Lost amid the turmoil of the Second World War, the Katyn massacre stands as one of the Soviet Union’s least known atrocities. For decades, the Russian executions of the flower of the Polish military were a topic talked about only in the exile community. Despite the evidence, the media and the nations of the world chose to overlook all of Soviet Russia’s atrocities, including the murders in the Katyn forest.
In September 1939, the Soviet Union and Germany invaded Poland. In a secret treaty, Stalin and Hitler had agreed to divide the country between them. The Russians captured tens of thousands of Polish troops, who had been ordered not to resist the Soviet invasion.
In early 1940, it became apparent that large numbers of Polish captives would not acquiesce to the extinction of their nation. Soviet policy was to transfer native Poles from occupied territory and to execute Polish leaders, including military officers.
Katyn forest is about twelve miles west of Smolensk, Russia. The area was under Soviet control until German attacks in July 1941.
About 4,000 Polish prisoners were killed, many by a single shot to the back of the head, and buried in the forest at Katyn. In 1943, German troops discovered this site and others and documented the murders by the Russians. While the Polish community in exile was receptive to this information, the alliance with Russia meant that the United Kingdom and the United States would ignore the German claims. The Russians would claim that the murders were committed by Germans and that would be the “official” explanation for many years.
Four American officers were taken by their German captors to Katyn, to view the remains and the evidence. Col. John H. Van Vliet was the ranking officer, and a fourth generation West Pointer. His report, and others in 1944 and 1945 were rejected or “lost”. In 1951, a Congressional committee held hearings that constituted the last office actions concerning Katyn by the U.S. Government for over 30 years.
As communist rule in Russia and Eastern Europe ended, Katyn became a topic of interest again. Documents from the era were released by Russian authorities that confirmed the massacre, though no Russian official accepted blame. Reuters is reporting that the Russian Duma has now passed a resolution blaming Stalin directly for the murders. This comes just six months after Polish President Lech Kaczynski was killed in a mysterious plane crash while en route to the Katyn memorial.
Katyn continues to be a symbol of both the treatment of Poland after World War II and the West’s refusal to accept that one of its allies in the fight against Hitler was equally murderous.