World War 2

World War 2 is probably the best documented event in world history. There are countless stories of individuals, communities, and countries around the world that experienced those times.  It is the intent of this website to tell the personal, the lesser known, and the sometimes untold stories of that war.
Star Photo
Freedom Wall WWII Memorial
Washington, DC

The Katyn Forest Massacre: And Five Betrayals of Poland by Its WWII Allies

Hands tied behind the back of a Polish soldier found in a mass grave in the Katyn Forest (Soviet Union) in spring 1943.

 

In Moscow on August 23, 1939, an agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union was signed.  It included a plan for the division of Poland.  The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact served as a prelude to Germany’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939.  The Pact assured Hitler that the Soviets would not interfere with Germany’s planned military action against Poland.

 

Betrayal One

Britain and France signed military alliances with Poland in 1939 to come to her aid if attacked.  

Germany invaded Poland September 1, 1939.  

Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3. 

The Soviet Union attacked Poland September 17. 

By the end of September 1939 both Germany and the Soviet Union occupied the agreed upon Polish territory as set in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.  The Second Polish Republic no longer existed.

 Neither Britain nor France came to the aid of Poland.

 

Betrayal Two

[The account of this massacre as told in this story is based upon declassified documents and the release of Soviet archival material in the early 1990s after the fall of communism.]

As the Germans advanced into the Soviet Union in 1943 they found a mass grave in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk which held an estimated 4,500 bodies.  The bodies, some in Polish uniforms, some with their hands tied behind their back, were stacked in layers 12 bodies high in an approximate 92 feet long and 52 feet wide pit.  Victims had been shot in the back of the head. 

Photograph of Polish mass gravesite in the Katyn Forest after it was discovered in 1943 by the Nazis when Germany was advancing into the Soviet Union. 

The Soviets captured and arrested thousands of Polish military and Polish intelligentsia after attacking Poland September 17, 1939.  An estimated 22,000 prisoners of war were imprisoned in three main prisoner of war camps in the Soviet Union:  Kozelsk, Ostashkov, and Starobelsk.  On March 5, 1940, Stalin signed a document ordering the execution of the prisoners.  The executions were carried out in April and May 1940.  The Polish prisoners of war at Kozelsk were shot at the Katyn Forest site, according to most accounts, and buried in a pit.  The prisoners of war at Ostashkov and Starobelsk were shot at NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs/Soviet Secret Police) prisons at Kalinin and Kharkov, respectively.

Benjamin B. Fischer in a paper, “The Killing Controversy:  Stalin’s Killing Field,”  wrote, “Those who died at Katyn included an admiral, two generals, 24 colonels, 79 lieutenant colonels, 258 majors, 654 captains, 17 naval captains, 3,420 NCOs, seven chaplains, three landowners, a prince, 43 officials, 85 privates, and 131 refugees. Also among the dead were 20 university professors; 300 physicians; several hundred lawyers, engineers, and teachers; and more than 100 writers and journalists as well as about 200 pilots.  It was their social status that landed them in front of NKVD execution squads. …  In all, the NKVD eliminated almost half the Polish officer corps–part of Stalin’s long-range effort to prevent the resurgence of an independent Poland.”

One of the Polish pilots killed at Katyn was a woman. Her name was Lieutenant Janina Lewandowska.  

Lieutenant Janina Lewandowska, Polish WWII pilot.
Polish WWII pilot Lieutenant Janina Lewandowska.

After finding the Katyn gravesite in early 1943, the Germans called in forensic experts before announcing to the world that the Soviets had killed the Polish officers.  The Soviets denied the accusation and blamed the Germans for the mass murder.  The London based Polish government-in-exile led by Polish Prime Minister General Wladyslaw Sikorski wanted to open an investigation by the International Red Cross.  The Soviets immediately cut off diplomatic relations with the Polish government.  

According to declassified historical documents and archival findings, both United States (US) President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had been told by members of their governments about the Soviet responsibility for the mass murder discovered at Katyn.

Both the US and British governments were accused of suppressing information about the massacre.  Neither government at the time publicly acknowledged Katyn nor sought an investigation.  

A post WWII US Congress investigation would concur with the US suppression charge in 1952.

 

The US Congress Select Committee on Katyn Forest Massacre 1951 – 1952 *

A Select Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., on February 6, 1952.  A Polish soldier hiding his identity was testifying.  Associated Press Photograph/Bill Allen.

The seven committee members on the rostrum in the photograph above are (left to right) US House of Representatives members Timothy P. Sheehan, Alvin E. O’Konski, George A. Dondero, Ray J. Madden (Chairman), Daniel J. Flood, Foster Furcolo, and Thaddeus M. Machrowicz.

Committee CONCLUSIONS

 1.  In submitting this final report to the House of Representatives, this committee has come to the conclusion that in those fateful days nearing the end of the Second World War there unfortunately existed in high governmental and military circles a strange psychosis that military necessity required the sacrifice of loyal allies and our own principles in order to keep Soviet Russia from making a separate peace with the Nazis.  

For reasons less clear to this committee, this psychosis continued even after the conclusion of the war.  Most of the witnesses testified that had they known then what they now know about Soviet Russia, they probably would not have pursued the course they did.  It is undoubtedly true that hindsight is much easier to follow than foresight, but it is equally true that much of the material which this committee unearthed was or could have been available to those responsible for our foreign policy as early as 1942.

And, it is equally true that even before 1942 the Kremlin rulers gave much evidence of a menace of Soviet imperialism paving the way for world conquest.  Through the disastrous failure to recognize the danger signs which then existed and in following a policy of satisfying the Kremlin leaders, our Government unwittingly strengthened their hand and contributed to a situation which has grown to be a menace to the United States and the entire free world.

2.  Our committee is sending a copy of this report, and volume 7 of the published hearings, to the Department of Defense for such action as may be proper with regard to General Bissell.  We do so because of the fact that this committee believes that had the Van Vliet report been made immediately available to the Department of State and to the American public, the course of our governmental policy toward Soviet Russia might have been more realistic with more fortunate postwar results.

3.  This committee believes that the wartime policies of Army Intelligence (G-2) during 1944-45 should undergo a thorough investigation.  Testimony heard by the committee substantiates this belief, and if such an investigation is conducted another object lesson might be learned.

4.  Our committee concludes that the staff members of the Office of War Information and Federal Communications Commission who participated in the program of silencing Polish radio commentators went beyond the scope of their duties as official Government representatives.  Actually, they usurped the functions of the Office of Censorship and by indirect pressure accomplished domestic censorship which was not within the jurisdiction of either of these agencies.

5.  This committee believes that if the Voice of America is to justify its existence it must utilize material made available more forcefully and effectively.

6.  This committee began its investigation last year, and as the committee’s work progressed, information, documents, and evidence was submitted from all parts of the world.  It was at this same time that reports reached the committee of similar atrocities and violations of international law being perpetrated in Korea.  This committee noted the striking similarity between crimes committed against the Poles at Katyn and those being inflicted on American and other United Nation troops in Korea.  Communist tactics being used in Korea are identical to those  followed at Katyn.  Thus this committee believes that Congress should undertake an immediate investigation of the Korean war atrocities in order that the evidence can be collected and the truth revealed to the American people and the free peoples of the world.  This committee will return to Congress approximately $21,000 in surplus funds, and it is suggested that this money be made available by Congress for such an investigation.

Committee RECOMMENDATIONS

The final report of the Select Committee Investigating the Katyn Forest Massacre hereby incorporates the recommendations contained in the interim report, filed on July 2, 1952 (H. Rept. No. 2430).

This committee unanimously recommends that the House of Representatives approve the committee’s findings and adopt a resolution:

 1.  Requesting the President of the United States to forward the testimony, evidence, and findings of this committee to the United States delegates at the United Nations;

2.  Requesting further that the President of the United States issue instructions to the United States delegates to present the Katyn case to the General Assembly of the United Nations;

3.  Requesting that appropriate steps be taken by the General Assembly to seek action before the International World Court of Justice against the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics for committing a crime at Katyn which was in violation of the general principles of law recognized by civilized nations; 

4.  Requesting the President of the United States to instruct the United States delegation to seek the establishment of an international commission which would investigate other mass murders and crimes against humanity.

The final report of the Select Committee Investigating the Katyn Forest Massacre was sent to US President Harry S. Truman.  No action was taken on the Recommendations, at least not publicly. 

 

Betrayal Three 

Churchill had told the Poles that they would again have a free and independent country and be “happy” after the war.  

Two “Big Three” Conferences would decide the postwar fate of Poland.  

Tehran Conference November 28 – December 1, 1943

This was the first of the WWII “Big Three” Conferences.  The participants were US President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin.  

It was at this conference that Churchill told Stalin that after WWII the Soviet Union could keep the territory of Poland that Stalin captured in September 1939 (as designated in the August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and the Soviet Union).  Churchill said the prewar western border of Poland could be moved further west to compensate Poland for her loss to the Soviets.

Yalta Conference February 4 – 11, 1945

The future of Europe post WWII was determined by the “Big Three.”  

After Stalin’s broken promise to hold free elections in Poland the country would become a satellite state within the “sphere of influence” of the Soviet Union.  It would be named the communist People’s Republic of Poland.

The Allies did not consult with the London Polish government-in-exile regarding the postwar future of Poland.

 

Betrayal Four

After Poland was overrun by Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939 those Poles able to escape established a government-in-exile in London.  The Polish agreed to continue their fight under the British High Command.  The Polish military would support the Allied cause in the air, sea, and on land. Overall, the Polish military was the fourth largest Allied army in WWII after the Soviet Union, United States, and Britain. 

On June 8, 1946, Britain celebrated the end of WWII with a Victory Parade in London.  

Britain’s WWII Polish ally was not invited to take part in the parade.

London Victory Parade June 8, 1946.

Historians write that a British sensitivity to Stalin, the pro-communist government set up in postwar Poland, and the start of the Cold War may account for the Clement Attlee government to exclude their wartime ally from the parade. 

 

Betrayal Five

On September 18, 1976, a memorial to the Katyn Forest Massacre was dedicated at Gunnersbury Cemetery in London.

Katyn Memorial in Gunnersbury Cemetery, London, England.  Photograph TracesOfWar.com.

Poles in the United Kingdom were trying since the end of the war to have a memorial dedicated to their countrymen killed at Katyn.  Successive British governments after WWII had objected to a remembrance of the massacre.

Mrs. W. Piotrowska at the dedication of the Katyn Memorial in London September 18, 1976. Her first husband Captain Ksawery (pictured in the photograph she carried) was last seen at the Starobielsk camp in May 1940.  Photograph Keystone Press Agency, Inc., New York, N.Y.

The British government chose not to be represented at the 1976 dedication.  Serving British military officers were told they could attend the ceremony but were instructed not to wear a uniform.

 

On April 13, 1990, the Soviet government officially acknowledged  its responsibility for the Katyn Forest Massacre.

After the fall of communism Poland would become the independent and free Third Republic of Poland.

On April 10, 2010, Poland President Lech Kaczyński, his wife, high-ranking Polish military leaders and government officials were flying from Warsaw, Poland, to Russia to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Katyn.  The airplane crashed on approach to Smolensk and near the Katyn Forest site.  All 96 people on board died.

 

 

* The 45 page Final Report of the Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation and Study of the Facts, Evidence, and the Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre can be found at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=osu.32435078695582&view=1up&seq=1

An excellent resource on this topic is British historian Laurence Rees’ TV documentary series “WWII Behind Closed Doors:  Stalin, the Nazis, and the West.”  Mr. Rees’ website is http://ww2history.com/ .