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Eastern Front11th April 1943

Germans find bodies at Katyn

The Germans exhumed over 4,000 bodies at Katyn
The Germans exhumed over 4,000 bodies at Katyn

On 11 April 1943, Radio Berlin announced news that was to shock the Western Alliance. German forces had discovered the bodies of several thousand Polish officers buried in pits in a forest near Smolensk in western Russia. The name of the forest would come to represent the crime itself – so this is still known as the ‘Katyn’ massacre.

Josef Goebbels, writing in his diary on 9 April, was clear both what had happened in the forest of Katyn, and who was to blame: ‘Polish mass graves have been found near Smolensk. The Bolsheviks simply shot down and then shoveled into mass graves some 10,000 Polish prisoners.’ He was wrong on the numbers – in fact, just over 4,000 people had been killed at Katyn – but right on the essentials. The Soviets had indeed murdered thousands of Polish citizens in cold blood. It was a crime they were to deny until 1990 and the fall of Communism.

The origins of the Katyn massacre lie in a period of history that remains deeply inconvenient for many Russians – the 22 months between August 1939 and June 1941 of the Nazi/Soviet non-aggression pact. On 17 September 1939, in agreement with the Nazis, the Red Army had moved in to occupy eastern Poland. This was territory which the Soviets claimed as part of their sovereignty – not least because significant numbers of people living there were of Russian or Ukrainian descent. But it was territory which the vast majority of states in the world had acknowledged as Polish for nearly twenty years.

Now, having taken eastern Poland by force, the Soviets set about subjugating the inhabitants in the most brutal way. There were mass deportations of Poles; several hundred thousand were forcibly sent to Siberia or Kazakhstan where around one in three died. And Stalin was particularly keen to suppress the so-called ‘intelligentsia’ in eastern Poland – the ‘leadership class’ of lawyers, doctors, civil servants, politicians and army officers. Stalin never wanted this land to be part of Poland ever again, and so destroying the potential leaders of an independent Poland was a high priority for him.

By the end of 1939 the Soviets had imprisoned tens of thousands of these potential Polish ‘leaders’ – many of them officers in the Polish armed forces who had been captured in the brief military conflict between the two countries in September and October 1939. NKVD (Soviet secret police) documents show that even in December 1939 there seemed to be no plan to murder these people.i  Indeed, the ‘normal’ Soviet practice to ‘deal’ with people like this was deportation. But it soon became clear to the Soviets, particularly as the NKVD interrogated officers in three special camps – one near Smolensk, another in the Kalinin region and the third near Kharkov in eastern Ukraine – that the majority of the Polish officers were ‘obstinate’ and refused to endorse Communism and the Soviet rule of the eastern part of their homeland.

'I think they [the NKVD] didn’t want a concentration of highly trained members of police, intelligence and counterintelligence, and politically active people on the territory of the Soviet Union,' says Russian historian Dr Kirill Anderson, 'despite the fact that they would be under control in the prisons.  The NKVD could see this as a real danger, especially as a war with Germany was expected. They were scared of creating a fifth column in the heart of Russia. So it was taken as a preventive measure, and they were killed. The same way as Soviet citizens were killed earlier on - 1936, 1937 and 1938. Stalin and the people around him were simply worried that all these prisoners could organize some kind of uprising, especially as these kinds of uprisings were not uncommon in Soviet GULAG prisoners.'
The Soviet policy on these people became one of murder on 5 March 1940, Stalin, along with Molotov, Mikoyan and Voroshilov, signed a document prepared by Beria, the head of the Secret police, that would lead to the killing of over 20,000 of these members of the ‘leadership class’.

No one knows exactly why Stalin decided that these Poles should die. One intriguing possibility is that the Soviets were influenced by the appalling brutality of the Nazis in western Poland. The Nazis were themselves also seeking to eliminate the ‘leadership class’ in their area of Poland, and certain key events, like the arrests in November 1939 by the Nazis of academics in Krakow, and the detention of academics in Lwow by the NKVD, appear to have been coordinated between the two security forces.ii

But for whatever reason, Stalin had decided that these citizens of eastern Poland must be killed. And Beria’s NKVD would provide the murderers. Altogether they would shoot 21,857 people as a consequence of the 5 March directive. The vast majority were of Polish descent, but there were also Ukrainians and others amongst them.

The killings took place at three sites – in the Kalinin and Kharkov prisons and directly in the forest of Katyn, near Smolensk. It was this third murder site that the Germans discovered in April 1943, exactly three years after the killings had taken place. And, of course, the only reason that the world knew for certain about this atrocity was because the Germans had invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 and had subsequently occupied this territory. The Nazis, no strangers, of course, to mass killings themselves, now publicized this ‘Bolshevik’ crime for all they were worth.

The Polish government-in-exile in London had been asking the Soviets about the fate of their officers for years. Back in December 1941 a high level delegation of Poles had visited the Kremlin and specifically asked Stalin and Molotov about the officers, only to be told by the Soviet leader that they might have ‘escaped’ from Soviet camps, and might possibly be in ‘Manchuria’ now.iii

As a result of the German discovery in spring 1943, it was now clear, at least to many Poles, what had happened to the missing officers. They had not ‘escaped’ to ‘Manchuria’ but had been murdered by the Soviets. And Soviet culpability was also strongly suspected by the British government, especially after a report written in May 1943 by the British ambassador to the Polish government-in-exile, Sir Owen O’Malley, made it obvious that all the available evidence supported the idea that the Soviets was responsible. 

Yet, even before receiving O’Malley’s report, Churchill had made up his mind what the British position on Katyn should be. In a note to Sir Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Secretary, on 28 April 1943, Churchill baldly sated: ‘There is no use prowling morbidly round the three year old graves at Smolensk.’iv  Churchill clearly wanted an expedient line to be taken so as not to cause problems with Stalin – to appease Stalin, one can even say. Roosevelt also subsequently followed Churchill’s lead on Katyn. In fact, there is no record of either of them even mentioning the subject to Stalin at the great Allied conferences of Tehran and Yalta.

The spring of 1943 was an extremely strained period in the relationship between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union – not least because Stalin still felt betrayed by the West’s failure to launch the Second Front in France, in order to relieve pressure on the Red Army. And now Stalin, in a breathtaking act of hard-nosed political cynicism, accused the Polish government-in-exile of betraying the Soviet Union, because the Poles had called for an investigation into Katyn and had not taken the Soviet denial of any involvement in the killings at face value. So Stalin broke off diplomatic relations with the Polish government-in-exile, an act that was, by the following year, to help pave the way for the Soviets to create their own puppet government in the newly liberated Poland.

Sir Owen O’Malley’s judgement on Allied conduct over Katyn still stands as an eloquent statement of the realities – perhaps the bleakness – of power politics: ‘In handling the publicity side of the Katyn affair,’ he wrote in a report dated 24 May 1943, ‘we have been constrained by the urgent need for cordial relations with the Soviet Government to appear to appraise the evidence with more hesitation and lenience than we should do in forming a common-sense judgment on events occurring in normal times or in the ordinary course of our private lives; we have been obliged to appear to distort the normal and healthy operation of our intellectual and moral judgments; we have been obliged to give undue prominence to the tactlessness or impulsiveness of Poles, to restrain the Poles from putting their case clearly before the public, to discourage any attempt by the public and the press to probe the ugly story to the bottom.’v   

But, as would shortly become clear at Tehran and then Yalta, the ability to ‘distort the normal and healthy operation’ of one’s ‘intellectual and moral judgments’ was a useful – perhaps a necessary – skill that was needed in order to deal with an ally like Joseph Stalin.


i See George Sanford, Katyn and the Soviet Massacre of 1940: Truth, Justice and Memory, Routledge, 2005, p. 297
ii See Laurence Rees, World War Two: Behind Closed Doors. Stalin, The Nazis and The West, BBC Books, 2009, p. 54
iii Quoted in Polish Cultural Foundation, The Crime of Katyn: Facts and Documents, London, 1989, p. 87
iv Personal Minute from Churchill to Eden dated 28th April 1943, FO 371/34571, National Archives, Kew
v Despatch from Sir Owen O’Malley dated 24th May 1943, FO 371/34577, National Archives, Kew