ambassador puts the question as if we wished to conceal some Polish citizens. Where could they be hidden?
Kot: People are not like steam; they cannot evaporate.
Vyshinsky: We are looking for these people.
Eventually, after four months of futile efforts to get information regarding the missing men, Polish Government representatives met Stalin himself three times about the missing Polish officers. At their first meeting, with Molotov present, in the Kremlin on 14 November 1941, the minutes record that the following exchanges took place:
Kot: You are the author of the amnesty for Polish citizens in the USSR. Would you care to use your influence to have this initiative fully implemented?
Stalin: Are there still any Poles who have not been released?
Kot: We have the names and lists. All our officers from the Starobielsk, Kozielsk and Ostashkov camps are still missing.
Stalin: We have released everyone, even people who were sent by General Sikorski to kill Soviet people.
(Stalin stood up and began to pace slowly round the table,smoking a cigarette, and then walked quickly to the telephone on Molotov’s desk.)
Stalin (into the phone): Stalin here. Have all the Poles been released from prison? I have with me here the Polish Ambassador, who tells me that not all have been.
(Stalin listened to the reply and, after replacing the receiver, returned to the table without saying a word.)
The second meeting, on 3 December 1941, was between Stalin and General Sikorski, with Molotov and General Anders present, in the Kremlin, where the conversation went as follows:
Sikorski: Many of our most valuable officers are still in your prisons and labour camps.
Stalin: This is impossible because all Poles have been released. (This remark was directed towards Molotov, who nodded.)
Sikorski: These men are still here (in Russia).
Stalin: This is impossible. They have escaped.
Anders: Where could they escape to?
Stalin: Well, to Manchuria.
Anders: All of them could not possibly have escaped.
Stalin: They have certainly been released, but have not yet arrived here. Please realise that the Soviet Government has no reason for detaining even one Pole.
Molotov: It seems quite impossible that your people could still be in our camps.
Anders: But I can positively state that they are ... (unfinished sentence).
Stalin: This will be settled. Special instructions will be issued to our authorities.
The third meeting with Stalin was on 18 March 1942, when Anders met him and Molotov, and this exchange took place:
Anders: So far not one Polish officer of about 15,000 in your prisons and labour camps has reappeared. (He then handed Molotov lists of their names.) Where can they be?
Stalin: I have already given orders that they are to be freed. I do not know where they are. Why should we keep them?
The last of scores of meetings with the Soviet leaders was on 8 July 1942, when Kot met Vyshinsky for the ninth time and asked him yet again about the missing officers. Vyshinsky replied: “As to the detention of Poles in prisons and forced labour camps, I must assure you that we have looked into the matter and have established that they are not there. There are no Polish officers in the Far North, nor in the Far East, nor anywhere else. All have been freed.” These extracts are from the minutes (later released) of the many meetings, taken by both the Polish and Soviet officials present.
Then, nine months later, came the bombshell. On 13April the Germans announced that they had discovered the mass graves of 4,243 Poles, mostly army officers in uniform, in Katyn (pronounced Kah-teen) Forest near Smolensk in Russia, “piled up in 12 layers in a ditch 28m long by 16m wide.” This was a godsend to Nazi Germany, which used it at once to discredit the Soviets. Goebbels, Hitler’s Propaganda Minister, wrote in his diary on 14 April, “We are now using the discovery of the Polish officers, murdered by the NKVD (Soviet secret police) for anti-Bolshevik propaganda. I gave instructions to do so.”
The Nazis got forensic experts from 14 European countries (including neutral Switzerland) to investigate the mass-murders. (All but two of them reaffirmed their findings after the War.) They discovered that the 4,243 Poles had been shot in the back of the head during the time Katyn was still occupied by the Russians. Of these, 212 had their hands tied behind their backs; others had their heads wrapped in their military overcoats and their mouths stuffed with sawdust, indicating that they had resisted or shouted at the time of execution. Besides bullet wounds in their heads and some having their hands tied behind their backs, some had their jaws smashed by blows or had bayonet wounds in their back and stomach – inflicted by four-edged bayonets.
The killings were methodical, as General Anders and other Polish officers discovered later. After each victim was checked, he was handcuffed and taken to a special cell, insulated with a felt-lined door. The sound of the actual shootings, during the night, was muffled by the operation of very loud machines. After being taken into this cell, the victim was immediately shot in the back of the head. His body was then taken out through the opposite door and dumped in a waiting truck, after which the next victim was brought into the cell. Diaries found on some bodies showed that they had been murdered in March, April and May 1940.
Most of 2,914 bodies identified by name were on the list of ‘missing’ officers given by Sikorski to Stalin in 1941. Among the total of 4,243 bodies were those of 14 generals, one admiral, 103 colonels, 258 majors, 654 captains, 200 air force pilots and 50 naval officers, including 17 naval captains. Besides these officers, there were also more than 300 medical doctors and surgeons, some of them outstanding specialists; more than 300 engineers; several hundred school teachers; 21 university professors; more than 200 judges and lawyers; more than 100 journalists and writers and seven priest chaplains. Professor Stanislaw Swianiewicz, one of the few survivors of the labour camps, reported that most of the chaplains had already been “sent to unknown destinations on Christmas Eve night 1939”. (In the Shadow of Katyn). The only woman listed was Janina Musnicki, an air force pilot and daughter of General Jozef Musnicki.
The bodies of many more Polish prisoners, mostly from the three labour camps named above, were later discovered. These brought the total number murdered to 21,857, as was much later confirmed in official documents. Besides murdering as many officers of the Polish armed forces as possible, the aim of the Katyn killers was also apparently to exterminate the intellectual elite of Polish society and thus to eliminate the leadership and driving force of the nation. As was to be expected, the Soviet Government immediately denied the German charges that the Russians were the murderers and claimed that the Polish prisoners “fell into the hands of the German-Fascist hangmen”. Two days later, the Polish Government in London insisted on discussing the matter with the Soviet Government, and also demanded an investigation by the International Red Cross. Stalin then accused the Polish Government of collaborating with the Nazis, broke off diplomatic relations with it and set up a puppet pro-Soviet Government of Polish Communists in Moscow.
Five months after this, when the advancing Russian armies recaptured Smolensk and Katyn, they began a “cover-up” operation. A cemetery which the Germans had allowed the Polish Red Cross to build was destroyed and other evidence removed. The Russians set up their Burdenko Commission for the ‘Investigation of the Shooting of Polish prisoners of war by German Fascist Invaders in Katyn Forest’. No foreigners, not even Polish Communists, were allowed to join it, whereas the Nazi investigation had allowed wider access to both forensic experts and the international press. The Burdenko Commission soon ‘discovered’ that the shootings were done by the ‘German Fascist invaders’.
Britain and the United States also played implicit roles in this cover-up, partly because of not wanting to antagonise their Soviet ally. Churchill privately agreed that the Katyn war crime was most likely carried out by the Soviets. On 15 April 1943, he told General Sikorski, “Alas, the German revelations are probably true. The Bolsheviks can be very cruel.” But nine days later he assured the Russian Government, “We shall certainly vigorously oppose any investigation by the International RedCross in any territory under German control.”
In May 1943, Sir Owen O’Malley, Britain’s ambassador to Poland, made a report on Katyn for the British Foreign Office. Its Permanent Secretary, Sir Alexander Cadogan, said of this report, “On the evidence we have it is difficult to escape from the presumption of Russian guilt.” The report was then sent to the cabinet and to King George V1, who all accepted the Soviets’ guilt. “Churchill and his Government were satisfied beyond reasonable doubt,” O’Malley said later, “that the Russians were responsible.” But for public consumption, the British leaders kept up the pretence of Nazi guilt.
Roosevelt’s attitude was rather different. Influenced by some Americans who were either Soviet sympathisers or spies, he had a naïve and sycophantic attitude towards the Soviets. In a letter to Churchill on 23 April 1943, he put pressure on him to support the Soviet Government’s “coverup”campaign on Katyn, and, at the same time, he assured Molotov, Soviet Foreign Minister, that there would be no investigation of the crime by the International Red Cross. A few months later, on 3 September, he told a shocked Cardinal Spellman of New York that he would agree to Soviet Russia’s dominance of a large part of Western, as well as Eastern, Europe. And in a worldwide broadcast the following December he stated: “Stalin is a man who combines a tremendous determination with a stalwart good humour. I believe he is truly representative of the soul of Russia. I also believe that we are going to get along very well with him, very well indeed.” This was echoed by Churchill, who said on returning from their ill-fated Yalta summit meeting with the Russians: “The impression I brought back from the Crimea is that Marshal Stalin and the other Soviet leaders wish to live in honourable friendship with us. I also feel that their word is their bond.”
Roosevelt believed that if he gave Stalin everything he demanded and “asked nothing from him in return”, the Soviet dictator would then work “for world democracy”. Commenting privately on this and what he termed other “asinine” statements by Roosevelt on the way he intended conducting American-Soviet relations, William Bullitt, former US ambassador to Russia, said the only way the US could get along “very well” with Soviet Russia was “through a series of major concessions with ignorant and reckless disregard of the vital interests of the American people”. After meeting Roosevelt on 6 June 1944, Mikolajczyk, who took over as Polish Prime Minister when General Sikorski was killed in a plane crash at Gibraltar, stated, “I learned that Roosevelt had only a few months before agreed to hand over to Stalin the eastern half of Poland that the Red Army had invaded while Stalin was Hitler’s partner.” (The Rape of Poland).
But perhaps all this isn’t so surprising when one recalls that as early as 1941 Roosevelt wrote to Churchill: “Stalin hates the guts of your top people. He likes me better.” He seemed to regard being “liked” by the sadist thug, who, surpassing Hitler, was probably the greatest mass-murderer in history, as such a great honour that he kept up a vast correspondence with him during the War. Some 304 of these secret letters, many in code, were only recently discovered, after 60 years, and published, in a collection entitled My Dear Mr Stalin, by Yale University in 2006.
While Roosevelt was busy writing to his ‘Dear Mr Stalin’, the US secret service was conducting its own investigations into the Katyn killings. After one of its chief intelligence officers, Commander George Earle did so in Eastern Europe in 1944, he stated in his private report that Soviet Russia was responsible. Roosevelt rejected this, ordered Earle’s report to be suppressed (he had Earle transferred to Samoa in the Central Pacific!) and said he was convinced that the Nazis committed the crime. Later, two other US intelligence officers, Col Donald Stewart and Col John Van Vliet, made another investigation and prepared another report which also concluded that the Soviets were the Katyn killers. Before Roosevelt could see it, this was destroyed by General Clayton Bissell, Assistant Chief of Intelligence.
Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin and many others involved in various ways in the Katyn war crime cover-up were long dead when the truth was at last revealed after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in Russia in 1985 and introduced his new policies of perestroika and glasnost, which eventually led to the collapse of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe. In 1990, Gorbachev admitted that the Soviet NKVD secret police had killed the Polish prisoners at Katyn and two other places which he named as Mednoye and Piatykhatky. On 13 April 1990, Gorbachev issued a formal apology and expressed the “profound regret” of the Russian people for the crime.
A year later, when Boris Yeltsin succeeded Gorbachev as Russian President, he released secret Soviet documents about Katyn. Among them were: a proposal to Stalin, dated 5 March 1940, by Lavrenti Beria, chief of the NKVD, to kill the Polish prisoners; an order to Beria on the same day to do so, signed by Stalin, Molotov and the other Politburo members; and an NKVD report from Beria stating that it had carried out the killing of the 21,857 Polish prisoners.
A year earlier Stalin had introduced Beria to von Ribbentrop, the Nazi Foreign Minister, as ‘Our Himmler.’ One of his most powerful and ruthless henchmen, Beria was also responsible for killing millions of Russians during Stalin’s Great Purges. He later supervised the establishment of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe after the War and led the anti-Semitic campaigns there and in Russia after Stalin’s death. During the Cold War, he was also in charge of the Soviet spies in the US, including the Rosenbergs, who stole the secret information about the atom bomb for Russia. He boasted to Molotov that it was he who poisoned Stalin, when the dictator suddenly got seriously ill after having a meal with Beria and died four days later. (Molotov’s Memoirs). Beria himself was liquidated by political rivals on 23 December, 1953.
No one was ever tried in Russia or elsewhere for the Katyn killings. When admitting its guilt, the Russian Government claimed it was a ‘military crime’ and should not be described as genocide, a war crime, or a crime against humanity – although at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials in 1945, the Russians tried to have the Katyn killings included in the indictment of the Nazi leaders. But the Soviets had to abandon this when Britain and the US refused to support it, owing to lack of evidence against the Germans.
“We cannot weigh the dead in some form of moral scales to assess the enormity of a crime in our crime-ridden age and then decide that one crime was ‘worse’ than another. How many people have been murdered by the totalitarian regimes? One hundred-million perhaps? We simply do not know the figures. Whether the Nazis murdered three or six million Jews does not make that monstrosity half or twice as bad. Whether the Chinese Communists murdered ten or fifteen million people, or whether five or ten million died in Stalin’s concentration camps, is irrelevant. That more people were killed in the unnecessary air raid on Dresden than died in the probably unnecessary air raid on Hiroshima is no excuse for either atrocity. Some 15,000 Polish officers and intellectuals may seem an insignificant figure. More men died in the first hours of the Battle of the Somme. But that is not the point.”
So said the English writer Louis FitzGibbon in Katyn (1971), one of the first and best books about it. He called it “the worst crime against prisoners-of-war ever committed, and perhaps the worst single unpunished crime in history.”
Paul Hurley was editor of the international magazine
The Word from 1952 to 1992.