17 April 2013

Katyń (Forest) Massacre

Today's focus is on a historical event that has great significance to Poles.  Poland and Russia have a long and tangled history of clashes and Katyń was among many bloody events.  The Katyń forest is just outside Smolensk, a fact that will prove interesting later in the story. The massacre occurred in April and May of 1940 and is the result of an infamous non-aggression pact.


This was a crime that was squarely situated with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, also known as the Stalin-Hitler Pact, Soviet-Nazi Pact, etc.  During the interwar period, with Nazism on the rise, German communists were radical anti-fascists.  Nazis returned the hatred in equal parts, with German communists discriminated and persecuted for their political ideology--since, as we know, Nazis were not tolerant of diversity in opinion.  Though Hitler considered Slavs and Bolsheviks "Untermenschen (less than human)", he decided that Nazis will "walk part of the road with the Russians, if that will help us."  It was a pragmatic position, rather than driven by ideology and equally so for Russia.  Negotiations with Britain and France were not going well, meaning they were not capitulating to Stalin's demands, and the USSR wanted some assurances.  Vyacheslav Molotov, one of Stalin's right-hand men that held numerous positions over his career, including Foreign Minister, met with (Ulrich Friedrich Wilhelm) Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Foreign Minister of the Nazi regime.  They signed off this non-aggression pact that included clauses about neutrality if a third-party nation is attacked, refraining from joining groups that threatened the other, and then dividing up central Europe into spheres of influence.  The pact was a shock to the civilians of both nations, considering how deeply each regime believed in propaganda and shoved it down their throats.  Ideology was the name of the game in 1930s Germany and USSR.  Hilariously (in retrospect), Ribbentrop famously assuaged skeptical Germans by saying, "fascism is a matter of taste."*  German communists in particular felt betrayed, since the USSR was their guiding light and lifeline in the fight against fascism.  Many had fled there to escape the persecution and attend the Comintern schools.

Right after this pact was signed, the British government finally came to negotiate with the USSR, but was turned away by the Soviets.  Germany then told Britain about the pact and asked for them to accept his demands regarding Poland.  Instead of capitulating, they simply entered a defense pact with Poland, and guaranteed, along with France, its sovereignty.  This development only delayed Hitler's invasion of Poland by 6 days and it was 2 days after the invasion that Britain and France declared war on Germany (September 3, 1939).  The USSR then invaded Poland on September 17th to occupy the territory outlined in the pact (which consequently violated the 1932 Soviet–Polish Non-Aggression Pact).  The Poles were caught in a two front war within their borders and the two powers wasted no time in ransacking Poland and gutting out infrastructure.  The USSR wisely started to build up Soviet infrastructure and stage elections, which ended up lending legitimacy to Soviet seizure after the Yalta Conference.  The most insidious move of the Soviets was purging.  This was part of Stalin's plan to crush eastern Europe and the NKVD (reincarted as KGB in 1954 when Brezhnev ascended) was the secret police meant to wipe out and implode resistance forces and sympathizers. 

Lavrentiy Beria is an infamous figure in Polish history, due to his involvement in the Katyń Massacre.  He headed the NKVD after 1938, when it became clear to Stalin that Nikolai Yezhov may have been overzealous in his purges, and it marks the wind down of purging activity.  That is, until 1940 hit the fan and the Soviets began to gut out eastern Europe.  Beria  headed the deportation and execution of loyal pre-war Poles.  The Soviets considered service to pre-war Poland as counter-revolutionary activity and a crime against the revolution.  The Polish government was not acknowledged, so the captured Poles were not considered POWs, but rather rebels against the new government (which circumvented international law).  All Poles that were deemed a threat to the USSR either due to their military service, position in the intelligentsia or clergy, occupation in the civil service or the sciences, and last, but not least, the communist Poles refusal to follow Moscow directives (important to note that Polish communists were pro-Moscow by rule).  Most of the Polish communists that survived the occupation purge were already in Moscow, being trained at the Comintern.  All these potential threats were arrested and captured.  Beria then created the "Main Administration for Affairs of Prisoners of War and Internees" (abbr. GUPVI) as a department of the NKVD to "process" the Poles by interrogating them.  It was essentially used to determine who would be killed; those who would not conform to the Soviet regime were targeted.  GUPVI was similarly structured to the GULAG, with camps in poor condition and the prisoners enduring hard labor, but specifically designed for Polish obliteration. 

In 1940 until 1941, there were mass deportations to the Soviet Union, which included the family of Wojciech Jaruzelski--the Prime Minister of the Polish state that declared martial law in 1981.**  The number of deportees ranges from 300,000 up to 1 million, but it is generally acknowledged that at least 300,000 were deported.  There were three main camps: Kozelsk, Ostashkov, and Starobelsk. The Kozelsk camp is the victim of the Katyń Massacre and was primarily used for military men.  March 5, 1940, Beria sent a note to Stalin regarding the matter and 4 Politburo members signed an execution order for at least 25,000 Polish "nationalists and counterrevolutionaries".  The massacre was a measure to deprive Poland of its military talent and essentially neutralize a potential uprising or ensuing battle.  However, this put the Soviet Union in a bit of a pickle because Germany invaded the USSR in 1941.  The exiled Polish government and the Soviet Union signed the Sikorski-Mayski Agreement, deciding to join forces against Germany.  Władysław Anders and Władysław Sikorski (the General and Prime Minister, respectively) inquired where all their military leaders had gone.  Stalin assured them they were released, but they had lost track of them in Manchuria.  In 1942, Polish railroad workers caught wind of the mass grave, though no one had anticipated the scale.  The German government also received reports about Katyń and Goebbels thought it would be an excellent tool to drive a wedge between the Allies and damage Poland's alliance with the Soviet Union.  This turned out to be rather successful and an independent European commission was brought in to examine the grave.  However, when the Germans had to retreat from the area in 1943, the Soviets turned around and pinned it on them.  This accusation stuck and the Soviets denied involvement well into the demise of the USSR and the general public left it as an unsolved mystery.  In 2010, documents from the Russian archives were declassified and confirmed that NKVD carried out the massacre.  Further documents came out to show that the Allies knew that this was the case, but didn't want to jeopardize the Allies and anger Stalin.  The timing of the release of these documents turned out to be rather ominous.

via Wiki
In 2010, the head of the Polish government, Lech Kaczyński was flying into Smolensk, the nearest city to the massacre site, and the plane crashed, killing everyone on board.  What makes the story stranger is that Kaczyński was flying in to commemorate the event.  The aftermath was certainly bungled by both sides and it put a temporary freeze on Polish-Russian relations, though Tusk did prevail with a level-headed agenda.  Speculation on what really happened continues and there are a number of Poles who believe it was done on purpose by Russian authorities.  Given their history, it's not hard for a Pole to find that a reasonable explanation.  It's not as far fetched as some conspiracy theories, mostly because Russia is still acting like a thug (e.g. making journalists disappear).  The evidence suggests it was a bad call by the traffic controllers and pilot alike, but given the coincidence of released documents, the commemoration and the location, it can't shake off conspiracy theories.  However, it should be noted that Russia was nervous about Kaczyński missing the ceremony and sparking negative tension in their relations, and Wajda's film about Katyń was given Russia's highest honor that same year.  Those give good reasons to suspect it wasn't purposeful by the head of government, at the very least, but given the history of Poles and Russians, I'm not sure they will ever be fully dismissed.  Maybe there will be an improvement.  Let's hope so.

References used:

Wikipedia
Communistcrimes.org (follow them on Twitter!)
The View East (Twitter)
Fuck Yeah Eastern Europe (Twitter)
various news clippings


*I think this is such a riot.
**The experiences of Jaruzelski in Siberia and the effects of his deportation on his political career and the decision to enact martial law are discussed well in this book.

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