The first news of a massacre at Katyn Wood came in April 1943 when the Germans found a mass grave of 4,500 Polish soldiers in German-occupied Russia. The discovery at Katyn Wood was to greatly embarrass the Russian government.
The Russians responded to the German claims that Russia’s secret police did it, by claiming that the massacre was carried out by the Germans themselves. In the context of the war – the Allies were fighting the Nazi war machine and Russia was a valued ally – the German version was not accepted by the British or other Allied governments. However, in the era of the Cold War, the Russian version was heavily scrutinised and questionned.
The first announcement of what had been found at Katyn Wood was made on Radio Berlin on April 13th, 1943.
|“A report has reached us from Smolensk to the effect that the local inhabitants have mentioned to the German authorities the existence of a place where mass executions have been carried out by the Bolsheviks and where 10,000 Polish officers have been murdered by the Soviet Secret State Police. The German authorities went to a place called the Hill of Goats, a Russian health resort situated twelve kilometers west of Smolensk, where a gruesome discovery was made.”Radio Berlin broadcast|
The Germans claimed that they found a ditch 28 meters long and 16 meters wide at the Hill of Goats in which were 3,000 bodies piled up in layers of twelve. All the bodies were fully dressed in military uniform; some were bound and all had pistol shots to the back of their heads. The Germans believed that they would find 10,000 bodies (hence the figure in the broadcast) but eventually the final total was 4,500. The Germans claimed that the bodies were in good condition and they even recognised a general Smorawinsky as one of the victims. The soil had done a great deal to preserve the bodies and any documentation found on them.
However, any information relating to this massacre made public during the war came from Goebbel’s propaganda ministry and had to be treated as suspect by the Allies. In January 1943, the Russians had turned the tide of the war with the defeat of the Germans at Stalingrad – a victory Churchill had urged all on the Allied side to celebrate. As if in a knee-jerk reaction, any criticism about the Russians in Easter 1943 would not have been acceptable. Any connection between the massacre and the Germans, however, would have been more readily accepted by all those fighting against the Nazis.
But what exactly did happen at Katyn Wood?
When German forces attacked Poland in September 1939, the Blitzkrieg tactic tore great holes in the Polish defence. However, on September 17th, as part of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, Russian forces also invaded Poland. The Russian leadership called on the Polish soldiers to rise up against their officers and political leaders as a punishment for getting the country into an unjust war. Those Polish officers and senior NCO’s captured by the Red Army were arrested and deported to Russia.
It is known that they were taken to three camps in Russia – Kozelsk, Starobelsk and Ostashkov. One of the camps, Kozelsk, contained more than just officers. It contained arrested Polish university lecturers, surgeons, physicians, barristers and lawyers. One woman prisoner was held at Kozelsk – Janina Lewandowski. Her body was found at Katyn clothed in the uniform of the Polish Air Force. Ostashkov held officers – but it also held anybody from Poland who was considered to be ‘bourgeois’. It seems that only Starobelsk held only officers from the Polish military.
To start with, the Russians attempted to ‘re-educate’ the Poles in all three camps. Brigadier Zarubin of the Soviet Secret State Police was put in charge of this task. His efforts to promote the Soviet way of life probably had no chance. The Poles in the camp were forbidden to say Mass – which for a devout Roman Catholic nation was a major blow and it was almost certainly done secretly. Therefore, it is untenable to think that there were any takers for the Soviet view point which Zarubin was trying to sell. It seems that Zarubin reported his failure to Moscow and shortly after this a colonel from the Soviet Secret State Police turned up at all three camps. Just after the visit of this colonel, groups of prisoners were taken from the camps to an unknown destination.
In April 1940, all three camps were simultaneously cleared.
On June 22nd, 1941, Nazi Germany launched ‘Operation Barbarossa‘. The German military swept aside the Russian army and penetrated deep into Russia. Stalin, alarmed by the collapse of the Red Army, ordered that an amnesty should be granted to all Polish prisoners who were willing to fight against the Germans. On August 14th 1941, a Polish-Soviet military agreement was signed. However, no-one could account for the whereabouts of the officers held in Kozelsk, Starobelsk and Ostashkov. Winston Churchill himself wrote about the embarrassment such a disclosure brought on the Russian authorities.
The Polish government in exile, based in London, was especially concerned that the Russians explain where these men were. Stalin gave two answers. Initially, he claimed that the men had escaped to Manchuria. However, the authorities in Moscow – which was effectively Stalin – claimed that the men were held in territory that the Germans had taken in their lightning attack in June 1941 and that only the Germans could account for their whereabouts. This was to become the standard Moscow answer to the problem – the Germans were responsible.
Locals at Katyn Forest had long known that it was an area used by the secret police to execute those who had fallen out with Stalin’s government. As early as 1929, the Soviet secret police had built a dacha there surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. To keep out the locals, the secret police also used guard dogs to patrol the perimeter of the dacha.
On July 16th, 1941, Smolensk fell to the Germans. The Russian authorities had fled from Katyn and for the first time in years, the area was open ‘to the public’. In 1942, Poles from the Todt Organisation arrived in the area to collect any form of scrap. As they worked on the Hill of Goats, they found the body of a dead Polish officer who was later buried in a dignified service. However, the winter for 1942-43 was severe and the ground at the Hill of Goats was frozen over.
In the Spring of 1943, a Russian peasant, Ivan Krivozertzev, read an article in a newspaper (‘Novyj Put’) regarding General Sikorski and his search for thousands of Polish officers whom he could not account for. Despite communism in Russia, Krivozertzev had maintained his religious beliefs and re-called what he had seen in Smolensk in 1940.
He had seen rail wagons coming into Smolensk station but being shunted into screened sidings. He had seen men being herded under armed guard into ‘Black Ravens’ – the local nickname for prison vehicles. Krivozertzev had also seen ‘normal’ prisoners being driven from Smolensk city in lorries with shovels and pick axes. Krivozertzev went to the Germans and told them that he believed the Polish officers would be found at the Hill of Goats. The Germans went to the forest and dug up mounds that had young fir trees on the top of them. These trees gave away an obvious secret as the rings on them indicated that they had been planted in April 1940.
The Germans started digging in the Hill of Goats and found the bodies of many men, still in military uniform, who had been shot in the back of the head with their hands tied behind their backs. The Germans also found the bodies of Russian men and women who had been shot long before 1940. Curiously, the Germans claimed that the way the Russians and Poles had been tied was identical and that whoever did both sets of murders was the same organisation. The 4,500 bodies that were exhumed came from Kozelsk – no-one knows what happened to the men held at Starobelsk and Ostashkov. Moscow announced its stance on April 14th 1943:
|“The Polish prisoners in question were interned in the vicinity of Smolensk in special camps and were employed in road construction. In was impossible to evacuate them at the time of the approach of the German troops and, as a result, they fell into their hands. If, therefore, they have been found murdered, it means that they have been murdered by the Germans who, for reasons of provocation, now claim that the crime was committed by Soviet authorities.”|
On April 15th, the British government publically stated via the BBC that the Germans had told lies and that it accepted the Russian version. This caused the Polish government in exile to call for an independent inspection of Katyn – something the International Red Cross in Switzerland could do. The German and Polish government (in exile) agreed to this; Moscow did not. The Russians broke off all relations with Poland and set up a puppet Polish government in Moscow.
When Russia advanced into Europe and re-captured Katyn, it seemed as if the issue was solved as it was clear that the Russians were not going to allow any investigation into what happened at Katyn. At the Nuremburg trials, the murders were linked to the indictment against Goering and the Russians presented their evidence to ‘prove’ it was the Germans, but they were never probed and Katyn drifted into obscurity. At the final judgment of the International Tribunal, Katyn was not even mentioned.
For their part the Russians claimed that the massacre took place after it became obvious that the Wehrmacht was in full retreat after their defeat at Stalingrad and that it was carried out by the Nazis. They put up the following evidence gathered at Nuremburg:
The Germans did not allow any external authority to fully examine either the bodies or the grave sites. The Polish Commission, set up by the Nazis to examine the evidence, was only allowed to see what the Germans wanted them to see. One Bulgarian professor, Marko Markov, claimed that he was only allowed to dissect one body that was presented to him and that he could not conclude from this body that it had been in the ground for three years – as the Nazis tried to suggest to him that it had been. In his written report, Markov only wrote about what he found on the body – he did not give a conclusion as to how the body got into its state.
He and seven other experts were only allowed two half-a-day visits to the grave sites by the Germans. “It reminded me of a tourist trip”, claimed Markov.
The Russians also claimed that the issue of the three year old saplings was also easy to explain. They claimed that there was no evidence that they came from the grave mounds themselves and that they could have been gathered at any point from Katyn Wood and handed in as ‘evidence’.
The Russians also claimed that all the bullets found on the bodies were made by the German firm Geko. It was claimed that they were all Geko 7.65 mm bullets which only the German would have had access to.
Who committed the murders remained a mystery until 1990 when the Russian authorities admitted that it was the Russian Secret police (NKVD), that then spent much time and effort in attaching blame on the Germans.