Moscow, Soviet Union · March 5, 1940

In a proposal written on this date in 1940 to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and other mem­bers of the Soviet Polit­buro, Lavrentiy Beria, who was the head of the People’s Com­mis­sar­iat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), the Soviet secret police, advo­cated exe­cuting all mem­bers of the Polish Offi­cer Corps who had been cap­tured in the Soviet Union’s treach­erous inva­sion of Poland in Septem­ber 1939. (In their mutual non-aggres­sion pact of August 1939 Nazi Ger­many and the Soviet Union had secretly agreed on the terms of a divi­sion of their com­mon neighbor prior to Adolf Hitler’s blitz­krieg against Poland on Septem­ber 1, 1939.) Stalin signed the order to execute 25,700 Polish “nation­alists and counter­revolu­tionaries” kept at camps and pri­sons in western Ukraine and Belarus. The vic­tims were mur­dered in the Katyn Forest near Smo­lensk in Russia and in sundry Soviet pri­sons and NKVD-run camps in April and May 1940. Of the total killed, about 8,000 were Polish mili­tary offi­cers and another 6,000 were police offi­cers. (Between 250,000 and 454,700 Polish soldiers and police­men are esti­mated to have been interned in camps by autho­ri­ties after the Soviet inva­sion.) The remain­der of the Katyn vic­tims were Polish intel­li­gent­sia who had been arrested for allegedly being intel­li­gence agents, gen­darmes, land­owners, sabo­teurs, fac­tory owners, law­yers, offi­cials, and priests. Months after Hitler had turned on his treaty part­ner and in­vaded the Soviet Union (Opera­tion Barba­rossa), Ger­man occu­pation forces found some of the mass graves in the Katyn Forest and trum­peted their dis­covery in their on­going anti-Bol­shevik propa­ganda, going so far as to invite Allied POW offi­cers as well as foren­sic experts and their staffs from friendly or occu­pied coun­tries in Europe to con­cur with them that the Soviets were behind the mas­sacre of Polish civil­ians and mili­tary and police personnel. The 1943 reve­lation led to the end of diplo­matic relations between Mos­cow and the London-based Polish govern­ment-in-exile. The Soviet Union con­tinued to deny respon­si­bility for the mas­sacres until 1990, when it officially acknowledged and condemned the killings by the NKVD.

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Soviet Massacre of Polish Nationals, Katyn, Russia, April–May 1940

Above: Map of sites related to the 1940 Katyn mas­sacre. The mas­sacre was a mass exe­cu­tion of Polish nation­als in April and May 1940 carried out by the Peo­ple’s Com­mis­sa­riat for Inter­nal Affairs (NKVD), which had taken cus­tody of Polish pri­soners from the Red Army and oper­ated pri­soner-of-war camps in the west­ern part of the Soviet Union. The vic­tims were mur­dered in the Katyn Forest in Russia, in the NKVD-run Tver (Kalinin) and Khar­kov (Kharkiv) pri­sons, and else­where. The mass execu­tions are now subsumed under one name, “Katyn Mas­sacre.” Thou­sands more Polish “bour­geoisie ele­ments” were deported to camps in the East, where they endured forced labor, starvation, and neglect or simply disappeared.

Polish POWsMass grave, Katyn Forest, 1943

Left: Polish POWs captured by the Red Army during the Soviet in­va­sion of Poland in 1939. Between April and May 1940, the NKVD trans­ferred approx­i­mately 14,500 Polish mili­tary offi­cers from a POW camp in Kozelsk to a forest near Katyn (roughly 12 miles west of Smo­lensk, Russia), where they were executed.

Right: One of the mass graves uncovered by Germans in the Katyn Forest in occu­pied Russia, 1943. Joseph Goeb­bels, the Nazi minis­ter of pro­pa­ganda, used the grim dis­coveries to drive a wedge between the London-based Polish govern­ment-in-exile and the Allies, and rein­force the Nazi line about the dan­ger of Soviet Bol­she­vism to West­ern civili­za­tion. Com­peting com­mis­sions inves­ti­gating the mas­sa­cre—one a Red Cross com­mis­sion, the other a Soviet one—blamed the other side for the atrocity.

Allied POWs examining Katyn remains, 1943Monument to Katyn victims in Katowice, Poland

Left: In addition to members of the International Katyn Com­mis­sion, a Red Cross com­mittee staffed by foren­sic experts drawn mainly from Nazi-occu­pied Europe, a num­ber of Amer­i­can, Cana­dian, and Brit­ish POWs, as shown in this photo­graph, examined the Katyn remains.

Right: Monument in Katowice, Poland, memorializing “Katyn, Kharkіv, Miednoye, and other places of murder in the former USSR in 1940.”

Film Taken by German Cameramen as the Katyn Bodies Are Exhumed, Laid Out, and Examined. Viewer Discretion Advised