Massacre: Truth & Reality

Dr George Sanford

Reader in Politics, University of Bristol

21 March 2005

The primary topic of the speaker’s talk was the massacre known as the ‘Katyn Forest’ incident of 1940, when thousands of Polish prisoners of war were killed by Russians, but his talk ranged more widely over the earlier and later periods and the significance for today of the political background to those events nominally in the past of over 65 years ago.

The period prior to the massacre was discussed. Relations between Poland and Russia were strained well before the outbreak of WWII. The Polish-Soviet War of 1920 was succeeded by the development of a Polish Communist movement and a Russian Communist regime which did not always agree and after the Nazi-Soviet Pact had been agreed by Stalin in order to buy himself some time, East Poland was incorporated into the Soviet Union between 1939 and 1941, when Hitler then invaded the Soviet Union. During that period the Polish Communists were seen as unreliable and they were liquidated. When Poland itself was divided into German and Russian sectors through the jointly agreed Nazi-Soviet war against Poland after September 1939, many thousands of Polish resisters were captured as prisoners of war. Stalin and the Communists were particularly antagonistic to the officers, mainly on class grounds, since they represented not only the wealthy but also the landed families and intelligentsia, professional people, etc.

Dr Sanford produced a map showing sites of numbers of camps where the prisoners were held and from which some were taken to be massacred. In Spring 1940, over a period of weeks, Stalin’s security police (NKVD) systematically massacred about 14,700 prisoners taken from camps at Kozelsk, Starobelsk and Ostashkov. The bodies were buried in Katyn Forest, near Smolensk. These killings came to light in Spring 1943, when Germans advancing then into the Soviet Union first uncovered then deliberately publicised the massacre, even inviting the Press and the Red Cross to witness the evidence. The accident of discovery in the Forest was not repeated elsewhere, however, where other massacres of Poles by the NKVD remained undetected. There were killings at Kharkov and at Mednoe near Tver and another 7,300 Poles were shot in Ukrainian and Bela Russian prisons at the same time, making a total collective number around 22,000. While the murders of the latter were undertaken methodically, after interrogation and invitation to join the Nazi-Soviet side were followed by one-on-one shootings in the back of the head, day after day, week after week, the massacres at the Forest site were collective in batches. When his recruitment attempts failed Stalin and his aides decided upon the massacres- only 395 Poles survived. The speaker indicated the killing and burial sites on the provided map.

The German revelations about the Katyn massacre, after an international commission documented what had been found, was followed by Russian denials. In the second half of his book on the massacres, the speaker details the many twists and turns subsequent to the 1943 revelations, which involve not only the Russians and the Germans, but also British and American governmental cover-ups. The Burdenko Commission and the Soviet explanations, the situation at Nuremburg later and in U.S.Congress hearings involved forgeries, pseudo experts and dead ends. The author believes that both the British and American authorities were guilty of lies, hypocrisy and self-delusion, although there is some distinction to be drawn. While the Americans were pragmatic in their approach to the issue of truth, the British were generally inclined to give benefit of doubt. Whatever the conclusions drawn on this, the truth about the massacres was not drawn to the attention of the public until the Gorbachov/Yeltsin era in the Soviet Union, when documents inherited from NKVD files came to light. Then and only then, almost by accident, clear evidence was made available of what had happened.

The truth about the massacres was suppressed both by the Soviet Union itself and by the postwar communist regime in Poland. More important, in contemporary reflections on the need for justice when atrocities are being considered in various contexts, is the behaviour of the Western Powers in the period between 1943 and the late 1980s. The speaker believes that leaders (such as Churchill) knew the truth, but allowed the fog of obscuration to relieve Russia of blame during the war and in the immediate aftermath, mainly because the Soviet Union was a nominal ally then, but the failure to reveal the truth after that for many years cannot be allowed solely to be accounted for by lack of documentary evidence. Much more may yet come to light, now that there is pressure for justice for victims through admission of the truth about atrocities and reconciliation with aggrieved nations through public apologies. In the discussion following the talk those issues were considered, particularly with respect to the Balkans, South Africa, etc in our time. Detailed commentary by the speaker on the history, events and aftermath of the massacres, together with observations on the implications is to be found in his forthcoming book.

Geoffrey Catchpole


George Sanford. Katyn & the Soviet Massacre of 1940. Truth, Justice & Memory (London: RoutledgeCurzon/BASEES series, August 2005)