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The Katyn Massacre


Summary of the Katyn Massacre:

The Katyn Massacre was execution of 4,443 Polish military officers by Soviet forces in 1940, initially denied by Russia but revealed to be true in documents released after the end of the Cold War. The term ‘Katyn Massacre’ has been increasingly expanded to mean the murder of many more Polish soldiers and civilians ordered by the USSR at around the same time as the officers. Estimates of these dead vary from 15,000 to over 20,000.


In 1939 Germany and the Soviet Union concluded a ‘Non-Aggression Pact’, otherwise known as the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact after the foreign ministers who agreed it, to divide Poland between them. In 1939 Germany attacked west Poland, prompting France and Britain to declare war on Germany, commencing the conflict which became known as World War Two. Russia invaded and occupied the east of Poland.

The Katyn Massacre:

Russia, wishing to impose its control over Poland, rounded up and imprisoned tens of thousands of members of the Polish military in prison camps within Russia, some around Smolensk. This was not out of character for the Soviet government, which had already imprisoned millions of its own population. At some point during this process 4,443 Polish officers were separated by the NKVD (Secret Police), shot from behind and buried in the Katyn forest near Smolensk. Many of the other soldiers were taken to other sites and also killed.


On April 13 1943 Germany, whose forces were now engaged in a bitter war with the USSR after invading in 1941, announced that its forces had found the mass grave, dug up and identified the bodies as Polish officers and accused the Russians of having carried out the massacre. Russia denied this, accusing the Germans of having killed the men, who were working as construction workers, as their army invaded the region, a position they stuck to for decades, only admitting the truth in 1990.

Reaction to the Katyn Massacre - Diplomatic Relations Break Down:

The Polish Government-in-exile was already suspicious of Russia. After the German invasion of Russia they agreed to co-ordinate with the Soviet Union to form a Polish army within Russian territory to fight the Nazis. A Polish general began forming the army, requesting that 15,000 Polish prisoners of war taken by the Soviets to Smolensk be released to take part. He was told they had ‘escaped’ and their whereabouts was unknown.
When news of the Katyn burials emerged, the Government-in-exile demanded that the Red Cross be sent in to examine the corpses and try to decide what had happened. The Soviets refused to allow this to happen and soon severed diplomatic relations with the government, setting up its own government of Polish communists. This government went on to rule Poland during the Cold War, still maintaining that Germany was responsible for the massacres.
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