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Katyn Forest – Lot of the Poles

The other day I was wondering about the mechanisms of mass murder, particularly of soldiers. Why and how is it that men can be made to dig their own graves or why it is they would go along with their own destruction?

In the immediate, I was thinking of the state terrorism of the Bush/Cheney administration – in many cases, the subjects haven’t gone along with their own annihalation, witness the major prison revolt.

But a clearer cut historical example was the massacre of 25,000 Polish officers by the NKVD in Katyn forest?

How was it that the NKVD managed to murder so many military men – men who surely would and could defend themselves if they knew what was to befall them? Twenty-five thousand trained soldiers is a force to be reckoned with.

So I went to do some research. And found myself on quite a dark path.

First, while the Katyn Forest massacre is called that, there were actually three sites: Katyn near Smolensk, another near Tver and another near Moscow. At each of these sites approximately 5000 officers were murdered. Another seven thousand were killed in random locations.

The motivation behind the killings was simple. The Soviet political commissars had tried to politically reeducate these Polish Catholic officers with total failure. A decision was made to execute all of the officers.

While it is certainly easier to control and kill five thousand men than twenty five thousand, the major question remains. How does a small group of guards kill a massively more numerous group?

The solution is quite simple. The Polish officers were told that they were being moved elsewhere and set free. They were taken away in very small groups. Diaries exist from some of the very few Polish officers to escape execution. While the Katyn murders are taking place this is the kind of rumour that the NKVD floated in the camps:

News arrived today that 30 non-commissioned officers are departing for home. Who knows maybe I too will be at home shortly? We got supper late today–and then kipiatok and baked pumpkin suddenly appeared and I really ate my fill.

Of course, when they arrive in a forest and are led in groups of five or ten to the open grave where they are to be shot in the back of the head, there is not much to be done. Some of them were blindfolded, some were handcuffed. Those who struggle are bayoneted.

I read through the rest of the diary of the officer above – Leon Gladun – and discovered what Poland went through. First the division of Poland by the Germans and the Soviets – Poland was attacked simultaneously on both sides. On the Soviet side, there was collectivisation and imposition the Soviet order, total elimination of the Polish intellegentsia and bourgeoisie and mercantile class. On the German side, the Poles were considered untermenschen and scheduled for elimination.

Far from laying down arms and allowing the Germans to roll through Poland (think France), the Polish army fought back valiantly against a vastly overwhelming force and destroying 30% of German armour and inflicting 16,000 casualties on the German invaders.

After the very successful German attack on Russia in June of 1941, the Soviet Union decided to form a Polish army with the remains of the Polish POW’s. This Polish army fought valiantly in the Middle East and then in Italy. Many Polish pilots flew in the RAF. When the war was over, to placate Stalin no Polish divisions were allowed to march in any victory parades.

Not only Polish soldiers were imprisoned by the Soviets. The woman who was to become Leon Gladun’s wife, Janina Sulkowska wrote her own memoir covering her arrest and her odyssey through the Soviet gulags. It is worth reading. A lot of the latent Polish anti-semitism is explained in these pages.

The Poles watched the Soviet invaders with a mixture of revulsion and fear. Not a few of us cried. My brother became so distraught that shortly after, his hair began to come out in clumps while my little sister could only ask: “How could they do this?” But as disconcerting was the emergence of a local Jewish militia which was friendly to the Red Army and had made its appearance even before the enemy had marched in. Armed and organized, its first task was to arrest the students and Boy Scouts who had been posted as guards with old carbines in some cases taller than them. The Jews roughed up the shocked youngsters who had considered their captors as friends and classmates, before turning them over to the Soviets from whom they had prior directions. What was the fate of these young Poles? In many cases torture and death. This Jewish militia would help carry out the Soviet’s dirty work during their occupation. My family and others would fall victim to them.

In the German occupied territories, some argue that Poles returned the favour. This doesn’t seem a fair reflection of circumstance. Poles were the second largest single group of Holocaust victims, over two million Poles perished in concentration camps. The majority of Righteous gentiles honored at Yad Vashem are Poles.

The Polish underground was an ongoing nuisance to the Germans with apparently over 250,000 members. Poles produced their own automatic weapons and munitions underground. Outside of Poland after the fall of France, the Polish constituted was the second largest Allied armed force until the entry of the Americans with up to 250,000 soldiers. One of the Polish air squadrons had the highest number of kills in the battle of Britain. The Polish navy sailed with the British navy.

The contribution of the Poland to the Allied war effort is enormous. The efforts of Poles to trying to save Jews from the Nazis were amazing. The fate of Poland – left to Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union as war spoils – is a huge blot on England, France, Canada and the United States.

Amazingly, the Austrians got off more lightly than the Poles, allowed to finally become part of Western Europe after the partition. Austria who was part of the Third Reich, while Poland contributed to the Allied war effort in the skies, as underground partisans and as soldiers in Europe and North Africa.

Some days it is better not to pose oneself questions. The answers can be too shaking. To think in Canada, we were brought up on Polish jokes. Poland is perhaps the most tragic land in the history of the world. Divided, conquered, liberated, partitioned and decimated.

Considering what proportion of Poland’s elite have been lost to German concentration camps, Soviet gulags and emigration just in the last century, it is no wonder that Poland’s rebirth is taking some time.

If you have the time, I highly recommend reading the first hand accounts of Poland’s war at Poland’s Holocaust, both the Katyn diary and the Gulag and Holocaust Memoir.


  1. Alan C. Lawhon Alan C. Lawhon

    Thanks for writing this interesting article. I would like to pose a question which basically boils down to a matter of motivation. Specifically, might revenge and a desire to settle “old scores” with Poland have led, in part, to the decision to order the Katyn forest massacre?

    With the tragic news involving the plane crash last week that took the life of Poland’s president and many of Poland’s top leaders, I was made aware of the Katyn massacre and events that occurred long before I was born. In reading about the mass murder that occured in April and May of 1940, I stumbled across Beria’s infamous “execution memorandum” dated March 5, 1940 and signed by Stalin. I have read a little about the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and the civil war that followed. There was a concerted (but ultimately ineffective) effort that went on for several years after the 1917 revolution to overthrow Lenin and the Bolsheviks and return Russia to czarist (non-communist) rule. The United States and Britain (with possibly a few other nations) participated in and/or encouraged these efforts. (The allied landing at Archangel was one example of attempts by Britain and the United States to encourage the overthrow of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. There may well have been other attempts of which I am not aware.) At any rate, it is no great secret that leaders of major industrial nations viewed the Bolshevik revolution with great alarm and very much desired to see Lenin overthrown. I recall reading a quote – possibly attributed to Winston Churchill or Lloyd George – that they feared the Bolshevik revolution might spread to workers in their own countries, so they wanted this “disease” eradicated immediately. It was certainly not lost on Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin that Britain and the United States did not wish them well.

    I’m curious if there is any evidence in the historical record to indicate that Poland might have aided the West immediately following the October 1917 revolution in their efforts to overthrow Lenin and the Bolsheviks? If Poland did intervene militarily on the side of the “White” Russian army during the period from 1919-1921, then the “counter-revolutionary” charges and allegations in the Beria memorandum start to make sense. The massacre was a gruesome case of “getting even” and settling a 20-year-old score. Am I way off base with this supposition, or is there some evidence to support the contention that Stalin, Beria, Mikoyan, et al ordered the massacre at least in part as an act of revenge?

    Please understand that I am not in any way trying to defend or justify Stalin and Beria’s decision. A crime of that magnitude is certainly one of history’s greatest tragedies – and there is no doubt that Stalin and Beria (along with Adolph Hitler) are among the most evil men who have ever walked the earth. All three of them richly deserve their place in hell. At the same time, it takes very little in the way of provocation for a paranoid dictator (like Stalin) to perceive someone as a threat. If officers and soldiers of the Polish military intervened in the Russian civil war (against the Bolsheviks) during the period from 1919-1921, that would go a long way in explaining why Stalin and Beria decided to treat them so harshly.

    I apologize for taking so long to pose my question, but I’m just trying to make sense out of this.


    Alan C. Lawhon Huntsville, Alabama USA

  2. Frank Frank

    Some documents have shown that Katyn was planned originally for captured Finns. However Red Army failed to occupy Finland in Finnish-Russo Winter War (1939-40) so Soviets used the camp to liquidate Polish intelligentsia and military brass/officers.

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