March 16, 2011

The Katyn Mystery - Yuri Yemelianov

Yuri Yemelianov

Since the first days of April, 2010, just a month before the celebration of the 65th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany the mass-media and the government officials of Poland and Russia began to make statements dedicated to a single event of the World War II – killing of several thousand Polish officers in the Katyn forest, near Smolensk. In their speeches made at the ceremony in Katyn on April 7 Poland’s Prime Minister D. Tusk and Russia’s Prime Minister V. Putin accused the Soviet authorities of shooting the Polish officers in Spring 1940.

Similar accusations were expected to be made by Poland’s President Lech Kaczinski who flew from Warsaw to Smolensk with a large group of Polish political and military leaders on the 10th of April. The stubborn reluctance of Kaczinski to postpone the long-cherished ceremony and his refusal to land either at the airport of Minsk or at that of Moscow (the capitals of countries constantly attacked by the President of Poland) made him and his companions ignore urgent warnings from the fog-covered airport of Smolensk. The resulting crash increased the list of Polish names of those who died near Smolensk.


The funeral ceremonies which followed in Krakow were used by Russia’s President D. Medvedev for making similar accusations against the Soviet leadership. These accusations were repeated again and again by D. Medvedev during his April tour of Scandinavian countries. On the 8th of May just a few hours before the beginning of the parade on the Moscow Red Square dedicated to the victory over fascism Medvedev presented the Provisional President of Poland Komarovski with documents ostensibly related to the Katyn shootings. Russia’s President announced that 67 volumes of such documents would be presented to the government of Poland.

The accusations against the Soviet authorities made by Poland’s and Russia’s official leaders and mass media were similar to those made 67 years ago by the Nazi official propaganda.

The three aims of Goebbels’ Katyn propaganda campaign

Almost exactly 67 years before the death of Poland’s president Lech Kaczinski and his companions in the air crash under Smolensk the German minister of propaganda and education Joseph Goebbels on the 9th of April 1943 wrote in his diary: ‘Polish mass graves have been found near Smolensk’. Goebbels asserted: ‘The Bolsheviks simply shot down and then shovelled into mass graves some 10 000 Polish prisoners, among them civilian captives, bishops, intellectuals, artists, etc.’

Not mentioning how the responsibility of the ‘Bolsheviks’ for this doing was proved and how the professional occupations of the dead people were established, Goebbels hastened to write down his plan of using the dead bodies found in the Katyn forest. In the same paragraph he wrote: ‘I saw to it that the Polish mass graves were inspected by neutral journalists from Berlin. I also had Polish intellectuals taken there. They are to see for themselves what was in store for them if their wish for a German defeat at the hands of the Bolsheviks should ever be fulfilled’. First and foremost Goebbels wanted to frighten the Polish population and make it support Germany in the war against the Soviet Union.

By that time the Germans did not have support of the majority of Poland. Yet a number of Poles served in the armed forces of Nazi Germany. Among war prisoners taken by the Red Army from the 22nd of June 1941 to the 2nd of September 1945 there were 60 280 Poles. They occupied the 7th place in the list of other national groups. The first six included Germans, Japanese, Hungarians, Rumanians, Austrians, Czechoslovakians.

Yet the horrors of the Nazi occupation made many Poles join guerrilla forces. Since February 1942 the underground ‘Armia Krajowa’ subordinated to the London Polish government-in exile began its clandestine activities. Since May 1942 the partisans of ‘Gwardia Ludowa’ organised by the Polish Communists and connected with Moscow began its underground operations. The coordination of the activities of the Left and the Right guerrilla forces in Poland could jeopardise the position of the German occupation forces. Hence any effort to thwart such a co-operation was welcomed by the Nazis.

On the 13th of April the German radio and press started to repeat Goebbels’ accusations. On the 14th of April Goebbels wrote down in his diary: ‘We are now using the discovery of 12 000 Polish officers, murdered by the GPU, for the Bolshevik propaganda in the grand manner. (It is noteworthy that within five days Goebbels increased the number of dead bodies from 10 000 to 12 000. The disregard for exact facts, so typical for Goebbels, is also evident in his use of “GPU” which ceased to exist in 1934. Since 1934 the functions of the GPU, or the Main Political Administration, were performed by NKVD, or the People’s Commissariat of Domestic Affairs of the USSR. Author.) We sent neutral journalists and Polish intellectuals to the spot where they were found... The Fuehrer has also given permission for us to hand out a dramatic release to the German press. I gave instructions that the widest possible use should be made of this propaganda material. It will keep us going for a couple of weeks’.

Why did Goebbels need ‘a couple of weeks’ for his Katyn propaganda? One may suppose that the Nazis pursued the second and more immediate objective in their Katyn campaign. They wanted to divert the attention of the world, and primarily that of the Polish population, from the blood bath which they planned to organise in the middle of April right in the centre of Poland.

Three months before the German announcement about the Katyn graves, on the 14th of January 1943 SS chief Heinrich Himmler visited the Warsaw Jewish ghetto where over 300 000 thousand Jews had been forcibly herded together after the German occupation. During his visit Himmler ordered to start ‘resettlement’ of the ghetto inhabitants in a month’s time – on February 15th. Such ‘resettlement’ meant either immediate killing of the Jews, or their transfer to the death camps which would have resulted in their later liquidation.

The Jews of the ghetto learned about Himmler’s decision and they rebelled on January 18. The rebellion was crushed quickly but Himmler decided to postpone the ‘resettlement’ of Jews to the middle of April.

The Goebbels’ Katyn campaign allowed the Nazis not only to divert attention from events in the Warsaw ghetto but also to mobilise Polish public opinion against the Jews. Goebbels’ propaganda asserted that the shootings in the Katyn forest were organised and performed by the Jewish commissars: Lev Rybak, Abraham Borisovich, Pavel Brodninsky, Haim Feinberg. (Later the Soviet press denied the existence of such persons in the NKVD.) The ‘resettlement’ was to be performed by Polish and Lithuanian police troops which already participated in the mass executions of Jews in Poland and Lithuania.

Simultaneously the ‘resettlement’ of a number of remaining Jews in Berlin was ordered by Goebbels since he happened to be also the Gauleiter of Germany’s capital. On the 18th of April Goebbels wrote in his diary: ‘I gave orders to investigate all the Jews still left in Berlin. I don’t want to see Jews with the Star of David running about in the capital of the Reich. I believe I shall have completed one of the greatest political achievements of my career once Berlin is free of Jews. When I consider how Berlin looked in 1926 when I came here, and how it looks now in 1943 when the Jews are being evacuated completely, I get a feeling of what has been achieved in this sector’.

On the next day, April 19, the Polish and Lithuanian police troops surrounded the Warsaw ghetto. As they entered the ghetto a new uprising of its inhabitants began. The rebels counterattacked the police troops and the latter were rebuffed. At the same time the fighters tried to get away from the ghetto though it was surrounded by the heavily armed troops.

On the 25th of April Goebbels wrote down: ‘From a report from the occupied areas I gather that a truly grotesque situation obtains in Warsaw. The Jews tried to leave the ghetto by subterranean passages. Thereupon these underground passages were flooded. The ghetto is now under artillery fire. When such conditions prevail in an occupied city, it certainly cannot be said to be pacified. It is high time that we evacuated the Jews as quickly as possible from the General Government... The Fuehrer would like to talk to me before I go on leave, especially to discuss the next moves on the Jewish question, about which he has great expectations’.

German Waffen SS battalions supported by tanks and artillery joined the Polish and Lithuanian policemen in their attacks against the ghetto. The troops were commanded by SS General Stroop. Following Himmler’s order to raze the ghetto to the ground, the troops started to demolish one building after another. It took almost a month to suppress the uprising. On May 16 Stroop reported: ‘Of the total of 56 065 caught, about 7 000 were destroyed in the former ghetto during large-scale operation, 6 929 Jews were destroyed by transporting them to Treblinka; the sum total of Jews destroyed is therefore 13 929. Beyond that, from five to six thousand Jews were destroyed by being blown up or by perishing in the flames’.

The American historian William Shirer justly supposed that the 36 000 inhabitants of the ghetto who remained alive after the suppression of the uprising were killed later in gas chambers. Almost all of 300 thousand inhabitants of the ghetto were killed. Yet despite the scale of the massacre the world did not get much news about it at that time due to the efforts of Nazis to keep an information blockade over Warsaw and to make a veritable smoke screen by launching Katyn propaganda. Nazi information about 10 or 12 thousand bodies of the Polish officers concealed the brutal murder of 300 thousand Polish Jews.

While the uprising of the Warsaw ghetto went on Goebbels continued his Katyn propaganda campaign. Meanwhile the Germans began to complain that they were sick after looking constantly at corpses in various stages of decomposition in papers and newsreels. Many of them demanded to put an end to the Goebbels’ propaganda campaign.

These sentiments ran against the third objective of Goebbels in his Katyn propaganda: he wanted to frighten the German soldiers and the German civilian population by showing what would be in store for them if they surrendered to the Red Army and ceased maintaining war efforts. On 18th of April Goebbels wrote in his diary: ‘Here and there certain groups of Germans, especially the intellectuals, expressed the idea that Bolshevism isn’t as bad as the Nazis represent it to be. That is owing to the fact that our consideration for the families of men missing in action in the East has been such that we have not described the atrocities of Bolshevism as they actually happened. The Katyn case now offers a welcome opportunity to catch up on this. The families of our missing men in the East simply must accept this sacrifice so that the German people won’t someday have to face a greater one, perhaps even that of their national existence’.

Yet the protests against the gruesome Goebbels’ propaganda were supported by influential military commanders of Germany. Goebbels complained in his diary on the 28th of April: ‘The military men at the Fuehrer’s General Headquarters have actually succeeded in eliminating the pictures of Katyn from the weekly newsreel... The military rest their case on the morale of the families of our men missing in action. We have to choose between the feelings of these individuals and the interests of the people as a whole. I regard the latter as much more important and therefore advocate that we expose Bolshevism exactly as it is’.

The Nazis did their best to conceal from the Germans that the prisoners of war taken by the Red Army were safe and sound. In his memoirs one of the leading Nazi ministers Albert Speer informed that Hitler ordered to destroy all post-cards sent by German prisoners from the Soviet camps. Speer stressed that Nazi leaders were afraid that the cards ‘might have mitigated the Russophobia that was being so carefully cultivated by Hitler’s propaganda apparatus’.

Yet the fears for those German soldiers taken prisoners by the Red Army made their relatives wish to put an end to the war as soon as possible. It is clear that Goebbels’ Katyn propaganda had the effect which was not expected by its organiser. Here the Propaganda Reichminister failed dismally. Yet he managed to achieve his first and main objective – to sow dissent in the united anti-Nazi front in Poland and to break up Polish-Soviet cooperation which slowly but not easily developed after June 1941.

Soviet-Polish relations before 1941

The pre-war relations between Poland and the Soviet Russia were never friendly and not because of the Soviet policy. Even before Poland became independent V. I. Lenin declared on August 29th, 1918 that Soviet Russia repudiated all treaties and acts signed by the Tsarist Government regarding partitions of the Polish territories. Yet soon after the declaration of Poland’s independence the government of the country launched military campaign culminating with occupation of most of Byelorussia in 1919.

On the 25th of April 1920 the Polish armies launched another military campaign occupying Kiev and large parts of the Ukraine. Later the Polish armies were beaten by the Red Army. In May-July all Byelorussia and almost all the Ukraine were liberated. The Red Army reached the territories with the predominantly Polish population.

At the conference of the Supreme Council of the Allies in Spa (Belgium) in July 1920 it was decided to render immediate and massive assistance to Poland. At the same time on behalf of the conference the British Foreign Minister Lord Curzon suggested a new frontier between Poland and the Soviet republics. The so-called ‘Curzon line’ left territories populated by Poles mostly to Poland while the territories populated mostly by Ukrainians and Byelorussians – to the respective Soviet republics.

On the 17th of July the Soviet Government agreed with this proposal and declared its readiness to start peace talks with the Polish government. The latter made its consent to start the negotiations only on the 17th of August after the Polish army heavily armed by the West defeated the Red Army near Warsaw. The subsequent retreat of the Red Army made it leave the western areas of the Ukraine and Byelorussia in Polish hands.

The Soviet republics weakened by the three years’ civil war and faced with the threat of large-scale Western military intervention agreed to sign the Riga peace treaty which left Western Ukraine and Western Byelorussia within the boundaries of Poland.

According to the Riga treaty of 1921 the rights of the Ukrainian and Byelorussian population for development of their national languages, ethnic cultures and their religious beliefs were provided for. Yet the Polish government flagrantly violated these clauses of the Riga treaty. Ukrainians, Byelorussians and other non-Polish nationalities were subjected to forceful ‘Polonisation’.

Already by the middle of the 1920s the majority of Ukrainian and Byelorussian schools were closed. Many of their teachers were arrested and put into concentration camps. By 1939 there were no publications in Ukrainian and Byelorussian languages left. ‘Polonisation’ was accompanied by mass reprisals and executions.

The representatives of Byelorussia complained to the 5th session of the League of Nations, stating that there was no village left in Byelorussia where one could find a person who was not flogged by the Polish police. The representatives stated that the Polish police often resorted to brutal tortures. A similar situation existed in Western Ukraine.

Contrary to the clauses of the Riga treaty thousands of the Soviet soldiers continued to be kept in prison camps, suffering from hunger and cold. In his official statement to the Poland’s Ambassador made on September 9, 1921 the Peoples’ Commissar for Foreign Affairs G. Chicherin declared: ‘During two years 60 thousand Russian prisoners died out of the total number of 130 000’.

Up to 1939 Poland pursued an active anti-Soviet policy within the framework of so-called ‘cordon sanitaire’ constructed by France and Britain on the Western Soviet frontier. The territory of Poland was used for attacks of armed troops penetrating to the Soviet republics. Polish leaders prepared a new large-scale war campaign against the Soviet Union.

On 26th of January 1934 Poland and Nazi Germany signed a joint non-aggression declaration directed against the USSR. In the same year both countries refused to approve the plan for collective security in Europe. After the surrender of the Western countries in Munich Germany and Poland joined in partitioning Czechoslovakia. While German armies moved into Sudetenland, the Polish troops occupied a part of Czechoslovakia called Teshin Silesia.

Since October 1938 in Europe rumours were spread about the joint military campaign of Germany and Poland against the USSR with the aim of occupying the Ukraine. The rumours were based on the proposals made by the German Foreign Minister J. von Ribbentrop to the Polish Ambassador Lipsky on October 24, 1938. Ribbentrop urged Poland to join the Anti-Comintern pact and work out a joint policy towards the USSR. Ribbentrop also demanded that since Poland would receive territorial gains in the Ukraine it should cede land in the so-called Polish corridor for building a super motor highway and a double-track railroad to connect Germany with East Prussia. The routes would have extraterritorial rights. Also Ribbentrop demanded incorporation of the Free City of Danzig into Germany.

During half a year these proposals were discussed by German and Polish diplomats. On 21st of March 1939 Ribbentrop repeated his demands. The Polish government agreed with almost all German proposals but would not make consent to incorporate Danzig into the German Reich.

The refusal of Poland to accept all the German demands lead to a serious international crisis. Ignoring the two decades of Anti-Soviet policy of Warsaw, the USSR Government on May 11, 1939 proposed to the Polish Government to conclude a treaty of mutual assistance. Poland rejected this proposal.

Later the Polish Government made its contribution to the collapse of the Moscow negotiations on mutual cooperation between the Soviet Union, France and Britain in August 1939. Apart from the fact that the Western powers did not want to contribute substantially to the joint struggle against Nazi Germany and wanted to channel the German aggression to the East, the Polish Government flatly refused to let the Red Army cross the Polish territory so as to be able to meet the coming German aggressors at the Polish-German frontier.

The British and the French Governments tried to make the Polish Government understand the absolute necessity of bringing the Soviet troops close to the territory of the future aggressor. Yet Poland’s Foreign Minister Beck arrogantly declared that the Soviet armies were of ‘no military value’. At the same time the chief of the Polish General Staff general Stachiewicz stubbornly stated that he saw ‘no benefit to be gained by Red Army troops operating in Poland’. Commenting on these statements the American historian William Shirer wrote: ‘It is clear that the Poles reacted with unbelievable stupidity’.

The USSR faced a danger of becoming a next victim of the German offensive after the Wehrmacht armies would easily overrun Poland. Under such conditions the Soviet Government accepted the German proposal to sign the non-aggression pact between the two countries.

The quick collapse of Poland made the fate of the peoples of the Western Ukraine and Western Byelorussia precarious. On September 17, 1939, the Soviet government sent a note to the Polish Ambassador which stated: ‘In fact the Polish state and its government ceased to exist. As a result all the treaties concluded between the USSR and Poland ceased to be valid. Left to itself and left without leadership Poland turned into a field where all sort of unexpected events may take place and jeopardise the USSR... Under such conditions the Soviet government issued an order to cross the frontier and take lives and property of the population of the Western Ukraine and Western Byelorussia under its protection’.

On September 17 the Soviet troops crossed the border and by the end of September occupied lands east of the Curzon line. In his book Jan Gross ‘Revolution from abroad. The Soviet Conquest of Poland’s Western Ukraine and Western Byelorussia’, which was based on letters and written interviews made by Poles from the Anders Army after they left the USSR in 1942, it was written: ‘All over the Western Ukraine and Western Byelorussia in hamlets, villages and towns the Red Army troops were greeted by small or big but always friendly crowds... People made triumphant arcs and hoisted red flags (it was enough to tear down the white strip from a Polish flag to make it a red one). The troops were showered by flowers. People embraced and kissed soldiers. They kissed even tanks’.

The expressions of joy caused by the advent of the Red Army which liberated people from national oppression was accompanied by emotions of hatred for the fallen regime. Jan Gross remarked that ‘several hundred thousand of the Polish troops marching in the Eastern provinces met an unfriendly local population. Its last battles the Polish army led against the Ukrainians, Byelorussians and Jews’. As the local population asked the Red Army for its support, the Soviet troops got involved into the fighting. This accounts for the losses suffered by the Red Army.

Jan Gross writes that some civilian Poles joined the Polish Army and actively fought the Red Army. Gross recognized that this created animosity between the Polish minority and the new Soviet authorities. This animosity was aggravated by the fact that many officers of the Polish army started to organise underground resistance to the Soviets. This led to arrests among former Polish officers and those who joined their subversive activity.

At the same time the local population demanded to put to trial those representatives of military and police administration who during the two decades suppressed and tortured Ukrainians, Byelorussian and Jews. Some of them were put to trial and received severe verdicts. Some hundreds of them were executed. Most of the former Polish army and police officers were sent to labour camps.

Yet the vast majority of the Polish population of the western parts of the Ukraine and Byelorussia didn’t share fully anti-Soviet sentiments. Despite the fact that his book was based on the impressions of those Poles who considered the ‘Liberation march’ of the Red Army as an occupation of Poland and emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1942, Jan Gross wrote: ‘Paradoxically under occupation there appeared more schools, more opportunities to get higher and professional education, to learn one’s native language, to promote physical and artistic development. It seems that many obstacles which prevented upwards social movement were banished. There was a sharp increase in employment. Factories and offices demanded twice the manpower compared with pre-war time. One witness wrote: ‘If one asked for a job in an office one was sure to get it. There were tens of thousands persons for whom the defeat of Poland was not a cause for mourning but a breath-taking beginning of a new life so far undreamed for. There were also new opportunities to take part in political activity’.

Soviet-Polish relations after June 22, 1941

Before Germany attacked the USSR on June 22, 1941 there were no diplomatic relations between Moscow and the Polish government-in-exile. Since its settlement in London the government of emigrants conducted vicious anti-Soviet propaganda. Meanwhile a substantial part of the population of occupied Poland started to reject virulent antipathy towards the USSR cultivated in the pre-war times. Many Poles were aware that their liberation from Nazi yoke would be brought about by the Red Army. These changes in political sentiments made the London government-in-exile sign the agreement on re-establishing diplomatic relations with the USSR on July 30, 1941. According to the agreement the Polish army was to be organised. It would be composed of the Polish soldiers and officers who became prisoners after September 17, 1939.

The USSR leadership also attached importance to the improvement of the Soviet-Polish relations. This was demonstrated by the reception of the chief of the Polish government-in-exile general V. Sikorski by J. Stalin on December 3. 1941. Despite a desperate situation at the Soviet-German front at that time (the Germans were several miles from Moscow) Stalin talked with the Polish Prime Minister for two hours. Next day the Declaration on friendship and mutual assistance between the governments of the Soviet Union and the Polish republic was signed.

On December 25, 1941 the USSR State Committee of Defence (GKO) headed by Stalin issued a decree ‘About the Polish Army at the USSR territory’. It mentioned that the Army already numbered 96 thousand. Its commander-in-chief was General V. Anders who two years ago had fought against the Red Army.

Yet problems began to develop in the relations between the commanding body of the Polish army and the Soviet authorities. The Polish military were dissatisfied with the way they were supplied. Their complaints were not groundless, but the Polish military commanders did not take into account that the supply of the whole Red Army at that time was put to a hard test. The discontent bred reluctance to participate in fighting. These problems were discussed by Stalin and Anders during their talks on March 18, 1942. According to Anders Stalin said: ‘We do not urge Poles to go to the front immediately. The Poles may start fighting at the time when the Red Army will approach the Polish frontiers’.

However Anders insisted on transportation of his army out of the USSR. He wanted to send it to the Western allies. His request was granted. In March and August 1942 two groups left the USSR. Their total number consisted of 80 thousand Polish soldiers and officers. They were accompanied by 37 thousand members of their families. They were transported to the British zone of occupation in Iran. Later they guarded the oil deposits belonging to the British in Iraq. Then they took part in the operations of the British armies in Northern Africa and Italy.

But quite a good number of Poles remained in the USSR. In March 1943 some of them set up the Union of the Polish patriots. Their leaders (V. Vasilevskaya, A. Lampe, A. Zavadovsky) with the support of the Soviet government organised the Kosciuszko division under general E. Berling. The division was composed of those Polish soldiers and officers who did not follow Anders and stayed in the USSR. The division first joined the Red Army in fighting at the town of Lenino on October 12, 1943. Later the division was reorganised into the Polish Army. The Soviet government highly appreciated the part of these Polish soldiers and officers in the Great Patriotic War. The only foreign army which was represented at the Victory Parade on the Red Square of Moscow of June 24, 1945 was the Polish Army. (The author of this article who was present at that parade remembered the surprise of many people at the Square at the uniforms of the Polish soldiers and officers so different from the Soviet military uniforms.)

While the Anders army left the USSR and the Red Army got closer to Poland the relations between the Soviet government and the Polish government started to deteriorate. On February 25, 1943 the Sikorski government published a statement which declared that it did not recognize the incorporation of the western provinces of the Ukraine and Byelorussia into the appropriate Soviet republics.

On March 3, 1943 ‘Pravda’ published the statement of the TASS (the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union) which declared that ‘the Polish government did not want to recognise the rights of the Ukrainian and Byelorussian peoples to be united in their national states, and support the division of these peoples’. The TASS statement reminded of the ‘pro-fascist policy of collaboration with Hitler’s Germany pursued by the Polish government and Foreign Minister Beck before the War’.

It is obvious that neither the withdrawal of the Anders army, nor the public exchange of antagonistic political statements made by the government-in-exile and the Soviet government were unnoticed in Nazi Germany. The Nazi leaders decided to add more fuel to the fire of the growing controversies between the Sikorski government and the Soviet government.

Immediately after the German publications about the findings in the Katyn forest the Defence Minister of the Polish government-in-exile made a statement in which he practically supported the Goebbels’ accusations. On April 17, 1943 the Polish government-in-exile agreed with the proposal made by Nazi Germany to make an international investigation of the Katyn shootings. The Soviet press vigorously denounced these statements.

On April 17, 1943 Goebbels did not conceal his satisfaction writing in his diary: ‘The Katyn incident is developing into a gigantic political affair which may have wide repercussions. We are exploiting it in every way possible. Since ten to twelve thousand Polish victims have sacrificed their lives anyway – it was probably at least their own fault, for they were the real instigators of this war – they might as well now serve to open the eyes of the peoples of Europe about Bolshevism’.

Goebbels added: ‘In the evening a Globe Reuter report reached us containing a declaration by the Polish government-in-exile. This declaration changes the whole Katyn affair fundamentally in that the Polish government-in-exile now demands that the International Red Cross should take part in the investigation. That suits us perfectly. I immediately got in touch with the Fuehrer, who gave me permission to send a telegram to the International Red Cross, requesting it to collaborate in identifying the corpses’.

The position taken by the Sikorski government was bitterly criticised by J. Stalin in his message to W. Churchill on April 21 and in a note of the Soviet government presented by V. Molotov to the Polish ambassador in Moscow on April 24. In both documents the Soviet leaders stated that the Polish government did not even try to get appropriate information from the Soviet government. The Soviet government expressed doubts that an objective investigation could take place under the supervision of the German military administration. (Later during the Nuremberg trial doctor Markov from Bulgaria, who had been one of the participants of this ‘international investigation’ sponsored by Germans, testified that representatives of other countries did not have any time to investigate heaps of corpses and material objects gathered by the German military.)

The Soviet government denounced plans of the Polish government-in-exile to collaborate with the Nazis and the Anti-Soviet propaganda campaign launched by Sikorski and his ministers in connection with findings in the Katyn forest. The Soviet leaders stated: ‘While the peoples of the Soviet Union bleed during the mortal struggle against Hitler’s Germany and strain all their efforts in order to overcome the common enemy of Russian and Polish peoples, the Sikorski government deals a perfidious blow against the Soviet Union in the interests of Hitler’s tyranny’.

On April 25, 1943 the Soviet government broke the relations with the Polish government-in-exile.

On April 29 Goebbels wrote in his diary: ‘The Polish conflict still holds the centre of the stage. Seldom since the beginning of the war has any affair stirred up so much public discussion. The Poles are handled as coldly by the English and the Americans as if they were enemies. It is admitted that I have succeeded in driving a deep wedge into the enemy, thereby provoking a much greater crisis than that between Darlan and de Gaulle some time ago’.

On July 4, 1943, V. Sikorski perished in an air crash near Gibraltar. Yet his successors continued his Anti-Soviet policy. The Polish government-in-exile continued to demand the return of Western provinces of the Ukraine and Byelorussia as well as the capital of Lithuania Vilnius to Poland. These demands poisoned the atmosphere of the Big Three conferences and the relations among the Allies during the War.

Yet on July 21, 1944 the Polish committee of national liberation was organised. Later it turned into the government of Poland. Since then the Soviet-Polish relations became based on principles of friendly cooperation.

Such relations existed until the end of the 80s when virulent anti-Sovietism triumphed in Poland. At the same time after widespread slanderous attacks at the Soviet past the socialist order was overthrown in the USSR and the Soviet Union itself disintegrated.

In order to demonstrate his anti-Communist solidarity with the Polish Anti-Communists the President of Russia B. Yeltsin in 1992 sent to the President of Poland L. Walesa some papers on the Katyn affair. It was claimed that they proved the guilt of the Soviet authorities for the executions of the Polish officers in the Katyn forest.

However these accusations ran counter to the conclusion of the special committee which had investigated the Katyn affair after Smolensk and its surrounding territory had been liberated in September 1943. The special committee was composed of leading legal and medical experts of the Soviet Union and included also leading writers, educators, priests. Its chairman was the President of the Academy of the Medical Sciences N. N. Burdenko. Its findings were made public on January 24, 1944 and in 1946 they were accepted by the International Military Court in Nuremberg as a documentary evidence of the Nazi crimes. The committee came to the conclusion that the Polish officers were murdered by the Nazi Germans.

In the second half of 1993 when Yeltsin prepared to deal a final blow to the remnants of the Soviet system by resorting to brutal armed repressions, a government-sponsored committee of six persons, including historians and lawyers, was set up in order to disprove the results of the Burdenko committee. In August 1993 the members of the committee signed an appropriate conclusion. Since then the arguments of this ‘conclusion’ were constantly used by the governments of Russia and Poland in order to accuse the Soviet authorities for the executions in the Katyn forest.

The comparison of ‘the Information’ made by the Burdenko committee and ‘the Conclusion’ of the committee of the six allow to see whether the accusations against the Soviet authorities made by Nazis in 1943 and repeated by the modern leaders of Poland and Russia are false or correct.

The motives for the crime

In order to find a culprit one should establish motives for the crime committed. In his ‘Information’ the members of N. N. Burdenko committee thus explained the reasons for the execution of the Polish officers in the Katyn forest: ‘Shooting down the Polish prisoners of war the German fascist invaders logically pursued their policy of the annihilation of the Slav peoples’.

Later at the Nuremberg trial it became known how the programme of liquidation of the Polish population was devised and performed. In a document presented to the Nuremberg trial one of the top Nazi leaders Martin Bormann wrote down Hitler’s words addressed to H. Frank who was then the Governor-General of Poland. According to Bormann, Hitler ‘stressed that unlike Germans, the Poles are born to perform hard work’. Bormann wrote: ‘The Fuehrer clarified that the General-Government should always have a surplus of manpower. In this case the Reich would always get necessary workers. The Polish land-owners are not needed. They must be liquidated... The Fuehrer underlined that the Poles should have only one master – the German master. There can’t be two masters. They can’t coexist. Therefore all representatives of the Polish intelligentsia should be annihilated. This sounds harsh, but this is a law of life’. According to their racist doctrines the Nazis wanted the Poles to perform only hard physical jobs.

Yet before receiving these instructions of Hitler, Frank already had started to pursue this merciless policy. Within the first year of the German occupation 2 million Poles were brought to Germany to perform hard labour and 100 thousand Poles, most of them with higher education, were executed. In his interview to the ‘Voelkischer Beobachter’ correspondent Kleiss made on February 6, 1940 Hans Frank explained the difference between Poland and Bohemia (Czechia) as far as the methods of German rule were concerned: ‘In Prague red posters were put on walls in order to announce the shooting down seven Czechs. If I would make posters for every seven Poles shot there would not be a single tree left in Poland to make paper for such posters. We should act in a cruel way here’.

In its official report presented to the Nuremberg trial the Polish government pointed out that many Poles were killed as hostages. Every violent death of a German was punished by shooting down a hundred Poles taken at random. Besides, people were executed for other reasons or no reason at all. By the end of the occupation 6 million inhabitants of Poland were annihilated. They constituted 22% of the total population of occupied Poland.

The execution of the Polish officers in the Katyn forest was a logical consequence of Hitler’s policy directed at the complete liquidation of the educated section of the Polish population and destruction of the Polish people as a whole.

Accusing the Soviet authorities of execution of the Polish officers the committee of the six had to seek other motives rather than planning to destroy the Polish population. It was well known that after the liberation of Poland by the Red Army the annihilation of the Polish population stopped and its numbers started to grow. The six experts were also unable to accuse the Soviet authorities of having a plan to kill all Polish officers since by the end of 1941 thousands of them continued to live in the USSR.

In order to prove the Goebbels’ slander the six experts mentioned that ‘the USSR was engaged in the campaign of cutting down financial Expenditures’. It also stated that ‘the NKVD conducted campaign of increasing profits of the camps’. Without using a single fact or figure the experts claimed that the camps of the Polish war prisoners had not been self-sufficient. Yet even granted that the last statement was true it did not mean that the NKVD officials decided to destroy all inhabitants of ‘unprofitable’ camps. Even in highly exaggerated stories about the GULAG camps it was never said that populations of whole camps were executed because these camps proved to be ‘unprofitable’.

One may also ask: ‘why did the authorities of NKVD decide to improve the economic efficiency of the GULAG camps by executing the Polish officers? Were they not afraid that the news of such brutal executions could be known beyond the limits of GULAG and the USSR?’ After the dead bodies of the Polish officers were dug out quite a number of letters from abroad were discovered in their uniforms. It meant that unlike most of the inhabitants of the GULAG camps the Polish officers kept contact with the world at large and their disappearance could at once become a cause for alarm among the Polish emigration and those who supported it.

This is clear from the fact that in November 1941 the representatives of the Polish government-in-exile in Moscow asked the Soviet People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs V. Molotov and his deputy A. Vyshinsky for information about the whereabouts of 8300 Polish officers and 7000 Polish civilians. One may surmise that before this the Polish government-in-exile had some information about these people. According to the information gathered by the Burdenko committee up to September 1941 the Polish officers had been kept in three camps situated close to Smolensk before their execution in the Katyn forest.

At his meeting with Stalin Sikorski presented lists of 3843 Polish officers about whom there was no information at the time. The number of officers mentioned this time was 4457 less than in November.

First, it may signify that the Polish government-in-exile already learnt about 4457 of them within a month. Second, it meant that the number of the Polish officers whose fate was unknown by the end of 1941 was less than 4 thousand and much less than 10 or 12 thousand mentioned by Goebbels and his propaganda. (Yet now the same Goebbels’ figures are repeated in Poland and Russia.) Third, before the enquiries made in November and December 1941 the Polish government-in-exile never appealed to the Soviet government or any other government of the world about the fate of the Polish officers. Yet its international connections, especially with the British government, allowed the Polish emigrants to make such appeals long before if they deemed it to be necessary.

The NKVD authorities were aware of the broad international connections of the Polish prisoners and the consequences of such connections for the Soviet foreign policy. One should bear in mind that only the end of the Soviet-Finnish war on March 12, 1940 thwarted plans of joint intervention of France and Britain against the USSR in their endeavour to help Finland. These plans had support of the USA which rendered military and economic aid to Finland. There was no guarantee that the leaders of the two Western countries might use another pretext to attack the USSR. One should also remember that France and Britain went to war against Germany supporting Poland. There existed the influential Polish lobby in the USA. The information that several thousand Polish officers were summarily shot down because the NKVD decided to reduce expenditures on food and shelter of prisoners could create an uproar in the West and jeopardise the Soviet Union at the time when its leaders did their best to avoid a large scale armed conflict.

On the other hand since at that time the NKVD controlled also foreign intelligence service, its authorities were aware that Germany would soon attack the USSR. Warnings about this imminent attack constantly arrived to Moscow. Preparing for this event the Soviet authorities could not exclude the use of the Polish officers in the inevitable war against Nazi Germany and did not want to do away with the future soldiers against the Wehrmacht.

It is clear that the Nazis had motives for killing thousands of the Polish officers caught in the occupied Soviet territory. At the same territory they mercilessly killed millions of the Soviet officers, soldiers and civilians who became their prisoners. The annihilation of the Polish officers was a logical consequence of their policy of genocide against the Polish people, especially its educated portion. It is also clear that the Soviet authorities did not have any reasonable motive for such killings. Despite the fact that many Polish officers were bitterly anti-Soviet the authorities of the USSR were interested in keeping all Polish prisoners alive and reasonably well-off.

When and how the crime was committed

According to the information of the special committee of N. N. Burdenko, ‘the mass shootings of the Polish war prisoners from the above mentioned camps took place in the Katyn forest in Autumn 1941... The forensic medical inquest established beyond doubt: a) time of shooting – Autumn 1941; b) during the shooting the German butchers acted in their standard manner (pistol shot into the back of one’s head) which they resorted to in all mass executions of the Soviet citizens in Orel, Voronezh, Krasnodar and Smolensk... The conclusions from the evidence made by the witnesses and the results of forensic medical inquest on the shooting of the Polish prisoners of war is fully corroborated by material evidence and documents extracted from the Katyn graves’.

‘The condition of corpses allowed to establish that the murder of the Polish officers was committed in Autumn 1941. Letters and other material evidence were found in the clothes of the murdered. They pertained to the end of 1940 or the beginning of 1941: a letter sent from Warsaw on September 12, 1940 and received first in Moscow on September 28, 1940. Many other documents were found on the corpses, including letters and receipts dated November 12, 1940, April 6, 1941, June 20, 1941. One should also take into account that the German masters of fabrication did utmost in order to destroy a considerable part of the materials which contradicted their version of shooting the Polish officers in Spring 1940’.

But even before the Burdenko committee started to work the experts from the Polish Red Cross sent by Germans to Katyn established that the bullets which were used to kill the officers were made in Germany. At the Nuremberg trial the assistant of the main prosecutor of the USSR L. N. Smirnov submitted a cable sent from Smolensk to Krakow on April 20, 1943 by an official of the General-Government Heinrich to a senior counsellor Weirauch: ‘A group of the Polish Red Cross delegation has returned from Katyn yesterday. The employees of the Polish Red Cross brought with them cartridge-cases, used during the shooting of the victims in Katyn. It turned out that they constitute German ammunition. Their calibre is 7.65, the producing firm is ‘Geko’. The details are in a letter which is being sent. Heinrich’.

It was an unpleasant surprise for Goebbels. On May 8, 1943 he wrote down in his diary: ‘Unfortunately German ammunition has been found in the graves of Katyn. The question of how it got there needs clarification’. It is evident that Goebbels immediately started to invent plausible explanations. This is why he wrote: ‘It must be either the ammunition sold by us during the period of our friendly arrangement with the Soviet Russians, or else the Soviets themselves threw it into graves’.

The absurdity of such explanations was evident. There was no ground to suppose that the Red Army used German ammunition for their rifles and pistols. One can’t imagine that the German cartridge-cases were thrown into graves by the Soviet people on purpose in order to deceive the world public opinion. In this case one should suppose that the Soviet authorities knew in Spring 1940 that Smolensk would be taken by Germans and they would find the graves with the bodies of the Polish officers. One should also suppose that as soon as the Germans would find the cartridge-cases made in their country they would be embarassed and kept silence about their findings.

The German ammunition used for shooting the Polish officers made a mockery of the whole Katyn propaganda. That is why Goebbels decided to conceal this most essential material evidence. He wrote: ‘In any case it is essential that the incident remain a top secret’. (The fact that the order was fulfilled proved that Stalin was right in his suspicions that the representatives of the Polish Red Cross were not free in their action in the Nazis’ sponsored farce of the ‘investigation’ of the Katyn murders.) At the same time Goebbels made a logically correct assumption: ‘If it were to come to the knowledge of the enemy the whole Katyn affair would have to be dropped’.

But years afterwards the six experts of Yeltsin regime decided to rescue Goebbels’ slanderous version. In their ‘conclusion’ they asserted that the Polish officers ‘were shot in a cellar, one by one from a German pistol “Walter”’. The experts did not dare to claim that all NKVD employees were armed with German pistols. But it means that thousands of Polish officers were shot by a single ‘Walter’, one by one. That mysterious ‘Walter’ was never found.

The desire of the six experts to save Goebbels’ lie is obvious. But they were misled by their habit of using Anti-Soviet stereotypes. From a mass of Anti-Soviet books they learned that the NKVD executions always took place in cellars. Therefore the experts did not even bother to read from the documents related to the case that the German cartridge-cases were found in Katyn graves. It is clear that they dropped to the ground while the executions went on. Otherwise one should suppose that the cartridge-cases were swept from the floor of the cellar, carted to the Katyn forest and solemnly buried there with the bodies.

Later in post-Soviet Russia there appeared a number of books and other publications which proved the truth of the conclusions made by the Burdenko committee. In his book ‘The Katyn Diary’ Yuri Mukhin used many new facts to show that the Polish officers were shot by the German invaders in 1941. For example it was pointed out that the hands of the officers were tied by strings made from a special paper which was not produced in the USSR at the time. It was pointed out that there were a lot of brown leaves in the graves. It is well known that in that part or Russia in the beginning of autumn the leaves of deciduous trees change colour from green to yellow or red and start to fall to the ground. Very soon the leaves become brown. In Spring young green leaves do not fall from deciduous trees.

It is clear that the Burdenko committee came to its conclusions about the time and the way the crime was committed on the basis of inconvertible evidence (the physical state of bodies, documents in the uniforms of the victims, methods of execution, weapons and ammunition used). Their opponents base their objections on indiscriminate denial of facts and material evidence of the Burdenko committee. At the same time they resorted to weird fantasies (shooting of thousands of the Polish officers by one undiscovered pistol, senseless transportation of cartridge-cases from some cellar to the graves of the Katyn forest, etc.) to prove that Goebbels was right.

Who did it?

The ‘information of the special committee’ of N. N. Burdenko stated: ‘The mass shootings of the Polish prisoners of war in the Katyn forest was conducted by the German military agency concealed under the name of “the headquarters 567 of the construction battalion”. Its commanding officers were senior lieutenant Arns, senior lieutenant Rekst and lieutenant Hott’.

The fact that the information of the Burdenko committee as well as other documents and witnesses related to the Katyn case were presented to the International military court meant that the Soviet authorities considered that the guilt for the murder of the Polish officers was shared not only by Arns and other German officers, but also by the rulers of Nazi Germany who were put to trial at Nuremberg.

The six experts tried to find other culprits. They accused of the crime certain former NKVD employees P. K. Soprunenko and D. S. Tokarev. Yet the guilt of these persons was never established by any legal body either in the USSR, or in the post-Soviet Russia.

At the same time the six experts accused the leading figures of the Soviet Union. Resorting to the same paper which was later used by D. Medvedev the experts claimed that this was a letter signed by the People’s Commissar of Domestic Affairs (NKVD) L. P. Beria. The experts asserted that in his letter Beria demanded execution of thousands of Polish officers. The names of J. V. Stalin, V. M. Molotov, K. E. Voroshilov, L. M. Kaganovich, M. I. Kalinin, A. I. Mikoyan were written at the top corner of the letter. The experts (and later Medvedev) claimed that this meant that the persons approved the proposal of Beria. The experts wrote: ‘The note of L. P. Beria automatically was transformed into a decree of March 5, 1940’.

The experts failed to explain when and how such an ‘automatic transformation’ of Beria’s proposal into a decree took place. Such ‘automatic transformations’ never happened in the administrative activity of the Soviet Government or the Communist Party of the USSR. The version about such a fantastic transformation was made because there was no decree to shoot the Polish officers.

Besides the so-called ‘Beria letter’ causes grave doubts. For some reason it was typed by two different persons using two different type-writing machines. Besides there are different copies of the same letter. One of them has a stamp ‘CC A-UCP (b)’ which means ‘the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks)’ – the way the party and its central body were called until October 1952. Yet there is another copy of the same letter which has a stamp ‘CC CPSU’ which means ‘the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’ – the name of the party and its major body after October 1952. It is obvious that at least one of the copies of Beria letter is as fraudulent as a three dollars bill. But it does not mean that the other copy with the stamp is genuine.

At his press conference on June 18, 2010 the deputy chairman of the State Duma committee on constitutional legislation and state development V. I. Ilyukhin told about his meeting a person who was engaged in producing fabricated documents in 1992 – 1993. This was done on the express order of the Yeltsin government. Ilyukhin presented a number of false stamps used for making such forgeries and some fabricated documents. There are serious grounds, said Ilyukhin, to suppose that so-called ‘Beria paper’ is nothing but another forgery.

The conclusions about the culprits made by the Burdenko committee were based on documents and evidence of witnesses who lived in Smolensk at the time of German occupation. The International Military Court held at Nuremberg took these conclusions as another evidence of the Nazis’ guilt. It is also clear that the attempts of the committee of six, and later attempts of Poland’s and Russia’s leaders to reanimate the Goebbels’ slander are based on flimsy ground of fabrications, hearsay and negation of genuine documents, material evidence and historic facts.

Why is the Goebbels slander reanimated?

In Poland no one makes the secret why the 67 years’ old pack of lies is being brought to life. There are already many legal demands made to the European Court from the relatives of the Polish officers killed in the Katyn forest to sue Russia for their murders. The total sum of the indemnities claimed are equal to hundreds of billions of dollars.

Constantly repeating about the Katyn tragedy the Polish authorities and mass-media pay by far less attention to the annihilation of millions of Poles by the Nazis. They keep silence about the fact that while 66 thousand Polish soldiers and officers were killed during the defence of Poland in 1939, the Red Army lost over 600 thousand soldiers and officers liberating Poland from the German yoke. The Polish ruling body and mass-media ignore the fact that while the total number of Poles who were killed in the fights of the Second World War after 1941 is equal to 120 thousand, the Red Army lost over 8 million of soldiers and officers in order to crush Nazi Germany and its allies.

The attitude of Russia’s government is more difficult to explain. Faced with similar demands from the Baltic countries which ask for paying indemnities for the ‘Soviet occupation’ the government of Russia set up a committee against falsification of history. Yet it reacted differently in the case of the Katyn affair. Was it just a political miscalculation in the attempt to make the Polish government reject the American proposal to put ‘Patriot’ missiles on the territory of Poland by supporting the Katyn slander? If it was so, it proved to be a failure, since Medvedev’s and Putin’s statements notwithstanding the US placed their rockets on the Polish soil close to the Russian border.<> Perhaps the sudden energetic support of the Goebbels’ slander is caused by the desire of Russia’s government to improve significantly relations with the West on the basis of brazen anti-communism. It is known that lately various European organisations began a new Anti-Communist campaign. In their resolutions Communism (or Stalinism) is equated to Nazism.

It is clear that the capitalist rulers of Russia are ready to sacrifice the historic truth in the attempts to get dubious and temporary political gains. They are ready to sacrifice the memory of the 27 million of military and civilian Soviet people who were killed during the War. Consciously or unconsciously they try to revise the verdict of Nuremberg trial since the Katyn murders were part of the list of crimes presented to the Nazi leaders at that trial.

There is no doubt that those who are faithful to the tradition of the great Victory of 1945 will be able to frustrate the attempts of Goebbels’ and Hitler’s ideological heirs and will defend the historic truth.

https://revolutionarydemocracy.org/rdv16n2/katyn.htm