*** war and social upheaval: World War II Soviet attrocities in Poland -- Katyn Forest

Soviet Attrocities in Poland: Katyn Massacres (April-May 1940)

Soviet atrocities
Figure 1.--There are no photographs of the NKVD executiins at Katyn. Apparently the NKVD was not as proud of their work as the German SS. This grisly photograph of one of the exhumed bodies shows the bound hands of one of men murdered by the NKVD at Katyn.

Soviet actions in their occupation zone of eastern Poland were extremely brutal. An estimated 0.1 million Poles were killed by the Soviets (1939-41). The most publicized killings were the Polish officers shot by the NKVD in the Katyn Forrest, but this was only a part of the wide spread executions of Polish civilians and soldiers by the Soviets. There are few first hand accounts of what happened to the Polish officers because so many were killed and because for decades after the War Poland's Communist Government suppressed any inestigation or discussion of Soviet actions during World War II.

NAZI-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact (August 1938)

The NAZI-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact was a essentially an agreement to divide up Europe (August 23, 1939). A secret codicil even sketched out the division. NAZI Foreign Minister Ribbentrop and newly appointed Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs Molotov on August 23, 1939, signed the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. At the time of thesigning, British and French delegations were in Moscow trying to reach an understanding with Stalin. Hewas convinced, however, that they were tring to draw him into a war with Hitler. The two countries which until that time had been bitter foes, pledged not attack each other. Any problems developing between the two countries were to be delt with amicably. It was last for 10 years. The Pact shocked the world and the purpose was immedietly apparent. It meant that Germany could attack Poland without fear of Soviet intervention. Thus after defeating Poland, Germany did not have to fear a full-scale European war on two fronts. What was not known at the time was that there was a secret protocol to the pact which in effect divided Eastern Europe betwen the two countries. This protocol was discoered after the end of the World War II in 1945. The Soviets continued to deny this protocol until 1989. The NAZIs 8 days after signing the Pact invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, launching World War II. Britain and France declared war September 3. Poland's fate was sealed on September 17, when the Soviets invaded Poland from the east. Although the Soviet's did not enter the War against Britain and France, the Soviets were virtual NAZI allies as they provided large quantaies of strategic materials, especially oil. Communist parties in Britainand France opposedthe war effort. The Communst Party in America opposed President Roosevelt's efforts to expand defense spending and assist Britain and France.

Soviet Invasion of Poland (September 1939)

The Soviet Union nearly 3 weeks after Germany kinvaded Poland, struck Poland from the east (September 17). The Polish Army already reeling from the German invasion was powerless to resist. The Soviets murdered numerous Poles during the incasion. This included prisoners of wars like General Józef Olszyna-Wilczynski, one of the highest ranking officers in the Polish Army. One Polish account describes an incident at Grabowiec 150 Polish policemen, 4 NCOs and 6 officers were executed by the Soviets with the aid of local Ukrainian militias (September 27). I do not have further details on this incident. The Soviets also occupied areas with Ukranian populations. The terror that had been visited on the eastern and central Ukraine was now imposed on the area of the westetn Ukraine seized from Poland. The status of the men detailed is questionanle. Legally, they were not prisoners of war (POWS). The Soviet union did not declare war on Poland. The Polish commander in chief saw ghat resistance was futile and ordered his men not to resist the Soviet invaders. There was very little actual fighting with the Red Army, in contrast to the stiff resistance to the Germans. Some fighting conmtinued in the west with the Germans. The Soviets and Germans dissolved the Polish state and partitioned the territory (September 28).

German-Soviet Cooperation

Today we have this attitide of the Germans ans Soviets as implacable enenmies. This was not the situation in 1939 when the German and Soviet forces met. Their governments had signed an alliance only a few weeks before. whoch include both security matters, but a vert extensive commercial agreement. And there was in fact a long history of military cooperation between the Red Army and Reichswhr under the Rappollo Treaty (1922). Available photographs show friendly exchanges between the German and Soviet soldiers aver defeating a despised enemy. [Groehler, pp. 21-22 and 123-124.] The photographic record shows largely friendly exchanges. The NKVD and the German security services, as one might expect from allies, even coordinated many of their actions. There were prisoner exchanges. At Brest Litovsk, where Soviet and German commandersmet, there was a joint victory parade. German forces then withdrew west behind a new demarcation line.

Soviet Occupation Policies

Soviet actions in their occupation zone of eastern Poland were extremely brutal. Both the Germans and Soviets initiated very similar occupation policies aimed at destroying not only the Polish nation but the very idea pf Polish nationality. The only major difference was that the Soviets did not have a biological obsession with the Jews as the NAZIs did. Both countries set out not only to suppress any resistance, but to destroy the Polish elite which was seen as the primary repository of Polish national existence. The NKVD killed an estimated 0.1 million Poles (1939-41). The most publicized killings were the Polish officers shot by the NKVD were the bodies found in the Katyn Forrest, but this was only a part of the wide spread executions of Poles ordered by Stalin. The Soviet Union occupied eastern Poland for nearly 2 years. Stalin's principle instrument of terror was the NKVD. NKVD men arrested, tortured, and killed thousands of Poles. They also sought to generate violence among the vatious ethnic groups, iinvcluding Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, and Belorussians. Very large numbers of Poles were deported to Siberia and central Asia. Similar repressive measures occurred in other areas occupied by the Soviet Union at the time (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania). There is no exact accounting, but the Polish deportations may have totaled 1.2 million people. Because of the way the deportations were carried out, a substantial number of people died in transit or when they arrived at their destinations. Transports during the winter were especially deadly. [Gross]

Winter War (November 1939)

Stalin's next victim after Poland was Finland whose borders were very close to the key northern city of Lenningrad. It is unclear what Stalin's goals were. Finland was formerly part of the Tsarist Empire. The Soviets claimed that they only wanted to secure land needed for defending the city. It is possible that this was the first step in preparing for the annexation of the country. Similar policies were persued in the Baltics the following year. This is probably unknowable as it may have been locked in Stalin;s mind. To our knowledge no Soviet documents have surfaced showing Stalin's ultimate objectives in Finland. When the Finn's rejected the Soviet demands, the Red Air Force began bombing and the Red Army invaded initiating what came to be called the Winter War. The ounumbered and outgunned Finns valiantly resisted abd inflicted enormous casualties on the Red Army. Ultumately the Finns had to aceed to even greater loss of territory, but maintained their independence. Virtually the entire Finnish population fled the land transferred to the Soviet Union. The principal outcome of the War was that Hitler noted the poor performance of the Red Army. The Soviets did not commit extensive war crimes in Finland and there was an exchange of prisonrrs after the War. The principal attrocity committed during the war was the NKVD actions taken against Soviet POWS returned by the Finns. Stalin's decesion not to continue the War to a conclusion and settle with the Finns has been debated by historians. The Soviet Union was condemned in the internationl press. Some historians believe that it was largely because he wanted to focus on the more important task of in Poland and the Baltics. Perhaps his assessment was that he could deal with the finns later. And it may have complicated his relationship with the Germans.

People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD)

Stalin's principal instrument of repression and terror was the Народный комиссариат внутренних (People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs--NKVD. The NKVD played a central role in Stalin's rise to power. It was the NKVD that generated the Ukranian Famine and preventing any relief effort. It was the NKVD that conducted the Great Purges. They were conceived and ordered by Stalin who was in complete control of both the Party and state aparatus. Genrikh Yagoda headed the NKVD during the peak of Stalin's purges. Most of the the purges were conducted by Nikolai Yezhov who replaced Genrikh Yagoda as NKVD chief (September 1936). Thus the Great Terror is sometimes known as the Yezhovshchina. Yezhov may have been resoonsible for the details and implementation, but there is no doubt that it was Stalin who developed the general outlines for the Purges and the dimensions of the operations. The Great Purge among other groups, wrecked devestation on the Red Army. It was one of the reasons the Red Army perforned so badly, both in Finland and the opening phase of Barbarossa. By the time of World War II, Yagoda himself had been purged. He was replaced by Lavrentiy Beria, another Georgian (1938). He would prove to be the longest serving Soviet secret police chief. The NKVD would play an important part in the Soviet World War II effort, both during and after the NAZI alliance. The NKVD knew just how to carry out Stalin's orders and periodic purges of the NKVD itself drove the importance of obedience home.

Polish POWs

Large numbers of Polish soldiers fell into Soviets hands. We have seen various estimates, between 160,000-240,000 men. The officers were separated from thecenlidted men and interned in separate camps. Stalin we now know planned from the beginning to treat the captured Polish soldiers as political prisoners rather than POWs. The NKVD created a Directorate of Prisoners of War (September 19). [Lebedeva, p. 100.] Responsibility for the POWs was taken away from the Red Army and assumed by the NKVD. The NKVD then began setting up reception centers and transfer camps. The POWs were moved by rail to camps in western areas of the Soviet Union. One arriving, the Poles were intetned in these "special" camps. The NKVD used former Orthodox monasteries at Kozelsk, Starobelsk, and Ostashkov which which they converted into prisons.

NKVD Interogations (October 1939-February 1940)

Once the Poles were securely interned in the new NKVD camps set up for them, NKVD officers began interogating them. The interogations were often lengthy. There was also intense political indoctrination. Notes were kept on individuals who expressed anti-Communist opinions. NKVD Major Vassili Zarubin was sent to the Kozelsk Camp. Most of the Polish officers were interned here. Major Zaruban oversaw the interviews. They were not conducted in a brutal way. In fact, Major Zarubin conducted himself in a correct, even sympatheic manner. He was seen as an honorable, cultured Soviet official. Many of the POWs opened up to him, not aware that their lives were in danger. Apparently, Stalin ws pleased with Major Zaruban's. He sent Zarubin to Washington as his NKVD station chief with orders to cultivate agents of influence in the U.S. Government (October 1940). It would be Major Zarubin and his wife Elizabeth who subsequently launch NKVD efforts to penetrate the Manhattan Project.

Execution Orders

The NKVD finished their interrogations of the Polish POWS at about the time the Winter War was winding down (February 1940). The NKVD interogators gave the Poles the impression that they would soon be released and allowed to go home. What the Poles did not know, but their interogators did from the beginning was that the interogations were in effect a selection process for those who were to be eliminated from the new Soviet society as part of destroying the Polish nation. Interestingly, Hitler ws careful to leave no paper trail linking him to the Holocaust or other NAZI attrocities. With Stalin there is a clear paper trail in the NKVD/KGB archives linking Stalin with not only the Katyn killings, but many other Soviet attrocities. A memorandum on NKVD letterhead was found in the NKVD/KGB archive from from NKVD Chief Lavrentiy Beria to "Comrade Stalin". Beria proposed executing the captured Polish officers, soldiers, and other selected prisoners by shooting. Stalin approved Beria's proposal. His handwritten signature appears on top. The signatures of Politburo members K. Voroshilov, V. Molotov, and A. Mikoyan follow. Appearing in the left margin are M. Kalinin and L. Kaganovich, both favored execution. Stalin signed the death warrants (March 5). The actual order has survived in the NKVD/KGN archive. It was an NKVD order condemning 21,857 Polish prisoners to "the supreme penalty: shooting." The warrant identified the men as as 'hardened and uncompromising enemies of Soviet authority'. [NKVD order, translated by Paul, pp. 353-54.]

NKVD Killing Process (April-May 1940)

The NKVD began the killing process a few weeks after Stalin signed their death warrants. The NKVD moved the men to be killed from their internment camps to three different execution sites. The Katyn Forest, located some 12 miles west of Smolensk, Russia, is the site most assoviated with the killing, but this appears to have been primarily a burial site, not an execution site. Even so, it is the site most associated with the killing process. The killing began (April 1940). The men had to surrender their watches and wedding rings. They then had their hands tied behind their backs and were shot in the head. It is is unclear just where they were shot. At first historians believed that many (perhaps 20 percent) were shot at an NKVD rest and recreation facility where they were then buried. New information found since the fall of the Comminist Government in Poland and the disolution of the Soviet Union suggest that the basement of the NKVD headquarters in Smolensk and at a nearby abattoir was where the men were shot. Their were no mass firing squads, but indivudual executions. There may have also been some executions at Katyn, but no one knows how many. There are no first hand accounts of what happened to the Polish officers because only one condemned man is known to have survived. Most of the men were dead (by late May). Some killings, however, continued after May. The total number of men killed is not known with any percission. Estimates vary. One estimate suggests about 27,000 men wee murdered. We have seen estimates as high as 40,000 victims. It is still unlikely that all of the grave sites have been found. And of course the Polish officers were only one part of the NKVD killing operations. A problem here is that there wrre other NKVD killing operations in the Ukraine, and Russia and it is not always possible to determine who was who. And there are every now and then new grave sites being uncovered. It is usually possible to identify the Polish officers among the many corpses because they were wearing Polish Army uniforms.

Operation Barbarossa (June 1941)

The Germans a little more than a year after the Ktyn killings launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union (June 1941), This changed everything for the Poles. Rather than the two great continentl powers cooperatung in the destruction of the Polish people, they were now fighting each other. The immediate repercussions were not beneficial. The Germans who had racial mtives of eliminating large number of Polish people, very quickly over ran the area of eastern Poland that had been occupied by the Poles. Even so, Barbarossa was such a massive undertaking that Hitler had to order Himmler to postpone planned actions against the Poles as theywere disrupting the economy. Actions against the Jews proceeded, but not against the Poles. The Germans reached Smollensk on the upper reaches of the Dnieper (July 13,1941), only 3 weeks after the initiation of Barbarossa. Fighting in the city raged for 2 weeks. This was important because Smolensk was the gateway to Moscow. It was also where the graves of the Polish officers lay in the nearby Katyn Forest. While the initial phase of Barbarossa only put more of Polabd in German hands, the longer term consequences were to save Polnd. First, Stalin needed allies and thousands of potential German fighters weee availsbe in NKVD internment camps--the Polish POWs. Second, Stalin needed the Westrern Allies to assist the Soviet war effort. And the Western Allies were commited to the Polish nation.

Polish Soviet Agreement (July 1941)

The NAZIs and Soviets after invading Poland, paritioned Poland (September 1939). This was provided for under the terms of the NAZI-Soviet Non-Agression Pact. Both countries launched a horific occupation designed to destroy not only the country, but the very notion of Polish nationality. Polish leaders and the iunteligensia were arrested and many executed in an effort to ensure that Poland would never again become a nation. The NAZIs pursued this policy throughout the War. Soviet policy changed after the NAZI invasion (June 1941). Stalin saw the Poles as possible allies. The Germans rapidly occupied the Societ eastern zone of pre-War Poland, but the Soviets had large numbers of Poles, both POWS and civilians deported from Poland as part of the process of suppressing Polish resistance. As a result, the Soviet Government signed an agreement with the London-based Polish Government in exile which invalidated the border arrangenents negotiated with the Germans (July 30, 1941). The agreement also changed the status of the Poles detained in the Soviet Union. They were given the choice of fighting with the Red Army or joining the Polish forces fighting with the Western Allies.

German Discovery (April 1943)

The Germans invaded the Soviet Union (June 1941). THey quickly over ran large areas of the country, included areas of what had been eastern Polamnd before the War. The Germans who had left mass graves all over the western Soviet Union, discovered mass graves at Katyn near Smolensk. The London-based government in exile had been asking for some time about large numbers of Polish officers that had been known to have been in Soviet custody, but were now unaccounted for. Stalin had not ntivipated the graves being discovered and having to answer for the murders just as Hitler had not anctipated having tgo answer for the mass graves his acolytes were leaving al over the East. The first releevation as to what happened to the Polish officers cane when Berlin radio announced that they had found a mass grave of 4,500 Polish soldiers in the Katyn Forrest (April 13, 1943). The Germans announced, "A report has reached us from Smolensk to the effect that the local inhabitants have mentioned to the German authorities the existence of a place where mass executions have been carried out by the Bolsheviks and where 10,000 Polish officers have been murdered by the Soviet Secret State Police. The German authorities went to a place called the Hill of Goats, a Russian health resort situated 12 kilometers west of Smolensk, where a gruesome discovery was made." [Radio Berlin] The Germans identified the bodies as some of the missing Polish officers abd described what they fiund in detail. The first discovery was a ditch 28 meters (m) long and 16 m wide at the Hill of Goats where 3,000 bodies had been piled up in layers of twelve. All the bodies were men dressed in military uniform; some were bound and all had pistol shots in the back of their heads. The Germans believed that based on the onging investigatiin that there were about 10,000 men buried there, but the final total unearthed by the Germans was 4,500 men. The Germans had nit found all of the graves, but enough to cause a major international incident. The bodies were in relatively good condition, in part because of soil conditions. The uniforms ckearly identified the men and there were xome dicument found. Some individuals were identified, including General Smorawinsky. At the same time, SS units were scouring the same terraine looking for the sites where their Einsatzgruppen and other German killing squads had shot and buried Jews, mostly in 1941-42. They were forcing Jewish slave work crews to dig up the bodies and burn them to destroy the evidence--Operation 1005, after which most of the Jewish workers were to be killed.

NAZI Propaganda

German Propaganda Minister Goebbels saw the first photigraphs taken at Katyn (April 16). He immediately understood the potential propganda value of the relevation when it was determined that they were some of the missing Polish officers. The invasion of Poland had been a cooperative enterprose of both NAZI Germany and the Siviet Union (September 1939). Thus the current alliance between the Polish Government in Exile, the Polish Home Army, and the Soviet Union was an uneasy one. In Gorbbels mind in also created a way of alienating Poles from the Soviet Union which had as he saw it a Jewish leadership. Goebbels is said to have exclaimed."Katyn is my victory!" He writes in his dairy about how 'grisly' the photographs were, in full knowledge that the Germans had left similar graves all over Eastern Europe. He wrote in his diary, "The Katyn incident is developing into a gigantic political affair which may have wide repercussions. We are exploting it in every manner possible. So long as ten to twelve thousand Polish victims have sacrifuiced their lives anyway--probably not entirely without their fault, for they were the real instigators of this war--they might as well now serve to open the eyes of the people of Euripe about Blshevism. In the evening a Globe Reuter report reached us containing a declaration of the Polish Government-in-exile. The declaration changes the whole Katyn affair fundamentally in that the Polisg Government-in-exile now demands that the International Red Cross take part in thge investigation. That suits us perfectly. I immediately contacted the Führer, who gave us permission to send a telegram to the International Red Cross, requesting it to collaborate in identifying the corpses. The telegram is signed by the Duke of Coburg and Gotha, whose name is well known in England and who has many family connections there. In that way, in my opinion, something has been started the repercussions of which we simply can't imagine as yet. [Goebbels, April 18, 1943.] The Soviets denined that they were responsible and blamed in on the NAZIs. The Germans to prove their allegations invited the International Red Cross to inspect the grave visit. All but one of the investigators were from Axis countries. The Red Cross reported that the bodies were Polish officers and that they had been executed with Soviet weapons.

Soviet Denials

The Soviets denied the German allegations and charged that the Germans had killed the Poles and fabricated the whole sad episoide. The Red Army liberated Smolensk (September 25, 1943). The town was devastated, it lay in ruins. Fewer than 13,000 of the more than 150,000 prewar population remained in the city. While thecRed Army drove east, the NKVD set out discrediting the German investigation, including forcing local people to recant their testimony. One historian writes, "In letters to FDR and Churchill in late April, Stakin denied involvement in the 'monstrous crimes' against the Polish officers and claimed that the 'Lomdon Poles' wre allowing themselves to be used as 'tools' for nti-Soviet purposes. On April 25 the USSR broke off relations with theLondon-based Polish government. A week later talin decided it might be useful to dissolve the Comintern ....The big story uceeded in pushing the news of the murdered Poles into the background." [Gellatley]

Inter-Allied Politics

The discovery was not at all welcomed by the Allies who were having trouble with the Soviets as was. The Red Army in 1941-43 had done the great bulk of the fighting against the Wehrmacht. Stalin was demanding a second front and becoming increasingly suspicious that the Western Allies were persuing a policy of allowing the Soviets and NAZIs to fight each other so that the Allies could control Europe. As a result, they accepted the Soviet explanations without asking many questions, preferring to focus on fighting the Germans.

Break with the London Goverment-in-Exile

The London-based Polish Government-in-Exile (PGIE) had for several years been pressing the Soviet Government about the missing Polish officers as well as reports of actions against civilans abd deportations. They already knew a great deal, but there were non leads as to what happened to the misding officers. The Soviers after the German invasion (June 1941) had opened up their prison camps and given the Polish POWS the choice of fifgting with the Red Army or traveling through Iran and joining up with the Western Allies. It is at this time that the PGIE became aware that thousands of officers were missing. The GOIE knew thge Soviers well enough to understand that the reports were probanly true. The PGIE refused to accept the Soviet denials and pressed the Soviets for an explanation. Continued demands eventually caused Stalin to severe relations with the Poles and form his own more compliant Polish exile Government. America and Britain continued to press the PGIE to cooperate with the Soviets, but the Polish officials understood very clearly that if the Soviets could not be trusted during the fight with the NAZIs that the situation as regards Polish independence would be even worse after the War when they were in complete control. [Snyder, p. 298.]

Polish Communist Government (1945-88)

The Communist Government that the Soviets imposed on Poland after the War supressed for decade any inestigation of what had occurred in the Katyn Forest or other Soviet attrocities during World War II.

Cold War

The Cold War changed attitudes in the West. The Soviet Union was no longer a valued ally. The German version had not been accepted by the Allies or at least shelved during World war II. After the War, the Russian version was subjected to greater scrutiny. Poles in the West as well as some scholars demanded answers.


Russian Admissions (1990)

The Soviets at the end of the Cold War finally admitted it was the NKVD following Stalin's orders who killed the Polish officers found in Katyn and other locations (1990).


Researching the Katyn Massacre and other Soviet attrocities are difficult to research. Soviet archives have been closed to Western scholars. And Russian authors have not been very interested in investigation this sad legacy. The Great patriotic War is a very sensitive issue in Russia. The Great Patriotic War was the proudest moment of the Soviet Union and still is for most Russians. And anyone whose sullies that image, irespective of the truth, is not well received by most Russians. For a brief period during the Glasnost era, some Western scholars managed to obtain limited access to Soviet-era archives.


Gelltley, Robert. Stalin's Curse: Battling for Cpmmunism in War and Cold War (2013), 496p.

Goebbels, Josef. Louis P. Lochner, ed. The Goebbels Diaries, 1942-1943 (Doubleday: Garden City, 1948), 566p. Notice how Goebbels talks about the Poles.

Groehler, Olaf. Selbstmorderische Allianz: Deutsch-russische Militarbeziehungen, 1920-1941 [Suicidal Alliance: German-Russian Military Relations, 1920-1941] (Berlin: Vision Verlag 1993).

Gross, Jan T. Revolution from Abroad: The Soviet Conquest of Poland's Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988).

Lebedeva, Nataliya. "The Tragedy of Katyn," International Affairs (Moscow), June 1990.

NKVD order. Translated in Allen Paul, Katyn: Stalin's Massacre and the Seeds of Polish Resurrection (Annapolis, Maryland; the Naval Institute Press, 1996). The same NKVD order also identified an additional 18,632 prisoners (including 10,685 Poles) that were in other NKVD detention facilities also being considered for condemnation. They were either still in occupied Poland (Belorussia) or the Western Ukraine.

Radio Berlin, April 13, 1941.

Snyder, Timothy. Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (Basic Books: New York, 2010), 524p.


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Created: 5:29 AM 12/6/2011
Last updated: 6:32 PM 8/16/2020