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The Ghosts of Katyn Forest

What virtually all Poles have long believed the Polish government has at last officially confirmed. In a carefully worded statement, government spokesman Jerzy Urban says that “everything indicates” that the Soviet Union was responsible for the deaths of more than 4,000 Polish army officers whose bodies were unearthed near the Soviet city of Smolensk in 1943. Western historians long ago concluded that the evidence points overwhelmingly to Soviet responsibility for the crime. Moscow, for its part, has always claimed that the murders were committed by the German army when it occupied the western Soviet Union in the early 1940s. Until now, Poland’s Communist government, installed by the Soviets in 1945, endorsed this version. Its public abandonment of that story represents something of a watershed in Polish-Soviet relations.

The 4,443 Polish soldiers whose bodies were buried in mass graves in the Katyn Forest represented only about one-fourth of the officers who were taken prisoner by the Red Army after it marched into eastern Poland in 1939. That invasion, carried out under secret agreements reached just weeks earlier as part of the German-Soviet nonaggression pact, helped seal Poland’s fate. The captured officers were taken to the Soviet Union. Repeated requests for information about them by the wartime Polish government in exile brought no satisfactory responses. After the Germans found the bodies in 1943, they appointed an investigatory commission, including some neutral experts, which concluded on the basis of physical evidence that the men had been killed in 1940. Each appeared to have been shot through the back of the head. The Soviets in turn blamed the Nazis for the atrocity. Significantly, though, the Russians did not repeat this allegation when they had the chance to do so in a legal forum at the postwar Nuremberg trials of German war criminals.

Of the nearly 11,000 other Polish officers taken prisoner by the Soviets, nothing more has ever been heard. Presumably they too died in some killing field at the hands of Josef Stalin’s secret police. The Poles have long held that the murders were part of a deliberate plan to eliminate their country’s anti-Communist leadership. Whatever Stalin’s exact motivation, the Katyn Forest massacre and the long failure of Soviet authorities to deal with the truth of the matter has helped deepen historic Polish distrust of the Soviet Union. Moscow, for its part, continues to say that the evidence of Soviet culpability in the massacre is only “circumstantial.” The Polish people long ago decided otherwise. Now their government has too.


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