Katyn: A Crime without Punishment

May 8, 2008


The USSR occupied more than half of interwar Poland from 17 September 1939 onwards through its secret agreement with Nazi Germany in the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. During April to mid-May 1940 about 14,700 Soviet-captured Polish PoWs - officers, policemen and border and prison guards as well as another 7,300 held in prisons in Belarus and the Ukraine - were killed by Stalin's Security Police (NKVD) headed by Lavrentii Beria. The PoWs were transported from the Kozelsk, Starobelsk and Ostashkov camps, where they had been screened and interrogated, and killed respectively at Katyn, Kharkov and Kalinin/Tver.

After Hitler invaded the USSR in July 1941, Goebbels' propaganda coup announcing the discovery of the Katyn forest burial pits near Smolensk in April 1943 provided the pretext for Stalin's diplomatic break with the London Poles. During the subsequent exhumation of the 4,400 Kozelsk victims, a host of witnesses was brought in to attest that the PoWs had, crucially, been shot in spring 1940. The Burdenko Commission of January 1944 claimed in the subsequent Soviet cover-up that they had been killed by the advancing Germans in summer 1941. The Soviet line was foisted on the Polish Communist regime, which maintained it until 1988.

Katyn forced Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt to choose the USSR, which, as Norman Davies has reminded us recently, was winning the war for them on the Eastern Front, over the interests of the Polish government-in-exile in London. As I demonstrated in my study published in 2005, Churchill was, however, fully informed and aware that he was sacrificing truth to expediency in abandoning a minor ally. The British Foreign Office thus produced an Open Verdict with an unspoken presumption of Soviet guilt. This was confirmed repeatedly, notably by its official historian, Rohan Butler, in his early 1970s review provoked by the controversy over the siting of the Katyn Memorial, which was sidelined to Gunnersbury Cemetery.

Gorbachev accepted Stalin's responsibility in April 1990. Yeltsin then allowed the Poles access to much of the NKVD operational documentation on the massacre. This was published in Polish in four thick volumes (Katyn. Dokumenty Zbrodni - KDZ) between 1995 and 2006. Before that, the politically contested truth about the 1940 massacre was a very partial one - largely restricted to the Kozelsk-Katyn aspects documented by Janusz Zawodny in Death in the Forest (1962) and extended slightly by Constantine FitzGibbon.

The volume under review contains 122 documents. These include extensive annotations by Wojciech Materski, the outstanding Polish specialist, and Natalia Lebedeva, who played a key role in 1989-90 in providing the archival evidence justifying Gorbachev's announcement. As the two main editors of the more detailed joint Polish-Russian publications, they have produced the most authoritative and comprehensive source book for reference material on the massacre. Accompanying commentaries by Anna Cienciala of the University of Kansas provide a useful service by closely following the documentation, and also making available in English the gist of the introductory analyses contained in the four KDZ volumes.

This fastidiously detailed documentation allows the reader to glean the truth about most aspects of the massacre, although it might prove hard going for the non-specialist. Stalin's reasons for killing the PoWs, contrary to international law, rather than disposing of them through the Gulag, remain speculative, as do the Belarussian and Ukrainian aspects and the full details of the 1990s Russian procuracy investigation. The controversy is thus no longer over the general truth of the 1940 massacre but over how the issue can be closed through appropriate commemoration and historical recognition. Will post-Communist Russia ever revive its stalled democratisation and overcome its Stalinist past by acknowledging and apologising for the massacre more openly and fully?

Katyn: A Crime without Punishment

Edited by Anna M. Cienciala, Natalia S. Lebedeva and Wojciech Materski
Yale University Press
432pp, £25.00
ISBN 97803000108514
Published 22 February 2008

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