Wiki Deep Dives: Massacre At Katyn Forrest
ICYMI: I'm doing a new blog series where I take my late night wiki deep dives and bring them to screen.
Dive #1: The Architect of Famine
TLDR: The Katyn Massacre was a 1940 series of mass executions by the Soviets of Polish POWs, academics, and other people they considered threats. Roughly 22,000 people were executed over the course of a month.
I remember first reading about this in high school and thinking it was BONKERS that this wasn't talked about more. 22 THOUSAND Polish people getting massacred by the Soviets in what we knew as a Nazi-esque style right on the onset of WW2. Seems important! As someone whose ancestors fled Poland during the interwar period, I wanted to know more! So I always end up back here because it is a fascinating/horrifying event that has gotten minimal to no exposure in the west.
Here is some background: The Soviets invade Poland along with the Nazis at the start of the war in 1939. The war was over fast, and the Soviets ended up with a shit ton of POWs on their hands. Because the Polish state required university graduates to serve as a reserve officer, this meant that the officers they had captured represented a large chunk of the educated Polish populace. By 1940, they had about 25,000 Polish POW's doing hard labor across the occupied territory and within the Soviet Union.
In March of that year, Stalin and the Politburo had a thought: What are are these educated Poles with military experience going to do once the war is over? Will they capitulate to Soviet rule? The answer to that is probably not, chief! So they decide instead of risking these soldiers coming back to bite them in the ass (don't forget the Polish army had whooped the Soviets 20 years earlier in the Polish-Soviet War), they would simply kill them all under the auspice that they were "nationalists and counterrevolutionaries".
These executions started in April, with the Soviets bussing the Poles to a facility where they were brought into a soundproof antechamber that was painted red, told to kneel, then shot in the back of the head. Their bodes were then stacked in trucks and driven out to mass graves in Katyn forrest. Others were simply shot right at the edge of the mass graves.
One NKVD agent, Vasily Blokhin, was personally responsible for over 7,000 executions by himself. He designed the antechamber himself, and would execute some 250 Poles per night, killing one every 3 minutes. He even brought his own Wather small calibre pistols for the job because the larger caliber Soviet handguns would hurt the killers hands after only a few executions. Blokhin later died an alcoholic in 1955, the biggest mass murderer in human history. With that, the Soviets had committed one of the worst single-event crimes of the war, and effectively gutted Poland's future.
Anyway, the war rages on. The Nazi's eventually betray the Soviets and invade their occupied territories. The Polish Government in exile and the Soviets agree to put their shit aside and fight their shared enemy together. The Poles continue the needle the Soviets for information regarding their missing officers. The Soviets gave them the runaround, saying they "lost track" of them. In the meantime, the Nazi's were beating the Soviets ass, eventually occupying the region of the Katyn mass graves. They discovered the graves, and Goebbels realized this was a golden propaganda opportunity in 1943.
The Nazi's brought in the Red Cross with an international/neutral commission that confirmed the obvious, that the Soviets has killed all of those men & women. The Nazi's pushed this story as a way to drive a wedge between the Allied forces and as a way to prove that the Bolsheviks were animals. It understandably worked, with the Polish Prime Minister, Władysław Sikorski, getting pissed off and trying to bring the Soviets to task over it. They obviously denied any involvement, saying it must have been the Nazis that did it. When the Polish tried to push, the Soviets concluded that there obviously must be a Polish-Nazi conspiracy, and broke off diplomatic ties with them.
This put the Allies in a rough spot. They needed the Soviets to keep the Eastern front open and continue hammering the Nazis to help and ease their own war efforts. The Poles were their early allies, but they essentially had nothing to offer to the war effort. Especially compared to the Soviets. So the Allies politically manipulated the situation in order to ensure the Soviet narrative was the accepted one. Sikorski wasn't having that, but he coincidentally died in a verrrrry sketchy plane crash in 1943. His plane took off from Gibraltar and went straight into the water 16 seconds after takeoff. His plane was unguarded before takeoff, and stationed right near the Soviet ambassadors plane. The head of MI6 counterintelligence in the region, Kim Philby, was also a Soviet double-agent.
The motive was there for the Soviets, but also for the Brits as well (if they wanted to keep this buried). Weird!
After the war ends, the Soviets force an unreliable German Army witness to cop to the massacre in a Russian court. The Soviets then tried to bring up Katyn in Nuremberg in order to get the international court to agree that the Germans were behind it. The British and US judges rightfully threw out their case due partly to OSS Chief William Donovan influencing their hand. Over the next few decades, the west changed their tone about the massacre, essentially declaring that the Soviets had done it. The Soviets still denied it, and had the entire topic HEAVILY censored throughout Poland.
As the hard-line Soviet era faded, they finally admitted that the NKVD was responsible in 1990, 47 years after the massacre. Throughout the 90's more documents were released about the massacre including notes from Beria, Krushchev and more about the events. The new Polish government wanted more information, and to prosecute any surviving perpetrators.In the early 2000s the Russian Federation did their own investigations. They concluded that the massacre was not a genocide, and refused to share a majority of the files gathered during the investigation.
Over the years, the Russians have still been cagey about the event. They only officially admitted that Stalin ordered the massacre in 2010! This is just an absurdly cruel moment in modern history that unfortunately got lost in the carnage of World War 2. The political maneuvering around it only muddied up the waters and made the resolution harder for the families of the victims, and the fact that this simply isn't talked about enough is even worse.
Bottom line, this is a fucked up story. It makes me ashamed of the pragmatic allies, but proud to be Polish.
P.S. I know this is two Soviet themed things in a row, but that is just how deep dives work, baby!