In 1939 Poland was a rabbit torn apart by wolves as Nazi Germany invaded from the west and Soviet Russia from the east. Following inevitable victory, the Soviets set about dealing with a multitude of Polish prisoners including army officers, soldiers, pilots and prominent citizens such as intellectuals, policemen, landowners, lawyers, priests and bureaucrats. After releasing most ordinary soldiers, the NKVD secret police under the feared Lavrentiy Beira still held some 40,000 unfortunate Poles in various camps, principally Kozelsk, Starobielsk and Ostashkov.
These prisoners were subjected to an intense program of interrogation, designed to determine if each could be persuaded to adopt a pro-Soviet attitude or would remain defiant. The reason for this process became apparent on March 5 1940 when the ruling Soviet Politburo responded positively to Beira’s request that thousands of Polish ‘nationalists and counter-revolutionaries’ should be executed.
This gruesome policy was carried out from early April. Occupants of the Kozelsk camp were taken to three sites – NKVD headquarters in Smolensk, Smolensk slaughterhouse and an established NKVD killing field in Katyn Forest.
The vast majority, mainly military personnel but including hundreds of civilians, were taken into the woods, never to reappear. After their invasion of Russia, a tip-off led the Germans to the Katyn site, where they exhumed 4,500 corpses, each with hands tied and a pistol shot to the neck. This discovery was a huge propaganda coup for the Nazis, though the Soviets vehemently denied their involvement and continued to do so long after the end of World War II.
In 1990, Russian authorities finally admitted that the Katyn massacre was carried out by the NKVD, but still refused to accept the heinous mass killing as either genocide or a war crime. This ensured that none of those responsible could ever be brought to trial.
When: After April 3 1940
Where: Katyn Forest, near Smolensk, Russia
Death toll: Around 4,500 (including one woman, the daughter of a Polish general).
You should know: The Katyn massacre was but one part of Stalin’s brutal scheme to eliminate the Polish officer corps and the country’s intelligentsia. Even as Katyn was taking place, or soon afterwards, another 17,500 Poles from various prisons and camps were simultaneously executed at a number of other sites in Russia.