The Katyn Forest Massacre

Who Killed These Polish POWs?

Picture of the exhumed bodies at Katyn in Russia.
View of the exhumed bodies of Polish officers murdered in the Katyn Forest Massacre by Soviet secret police (NKVD), Katyn Forest, Russia, 1943. In the background, bodies are autopsied. (Photo by PhotoQuest/Getty Images)

In addition to the annihilation of European Jewry by Nazi Germany, there were other incidents of mass death on both sides of the fighting forces during World War II. One such massacre was uncovered on April 13, 1943 by German forces in the Katyn Forest outside Smolensk, Russia. The mass graves discovered there contained the remains of 4,400 Polish military officers, who had been killed by the NKVD (Soviet secret police) upon the orders of Soviet leader Josef Stalin in April/May 1940.

Although the Soviets denied involvement to protect their relationship with the other Allied powers, the subsequent Red Cross investigation placed the blame on the Soviet Union. In 1990, the Soviets finally claimed responsibility.

Katyn’s Dark History

Locals in the Smolensk area in Russia have stated that the Soviet Union had been utilizing the area surrounding the city, known as the Katyn Forest, to perform “secret” executions since 1929. Since the mid-1930s, the actions were directed by NKVD chief, Lavrentiy Beria, a man known for his ruthless approach to those who were viewed as enemies of the Soviet Union.

This area of the Katyn Forest was surrounded by barbed wire and carefully patrolled by NKVD subordinates. Locals knew better than to ask questions; they did not want to end up as victims of the regime themselves.

An Uneasy Alliance Turns Sour

In 1939, with the onset of World War II, the Russians invaded Poland from the east, capitalizing upon their agreement with the Germans known as the Nazi-Soviet Pact. As the Soviets moved into Poland, they captured Polish military officers and imprisoned them in prisoner-of-war camps.

Additionally, they interned Polish intellectuals and religious leaders, hoping to eliminate the threat of a civilian uprising by targeting civilians who were viewed as influential.

Officers, soldiers, and influential civilians were interned in one of three camps in the interior of Russia -- Kozelsk, Starobelsk and Ostashkov. Most of the civilians were placed in the first camp, which also contained members of the military.

Each camp functioned in a manner similar to the initial Nazi concentration camps -- their purpose was to “re-educate” the internees in hopes of getting them to adopt the Soviet point of view and to renounce their loyalties to the Polish government.

It is believed that few of the approximately 22,000 individuals interned in these camps were declared to be successfully re-educated; therefore, the Soviet Union decided to pursue alternative measures to deal with them.

Meanwhile, relations with the Germans were turning sour. The Nazi German government officially launched “Operation Barbarossa,” their attack on their former Soviet allies, on June 22, 1941. As they had done with their Blitzkrieg upon Poland, the Germans moved quickly and on July 16, Smolensk fell to the German military.

Polish Prisoner Release Planned

With their lot in the war rapidly changing, the Soviet Union quickly sought support from the Allied powers. As a show of good faith, the Soviets agreed on July 30, 1941 to release the previously captured members of the Polish military. Many members were released but nearly half of the estimated 50,000 POWs under Soviet control were unaccounted for in December 1941.

When the Polish government in exile in London asked for the men’s whereabouts, Stalin initially claimed they had fled to Manchuria, but then changed his official position to state that they ended up in an area that had been taken over by the Germans the previous summer.

The Germans Discover a Mass Grave

When the Germans invaded Smolensk in 1941, the NKVD officials fled, leaving the area unpatrolled for the first time since 1929. In 1942, a group of Polish civilians (who were working for the German government in Smolensk) discovered the body of a Polish military official in an area of the Katyn Forest known as the “Hill of Goats.” The Hill was located within the area previously patrolled by the NKVD. The discovery aroused suspicions within the local community but no immediate action was taken since winter was approaching.

The following spring, reportedly with the urging of peasants in the area, the German military began to excavate the Hill. Their search uncovered a series of eight mass graves that contained the bodies of at least 4,400 individuals. The bodies were largely identified as members of the Polish military; however, some Russian civilian corpses were also found on the site.

The vast majority of the bodies appeared to be more recent while others potentially could have dated back to the period of time when the NKVD initially moved into the Katyn Forest. All of the victims, civilian and military, suffered the same manner of death -– a shot to the back of the head while their hands were tied behind their backs.

An Investigation Ensues

Certain that the Russians were behind the deaths and eager to seize upon the propaganda opportunity, the Germans quickly convened an international commission to investigate the mass graves. The Polish government-in-exile also requested the involvement of the International Red Cross, who conducted a separate investigation.

The German-convened commission and Red Cross investigation both reached the same conclusion, the Soviet Union via the NKVD was responsible for the deaths of these individuals who had been housed in the Kozelsk camp sometime in 1940. (The date was determined by examining the age of fir trees that had been planted on top of the mass graves.)

As a result of the investigation, the Polish government-in-exile severed relations with the Soviet Union; however, the Allied powers were reluctant to accuse their new ally, the Soviet Union of improprieties and either directly denounced the German and Polish claims or remained silent on the matter.

Soviet Denial

The Soviet Union was quick to try and turn the tables on the German government and accused them of massacring the Polish military members sometime after the July 1941 invasion. Although the initial Soviet “investigations” into the incident were conducted from afar, the Soviets attempted to bolster their position when they recaptured the area surrounding Smolensk in the fall of 1943. The NKVD was once again placed in charge of the Katyn Forest and opened an “official” investigation into the so-called German atrocities.

The Soviet attempts at placing the blame for the mass graves on the German military resulted in an elaborate deception. Because the bodies were not removed from the graves by the Germans upon their discovery, the Soviets were able to conduct their own exhumation which they filmed in substantial detail.

During the filming, the exhumation was shown to discover documents which contained dates that “proved” that the executions occurred after the German invasion of Smolensk. The discovered documents, all later proven to be forgeries, included money, letters, and other government documents, all dated to show that the victims were still alive in the summer of 1941, when the German invasion occurred.

The Soviets announced the results of their investigation in January of 1944, backing up their findings with area witnesses who had been threatened into giving testimonies that were favorable to the Russians. The Allied powers again remained largely silent; however, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt did ask his Balkan emissary, George Earle to conduct his own investigation into the matter.

Earle’s findings in 1944 corroborated earlier German and Polish claims that the Soviets were responsible, but Roosevelt did not publicly disclose the report for fear it would damage the already sensitive relations between the Soviets and other Allied powers.

The Truth Surfaces

In 1951, the United States Congress created a Select Committee, composed of members of both houses, to examine issues surrounding the Katyn Massacre. The committee was dubbed the “Madden Committee” after its chair, Ray Madden, a representative from Indiana. The Madden Committee assembled an extensive set of records related to the massacre and reiterated the earlier findings of the German and Polish governments.

The committee also examined whether or not any American officials were complicit in a cover-up in order to protect Soviet-American relations during World War II. The committee was of the opinion that specific evidence of a cover-up did not exist; however, they felt that the American public was not made fully aware of the information possessed by the American government in regards to the events in the Katyn Forest.

Although most members of the international community allocated blame for the Katyn massacre on the Soviet Union, the Soviet government did not accept responsibility until 1990. The Russians also revealed similar mass graves near the other two POW camps --- Starobelsk (near Mednoye) and Ostashkov (near Piatykhatky).

The dead found in these newly discovered mass graves, plus those at Katyn, brought the total Polish prisoners of war executed by the NKVD up to nearly 22,000. The killings at all three camps are now collectively known as the Katyn Forest Massacre.

On July 28, 2000, the State Memorial Complex “Katyn” officially opened, which includes a 32-foot-long (10 meter) Orthodox cross, a museum (“Gulag on Wheels”), and sections dedicated to both Polish and Soviet victims.