The Katyn Massacre

The Katyn Massacre was the mass execution of Polish military officers and intelligentsia by the Soviet Union in 1940. Approximately 22,000 Poles were killed. The executions are collectively known as the Katyn Massacre because the first bodies to be discovered were found in mass graves in Katyn Forest near Smolensk in the west of present-day Russia.1 But other bodies were discovered as well as at Kharkov in Ukraine and Mednoe near the Russian city of Kalinin. Also included in the total are those killed in Belarusian and Ukrainian prisons.2

Poland was invaded by the Soviet Union in September 1939 in accordance with a treaty with Nazi Germany known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The treaty was named after the foreign affairs ministers of the Soviet Union and Germany, Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop, who signed it on behalf of their respective leaders – Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. The non-aggression treaty included a secret clause: Central Europe and the Baltic states were divided between the Soviet Union and Germany into “spheres of influence” apportioned between the two powers.3

In accordance with this pact, Poland was shared between Germany and the Soviet Union along a defined line on a map. A week after the treaty was signed, on 1st September 1939, Germany invaded Poland from the west. Sixteen days later, the Soviet Union invaded from the East. Each invading force occupied the area allotted to it under the secret clause.

Following immediately behind the invading Soviet army came the NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs) – the secret police force which later became the KGB. The NKVD moved Polish prisoners of war into forced labour camps. The NKVD also imprisoned other leaders of Polish society including several hundred politicians, lawyers, journalists and teachers. Living conditions were poor: shortages of beds, food and water were reported in various camps, along with severely restricted access to medicines. Military officers were also subjected to a programme of indoctrination through exposure to Soviet political propaganda.4

Five months after the Soviet invasion, in February 1940 Lavrentiy Beria (above), head of the NKVD, sent a memo to Stalin recommending the execution of around 25,000 Polish prisoners. He wrote:

Based on the fact that all of them are steadfast incorrigible enemies of Soviet power, , the USSR NKVD deems it essential:

I. To propose that the USSR NKVD:

Give special consideration to… Imposing on them the sentence of capital punishment – execution by shooting.5

The recommendation was accepted and signed by Stalin, as shown in the original document (below), which has been made available by the Russian State Archive.6 Stalin’s signature in blue is the first to appear on the document.

Methods of execution varied to some degree at the different locations though a shot in the back of the head was the norm. The most reliable account is thought to be that regarding the execution of prisoners who had been held in the Ostashkov prison camp whose bodies were buried in Mednoe, north-west of Moscow.

The executions took place at the prison camp at night, one at a time. Prisoners were taken to holding cells and then to an antechamber known as the “Leninist room” because it was used for the indoctrination of prisoners. Their personal details were checked. They were then handcuffed and led into the adjoining room – a sound-proof execution chamber. They were held down and shot in the back of the head.

The dead bodies were then taken out into a courtyard and loaded onto five or six heavy lorries. The lorries made two trips per night. They were driven 20 miles to Mednoe where they were buried at the edge of a wood. The bodies were stacked in open trenches and then covered with earth. During excavations in the 1990s, 23 of the trenches were uncovered, each one the result of one night’s executions. Individual identification was impossible since the bodies had decomposed and fused together.7

The chief executioner at Ostashkov was Vasilii Blokhin. He had brought with him a suitcase full of Walther 2 type pistols for the purpose. He wore a brown leather butcher’s apron. It has been claimed that he killed 7,000 people.8

At Katyn, the executions are thought to have taken place mostly at the burial site itself in Katyn Forest rather than in the prison where the victims had been held (Kozelsk). The bodies were excavated by the Germans in 1943, only three years after the massacre, so there is much more exhumation evidence. Two thirds of the bodies have been identified. The eight mass graves contained ten to 12 layers of bodies stacked face down. Mouth gags have been found and a variety of injuries suggest that some prisoners tried to put up resistance. According to one historian of the event, “This necessitated a certain number of second shots and a significant number of cases where the victim was finally despatched by a four-edged Red Army bayonet or rifle butt.”9

The exhumation revealed the diary of Major Adam Solski which he kept up until his last moments. It describes how he was removed from the Kozelsk camp at 2.55pm on the 7th April 1940 to begin a difficult journey. His watch, ring and money were confiscated at 8.30am the next morning. That was his last entry in the diary before he was shot.10

Discovery of the massacre

The outside world did not know about the massacre until a few years after it happened. In 1941, Germany reneged on its treaty with the Soviet Union and attacked it. German forces advanced through Soviet Ukraine and occupied the area where the Katyn Massacre had taken place. The Germans started to become aware of the mass graves in the area as a result of local rumours. In 1942, they began to discover the graves and gradually came to understand the scale of the killing. A request was made by the London-based Polish Government-in-Exile for an exhumation of the graves in 1943. The resulting investigation by the International Red Cross Committee, however, caused tension in the relationship between the Allies (the United Kingdom, the USA, Australia and others) and the Soviet Union which, by then, was an extremely important ally in the war against Germany. The mandate of the investigation lapsed by the end of April. Germany then established a new investigatory body called the International Commission, comprised of academics specialising in criminology and forensic medicine. They were all from Axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) or Axis-occupied countries with one exception: the Swiss witness. The Commission concluded that the Soviet Union was responsible for the massacre.11 The Germans produced a booklet with details and photographs (below). The Soviets denied all responsibility. They repelled the German forces later that year and sent a politburo commission to investigate the allegations, as well as removing a memorial to the dead erected by the Red Cross. In the aftermath of the war, at the Nuremberg trials, Soviet interrogators accused key German military officers of complicity in the Katyn Massacre but the court declined to endorse this assertion.12

The Soviet Union continued to deny responsibility for the massacre for many years, continuing to claim that Nazi Germany was to blame.13 In the USA, the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt “suppressed and excluded inconvenient evidence of Soviet responsibility”.14 In Britain, the presence of the Polish Government in Exile brought forward evidence of Soviet guilt. The British foreign office adopted the view that the weight of evidence was that the Soviet Union was responsible but that not evidence was available to enable a definitive judgement such as a court might make.15 As the Cold war developed, the USA was more willing to accuse the Soviet Union of the massacre. The Soviets continued to put pressure on the British government to prevent the dissemination of accusations about the massacre. It opposed a BBC broadcast.16 It also opposed the erection of a memorial in London. Nevertheless, one was eventually unveiled in Gunnersbury Park in London in 1976.17

Later, the Soviet Union adopted a policy of Glasnost (transparency). It soon became untenable for the USSR to continue its denial of involvement in the massacres. On 13th April 1990, the USSR admitted that Stalin and Beria had ordered the killings, designating 13th April as Katyn Memorial Day.18 In November 2010 the Russian Duma (Parliament) declared the Katyn massacre had been authorised by former high-ranking Soviet officials, including Stalin.19

The Katyn War Cemetery in Katyn was opened in 2,000.20 Annual commemorations of the massacre are held by Polish diaspora in various places around the world including at Gunnersbury Park in April each year.

Commemorative sites have also been made in Cannock Chase in Northern England (where a memorial was unveiled in 1979) and in Jersey City, New Jersey, in the USA (above).


Still from the film Katyn

In 2007 Andrzej Wajda (whose father was killed during the massacre) released Katyn, a dramatisation of the events in 1940 (above).21


1. Mass Murderers Discover Mass Murder: the Germans and Katyn, 1943 Kenneth F. Ledford (2012) p583
2. Katyn and the Soviet Massacre of 1940: Truth, justice and memory, George Sanford (Routledge 2005) p97-111.
3. Institute of Public Remembrance, Poland Institute of National Remembrance, Poland,dok.html
4. Katyn and the Soviet Massacre of 1940: Truth, justice and memory, George Sanford (2005) pp.64-65.
7. Sanford pp.101-103
8. Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar Simon Sebag Montefiore (Weidenfeld and Nicholson 2003) p 341.
9. Sanford p109.
10. Ibid p 105.
11. Ibid pp.130-132
12. Ibid pp.140-141
13. Ibid p194.
14. Ibid p158.
15. Ibid p158.
16. Ibid p.194
17. Ibid 195
19. Russian parliament condemns Stalin for Katyn massacre, BBC News (2010)

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