On April 13, 1943, Nazi Germany announced the discovery of mass graves in the Katyn forest near Smolensk, Russia. The bodies of around 4,400 men, whose hands had been bound and who had been shot from behind, were found buried there. The deceased were mostly Polish officers. The Nazis realized the Soviet Union was responsible for the massacre and attempted to use this knowledge to their advantage. The Germans hoped the revelation would alienate the USSR from its allies, Great Britain, the United States–and Poland.
“The stench was bad. When we came the Germans were removing a layer of earth about a meter thick. And then there were coats, bodies and coats, lying there in a row. And they were feeling these bodies, checking the pockets, removing flasks, removing watches, and the Germans set up a museum further out. The Germans wanted witnesses. They wanted us to act as witnesses for history.”- Dmitry Khudykh, Katyn resident
Poland had a complicated history with the Soviet Union, its neighbor to the east. The two countries had clashed in the Polish-Soviet War (1920–1921), and Poland had been halved in 1939 after being crushed from both the west and east by advancing German and Soviet forces. At that time, the USSR and Germany were allied by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, but after Germany betrayed its former partner and invaded the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin had been forced to ally his country with others fighting the Nazis. On July 30, 1941, representatives of Poland and the USSR signed an agreement that would release Poles who had been captured and incarcerated by the Soviet Union. But some prisoners were missing. When questioned in December 1941 about their whereabouts by the head of the Polish government-in-exile , General Wladyslaw Sikorski , Stalin insisted that they must have escaped. Soviet officials claimed they had no knowledge about the fate of the missing prisoners.
When the news broke about the German discovery, the Polish government-in-exile asked the International Red Cross to conduct an independent investigation. (Red Cross findings later indicated that the Soviets were responsible for the massacre.) The Soviets, who denied culpability and blamed the killings on German forces that had overrun the region in 1941, broke diplomatic relations with the Polish government. The April 19, 1943, edition of Pravda, the official newspaper of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, accused the Polish government of striking a treacherous blow against the USSR. Stalin began to identify Polish communists , to whom he would later award positions of power in a puppet government in Poland. The Soviets also organized their own investigation of the tragedy and determined that the fault lay with Germany. But Katyn residents knew differently.
“Of course we knew that our side killed the Poles. My mother told me to keep my mouth shut and not to talk about it ever in my life.”- Nina Voevodskaya, Katyn resident
Neither the British nor the American governments wanted to know too much about the graves. If their ally, Joseph Stalin, had ordered the murders, they preferred to keep it quiet. When a British diplomat in London wrote a report suggesting that the Soviet Union had been responsible for the massacre, Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed the issue in a confidential note, stating: “there is no use prowling morbidly round the three year old graves of Smolensk.”
In late 1943, as the Red Army began to recapture territory in eastern Poland, the Soviet secret police (the NKVD ), cordoned off the Katyn forest near Smolensk to create one of the most elaborate coverups of the war. After exhuming the bodies from the graves that the Germans had previously uncovered, the NKVD had documents forged to suggest that the Germans had committed the crime. They planted the false documents on the newly exhumed bodies and worked to persuade local people who had witnessed the Soviet crimes to change their stories.
In January 1944, the Soviet authorities went public with their attempt to con the world about the murders. They filmed falsified documents–money, letters, and a postcard written in Polish by a Polish prisoner of war dated June 20, 1941–to show that the Poles had still been alive in 1941. Key witnesses had also been persuaded, upon the threat of death, to withdraw the testimony they had given to the Germans.
The Soviet deception did not fool the American or British governments. However, dependent on the help of the Soviet Union to defeat the Axis countries, Great Britain and the United States accepted the Soviet version of events, even going so far as to ignore and suppress evidence that implicated the USSR. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had instructed his special emissary to the Balkans, George Earle, to look into the massacre. After receiving Earle’s report in 1944, which asserted that the Soviets were responsible, the president did not allow it to be published. Meanwhile, a British Foreign Office official, who examined the Soviet claims, wrote a secret report in which he said that an essential part of the Soviet case was simply incredible. But this would remain confidential. Even before he had read the report, Churchill had written to the Foreign Secretary saying “we should none of us ever speak a word about it.”
Despite the willingness of the Western Allies to overlook the truth, Soviet attempts at the postwar Nuremburg trials –using planted evidence and coerced testimony–to paint the Nazis as the perpetrators of the murders failed, and the question of what really happened at Katyn remained a mystery.
In 1990, Soviet authorities at last confirmed that the NKVD had been responsible for the Katyn Massacre, and official documents were released in 1992 showing that Stalin was directly involved in the crime. Witnesses were found who testified about the fate of the Polish prisoners.
“They [NKVD agents] covered the doors to the shooting cells that led to the corridor so the sounds of the shootings couldn’t be heard. Then the accused, well let’s call them that, were brought through the corridor. They were brought into the cells to be shot.”- Dmitry Tokarev, former NKVD Colonel who worked at an NKVD prison in Kalinin, Russia in 1940
On March 5, 1940, Stalin and other high-ranking Politburo members signed a document condemning nearly 22,000 imprisoned Poles to death. Those being held at three camps, Ostashkov, Starobelsk, and Kozelsk (a camp near Smolensk), mostly Polish officers and other members of the Polish elite, were transferred and disappeared during the months of April and May 1940. These people, who Stalin had decided were “hardened and uncompromising enemies of Soviet authority,” were brutally murdered by the NKVD under Stalin’s direct authority.
“I consider the tragedy of my life to have been my father’s murder. The murder of a very just and noble man who was not charged with anything and for whom there was no justice.”- Boguslava Gryniv, whose father, Mihailo Gryniv, was killed as a result of Stalin’s March 5, 1940 order. His body was never recovered.