A devastating massacre in the forest just outside of Smolensk was kept a secret for almost fifty years. The extent of the truth was not fully acknowledged until twenty years after that. What happened in the forest was among the first of the gruesome and senseless series of murders that took place during World War II, and one of the last of those to be solved. This was to be known as the Katyn Massacre.
In 1939 Hitler and Stalin signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, also known as the Non-Aggression Pact, in which it was agreed to divide Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Finland and Poland. Both leaders agreed to divide Poland in half. In September of this year, both leaders invaded Poland, with the Soviets acting first. Under the guise of “liberating” Ukrainian and Belorussian workers from oppression, the Poles, especially those belonging to the intelligentsia, were placed by the Soviets in special concentration camps in Kolzelsk, Starobelsk, and Ostashkov; all former monasteries converted into prisons. It was in these prisons that extreme torture and interrogations took place. In early spring of 1940, the NKVD murdered thousands of men in the forests outside of these prisons under the signed orders of Lavrenty Beria Stalin, Voroshilov, Molotov, and others. It is estimated that more than 22,000 Poles died not only in the forest, but in the surrounding prisons and concentration camps at the hands of the Soviets.
None of what took place was known to the Germans until 1943 when the Pact was broken. The Nazis used this intelligence to try to cause a rift between the allies. They broadcasted it on the Radio Berlin (the full transcript can be found here) and brought 12 forensic experts as well as the Polish Red Cross to justify their claims. The evidence was overwhelming: hand-drawn maps from soldiers who witnessed the genocide, aerial photographs taken by German reconnaissance showing mass burials, and even journals from the deceased that were unearthed. But why, even with all the evidence that the Germans collected, were the facts ignored for the span of seven decades?
Stalin insisted that the claims made over the broadcast were “monstrous invention by the German fascist scoundrels”. The Allies feared the truth which might have estranged the Soviet Union and rejected all claims. They knew that they needed the Soviets to win the war. However, on the other hand, Winston Churchill believed that “the German revelations are probably true. The Bolsheviks can be very cruel” (620).
Even with this film, Katyn, 1943, the Allies still questioned who was at fault despite interviewing two survivors.
Once the Soviets were able to take back Poland, they organized a cover-up in 1944 known as the Burdenko Commission. The Commission did precisely what the Nazis had done to retrieve evidence by bringing in forensic teams to collect evidence. However, the Soviets would not let anyone but their own work on the project, and with the second requirement being that any witness should be ethnically Russian. The Soviet military court in Leningrad tried seven German soldiers to procure false evidence. One of the accused Arno Diere, a German soldier, confessed to the crimes, or rather, was forced into the confession. The “evidence” that supported their claim that the Nazis were guilty for these crimes was accepted without question by the Allies, despite Churchill and Roosevelt knowing better.
Under the orders of Franklin Roosevelt, George Earle, an emissary to the Balkans, was sent to investigate in 1944. His reports, however, were dismissed immediately. Two American POWs, Donald Stewart and John Van Vleit, who witnessed the horrors presented information that was also discarded. In fact, Van Vliet’s superior Major General Bissell physically destroyed his report and claimed it was “lost”. This same Major General would later testify in the 1950s when the case was opened again on U.S. soil. Bissell claimed that if he would have come forward with the information in the 40s, it “would have been contrary to U.S. interests to embarrass the Soviet Union during the war.” In the late 1960s the Soviets were still trying to blame the Nazis for what had happened. In 1969 the Soviets built a war memorial in the Belorussian village Khatyn to the victims of Fascism to attract attention away from the Katyn Massacre. With the village having a similar name to the forest in which the mass burials took place, the Soviets hoped to put an end to inquiries. Nixon was even brought here, hoping to shift his attention to this spot rather than where the massacre occurred. You can read the article that was published about his trip in The New York Times in 1974 here.
Later, when Gorbachev visited Warsaw under Glasnost’, crowds flooded the streets to demand the truth. He reluctantly released some of the information. He only acknowledged Beria to be at fault, and grossly underestimated the number of the victims. He even asked his aids to find a “counterbalance” to the massacre. Yeltsin, in a commemoration ceremony, stated that it wasn’t just a Polish tragedy, but a Russian one.
Even more heart breaking is that the same forest where the Katyn Massacre took place is also where President Lech Kaczynski’s plane, carrying the president as well as top military and political leaders of Poland, crashed in 2010, just days after Putin fully acknowledged publicly that the Soviet Union was indeed responsible for the horrific crimes against the Poles. Read more here.
Believing in victory at all cost, the Allies overlooked this horrific crime committed by one of their own despite overwhelming amounts of evidence and despite our own leaders knowing better. How long should the truth have to wait, and is it worth it in order to preserve political unity?
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