Soviets Massacre Polish Prisoners of War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When the Soviets executed more than four thousand Polish prisoners of war in the Katyn Forest in the early spring of 1940, German propagandists attempted to use the event to influence public opinion in Poland and to split the Allied cause.

Summary of Event

On August 23, 1939, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed an agreement that set the stage for the outbreak of World War II in Europe. The agreement, in part, provided the basis for the dismemberment of Poland. Shortly thereafter, on September 1, 1939, German armed forces attacked Poland, and on September 17, the Soviet army moved into eastern Poland and occupied its assigned portion of Polish territory. Under the weight of the German onslaught and the Soviet invasion, Polish resistance collapsed, and the remnants of Poland’s government fled the country. [kw]Soviets Massacre Polish Prisoners of War (Apr.-May, 1940) [kw]Massacre Polish Prisoners of War, Soviets (Apr.-May, 1940) [kw]Polish Prisoners of War, Soviets Massacre (Apr.-May, 1940) [kw]Prisoners of War, Soviets Massacre Polish (Apr.-May, 1940) [kw]War, Soviets Massacre Polish Prisoners of (Apr.-May, 1940) Massacres;Katyn Forest World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Katyn Forest massacre Katyn Forest massacre [g]Poland;Apr.-May, 1940: Soviets Massacre Polish Prisoners of War[10150] [g]Russia;Apr.-May, 1940: Soviets Massacre Polish Prisoners of War[10150] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;Apr.-May, 1940: Soviets Massacre Polish Prisoners of War[10150] [c]Human rights;Apr.-May, 1940: Soviets Massacre Polish Prisoners of War[10150] [c]World War II;Apr.-May, 1940: Soviets Massacre Polish Prisoners of War[10150] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Apr.-May, 1940: Soviets Massacre Polish Prisoners of War[10150] Churchill, Winston Roosevelt, Franklin D. Stalin, Joseph Goebbels, Joseph

Immediately after the termination of hostilities in Soviet-occupied Poland, Soviet authorities began the forced deportation of approximately 1.2 million Poles to areas within the Soviet Union. In addition, the Soviets captured more than 200,000 members of the Polish armed forces. These prisoners were joined by thousands of Polish reservists arrested at home as well as by soldiers who had initially escaped to Lithuania and Estonia only to be taken by the Soviets after the Baltic states fell under Soviet control. In the final count, approximately 250,000 members of the Polish armed forces, including about 10,000 officers, were placed in more than one hundred major Soviet prison and labor camps.

The international situation changed dramatically on June 22, 1941, when Germany launched a surprise attack on the Soviet Union. Soon thereafter, the Soviets and the Polish government in exile, located in London, reestablished diplomatic relations and agreed that the Soviets would grant amnesty to those Poles being held in the Soviet Union. Simultaneously, the new Polish embassy in the Soviet Union took steps to organize a Polish army on Soviet soil composed of those members of the Polish armed forces who were being held as prisoners of war by the Soviets.

Eventually, after these former prisoners had been assembled by the new Polish military command in the Soviet Union, it became clear that approximately 15,000 soldiers remained missing, including some 8,000 officers. Moreover, it was not just professional officers who were missing: Hundreds of reservists, including doctors, lawyers, educators, and journalists, were also missing. Investigations by Polish authorities revealed that the missing individuals had been held at three camps: approximately 6,500 men at Ostashkov, 4,000 at Starobelsk, and 5,000 at Kozelsk. In late April and early May, 1940, troops from the Soviet Union’s People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, known as the NKVD NKVD (Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del), had removed in small groups all but 448 of the prisoners from the three camps. Investigations revealed that the men from Kozelsk had been taken by rail to a point immediately west of Smolensk, but there they had disappeared. Indeed, of the approximately 15,000 men originally held in these three camps, only the 448 survived. Polish requests for information concerning the missing soldiers were addressed to Soviet officials but were met with evasive and contradictory responses. Nevertheless, between the summer of 1941 and the spring of 1943, the Poles continued to attempt to ascertain the fate of the missing soldiers.

Meanwhile, in late February, 1943, German field police discovered the mass graves of several thousand individuals, apparently Polish officers, in the Katyn Forest about ten miles west of Smolensk. Prior to the German capture of the area in 1941, the Katyn Forest had been controlled by the NKVD. This information was transmitted to Berlin, where Nazi officials recognized the propaganda value of this discovery and moved to capitalize on the opportunity. Consequently, on April 13, 1943, German radio announced that Soviet authorities had executed thousands of Polish prisoners of war. The Germans quickly followed this announcement by inviting a series of specially chartered international groups to examine the site and report their conclusions.

Germans conduct exhumation of bodies from the mass graves found in the Katyn Forest.

Three investigatory commissions were formed under German sponsorship. First, an international commission was formed, drawing distinguished specialists in the field of forensic medicine from twelve European countries other than Nazi Germany. On April 28, 1943, the members of this commission began a three-day investigation of the grave sites in the Katyn Forest. While there, they examined 982 corpses already exhumed by German authorities and 9 that had been previously untouched and were randomly selected by the commission. During their investigation, the members of the group had complete freedom to move throughout the area and enjoyed the full cooperation of the Germans at the site. Simultaneously, the Germans invited a medical delegation from the Polish Red Cross in German-occupied Poland to conduct a second investigation in the Katyn Forest. Without the knowledge of the German authorities, the Polish underground infiltrated the Polish Red Cross group. The Polish team remained at the site for five weeks, during which it, like the international commission, was given full German support as well as freedom of movement around the site, including authority to photograph whatever the team members wished. Finally, a specially formed German medical team was sent to Katyn. In addition to these three teams, journalists from Germany, German-occupied Europe, and neutral European states visited the Katyn Forest, as did German-sponsored Polish and Allied prisoner-of-war delegations.

The German authorities, the various medical commissions, and the other visitors to the area found more than 4,000 corpses buried in eight mass graves that were six to eleven feet deep. In addition to the bodies actually found, some analysts have speculated that more than 300 more undiscovered Polish corpses may remain in the forest. In any case, all but 22 of the bodies found were clad in Polish uniforms and were piled face down in the graves in layers. Many, especially the younger men, had had their greatcoats tied over their heads with ropes connected tightly to their hands, which were tightly bound behind their backs. As a result, any movement of the hands would serve to tighten the ropes that secured the greatcoats at the neck. In addition, many bore bayonet wounds. All, however, had been shot through the head in a similar manner. Finally, the individual graves of two Polish general officers, in uniform, were also located in the forest.

Based on a variety of evidence collected at the site, the three German-sponsored commissions independently reached similar conclusions. They agreed that the Polish prisoners had been executed and buried about three years prior to their exhumation. In other words, they had been murdered in the spring of 1940. Given that this was more than a year prior to the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June, 1941, and given that the Katyn Forest was under the control of the NKVD at the time of the killings, the conclusion of the commissions was that Soviet authorities had killed the Polish prisoners. The conclusions of the three commissions were confirmed and further supplemented by additional evidence supplied by the families of the dead soldiers and by the survivors of Camp Kozelsk. This additional material clearly established that the Polish soldiers found in the forest were the missing prisoners from Camp Kozelsk. Finally, the fact that the Germans fully cooperated with the investigators at the Katyn Forest site and subsequently attempted to preserve the evidence of the atrocity suggested that the Nazis were not the murderers.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union denied the German accusations and charged that the Nazis had themselves committed the crime. On April 15, 1943, two days after the initial German radio broadcast announcing the discovery of the mass graves, the Soviets stated that the Polish prisoners had been seized by invading Nazis during the summer of 1941 and, subsequently, the Nazis had executed them. After the capture of the Smolensk region, the Soviet authorities organized a special Soviet commission to investigate the Katyn Forest murders. The Soviet team was composed exclusively of Soviet medical experts; no international medical experts were asked to participate. Predictably, given the official title of the Soviet investigatory team, the “Special Commission for Ascertaining and Investigating the Circumstances of the Shooting of Polish Officer Prisoners by the German-Fascist Invaders in the Katyn Forest,” the Soviet team concluded that the Germans had murdered the Poles between September and December of 1941. The Soviets claimed to have found nine documents on the bodies bearing dates after May, 1940. In view of the fact that most of the bodies had been previously and extremely carefully searched by the German-sponsored commissions, most observers discounted these so-called finds as fabrications.

Following World War II, the Katyn Forest atrocity was inconclusively examined at the Nuremberg Trials, and later, in considerable detail, in 1951-1952 by a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Notwithstanding continued Soviet denials of guilt and assertions that the Germans were responsible, virtually all analysts outside the Communist countries concluded that the Soviets had killed the Polish prisoners found in the Katyn Forest. Finally, in 1990, fifty years after committing the atrocity, the Soviets acknowledged that the NKVD had murdered the men.

Two questions remained, however, even after the establishment of Soviet guilt for the Katyn atrocity. First, what happened to the more than 10,000 Poles held at Camps Starobelsk and Ostashkov? Apparently these men were also killed by the NKVD, although their exact fate remained unclear. Second, why were 448 men from Kozelsk, Ostashkov, and Starobelsk allowed to live? It would seem that the NKVD selected those individuals who appeared to be pro-Communist, who were susceptible to Soviet propaganda, or who, by virtue of their backgrounds, were deemed worthy of selection for survival.


Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels immediately recognized the significance of the Katyn Forest discovery and took special pains to make certain that Germany derived the fullest propaganda dividends from the Soviet atrocity. Nazi Germany;Katyn Forest massacre propaganda Propaganda;Nazi Germany For example, the German-controlled media in Poland provided extensive coverage of the Katyn Forest investigations and argued that Jewish Bolshevism was responsible for the atrocity. The Poles were told that they must look to the Germans for protection against the ruthless Soviets. Moreover, the extensive daily coverage, extending from April 14 to August 4, 1943, coincided with the Nazi massacre of the Warsaw ghetto, which took place from mid-April to mid-May, 1943.

In addition to attempting to influence Polish public opinion, the Germans intended to use the atrocity to split the Allied cause. There, however, the Germans unwittingly assisted Moscow in the latter’s policy objectives. Immediately following the German announcement of the discovery of the mass graves in the Katyn Forest, on April 15, 1943, the Polish government in exile in London decided to call on the International Red Cross to conduct a full investigation. The following day, the British press reported this decision. On April 17, a spokesperson for the Polish government in exile confirmed the decision, and, that same day, the Poles formally made their request to officials of the International Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland. Meanwhile, in Berlin, acting on a British press story predicting the Polish request to the Red Cross, but prior to the formal request itself, Goebbels decided to embarrass the Poles by issuing a second German request to the International Red Cross to investigate the atrocity. The timing of the German request was designed to coincide with the Polish request, thereby making it appear that the London Poles and Berlin were acting in concert. The German request was thus handed to the representatives of the International Red Cross in Geneva less than one hour prior to the Polish appeal. For its part, the International Red Cross responded that it would conduct an investigation provided that the Soviet Union joined with the Poles and Germany in requesting such an investigation. The Soviet Union, of course, did not agree to join in the request.

The appearance of Polish-German cooperation in requesting the investigation provided Soviet leader Joseph Stalin with an opportunity to cut his ties with the London Poles in favor of his own Moscow-sponsored Union of Polish Patriots. Thus not only did the Soviets fail to request an investigation by the International Red Cross, but on April 19, 1943, the Soviet media also denounced members of the Polish government in exile for collusion with the Nazis in perpetuating the so-called Nazi-fabricated allegations that the Soviet Union was responsible for the Katyn atrocity. This theme was in turn repeated by the pro-Soviet media outside the Soviet Union. The free Polish media responded that the Polish government in exile was merely seeking answers to questions as to what had happened in Katyn Forest.

Nevertheless, on April 21, 1943, Stalin informed British prime minister Winston Churchill and U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt that the Soviets had decided to sever relations with the Polish government in exile in London. Churchill and Roosevelt responded by appealing to Stalin not to risk the unity of the Allies by breaking relations with the London Poles, and Churchill appealed to the Polish leaders in London to drop the entire matter. Notwithstanding British and American appeals, however, on April 26, 1943, the Soviets notified the Polish ambassador in Moscow of the Soviet government’s decision to break relations with the Polish government in exile in London. Subsequently, despite the fact that the London Poles, under pressure from the British, withdrew their request to the International Red Cross for a neutral investigation the day after the severance of Soviet-Polish relations, the Soviet Union remained firm in its decision to break relations.

Clearly, Stalin had decided to use the Polish government in exile’s response to the German announcement of the Katyn discovery as his excuse to dispose of the independent Polish authorities in London in favor of the Soviet-backed Poles. Indeed, the latter would ultimately serve as a central component in the satellite regime erected by the Soviet Union in postwar Poland. Thus the massacre of more than four thousand Polish prisoners of war by the Soviet NKVD in the Katyn Forest and the disappearance and presumed execution of another ten thousand Polish prisoners not only deprived Poland of a significant element of the prewar Polish elite but also ultimately was used to advance Soviet objectives in postwar Eastern Europe. Massacres;Katyn Forest World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Katyn Forest massacre Katyn Forest massacre

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abarinov, Vladimir. The Murderers of Katyn. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1993. Account by a Soviet journalist is one of the most in-depth discussions of the massacre available.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lauck, John H. Katyn Killings: In the Record. Clifton, N.J.: Kingston Press, 1988. Comprehensive overview of the events leading up to the massacre and the various investigations that followed, especially the hearings of the select committee of the U.S. House of Representatives.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mackiewicz, Jozef. The Katyn Wood Murders. London: World Affairs Book Club, 1951. Early examination of the atrocity is presented in a somewhat personalized manner.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paul, Allen. Katyn: The Untold Story of Stalin’s Polish Massacre. New York: Scribner, 1991. Presents vivid forensic details in recounting the 1940 Katyn Forest massacre and its precursors. Includes illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sanford, George. Katyn and the Soviet Massacre of 1940: Truth, Justice, and Memory. New York: Routledge, 2005. Detailed study draws on Soviet documentation released in the 1990’s to examine the factors that led to the Soviets’ use of mass murder in the Katyn Forest.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tucker, Robert C. Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 1928-1941. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990. Informative work offers insight into Stalin and his regime. Includes brief but significant discussion of the Katyn Forest massacre.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zawodny, J. K. Death in the Forest: The Story of the Katyn Forest Massacre. 1962. Reprint. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1988. Readable account provides a detailed and balanced examination of the Katyn Forest massacre and its implications.

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Categories: History