With the Ribbentrop- Molotov pact, signed in Moscow on August 23rd , 1939 — formally a non-aggression pact — Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union( USSR), according to some secret protocols, divide Poland. The German armoured divisions cross the Polish borders on September 1st ; the Red Army, “to help the Polish people”, sixteen days after. And without a declaration of war.
In February 1943, the bodies in decomposition of more than four thousand Polish soldiers and officers , killed by a gun shot in the nape, were found by the Germans occupants close to Katyn, in Belarus. The Katyn’ s graves were immediately turned by Nazi Germany into a political weapon to try to divide the Allies and to discredit the Soviet Union. USSR reacted, by accusing the Nazis of that crime.
“Katyn? A makeshift operation, made by beginners” this was , in the immediate post-war, the comment of the chief of KGB and ex officer of NKVD (Narodniy Kommisariat Vnytreniy Del; in English: Soviet Union’s People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs) , Ivàn Serov.
German or Soviet “beginners”?
The Polish Army vaunts glorious traditions since the far-off times of King John Sobieski, whose cavalry, in 1638, had defeated the Turks at the gates of Wien, saving Christendom. In 1920, during the Russian-Polish war, General Jòzef Pilsudzski had at first blocked the Red Army in front of Warsaw, then he had counter-attacked it and finally he had forced it to withdraw. In that occasion, known in Poland as “ Miracle on the Vistula”, Stalin ( at that time political commissar of the whole front) had given a big gift to Pilsudzski: in the crucial moment of the battle, he had sent the reserves to the wrong place.
That huge blunder had been paid heavily by Lenin, who was forced to sign a humiliating peace ( Treaty of Riga, March 18th , 1921). But that huge blunder had also attracted on the Poles the hate and the resentment of its author.
The Polish soldiers are, then, brave. And proud. But, when in September 1939, the Germans before and the Soviets afterwards invade Poland, their pride and their bravery are not sufficient: the armoured units of Wehrmacht are too powerful; the human wall of the divisions of the Red Army is too thick. Those who do not fall in combat or those who do not escape elsewhere, are captured and sent to the prison camps.
Many officers are not professional militaries. In time of peace, the Polish military system assigns at every graduated a rank of officer of the Reserve. Mobilized in a hopeless moment for Poland, engineers and biologists, teachers and architects, historians and chemists wear the uniform, command military units and fight with bravery against Germans and Soviets.
The Soviets deploy on the terrain more than a million of soldiers, but they are completely unprepared to manage so many prisoners, as well as so many refugees ( Jews, in particular, who are escaping Germans). General , later Field Marshal, Grigorij Kulik, commander of the Soviet invasion forces, writes to Moscow: I have detained the Polish officers, but I have sent home the most part of the soldiers: I would not have known how to control them or where to guard them. In short — at the beginning at least — the management of the prisoners is makeshift. Nobody talks about eliminating them: the Polish POWS are to be “re-educated” or used for building roads or railways. The refugees, on the contrary, are to be sent back to the sender, i.e. to the Germans.
In the “re-education camps” movies that celebrate the Soviet glories are screened; some propaganda leaflets arrive together with some copies of the Stalin’s speeches, but also infiltrates and spies arrive. They collect information, looking at the prisoners’ behaviours in the camps and listening at their talks. The prisoners are in a bad situation: it is cold, food is scarcely sufficient, the uniforms wear out, the replacement underwear lacks. To protect their feet from the cold during the roll calls and for not wearing out the boots, someone carves coarse wooden clogs to put under the soles of the boots. Why do the prisoners take such a care of their boots? Because for a Polish officer, the boots are not simple footwear: they are the distinguished feature of an inner circle, of an elite, the visible symbol of the pride of the glorious Polish cavalry. For every Polish officer, thus, taking care of his boots is a question of honour. And, even more so, during his imprisonment. Janusz Zawodny writes( Death in the forest): with those boots, the Polish officers went to war and with those boots they were captured.
From November , writing home is possible but only once a month. Someone complains. And immediately, the names of the complainers are signalled to the camp authorities . And this is not all. One who prays God is an anti-communist; one who threatens a hunger strike, is a dangerous subversive; one who replies in Polish to an order ordered in Russian, is a defeatist. These are heavy accusations, the worst ones according to the Soviet law. Even the stray dogs are not spared. They wander around the camp, pass under the barbed wires for being adopted as mascots by the prisoners. The guards beat them to death.
Under a juridical point of view, the Polish militaries captured by the Soviets are not war prisoners. How could they be war prisoners, if the war between the two Countries has been not declared? But then, what are they, who are they? Formally they are interned, in practice they are potential class enemies. The Soviet penal code, not the international code, counts for them.
And , thus, in the offices of the prison camps, zealous officials conduct cogent examinations and write up a lot of dossiers: name, last name, age, place of origin, rank ( or profession) , political ideas, religious conviction, family’s composition and so on. For every interned, those officials identify “charges” that are written in a dedicated section of every dossier. Based on those “ charges”, the prisoners could have been sentenced hard labour according to the Soviet laws.
Amid the Polish war prisoners, however, the esprit de corps does not slacken; the boots of the Polish officers are always shining and the so hoped “re-education” remains a delusion.
When they can, the prisoners react. Some colonels write to the commander of the Kozelsk Camp ( Kozielsk, according to the Polish handwriting): stop the movies that are detrimental of our honour. We want to communicate more often with our families, we want to receive parcels and underwear. Are we perhaps charged with anything? In case of affirmative answer, we want to know these charges. And, above all, free the elder men and the ill: keeping them here is non human. Do not you know the Geneva Convention ?
Someone begins to reject food; someone threatens strikes to protest against the hard labour. An unwary commander of one of the prison camps writes to Moscow: the Polish doctors in my camp talk always about the Geneva Convention. May I have a copy of it, for my information? Moscow replies curtly: Comrade commander, forget Geneva and its Convention and execute the orders of NKVD.
The turning point
In March 1940, the tragic turning point: the Politburo of the USSR, on Lavrentij Beria’s proposal, decides the elimination — following a “special” procedure — of the Polish interned and the deportation of their relatives. Why? Has not Stalin forgotten the defeat of 1920 and is he thirsty of revenge? Do the Soviets want to empty the prison camps occupied by the Polish prisoners in order to give place to the Finnish prisoners? Do the Soviets want to demonstrate to Hitler that they are loyal and reliable allies?
Stalin surely has not forgotten the blunder of the Vistula, but he is also a watchful politician and he is able to examine coldly every situation. It is improbable — also even not impossible, of course — that he have followed only his personal feelings. The Finnish prisoners, then, are very few, because, against all odds, in the early moments of that war ( the Soviet- Finnish war, 1939-1940), the Red Army and not the Finnish Army is in troubles. Anyway, even the Finnish prisoners had been thousands, they could have be jailed in the Siberian Gulags.
Stalin, then, is convinced — or he seems convinced — that the alliance with German will hold. According to the treaty, he continues, in fact, to send regularly to Berlin raw materials and products and, for these reasons, he does need, for the moment, to demonstrate his loyalty to Nazi Germany. Probably is the fierce Polish resistance against every attempt of “re-education” that convinces him to choose a drastic solution.
Because of reasons of “ internal security”, firstly. The prisoners have to be eliminated becausee they are a potential threat for the future stability of Communist Poland. For the most part, they are graduated and fervent patriots: come back to the civilian life, they would become ruling class and, in the future, they could lead an insurrection, threatening or overturning the established order. In the memorandum for Stalin, Beria writes: “ Everyone …( i.e. every Polish prisoner).. , once freed, wishes to take active part in the struggle against the Soviet power”. By eliminating them and their families, this danger will be avoided for at least two generations. In short, for the time to settle Communism in Poland.
Be clear: this is not only a Soviet thinking. Also Hitler — final objective apart — about the intellectuals is thinking in this way. The military governor of German Poland, Hans Frank, der Deutsche Konig von Polen, the German King of Poland, according to the Curzio Malaparte’s definition, speaking , on May 1940, to the officers of the German Police, gives voice to the his Fuehrer’s ideas: “ The men able to command, here in Poland, must be eliminated.” On the day of Warsaw’s surrender( September 27th , 1939), the chief of the Security Service ( SD, in German Sicherheitdienst) , General Reihnardt Heydrich had communicated to Berlin: “ Only three per cent of the highest classes of Poland in the occupied territories is still present.” Some day before ( September, 3rd ) he had said: “ The Polish ruling class must be eliminated as much as possible” and the remaining “under classes.. ( must be).. kept at a low level”.
In not so famous places like Katyn ( Stutthof, close to Danzig; Soldau in the eastern Prussia; the Fort VIII at Poznan; the oil factory of Torun) are jailed and assassinated by the Germans thousands of Polish militaries. The attitude towards the intellighenzija links, in the ideological approaches and even in the repressive ways, the Soviet and Nazi regime and, in general, all the totalitarian regimes. Not casually NKVD and Gestapo, in the early times of the occupation of Poland, collaborate to solve the issue of the Polish war prisoners in their respective zones of influence.
But there is another reason, too. Both Marxism-Leninism and Nazism want to create the perfect society: the first one by eliminating the social classes which are enemies of the Proletariat, the latter by eliminating the so called inferior races. A practical reason — settling Communism in Poland — and a ideological reason — the elimination of the classes which are alien with the process of building of the perfect society — are, thus, the basis of the Katyn’s massacre. And ideological reasons — although different — are the basis of the elimination, by the Nazis, of thousands and thousands of people of the so called inferior races, in Poland and elsewhere.
“Special” units, for instance, follow the Wehrmacht with the sole task of killing civilians and Jews , of burning villages and of destroying towns. Thousands of Nazi “Katyn” proliferate, at first in Poland and , then, after 1941, in USSR and elsewhere. Feldmarshal Gerdt von Rundstedt , horrified by so much violence and fury, forbids , at a certain point, his soldiers to have some contact with the special units.
The victims were hundreds of thousands. At Katyn around four thousand five hundred corpses were found: many or few, depending on the points of view. But there were many other victims. More than twenty thousand people( policemen, militaries, civilians) were executed by the Soviets in Kharkov and elsewhere; hundreds of deported did not come back from Kazakhstan and from Siberia. Katyn was not a genocide, perhaps it was not even a mass extermination if compared with the Soviet “purges” of 1937-38 or with the extermination of the Jews and of the Soviet war prisoners by the Nazis : it was, rather, as Victor Zalawsky has written, ” class cleansing ”. ( Victor Zalawski, Class cleansing : the Katyn massacre, 2008).
If the early management of the prison camps had been makeshift, on the contrary the deportation of the prisoners’ relatives is effective. In one night of April 1940 ( April 13th ) more than seventy thousand people, elder men and kids included, are gathered and sent to Kazakhstan or to other inhospitable places of the USSR. The properties of the deported people are confiscated. Many “ local” activists help the police and the officials of the NKVD. Not always the “ activists” are driven by the sacred fire of the ideology: the desire of loot is often what moves them.
Few people are able to escape: for chance, because of an unexpected or unforeseen help, because of a stroke of luck. A Soviet major, for instance, according to director Andrzej Waida, prevents the deportation of the wife and of the daughter of a prisoner Polish officer. But, paradoxically, the Soviets themselves return the freedom to all deported and to all Polish prisoners in Soviet hands.
On June 22nd the Germans launch Barbarossa and their armoured divisions into the wideness of the Russian spaces , forcing Stalin to amnesty, in August, Polish deported and prisoners. From Kazakhstan thousands of survivors come back; from the prison camps, only few hundreds of officers come back. And with them, some terrible questions.
Cries and whispers .
The amnesty brings new problems. In USSR a Polish army is being formed under command of General Wladislaw Anders, but many officers are missing. In particular, the officers detained in Starobelsk, Kozielsk and Ostraskov have been amnestied but they have never come back. From the camp of Gryazovests around four hundred prisoners have come back. Few, very few. Among them, there is also a General, Jerzy Wolkowicki, spared because, navy officer during the battle of Tsushima( 1905) against the Japanese, he had been the sole who had refused to surrender. The Soviets have not killed these officers hoping — in vain, however — to attract them on their side and to form with their help a Polish Communist Army. Where are the others?
Captain Count Joseph Czapski, a survivor of Gryazovests, collects documents and testimonies, but he does not obtain any collaboration from the Soviets and by them he always receives the same answer: “ We have no news about them.” General Wladislaw Sikorski, chief of the government in exile and General Wladislav Anders, commander in chief of the rebuilt Polish Army, want to know; the wives, the sons, the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters of the “ missing” officers, want to know. Why do not letters arrive from the camps anymore? Why when we ask where are our relatives, do you answer “ transferred”( where? Why?) or “ we have no news about them”?
Urged by Sikorski and by Anders, Stalin gives, at first, vague answers; then, in their presence ( or, according to another version, in presence of the Polish ambassador in USSR, Stanislaw Kot) calls Beria by telephone and orders him to find the missing officers, probably escaped — according to him — in Manchuria (!?) or hidden who knows where. With the two Polish senior officers, Stalin has been elusive, he has given — speaking about the escape in Manchuria — almost offensive explications; by phoning Berija he has planned a cynic deception , but in Poland the voices run. They are strange and terrible. One whispers of assassinated officers, of corpses buried in a hurry into mass graves. By whom?
The relatives of the missing militaries make a plea on the newspaper of the Polish Embassy in Moscow: they want to know the destiny of their loved ones ; they invite those who know something to speak. The Soviet censorship intervenes and prevents its publication. Spreading — acting in this way — suspicions, making cold the hearts and turning the voices into cries.
An echo of those cries arrives even to London. In early April 1943, Sikorski refers to Churchill: I have got reliable information about the assassination of thousands of Polish officers. And he adds: the Soviets are guilty. The Premier’s answer is cold: “ If they are dead, nothing that you can do will bring them back”. As to say: we are all in the same boat and we have to row in the same direction. This is not the moment to hurt the Soviet feelings. First neutralize Hitler, then look in our wardrobes.
On April 13th 1943, those “wardrobes” open wide: the Germans communicate they have found, at the end of February, close to Smolénsk in the Katyn forest in Belarus, buried in mass graves, the corpses in decomposition of thousands of Polish officers and Polish soldiers killed by a gun shot in the nape. And they add: this is the unmistakable signature of the Soviet NKVD. The Soviets reply immediately, blaming the Nazis for that crime.
The news goes around the world and the events come to a head. In Poland, radio and newspapers let the names of some officers identified at Katyn be known. The cries become higher and higher, the military chaplains celebrate Masses for the souls of the murdered; Stalin interrupts the relationships with the Polish government in exile, accusing it to collaborate with the foe ( both Sikorski and the Nazis, in fact, independently of each other, had required the intervention of the International Red Cross to throw light on Katyn); Churchill feels more than a shiver down his spine and some month later General Sikorski dies in a mysterious aerial crash. In short time, the Katyn’s graves become a political issue. A very, very dangerous political issue.
In the meanwhile the research of the truth continues. An international Board, appointed by the Nazis, works for more than a month at Katyn. At the presence of some allied prisoner officers invited as witnesses on the place of the massacre, it makes post-mortem examinations, collects information, formulates hypothesis, compares and verifies data and, at the end of May, concludes; the Polish militaries have been killed in 1940, not afterwards.
Why in 1940 and not afterwards? Because a substance has been found on the inner walls of the skull of the corpses. This substance begins to take shape only three years after the death, not before. And then there are the trees — some red spruces — transplanted on the graves around three years before, as an examination with the microscope and the declaration of an experienced botanic reveal. If the murders have been committed in 1940, the Germans have nothing to do with them. It is hard to believe and few, also in Poland, do not want to believe. Those are not reliable conclusions, is their objection: the counterproof lacks, that Board is an one-sided Board or it will have suffered pressures by the Nazis. And so on.
London, however, knows. A technical Commission of the Polish Red Cross, with the authorisation of the German authorities, has made investigations on its own. And it has arrived to the same conclusions of the international Board. Is even the Polish Commission one- eyed? Its members, even if they do not sympathize with the Soviets, are interested to make the Nazi occupants guilty and to reveal the true face of the Nazism to the whole world. If they had success, it would be as defeating twenty German divisions. They are so convinced of the guiltiness of the Germans that they infiltrate the Commission with members of the Polish Resistance, in order to collect proofs of the massacre and names of eventual war criminals.
But, on the contrary, the Germans have nothing to do with that affaire. London receives the sole copy of the report — the members of the Polish Commission have thought it was not right to publish the results for giving no advantage to the Germans — but she hides this report in a hurry. It will come back to light more than forty-five years later, in 1989.
And the Soviets? In January 1944, after having recaptured Belarus, they send a special Commission to Katyn with the objective to verify “ the shooting of Polish prisoners of war by German-Fascist invaders in Katyn forest”. If, already before any investigation, the responsibility is given to “ German-Fascist invaders”, will be there any space for different conclusions?
At the beginning, the Soviets, under the guide of Professor Nikolaij Burdenko, famous neurologist and personal doctor of Stalin, do not make a mistake in their moves. They invite some foreign journalists — among them there is also Kathleen Harriman, the young daughter of the American ambassador in Moscow — ; they insist on the German construction of bullets used for executing the prisoners ( incontestable datum); they illustrate the results of the post-mortem examinations; they exhibit many witnesses; affirm that on the dead prisoners some documents have been found ( all these documents are, according to the Burdenko’s Commission, posterior to the Spring 1940); reaffirm their version of the events ( the Poles assassinated at Katyn were working in that area to build a road; when the Nazis arrived, those prisoners could not be evacuated and they were captured and then killed by the invaders); accuse the Germans to have, afterwards, unburied the corpses, substituted the documents, covered again the graves and they conclude: the date of the murder? Between August and September 1941.
Everything seems to go as a milk run, but luck is against it. A journalist asks: between August and September? It is strange, because the uniforms of those poor officers seem to me winter uniform. Silence, cold sweats. Between August and December the Commission corrects itself. All right? By no means! Perhaps because of an oversight, perhaps because of other reasons, on the official document the declaration of the “ witnesses” are not modified. If, in its document, the Commission sets the date of the execution between August and December 1941, in the same document the witnesses heard by the Commission set it between August and September 1941. Kathleen Harriman, however, does not seem to mind these clear contradictions and she finds convincing the Soviet conclusions.
But, for the moment, there are other troubles. The war, for instance. Hitler is on the ropes also thanks to the Soviet military pressure. Making weaker this pressure because of stories like that one of Katyn would be an act of self-destructive behaviour. And thus as well as the report of the Committee of the Polish Red Cross, two other reports are hidden: those ones of Sir Owen O’Malley, ambassador of His Majesty to the Polish government in exile. Sir O’Malley had written that the Soviets had been responsible of the massacre. Churchill comments: “ We should none of us ever speak a word about it.” And at the end of April, he had written: We must stop to go around those tombs near Smolensk.
After 1940, the officers, the non-commissioned officers, the privates of Katyn and all other Polish prisoners killed in the cells or in the dungeons of the NKVD die again a second time, victims of the indifference, of the silence, of the political calculation , of the counter -information. Till from the beginning, important and clear evidences are underestimated or neglected. Zawodny gives us a list of them. Are the Polish prisoners building a road and, when the Germans arrive, is there no time to evacuate them? Why do not the Soviets give this version to those who are looking for the prisoners instead of affirming : We do not know anything about them? And if even the prisoners had been abandoned to the Nazis and to their own destiny, is it possible that, exploiting the mess, not even a prisoner ( they were about fifteen thousand) has been able to escape?
Into the graves also some wooden clogs are found. They are those clogs by which the officers tried to protect from the cold their feet during the roll calls and to preserve, together with their boots, their honour of soldiers. It is difficult to think that with those clogs tied roughly under the soles of their boots, the prisoners were able to have the freedom of movement to make heavy and exhausting works as the works that are required for building a road. On the other hand, if wearing the clogs during the work had been forbidden to the prisoners, their boots would have been worn out in a short time. But the soles of the boots found into the graves are not worn out. None.
And what about the signs of wounds by four-headed bayonet on the bodies of many prisoners? In 1940, only the Red Army uses that kind of bayonet. And what about the strings, all made in USSR, all with the same length, with which the hands of prisoners are tied? They make think to a plan planned early. Moreover, at Katyn, into a separated grave, afar from the graves in which are buried the Poles, some other corpses are found. They are not corpses of Polish officers, but bodies of civilian people killed eight years before. In short, the zone around Katyn seems , from always, a zone destined to the executions. ( Not for nothing, that zone was forbidden for the civilians).
Into the graves, the corpses are piled one on another( also twelve layers are counted) and joined because of the process of decomposition. For separating them, shovels, hooks and even pickaxes are necessary. Once separated, on the corpses in the lower layers, the mark of that one which lies on them remains. If even, according to Burdenko Commission, someone had exhumed them and then had put them again at their place, would he have been able to make fit together exactly the marks? And even if he had been able to do it, could the corpses have joined one another in a such short time?
Into the pockets of the uniforms of some officers, moreover, some propaganda newspapers are found: none of them has a date posterior at early may 1940. If the Germans are guilty of the Katyn massacre, if they have polluted the proofs by eliminating every track of the documents posterior at the Spring 1941, how have they been able to know which were, at that time, the most widespread newspapers in the Soviet camps? And even if they had known which they were, how have they been able to obtain them? And what about the diaries of the prisoners? The last one breaks off at end of April 1940, more than a year before the arrival of the Germans.
And then, why do not the Soviets show any document proving the presence in the camp of Kozielsk of those prisoners after the Spring 1941? They would have been completely exculpated. And, saying that those murders have happened in Spring 1940, why are not the Germans afraid to be belied by the letters received by the prisoners’ relatives after that period? A sole letter, a sole post card dated 1941 would be sufficient to prove that their accuses were wrong. The survivors of the prison camps, in fact, had continued to write to their relatives till the Spring 1941. And why, while the Red Army is advancing, do the Germans try to put in a safe place the proofs ( diaries, documents, etc.) which are in their hands? Why do not they destroy them immediately? If these proofs had been damaging for them, they would have destroyed them.
The Burdenko Commission, in truth, affirms to have found into the pockets of the uniforms of some prisoners nine documents. These documents, according to the Commission, are posterior to the Spring 1940. But the Commission forgets to specify their content, attributes them to prisoners who never were jailed in Kozielsk — from where all the militaries found into the Katyn graves come. German Colonel Ahrens, according to Burdenko Commission the commander of the unit which had exhumed the corpses and falsified the proofs, voluntary witness at Nurnberg, demonstrates, without a shadow of a doubt, to have been in service elsewhere in that period. The German unit indicated by the Soviet Commission never stayed in the ex rest home for officers of the NKVD close to Katyn and individuated as the German command’s headquarter.
And the witnesses? Some of them are sure to have heard, for many days, gun shots; others swear to have seen German soldiers coming back from the forest with their uniforms bloodstained, or, on the contrary , to have seen an acquaintance of theirs among the Soviet guards escorting the prisoners towards the forest. These testimonies must be taken with a grain of salt: without other validations, they are completely meaningless.
Till from the start, the soviet strategy is clear: affirming with strength the guiltiness of the Germans, even at the cost to build fake proofs. In the last days of the war, the NKVD finds, in the “liberated” Countries, two members of the International Board appointed by the Nazis in 1943. One of them , the Bulgarian professor Markov, doctor and criminologist, retracts. He declares publically: the Nazis forced us, with intimidations and pressures, to declare they were innocent. Also his colleague, the Czechoslovakian professor Hajdeck, confirms the Markov’s version. Some years afterwards, the Neapolitan professor Vincenzo Palmieri, member of the International Board at Katyn will reply: Pressures? I did not aware of them. An officer de liaison ,a Wehrmacht’s Major, was with us at Katyn: he was very attentive. Later, he will be shot because of his participation at the Stauffenberg’s plot. Markov? If Naples had been freed by the Soviets, probably even I would have retracted.
In 1946 an American military court, at Nurnberg, on Soviet request, examines the Katyn affaire. The Soviets are ready. They have “ instructed” their witnesses, Markov and Hajdeck included, and they are sure that the Germans will be sentenced guilty. But, on the eve of the trail, the Soviet public accuser, Nikolaj Zorja, has more than a doubt. He has served in Poland, where he has heard the whispers and the cries about the Polish prisoners. He confides to his colleagues he considers the Soviet position a weak position. Some day after this confidence, Zorja is found without life in his hotel room. Now, the dead of Katyn are 4,443 plus one.
The court, however, does not believe either in Markov or in the other witnesses presented by the Soviets. Here is the conclusion of the judges: It is probable, very probable that the Germans are not responsible of the massacre. The answer is: and then who is guilty? The court replies: verifying further is not our task, we are not authorized to open ulterior inquiries: for us, the case is closed. Because of “ lacking of proofs”. Pilate, to be sincere, would not have been able to find a best conclusion.
Many others, during the war, have washed their hands by taking no responsibility. And not only about Katyn, be clear. Many knew, but nobody acted, if we except the usual statements of principles. The British politics — in particular Churchill — knew, but concerned about the stability of the coalition, they were silent. Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent to the Samoa Islands , in a kind of exile, one of the most faithful collaborators of his, George Earle, “guilty” to have reported that the Soviets were responsible of the Katyn massacre. The report of an American officer , prisoner of war, LT Colonel John Van Vliet accompanied by the Germans on the graves as witness, submitted to the Roosevelt’s attention, was defined “confidential” and hidden who knows where.
But perhaps, objectively, in those times, one could not do very much. In those times, in that period, there were “ superior” interests which had to be safeguarded: winning the war as soon as possible, not delaying its end by launching accuses and suspicions over the allies; maintaining the unity, not feeding the divisions; building the peace. All these interests entailed the renounce, if necessary and perhaps suffering, to awkward truths.
In 1952, Katyn comes again to the fore. In Korea it is being fought; the communists are now the enemies; the treatment of the war prisoners becomes topical again. The Congress of the United States of America appoints a Commission to investigate the Katyn affaire. Documents are collected, witnesses are heard and this is the conclusion: the Soviets are guilty( and, for this reason , the Communists, included those who are engaged in Korea, are guilty).
In the meanwhile, in Europe, the Soviet pressures on the ex-members of the international board had been intensified. In Switzerland, the local Communist Party had required that professor François Nivelle – one of the members of the international Board – was expelled from the University. The accuse: he is a pro- Nazi. In Italy , professor Palmieri was accused of having dishonoured the “ glorious troops of Stalingrad” by having ascribed to the Soviets the massacre of Katyn. Luckily no measure was taken. The dean of the University of Naples, Alfonso Omodeo and the Swiss Cantonal Government withstood to every pressure.
In this chess game, the desire of truth crashes against the opposite desire of someone and with the inactivity of many others. No move is forbidden. The Soviets muddy the waters. During the war, a Byelorussian village, Kathyn ( with the “h” between “t” and “y”, or Hatyn, with initial “h” ) had been razed to the ground and its inhabitants had been massacred by the Germans in retaliation. For years, Katyn is identified with Kathyn and, for this reason, the Germans are the sole guilty of the massacre of Katyn. The documents concerning the twenty –five thousand Polish prisoners killed in secret are taken away from the archives and destroyed. In those archives some documents remain: the Beria’s memorandum of March , 5 ,1940 with the signatures of all the members of the Politburo; the text of the non-aggression pact and other important documents.
In the Nineties , during the so called Perestroijka, Michail Gorbachev will admit the responsibility of the NKVD and of Berija, but he will refuse to publicize the compromising documents. Boris Eltsin will close the question, by opening the archives and saying: “Pardon us, if you can.”
Since some days the controls in the camp of Kozielsk have become less strict. Also the food is better. The guards seem almost friendly. Some rumours are running: we come back home. An officer of the NKVD “ loses” a map with the indication of the way from Kozielsk to Poland. The prisoners pick it up. Is it true? Will we come back home? The prisoners are assaulted by a deep agitation: they ask, they want to know.
The evacuation of the camp begins. The prisoners are gathered in groups, the guards are talking with them, some guards are smiling. The lists are completed, the early roll calls are made, the departures follow the departures. Who does not leave together with the others, is unable to accept it.
As soon as the prisoners have left Kozielsk, the guards return authoritarian, cold, scornful. At the station railway there are some carriages : the Polish officers and soldiers get in and the doors are closed. Someone engraves his name on the walls of the carriages, writes a short message, indicates the places met along the way. Those who come after him ( the Soviets used the same carriages for transporting all the groups) , read those messages, write something in turn. Someone writes in his own diary: it seems that we are going westwards.
Will we come back home?
The final goal is a station railway not very far from Smolensk, Gnezdovo. The prisoners come down by the trains, a group after the other group. In front of the station, there are some vans. Major Adam Solski, one of the victims, writes in his diary: “ The day ( April, 9) has begun in a strange way. We have departed in small groups, into small vans with many small cells.. We have been brought somewhere in a forest: it seems a place for summer holidays.
That forest is the Katyn forest. With their hands tied, with the head covered by their greatcoats , on their knees or lying down on their dead or dying comrades, the prisoners are waiting, at the edge of the graves, for the coup de grace. A Russian officer shoots, another officer loads again the gun, a German Walther. The prisoners fall one on another.
At the end, over them, a forest of red spruces will grow.
The events at a glance.
August, 23, 1939: in Moscow the ministers of the Foreign Affairs of URSS( Molotov) and of Nazi Germany( Ribbentrop) sign the non-aggression pact, better known as Ribbentrop-Molotov pact. A secret protocol ratifies the dividing up of the Poland between URSS and Germany.
September, 1: the German armoured divisions invade Poland. The Polish Army fights with pride and bravery, but it have to succumb to the huge power of the invaders. The Communist Parties in Europe condemn the invasion.
September, 5: Stalin meets in Moscow the Comintern’s ( Communist International) Secretary, Georgij Dimitrov and indicates the political line: Poland is a bourgeois and fascist state and it oppresses the Byelorussian and Ukrainian minorities. The Communist Parties which are part of the Comintern change their mind and accept immediately the new line, with the only exception of the Finnish Communist Party.
September, 17: without any declaration of war, the Red Army enters Poland.
September, 19: the Kremlin approves a document about the “status” of war prisoner. The prisoners — officers included — can be used as manpower in the industry and in the agriculture of the USSR.
September, 20: in Moscow the DPA ( Department for the management of the POWS) is created. The DPA is under control of the NKVD, the Committee for the Internal Affaires.
September, 21: general Kulik, commander of the Soviet invasion force, signals to Moscow: the camps are not sufficient to receive all the war prisoners.
October, 2: the Politburo issues a directive according which the Byelorussian and Ukrainian prisoners of war are freed( but 25,000 of them remain at disposal of the Soviets for the building of the road Novgograd- Leopol), the Polish officers are detained and four main camps are instituted: Starobelsk ( for the officers), Ostaskov for the policemen, the secret agents, the border guards, the public officials, Kozielsk and Putivil for the officers and the military prisoners residing in the part of Poland conquered by the Germans.
October, 8: Beria’s directive to the commanders of the camps : infiltrate spies, collect information about the prisoners and their political ideas, write dossiers, begin a re-education program.
End of October, early November: exchange of Polish prisoners between Germans and Soviets. The soldiers, the Jews, the Polish communists residing in the German occupied zone and sheltered, in order to escape the Nazis, in the zones occupied by the Red Army, are sent in their respective zones of residence and delivered to the Germans. The Polish officers remain in Soviet hands.
March, 2, 1940: the Politburo approves the proposal presented by Lavrentiy Beria and by Nikita Khrushchev – at that time Secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party – to deport in Kazakhstan and to confiscate the properties of the relatives of Polish militaries and civilians detained in the prison camps for a total of 25.000 families. Together with the relatives of the prisoners, also the Polish prostitutes ..” who are continuing to practice the prostitution” are to be deported.
March, 5: the Beria’s proposal is approved. In order to prevent a possible “counter revolution” in occupied Poland, the anti-Soviet elements have to be eliminated. They are: the Polish army officers, the border guards, the jail guards, the policemen, the public officials. They are, according to Beria, “ class enemies”. The document is signed by Stalin, Molotov, Beria, Kalinin, Voroscilov, Kaganovic, Mikojan ( Kaganovic and Mikoian did not participate to the Politburo meeting, but they were considered favourable to the Berija’s proposal). The Khrushchev’s signature lacks, because at those times, Khrushchev was the first Secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party and not still member of the Politburo. In his memorandum addressed to Stalin and to the Politburo’s members, Beria recommends that the cases be examined according to a “ special procedure”, by applying towards the prisoners the maximum penalty, i.e. the execution by shooting. And he adds that the enquiry must be conducted without any trial, without any accusation and without testifying the end of the enquiry itself.
April, 13: the deportation of the relatives of the Polish prisoners of war begins. The deportations are still lasting when the Nazis attack the USSR on June 22, 1941.
April- may 1940: the Polish militaries, the jail guards, the policemen, the officials detained at Starobelsk and at Ostaskov are killed by a shot gun in the nape in the cells of the prisons or of the barracks and buried around Charkov ( the men of Starobelsk) and around Bologoe ( the men of Ostaskov). The executions are carried out by night with the following procedure: the prisoner, gone down from a van ( the so called “ Black Crows”) is led into a room. Here he is tied or handcuffed and dragged in the room of the executions ( sometimes this room is sound-proof, other times it is very noisy). Here, two guards keeps him still, a third guard ( usually an officer) shoots. The body of the killed is carried outside through a back door, loaded on a lorry and brought, together with other corpses, to the graves. A bucketful of water washes the blood on the floor.
More than four thousand five hundred Polish militaries ( for the most part officers) coming from Kozielsk prison camp are killed in a forest close to Katyn in Belarus. Three hundred ninety-five ( according to Zawodny, four hundred forty-eight) officers are spared, both because of external interventions ( that one of the King of Italy in favour of the princes Radizwil and Lubomirski, for instance), and because they are considered “ useful” about the formation of a Polish communist army. However, despite the pressures and the refined techniques used by the warders, only few accept and, at the end, even they will pass to the orders of General Anders. Only Colonel – later General- Zygmunt Berling- will fight on the Soviet side.
June, 22, 1941, Sunday: at dawn the armoured German divisions enter full speed the USSR: The operation Barbarossa has begun.
August, 12: the Soviet government gives amnesty to the Polish civilians detained or deported in the previous year. From Kazakhstan and from other places the surviving relatives of the victims return. Some thousands of them, however, are missing.
December, 3, 1941: the chief of the new Polish government in exile, General Wladislaw Sikorski and the military commander of the recently built Polish Army, General Wladislaw Anders ( according to a different version, the Polish ambassador in Moscow, Kot) ask Stalin in person some news about the officers detained in the Soviet prison camps and never returned in Poland. This is the Stalin’s reply: Perhaps they have escaped to Manchuria or perhaps they are hidden somewhere in USSR.
March 1942: the relatives of the prisoners who have not come back in Poland after the amnesty and for this reason declared “ missing” publicize on the newspaper of the Polish Embassy in Moscow appeals and announcements. The Soviet censorship prevents the diffusion of these appeals.
April, 13: the Germans communicate they have found near Katyn thousands of corpses of Polish militaries buried in mass graves. According to them, the Soviets are guilty of that massacre. The news goes immediately round the world.
April, 15, 1943: General Sikorski refers to Churchill that he has sure information about the assassination by the Soviets of thousands of Polish militaries. The British premier replies: they are dead, we can do nothing for them. Some day afterwards, Churchill communicates to the Soviet ambassador in London: we have to defeat Hitler: this is no time for accusing or for quarrels.
April, 18, 1943: General Anders orders to celebrate Masses in suffrage of the Polish prisoners killed “in the Soviet prison camps” and Sikorski requires the intervention of the International Red Cross to throw light on what has happened at Katyn. The news about the intentions of the Poles appears in a news release of the Reuters the day before its making official. The Germans take advantage of it, and, some hours before the delivery of the request by the Poles, require , in their turn, the intervention of the Red Cross. They are without any doubt clever: it seems that the German request is presented in agreement with the Polish one. Stalin gets into a rage. The Red Cross is willing to intervene, but under a condition: all the parts — and, thus, also the USSR– must require its intervention. Stalin, obviously, does not agree. In the following days, with the intention to cause mess and disagreements amid the Allies, the Germans accuse Great Britain to have inspired the whole manoeuvre. Churchill compels the Poles to recant and then “ dampens” the Katyn affaire.
April, 23, 1943: Stalin suspends every relationship with the Polish government in exile, accusing it to collaborate with the Nazis.
April 28, 1943: Churchill, very concerned about the anti-Nazi alliance, writes to Antony Eden, British Minister of the Foreign Affairs, that it is better to forget, for the moment, the graves “around Smolensk” .
May, 30, 1943: the International Board appointed by the Germans in the previous April and presided by the famous Hungarian doctor Ferenc Orsos ( according to Zalawski by the professor François Naville, Swiss) lets his conclusions be known. They are based on very careful post-mortem examinations and on other important observations( the “ age” of the red spruces planted on the graves, for instance): the three generals, the four thousand officers and soldiers, the catholic priest and the woman buried at Katyn were killed in 1940. To the same conclusions also the members of a Polish Red Cross commission had arrived. The Polish Commission acted at Katyn at the same time of the international Board, but independently from it. The report of the Commission — sent to London — remains secret and it will return in light only in 1989. A third commission, formed only by German legal doctors, in action between April and May 1943 at Katyn , concludes in the same way of the other commissions. The three commissions act in full autonomy and independently one from another. To the exhumation of the corpses also some allied war prisoners are present. At a certain point, Himmler thinks to invite as witness General Sikorski himself.
July 1943: General Sikorski dies because of a mysterious aerial crash.
January 1944: the Soviet commission presided by the illustrious professor Nikolaj Burdenko, reports that the murders of Katyn happened between August and September 1941 and that the Germans are guilty. The young journalist Kathleen Harriman, daughter of the American ambassador in Moscow, sends to Washington a report in which she believes convincing the Soviet conclusions. Years afterwards, she denied this report.
August, 1, 1944: Warsaw rebels against the German occupants. The Red Army is very close to the capital city, but it does not intervene, someone say because it is exhausted, others say it does not intervene on purpose. The rebellion lasts sixty-three days. Finally, Warsaw is completely razed to the ground and two hundred fifty thousand of its inhabitants lose their life.
May, 23, 1946: Nikolaj Zorja, one of the prosecutors who have to maintain the Soviet version about Katyn at the Nurnberg Court, is found without life in his hotel room. He has revealed his perplexities about the credibility of that version.
1946: the American court of Nurnberg dismisses the Katyn affaire, because there are no proofs about the guiltiness of the Germans. The court, once verified the lacking of proofs against the Germans, does not open any further inquiry to try to find the responsible.
1951-52: the Congress of the United States of America begins an inquiry about Katyn and admits the Soviet responsibility. Great Britain, because of political and economic reasons, is not so determined and the Soviets exploit this situation.
March, 3, 1959: the chief of the KGB at those times, General Alexandr Selepin, sends a letter to Nikita Khrushchev , writing that the dossiers concerning the Polish prisoners and kept in a super secret archive are without any interest or without any historical value and that, in his opinion, they are to be destroyed. The Committee for the internal security approves.
1963: the book Death in the forest by JK Zawodny is published. In this book Zawodny, using the documents at his disposal in those times( the reports of the commissions, the diaries of the prisoners and so on) blames the Soviets.
1972: the British government forbids that the Polish immigrants in England build a monument in the centre of London to commemorate the Katyn victims. When the monument is inaugurate in a private cemetery, the government forbids the militaries and the ministers to participate to the ceremony.
October, 13, 1990: Michail Gorbachev admits the guiltiness of NKVD, apologizes officially to Poland, but he does not make public the secret documents ( Ribbentrop – Molotov pact, Beria’s memorandum, Selepin’s letter and so on). Boris Eltsin will make public them in 1992.
The figures of a massacre.
At Katyn eight mass graves were found. Into seven of them, according to the international commission, 4,143 corpses were found; according to the Commission of Polish Red Cross, 4,243. Into the eighth grave two hundred corpses were found. The total figure is 4,343( International Commission) or 4443( Polish Commission).The most part of those corpses were Polish officers, but also the corpses of many privates and about twenty corpses of civilians were found. Among the killed there were also the corpse of a catholic priest and of a woman who was pilot officer. She was the daughter of a Polish General.
All the prisoners came from the prison camp of Kozielsk. The Germans knew that the Poles were looking for fifteen thousand officers, non commissioned officers and soldiers of the Polish Army interned into the Soviet prison camps and never returned home after the amnesty given by Stalin. Thus, when they announced they have found the graves, they said that the corpses were 11,000/12,000. Since the corpses found into the mass graves of Katy were one third of the announced figure, the Germans made dig for long time in the zone, but they did not find other corpses.
The data of that “ class cleansing” of which Katyn was the most known aspect , are contained in the letter with which the chief of KGB, General Selepin, advices Khrushchev to destroy the dossiers of the prisoners. According to Selepin, the victims were 21,857: at Katy 4,421 ( more or less the figure given by the Polish Commission); at Starobelsk, close to Karkov, 3,820; at Ostaskov ( District of Kalinin) 6,331; in other camps of Ukraine and of Belarus 7,305. Also thousands of deported have to be added to those victims: the civilians dead of starvation, of disease in the places of deportation.
Here a selected bibliography. Remember to add to it the following book:
Victor Zalawsky, Class cleansing: the Katyn massacre, Telos Press, 2008
To see: Katyn, by Andrzej Waida, 2007
Below the post’s title: the cover of the JK Zawodny’s book, Death in the forest