“Encounter with Katyń: The Wartime and Postwar Story of Poles who Saw the Katyń Site in 1943” – lecture at the Institute of World Politics

by PAC Intern Nicole Rybak

History can be regarded as the backbone of society and as such supports and informs our relations with other people, communities, and countries.  Our relations with others are more often than not based on previous experiences we have had with them. For the sake of improving these relationships in the present, some say the facts about the painful past should be changed.  For example, against the facts, the Nuremberg Tribunals wrongfully held Nazi Germany responsible for the Katyń Forest Massacres, in order to improve post-war relations with Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Such a case was described by professor and author Tadeusz Wolsza, as he discussed his book, Encounter with Katyń: The Wartime and Postwar Story of Poles who Saw the Katyń Site in 1943. The premise of this book revolves around the Katyń Massacre of 1940 and the lies that were spread regarding its perpetrators.

In order to better understand the attempted revision of history, one must first understand the events leading up to the massacre. One of these key events was the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact signed by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia on August 23, 1939 — a neutrality pact that lead to “Poland paying the highest price,” as 25% of the victims of the Katyń Massacre were Polish officers, soldiers, and members of Polish intelligentsia. On March 5, 1940, the final decision was made by Stalin’s Politburo secretly to execute these individuals and then to assert that they “disappeared”.  Those marked by Stalin for murder at Katyn were seen as unable to be converted:  to communist supporters of the Soviet Union.  This is why these Poles were murdered on Stalin’s orders.  Most of the executions took place in a cottage in the Katyn forest throughout April and May of 1940.

The events after the massacre, that can only be referred to as “political games,” began with Nazi Germany turning against the Soviet Union in June of 1941.  This led to the opportunistic alliance of the Soviet Union with the British Empire and with the Polish State, the name of the Poland’s government during World war II, after the collapse of the Second Polish Republic. Thus, “the ally of our ally became our ally,” and most Poles were unaware of the murderous social engineering on Stalin’s orders perpetrated by the NKVD against the leadership cadres of Poland.  This shows Stalin intended to make post-war Poland a communist satellite of the Soviet Union.  Anti-communist Polish patriots needed to be murdered to make practicable Stalin’s political project for a new Poland subservient to Moscow.  Now as United Nations allies, Stalin allowed Polish soldiers formerly interned in the Soviet Union to leave for Iran and join British Empire forces fighting in North Africa. This Polish force, a corps of five divisions, was commanded by General Wladyslaw Anders, who became commander-in-chief of the Polish State’s armed forces. In response to numerous inquiries, about the whereabouts of the approximately 25,000 Polish officers, who in fact were already dead after they were murdered at Katyń,  by General Anders and the Government -in-Exile, based in London, of the  Polish State,  Moscow mendaciously continued to insist that those murdered at Katyń went missing.

A turning point in this cover-up occurred in the spring of 1943 when Nazi German officials announced via various media that mass graves of Polish officers and intelligentsia were found in Katyń. This announcement came in Nazi Germany’s self-interest, as this discovery had the potential to divide and thereby weaken the United Nations alliance against Nazi Germany and Japan. Would the leading United Nations allies, the United States, Soviet Union, and the British Empire punish Moscow for its murder of Polish prisoners of war, and thereby allow Nazi Germany the upper hand in the war? The Nazis went so far as to bring in both powerful and educated Polish individuals, as well as Nazi German soldiers to the exhumation sites, to propagate hate towards the Soviets and to encourage soldiers into “fighting and staying strong.” 

In light of this discovery, the Soviet Union’s officials naturally did not want to admit to the horrific crime they committed, placing the blame on Nazi Germany. They constructed a narrative that entailed Nazis committing the acts in the autumn of 1941, “using this accusation to play political games and blackmail the US and the British Empire to stand against the Polish State.   Stalin insisted that the United States and the British Empire not accept the truth about Katyń that was spread by Germany.  Instead, Stalin insisted that the United States and the British Empire agree to the Katyń lie as a basis for post-war co-operation in the United Nations Organization.   Poland and the Poles paid the price to maintain unity among the leading United Nations allies to win victory over Nazi Germany in a war, without moral or ideological clarity, unleashed by Hitler and Stalin to eliminate Poland and partition Eastern Europe.

The creation of the Iron Curtain soon followed victory over Nazi Germany.  This made possible the “sovietization” of Eastern European countries, which enabled the Soviet Union to control every aspect of daily life from “politics, to education, to even sports.” This movement also brought along labor camps that were active from 1948 to 1958, perpetrating terror among the Polish population.

While the story of Communist terror continued, the events described above proved to be very important in understanding the self-serving narrative that key players in this dilemma constructed.  It’s clear that the truth of historic events should not be altered, and those that try to do just that, should be held to account for their ethical crime, as although it is not a physical crime, it destabilizes morals and communities just as much.

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