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Case Study:

The Katyń Massacres of 1940

Last modified: 8 September 2008
Piotr H. Kosicki

September 2008

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Piotr H. Kosicki, The Katyń Massacres of 1940, Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, [online], published on 8 September 2008, accessed 28 August 2014, URL : http://www.massviolence.org/The-Katyn-Massacres-of-1940, ISSN 1961-9898

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The Katyń Massacres were at least four series of massacres carried out by the Soviet “People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs” (NKVD), or security police, on Polish prisoners of war and political prisoners over the course of April and May 1940. Until 1990, when the Soviet Union admitted that its officials had been responsible for the death of 21,857 Poles, one generally spoke of the “Katyń Massacre,” after the Katyń Forest site (present-day Russia) where, in 1943, the German army discovered mass graves containing a total of 4,123 corpses (4,243 according to Polish figures). Following the 1990 revelation, other sites were exhumed at Kharkiv (present-day Ukraine) and Mednoye (present-day Russia). In September 2007, evidence of a mass grave of Polish officers was identified at Bykivnia (present-day Ukraine), and there may exist yet undiscovered burial sites for the victims of massacres by the NKVD pursuant to the March 5 and March 22, 1940 orders of NKVD chief Lavrentii Beria.

 A. Context

For Poland, the years 1918-1920 and the treaties of Versailles, Saint-Germain, and Trianon brought not only the end of the Great War, but also the rebirth of the Polish State. The partitions of 1772, 1793, and 1795 had allowed the Russian, Prussian, and Austrian empires to divide up and dismantle the Kingdom of Poland, and from 1795 to 1918 Poles were subjects of foreign empires.

The newly independent Polish State included eastern borderlands (Kresy Wschodnie) that combined territories reclaimed from the old Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. Describing these territories in objective terms is practicably impossible: as Jan Gross has written, “The complications of historical geography in the area might seriously challenge even an accomplished toponymist, particularly since names frequently carried for the local inhabitants an avowal of identity or, worse, a denial of someone else’s claims” (1988: 4). The Polish borderlands included portions of present-day Ukraine, Belorussia, and Lithuania; the voivodeships of Wołyń, Podole, and Polesie; and the territory known as Eastern Galicia, the southeastern portion of the Kingdom of Poland annexed by Austria in 1772, heavily populated by Ukrainians and Jews, with its largest city at Lwów (in Ukrainian, Lviv; in German, Lemberg).

Even after the re-establishment of Poland in 1918, the status of these territories under international law remained uncertain, given the transformation of the Russian Empire into the Soviet Union and the persistence of armed conflict within and on its borders. The battles of the Polish-Soviet War of 1920-21 were fought first in the borderlands as the Red Army advanced toward Warsaw. There, the Poles won a resounding victory, and the March 1921 Treaty of Riga included recognition of Polish sovereignty over the borderlands. It is essential to recall also the disputed Curzon Line: rejected by the Soviet Union as a solution to the Polish-Soviet War but later resurrected by Stalin at the Tehran and Yalta Conferences as a basis for his proposed post-World War II boundary settlement, the Curzon Line embodies the complexity of the boundary issues and their amenability to political instrumentalization.

Poland’s eastern borderlands were ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse. Only about one-third of the inhabitants were Poles; one-third were Ukrainian, and another third reflected a mixture of Jews, Belorussians, and self-proclaimed “locals” (tutejsi) declaring to be none of the above. Linguistic and religious divides cut along ethnic lines: Poles were Roman Catholic; Ukrainians were Greek Catholic, except for families that had converted to the Russian Orthodox faith before 1918, under Russian imperial rule; and Belorussians were Orthodox. Furthermore, 81% of the total inhabitants of this territory lived in rural areas, though Poles predominated in the cities.

Throughout its eastern borderlands, Poles undertook a campaign of “Polonization” that ranged from exclusive Polish-language usage in schools to wholesale pacification of non-Polish communities. The State directed the latter particularly against Ukrainians in Eastern Galicia, a region that exemplified the “national minorities problem” devastating Central and Eastern Europe in the interwar period (e.g. Bartov, 2007). The borderlands remained economically underdeveloped, and extensive State campaigns to populate them with ethnic Poles ultimately failed. Polish census data for 1931 is instructive, especially with respect to the varied distribution of mother tongues spoken within single voivodeships: in the Polesie voivodeship, 63% local dialects (tutejsi), 14% Polish, 10% Yiddish; in the Tarnopol voivodeship, 49% Polish, 46% Ukrainian, 5% Yiddish; in the Wołyń voivodeship, 68% Ukrainian, 17% Polish, 10% Yiddish. Anti-Semitism and ethnic resentment ran rampant in a territory in which perceptions of ethnicity and class were deeply intertwined.

As Jan T. Gross has observed, this was “Poland B,” “the backward half of a backward European country” (1988: 4). On the eve of World War II, Soviet strategy took full advantage of this backwardness. Nine days before the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov signed the now-infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In a clause that remained secret from all but the signatories, the Third Reich and the Soviet Union agreed to partition Poland. Germany recognized Soviet rights to invade and occupy approximately 200,000 square kilometers of interwar Poland, roughly equivalent to the country’s eight eastern and southern voivodeships (the new German-Soviet border was finalized in a September 28 annex signed by Ribbentrop and Stalin). This territory included over 13 million inhabitants (cf. Gross, 1988: 3-8).

When the Red Army arrived in Poland’s borderlands on September 17, 1939, its propaganda drew significant inspiration from facts on the ground: the propaganda therefore went beyond simple class ideology. Poles became “bourgeois Polish lords,” a collective enemy defined both in ethno-national and class terms, a hybrid object of hatred of bourgeoisie and aristocracy alike. Both the Red Army and NKVD approached Poles systematically as such. The Red Army’s declared purpose was to “liberate their Slavic brethren from the yoke of the Poles.” This purpose was evident in the very names adopted by the USSR for the borderlands – “Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia” – which the Soviet Union immediately incorporated into, respectively, the Ukrainian and Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republics. According to the NKVD’s classification scheme, the main agents keeping the “yoke of the Poles” in place were members of the Polish armed and civil services, so these groups were the first to be processed by the NKVD.

It is essential to emphasize the centrality of arrests and deportations to the Soviet strategy of conquest. On its entry into Poland, the Red Army found between 200,000 and 240,000 Polish soldiers. The Poles had received orders not to engage their Soviet counterparts in combat, yet all Poles in uniform were taken into custody as POWs; this was true not only of the army but also of police, prison officials, and border patrol, as well as many civil servants. Together with the mass arrests of “political” prisoners, this policy of immediate imprisonment and processing marked the beginning of attempts to terrorize and atomize the population.

By Soviet Internal Affairs commissar Lavrentii Beria’s order 0308 of September 19, 1939, the NKVD created a special group to govern the fate of prisoners of war. Beginning in October, army infantrymen were progressively released, yet at least 37,000 were retained for forced labor, and an unknown number were deported into the GULAG labor camp system (Paczkowski, 1997: 429). Beria designed an internment-camp system for 8376 army officers – separated into two camps, at Kozelsk and Starobelsk – and 6192 police (and other non-military personnel) kept at Ostashkov. By this time, also, the NKVD had sent some 11,000 political detainees – both civilians and soldiers – to prisons around Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia.

Deportations functioned in tandem with arrests. Numerous scholars have described the overall deportation scheme, and vigorous debates exist over precise figures, frequently hinging on how a given author treats figures listed in official NKVD reports (Jolluck, 2002: 9-11). For example, estimates for the total number of deportees between February 1940 and June 1941 vary from 319,000 to 980,000. Nonetheless, there is general agreement on the profile of deportees, falling into four groups roughly corresponding to four stages of deportation:

  1. in February 1940, military colonists – privates and non-commissioned officers rewarded for their service in the Great War or the Polish-Soviet War with land in the eastern borderlands – and their families;
  2. in April 1940, families of political prisoners and POWs, as well as families with relatives abroad or in hiding; also tradespeople, small farmers, and prostitutes;
  3. in June 1940, residents of the occupied territory who had requested to be part of a refugee transfer to Germany but had been rejected;
  4. in May and June 1941, members of the above categories who had escaped earlier deportation (Jolluck, 2002: 14-16).

The NKVD quickly routinized its profiling of residents of the Soviet-occupied territories, its nighttime roundup of individuals and families to be deported, and the rail transport that was to take the deportees to their new locations: Siberia, the Soviet Far East (e.g. Kolyma), the arctic regions of Soviet Russia (e.g. Archangelsk), and Central Asia (especially Kazakhstan). The brutality of this process must be underscored, however, alongside the fact that women and children bore the brunt of the trauma, especially in the second stage of the deportation (Jolluck, 2002; Grudzińska-Gross and Gross, 1981). NKVD documentation suggests that the deportations themselves were intended to escalate ideological combat against a Polish ethnic-class enemy to a policy of ethnic cleansing: the physical removal from the territory in question of the most “patriotic” and “bourgeois” – in the case of military colonists and small farmers, analogous to the Soviet kulak – as well as their families.

On June 22, 1941, the Third Reich violated the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and invaded Soviet territory. The deportations ceased, and, by the terms of the Sikorski-Maiskii Pact of July 1941 that signified Polish-Soviet rapprochement, Poles on Soviet territory were permitted to constitute an army under General Władysław Anders, albeit in the face of political harassment and desperate material conditions. The pact also granted official amnesty to all deportees and arrestees. In the summer of 1942, further negotiations enabled the Anders army to leave the Soviet Union and proceed into battle. The Soviet hold over Poland’s eastern borderlands was, for the moment, broken.

Nonetheless, by the fall of 1943, the Red Army had begun to reconquer the territories. “Western Ukraine” and “Western Belorussia” remained within the Soviet Union. Poland itself – following a sequence of events in which the Katyń massacres played a seminal role – became, in July 1944, a socialist republic, part of the Soviet bloc of Central and Eastern Europe.

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