The birth and persistence of the Katyn lie.

Author:Wasilewski, Witold

As a result of the German invasion of Poland in September 1, 1939 and then the Soviet invasion on September 17, half of Poland's territory came under Soviet rule. In the spring of 1940, the Soviets murdered about 22,000 Polish officers--including prisoners of war and high-profile citizens--in Katyn and in other" locations. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union on April 13, 1943, Radio Berlin announced the discovery of the bodies of Polish officers killed by Bolsheviks in the Katyn region. On April 15, 1943 Radio Moscow published a communique from the Soviet Information Bureau that blamed the Germans for the massacre of Polish officers. This communique gave birth to the false Soviet version of the murder of Polish prisoners of war, which became known as the Katyn lie. In the subsequent months the Katyn lie was reinforced by fabricated "evidence" provided by the Soviet security departments NKVD and NKGB. In early 1944, the Special State Commission, headed by Nikolai Budenko, presented to the world the complete official Soviet version of the atrocities against Poles. After World War II, the Soviet fabrication was perpetuated and spread to all countries of the communist bloc and to many circles in the west. This article details the spread of the Katyn lie, as uncovered through newly available documents in official Russian historical archives.


In the spring of 1940, pursuant to a March 5th order of the Political Bureau of the VCP (b), the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) murdered about 22,000 Polish prisoners of war and other Polish citizens that had been arrested in the Polish territories annexed to the Soviet Union. (1) The victims were mainly Polish military officers. (2) The Katyn Forest was one the various locations of their execution.

The truth about the Katyn massacre came from an unexpected source. In the early spring of 1943, after information from the local population and an informal investigation, German authorities decided to search the Katyn Forest. (3) The search led to the discovery of the bodies of the murdered Polish officers, the last piece of evidence linking the NKVD to the murders. After the defeat at Stalingrad, Joseph Goebbels, interested in undermining the credibility of the Soviet Union, began a propaganda offensive. On April 13, 1943, Radio Berlin announced that German authorities discovered the bodies of Polish officers in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk. (4) This news generated wide interest throughout the world. (5) Delegations--including journalists from the occupied and neutral countries, allied officers held in German camps, and forensic doctors were dispatched to the Katyn Forest; they all confirmed the terrible truth. (6)

On April 15, 1943, in response to the German revelation, Radio Moscow published a communique from the Soviet Information Bureau that expressed outrage, blamed the Germans for the massacre of Polish officers, and promised punishment of "the German-Fascist murderers" for this crime. (7) The very first paragraph, implying that Germany's propaganda offensive was an effort to provoke the USSR, establishes the key argument about German responsibility for the crime:

In the past two or three days Goebbels's slanderers have been spreading vile fabrications alleging that Soviet authorities effected a mass shooting of Polish officers in the spring of 1940, in the Smolensk area. In launching this monstrous invention, the German-Fascist scoundrels do not hesitate at the most unscrupulous and base lie in their attempt to cover up crimes which, as has now become evident, were perpetrated by themselves. (8) The second paragraph of the communique, which also appeared in press publications, is also extremely important. This paragraph foreshadows the future construction of a fraudulent version of the events that the Soviet Union and its communist allies developed. The Soviet Union officially declared:

The German-Fascist reports on this subject leave no doubt as to the tragic fate of the former Polish POWs who in 1941 were engaged in construction work in areas west of Smolensk and who, along with many Soviet people, residents of the Smolensk region, fell into the hands of the Soviet Fascist hangmen in the summer of 1941, after the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the Smolensk area. (9) This communique gave birth to the false Soviet version of the murder of Polish prisoners of war, which ultimately become the Katyn lie. (10)


    The German announcement in April 1943 about the discovery in the Katyn Forest led the Polish government, which already had evidence of the Soviet guilt, to consider the German version of events as the most probable explanation and to attempt to clarify the fate of the Poles through international institutions and their own studies. On April 17, 1943, the Polish government asked the International Red Cross in Bern to investigate the matter. (11) At this time, the focus of the press was not on the crime itself, but on the German efforts to benefit from the crime. (12)

    Days later, the Soviet newspaper Pravda attacked Poland for asking the International Red Cross to investigate and for cooperating with the German provocateurs from the Goebbels group. (13) In contrast, the Polish attitude was very restrained. The Polish government withdrew its request to the International Red Cross under pressure from Winston Churchill, who echoed the concerns of Franklin D. Roosevelt. (14) During the remaining years of World War II and after its completion, the United States and Great Britain followed a policy of concealing the truth and pushing the Katyn problem aside, laying the foundation of Anglo-American policy towards the Katyn crime.

    Unlike the Polish government, the Soviet government acted decisively and ruthlessly. On April 25, 1943, the Soviet government, based on the belief that the Polish government supported the German efforts to shift the German responsibility for the Katyn crime to the USSR, broke relations with Poland. (15) In the subsequent months, the Soviets began preparations for installation of the communist regime in Poland and focused on developing a very complex structure of forgery, building a legend of the German crime against the Poles. (16) These efforts were designed to legitimize the Katyn lie in international public opinion.


    The fabrication of the fundamental lies is well known today thanks to Russian researchers' work with documents from the Russian archives (mainly the State Archive of the Russian Federation and, to a lesser extent, Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History), which Natalia Lebedeva and Wojciech Materski have already discussed in great detail. (17) The Polish public may now access these documents thanks to a team working under the leadership of Lebedeva and Materski. (18) Original documents are available to researchers on site in Moscow, and I had the opportunity to review them. (19)

    To construct a detailed, falsified contra-argument to the German accusation to prove German responsibility for the Katyn crime, the Soviets took advantage of the moment when the Soviet Army regained the Smolensk territory at the end of September 1943. Analyzing authorship of the Soviet-developed Katyn lie and the fabrication of evidence for the internal investigation purposes is complex. On September 22, 1943, when the Red Army was "30-35 km [outside] of Katyn," Chief of Propaganda and Agitation of the Central Committee of the VCP (b), Georgi Alexandrov, wrote to the secretary of the Central Committee Andrei Shcherbakov, pointing out the need for "preparatory steps to expose the German provocation" and proposing the establishment of a special committee consisting of representatives from the Extraordinary State Commission for the Investigation of Crimes of the German-Fascists and their Accomplices. (20) The Politburo of the VCP (b), the highest political authority of the USSR, decided to implement the general plan Alexandrov had proposed. (21) However, the Politburo made some modifications. Namely, it limited the first phase of work exclusively to the activities of special security services and it designated the work as secret. (22) Only later did the Politburo allow other institutions to join the investigation. (23) This strategy ensured that the security apparatus of the Soviet state shaped a key part of the Katyn investigation. This delay of civilian access to and investigation of the crime scene regarding the Soviet secret police's activity suggests that the secret police were better suited for operational front-line work and indicates a limited trust towards civilian investigation.

    For these reasons, there was a delay in granting Nikolai Burdenko, a member of the Extraordinary State Commission, access to the Katyn site. Burdenko requested permission to begin conducting fieldwork on September 27, just two days after the entry of the Red Army to Smolensk. (24) He and his infamous committee appeared on the crime scene several weeks later. The NKVD and the People's Commissariat for State Security (NKGB) effectively took full control over the initially weak coordination of the investigation. Certain initial indecisiveness as to the tactics of investigation may have resulted from the unusual nature, even by Soviet standards, of the crime committed.

    The nervous Politburo decision-makers who approved the death order of the Polish officers in March 1940 were pushing for quick and decisive action at the expense of methodical and professional investigation. The officers who carried out the death orders from NKVD Chief Lavrenty Beria hastened to camouflage their crimes. (25) Even trusted members of the scientific establishment of the party...

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