The Katyn massacre
I wish, in this brief intervention, to present a summary reconstruction of the historical circumstances leading up to one of the worst massacres of the Second World War (1939-1945). I will also touch on the massacre itself, the reasons provided for the massacre, the reactions of the major world powers to the massacre, and the explanations of these reactions.
I embark on this exercise, first, for its own sake – information; secondly to correct deliberate, but really unnecessary, distortions; and thirdly, to remind ourselves that we have been having smaller, but expanding editions of the Katyn massacre in Nigeria since our Civil War (1967-1970) and to warn that a really big one awaits the nation if the drift to a failed state is not halted.
There were, in fact, several massacres of both Soviet and Polish citizens, in and around the forest of Katyn (Western Russia), throughout the Second World War. But the one under reference, the one that has gone down in history as the Katyn massacre, took place at the beginning of April 1940, that is, about seven months into the War. Current estimates – there can only be estimates – put the number of victims at between 22,000 and 25,000, mainly citizens of Poland, Soviet Union’s war-time Southwestern neighbour. The “statistics” of the dead includes: One admiral, two generals, 24 colonels, 258 majors, 654 captains, 17 naval captains, 3,420 non-commissioned officers, three landowners, a prince, 43 senior government officials, 85 privates, 20 university professors, 300 physicians, several hundred lawyers, engineers and teachers, more than 100 writers and journalists, 200 pilots and about 131 people simply listed as “refugees”.
These victims were initially classified as “prisoners of war”, captured by the Soviet forces and transported to the Soviet Union, and executed there, in the first few months of the War. As I said earlier, this was just a small fraction of the massacres of that War. So, where do we begin this story? We may begin, not with a particular date, but with a series of historical landmarks, not necessarily arranged in chronological order. We shall then connect the landmarks. On August 23, 1939, the German Government under Adolf Hitler, and the Soviet Government, under Joseph Stalin, signed a non-aggression pact. The pact had two sections: the agreement, (open) and the protocol (secret). The two rulers had agreed that the pack did not require any ratification, but would become effective the moment their signatures were put on them.
An hour before dawn on September 1, 1939, that is, eight days after the pact, German tanks rolled into Poland from the west. And, 16 days later, on September 17, 1939, Soviet troops crossed into Poland from the east. Deportations of Polish “prisoners of war” into the Soviet Union started almost immediately. In June 1940, Soviet troops occupied the three Baltic States: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. This was followed, two months later, by their outright annexations into the Soviet Union. About the same time – August 1940 – Leon Trotsky, the operational commander of the 1917 socialist capture of power in Russia was assassinated in far-away Mexico by agents of Stalin. On June 22, 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union with 150 army divisions, supported by over 2,700 aircraft.
On April 13, 1943, the German Ministry of Propaganda announced that German troops, now in full control of the part of Poland earlier occupied by Soviet forces, had found “mass graves of thousands of Polish officers killed by the Russians in 1940 and buried in the forest of Katyn”, near Smolensk. The Soviet Government denied the charges and threw them back at German forces. American and British governments which were then in alliance with the Soviet Union in the fight against Nazi Germany, accepted Soviet denials and counter-charges, and dismissed the German allegations. Less than two months later, on June 10, 1943, the Executive Committee of the Communist International (Çomintern), also known as the Third International, was dissolved. This was the de facto dissolution of the organisation, created under Lenin 1919 and which had linked the Socialist and Communist Parties across the globe, including the Communist Party of United States of America, the Communist Party of Britain and the Communist Party of France. Stalin’s action was the strongest assurance to Britain and America that the Soviet Union had abandoned its commitment to “world revolution”.
The Second World War effectively ended in Europe on May 1, 1945 with the Soviet occupation of the whole of Berlin, the German capital. Stalin died on March 5, 1953. About three years later, on February 25, 1956, Nikita Khrushchev, the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the (ruling) Soviet Communist Party, delivered a speech at a closed session of the Party Congress in Moscow. In that speech Khrushchev admitted and enumerated some of the most heinous crimes committed by the Soviet regime, under Stalin, including the uprooting and liquidation of tens of thousands of Soviet and foreign nationals, including Polish nationals – before, during and even after the Second World War. In committing these crimes the Soviet regime was not serving the cause of socialist revolution. It was doing exactly the opposite. And during this period Britain, France, Belgium, etc, were committing their own genocidal crimes in colonised parts of the world.
We may now try to connect these historical landmarks. But before doing this, I may have to state the obvious: I have consulted, and cross-checked, many sources, including, of course, the Internet. But, I have, as an imperative, gone beyond the Internet and current media offerings. In particular, I have called to service “old” books, documents and my own notes. The books include: The rise and fall of The third Reich by William L. Shirer; Hitler: a study in tyranny, by Alan Bullock; The Warsaw uprising, by George Bruce; the Communist Movement, by Fernando Claudin; A history of the People’s Democracies, by Francois Fejto; A dictionary of politics, by Florence Elliott; and the Penguin dictionary of 20th century history, by Allan Palmer. The main document consulted is the full text of Khrushchew’s 1956 “secret speech” as released officially in Moscow in 1989. My notes date back to 1970s.
Now, to the linkages. Throughout the first 22 days of the month of August 1939, before the Hitler-Stalin pact of August 23, and the German invasion of Poland (September 1) there were frantic diplomatic talks and negotiations in Europe. The main actors were the German Government, the Soviet Government, the British Government, the French Government and, of course, the Polish Government. Before the fateful dates of August 23 and September 1, there were, in place: a “defence pact” between Britain and Poland and a “military alliance” between France and Poland. Both pledged to come to the military assistance of Poland should the country be attacked by either Germany or the Soviet Union.
Also, during the 22-day critical period (August 1-22, 1939), anti-Germany alliance talks between the Soviet Union, on the one hand, and Britain and France, on the other, collapsed. Soviet offer to move troops into Poland, perhaps to engage German troops if they crossed into Poland, was rejected by the Polish Government – for obvious reasons: Poland had been assaulted and devastated for decades, if not centuries, by its two big imperial neighbours: Russia and Germany. But beyond the rejection of Stalin’s offer of assistance, the Polish Government “had delayed full mobilisation at the request of Neville Chamberlain’s Government in London, which up to the last moment had tried to appease Hitler” (The Warsaw uprising, page 12).
The German-Soviet Pact, signed on August 23, 1939 provided for non-aggression (agreement) and the division of Poland into German and Soviet “spheres of influence” (protocol). Germany invaded Poland from the west on September 1. In line with the protocol, but justifying its action on the argument that the Polish resistance had collapsed, Soviet troops moved into Poland from the east on September 17. Meanwhile, “Britain and France, pledged by the Polish – British Common Defence Pact and France – Polish Military Alliance to attack Germany in the case of such an invasion, did not take any significant military action”. (Internet: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia). As Polish partisans fought heroically in defence of their nation, German and Soviet forces were rounding up “prisoners of war” and sending them off, first, to prison, then to detention camps, then to concentration camps, then to execution forests, and finally, in the case of Germany, to extermination chambers.
The two “allies” – Germany and the Soviet Union – went to war in June 1941. By the way, each of them knew that the “alliance” would collapse and that they had to sort things out in the field. But on August 23, 1939, it served both sides to enter an “alliance”. Later, Britain, America and the Soviet Union formed an alliance against Germany. In the service of this alliance, Britain and America ignored the concrete evidence of Soviet massacre of Polish nationals, including the Katyn massacre; and the Soviet Union repaid Britain and America by dissolving the Comintern. Last Line: Many “reasons” have been suggested for the Katyn massacre. I present one of them. It goes like this: Since a future, revived, Poland was bound to be unfriendly to the Soviet Union, “depriving it of a large proportion of its military and technical elite would make it weaker”. (Internet)!