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65th Katyn Anniversary

The day before yesterday was the 65th anniversary of the discovery of the Katyn (Katyń, in Polish) atrocities. The Polish press agency PAP had a very good, lengthy item on the subject. Unfortunately, it’s in Polish but I’ll try to give you the lowdown below.

I think this is especially important in the wake of the abysmal Andrzej Wajda movie seemingly devoted to the subject. Probably not one of Wajda‘s movies is a masterpiece but he has really gone a long way from the relatively decent flicks he made early in his career (a very lengthy and, IMO, overenthusiastic article on Katyn the movie can be found in the NYRB; it’s by Anne Applebaum, author of Pulitzer-winning GULag monograph, and wife to current Polish foreign affairs minister Radosław Sikorski).

It seems Wajda found movie-making easier when he had a clearly defined establishment to please. The current movie, apart from being appallingly bad, has a rather distasteful back-story: Wajda blocked the making of any movie about Katyn in Poland for more than a decade – he wanted to be the first to tackle the subject. In 1999 he actually used his various connections to persuade producers to withdraw funds assigned to a Robert Gliński film about Katyn that was already going past the pre-production phase!

But back to the history of the Katyn massacre:

On April 13th 1943 the German radio announced that mass graves of Polish officers had been discovered by German soldiers in the forest of Katyn, just outside the city of Smolensk (it is really quite striking to discover how small the actual distance between the center of Smolensk – a city with a very turbulent past – and Katyn forest really is; the bus ride takes no more than 20 minutes).

The name “Katyn” is usually used as a sort of code word standing for a series of massacres. In Katyn the NKVD (the Soviet secret police) killed approx. 4.4 thousand Polish officers earlier kept in the Kozielsk camp. The other two sites of mass killings are Kharkiv where 4 thousand officers from the Starobilsk camp were killed (buried in the Piatykhatky forest), and Tver where more than 6 thousand POWs from the Ostashkov camp were killed (buried in the Mednoye forest). A further part of this massacre was the killing of over 7 thousand Polish POWs held captive in camps in Belarus and Ukraine. No more than 450 (perhaps even less than 400) prisoners of the Kozielsk, Starobilsk and Ostashkov camps survived.

All of these murders were committed based on one and the same decision of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Central Committee’s Politburo, taken on March 5th 1940. It was suggested by Lavrentiy Beria (chief of NKVD) himself. The decision met with Stalin’s approval (he signed it), and the executions began in early April. A large part of the soldiers held prisoner in the Russian camps were members of military reserve forces who never even took part in battle. These were mainly Polish intellectuals: lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers, writers, journalists, politicians, civil servants and landowners. Their extermination was part of a larger plan, undertaken by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia together, to destroy the Polish intellectual elites.

It is worth remembering that all this took place while Stalin’s Russia was still an ally of Hitler’s Germany – a fact that Westerners tend to forget all too often, due perhaps to some sort of strange guilt: after all, they (the Westerners) owe their liberation to countless deaths of Red Army soldiers who sacrificed their lives to overcome Hitler’s Germany. This makes the Westerners uneasy. Strangely enough, what doesn’t make them uneasy is the fact that the same Red Army started World War II together with Hitler a couple of years earlier – Red Army soldiers sacrificed their lives then too, only they were fighting on the opposite side!

To this day Russian authorities have not officially acknowledged the fact that the Katyn massacres were a genocide. Immediately after the discovery of the Katyn graves, Russian involvement was explicitly denied. From the very start Russian authorities claimed that the killings took place a year later, in 1941, and that German soldiers were the perpetrators of this terrible crime (BTW, there is not one piece of evidence that could back such a claim).

During the war the Katyn massacre was played out as a political tool by both sides. Goebbels noted that he was striving to use the “Katyn scandal” to German propaganda ends “in every possible way”. Since Polish authorities condemned the massacres as a Soviet crime, Stalin could react by breaking all diplomatic relations with the Polish government-in-exile. The Allies, of course, needed Stalin – therefore they joined him in snubbing Polish officials. This was perhaps the actual moment when the Allies really “stabbed Poland in the back” – the beginning of the end of Polish chances for any real independence after the war. Thanks to the “Katyn scandalStalin could begin to form his own “Polish” government which he would install on Polish soil after “liberating” the country.

But that’s another story…

Categories: Polish history Tags: ,
  1. Jezetha
    15 April 2008 at 8:12

    Good piece, Maciek. Well, this Westerner hasn’t forgotten the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact…

  2. maciek
    15 April 2008 at 19:36

    Hi again, Johan!
    Of course, there’s no denying Russia’s significant role in beating the Nazis. And I’m not one to underestimate the Allies’ difficult situation: I mean, in terms of “realpolitik”, they really had little to gain by appeasing Poland, then as now – a minor player on the geopolitical chessboard. The thousands of Polish soldiers fighting in allied armies would continue to fight in them anyway. But they could gain a lot by respecting Stalin’s whims – which, of course, weren’t really whims at all but part of a strategy with the goal of controlling as large a chunk of post-war Europe as possible.
    But it’s one thing to understand their motivations, and another to condone their decisions…
    It’s just that people rarely seem to ask: what was in it for Stalin? They seem to believe he sent out those troops in the spirit of goodwill and fraternity among all human beings (or because he hated Hitler), while in fact he was doing it for entirely different reasons.
    But you know all this – I just feel like ranting all the time these days. I guess I’m tired…
    Cheers!

  1. 26 November 2008 at 21:29

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