Hoover Digest

Remembering Katyn

Sunday, April 30, 2000

For those who lived through World War II, and for many who did not, the Katyn Massacre carries a sinister resonance. The most notorious of Stalin's wartime atrocities, the massacre was falsely attributed to Hitler through a scarcely credible but widely believed piece of Soviet disinformation.

In April 1940, nearly twenty-two thousand Polish prisoners were rounded up, transported to Katyn and various other sites, and executed. They included army officers, civil servants, landowners, policemen, ordinary soldiers, and prison officers. They were lined up, made to dig their own mass graves, and shot in the back of the neck. The victims were never tried or presented with any charges. The executions were ordered personally by Stalin in a memorandum dated March 5, 1940, to Lavrenti Beria, the head of the NKVD (predecessor of the KGB). Per Stalin's instructions, the prisoners were to receive the "supreme measure of punishment—shooting."


The full facts became widely accessible to researchers with the acquisition of millions of sheets of Soviet secret documents by the Hoover Institution, known as Fond 89. Many of these documents were made available to me while I was at work on The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Empire. The full story is worth telling.

The mass grave in Katyn Forest was discovered by the occupying Nazi forces in 1943. The disinterment of more than four thousand corpses was an unexpected gift to Goebbels's propaganda machine, which broadcast the story to the outside world—to the embarrassment not only of Stalin but of his wartime allies Roosevelt and Churchill. Roosevelt dismissed the Nazi claims as "German propaganda and a German plot." Churchill was less explicit: "The less said about that the better."

There the matter lay—until March 3, 1959, when Aleksandr Shelepin, then head of the KGB, gave full details in a secret memo to Krushchev of the numbers executed. The total was 21,857 killed:

  • 4,421 in the Katyn Forest (Smolensk region)
  • 3,820 in the Starobelsk camp (near Kharkov)
  • 6,311 in the Ostashkovo camp (Kalinin region)
  • 7,305 in other camps and prisons in western Ukraine and western Belorussia


A curious but related episode deserves notice. In 1972, a private group in London resolved to build a monument to the victims of Katyn. The original plan was to place the monument in Kensington, one of London's best-known tourist areas. At first, the Council of the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea gave permission for the plan to go ahead. Permission was withdrawn, however, under pressure from the Foreign Office.

It is now known, through the Hoover Institution's Soviet archives, that the Foreign Office pressure was itself the outcome of pressure from Moscow. There was an exchange of telegrams on September 7, 1972, between the Soviet Politburo and the Soviet ambassador in London. The Kremlin's message started as follows:

Reactionary circles in England are again undertaking attempts for anti-Soviet purposes to stir up the so-called "Katyn Affair." To this end the campaign to collect funds for the construction of a "Memorial to the Victims of Katyn" in London is being made use of.

In his reply, the Soviet ambassador stated that the attention of the British government had already been drawn to attempts to whip up an anti-Soviet campaign based on "the inventions—long ago exposed—of the Goebbels propaganda machine concerning the so-called 'Katyn affair.'"

Stalin's orders were unambiguous. The Polish prisoners were to receive the "supreme measure of punishment—shooting."

On September 8 the Politburo drafted a further statement, which contained the following passage:

The above-mentioned anti-Soviet campaign cannot but arouse justified feelings of profound indignation in the Soviet Union, whose people made enormous sacrifices for the sake of saving Europe from fascist enslavement.

Foreign Office pressure on the borough resulted and permission was withdrawn. Four years later—in 1976—the Katyn memorial was in fact built, in the cemetery at Gunnersbury on the outskirts of London. The project was supervised by the National Association for Freedom (later, the Freedom Association). Presumably under pressure from the Foreign Office, the British Defense Ministry forbade former members of the British armed forces to don their uniforms for the launching ceremony. This negative order was ignored by several ex-servicemen, without further consequences.

On April 13, 1990, the Soviet authorities at last admitted responsibility for the massacres at Katyn and elsewhere, although the figure cited in the relevant statement—"around 15,000"—fell short of the real total by more than 6,000. The admission came in a statement by the Tass news agency, with the personal authority of then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The statement referred to only three of the prison camps involved: Smolensk, Voroshilovgrad, and Kalinin. It claimed that the authorities had knowledge of the killings through "recently discovered documents." "Direct responsibility for the crime" was ascribed to Beria. The statement ended "The Soviet side, expressing profound regret over the Katyn tragedy, declares that this was one of the gravest crimes of Stalinism."

At a meeting in Moscow that day, Gorbachev presented Polish president General Wojciech Jaruzelski with copies of the NKVD's lists of names of Polish internees in the three camps mentioned. The Polish government issued a statement declaring that the question of responsibility for the massacre had "weighed particularly painfully" on Polish-Soviet relations and that the "long-awaited" Soviet admission made possible a relationship based on "partnership and true friendship." The statement went on: "Reconciliation can only be built on truth." It is surely fair to add that the Tass statement—although useful for relations between the ailing Soviet Union and its Polish satellite—was true but not the whole truth. Only three of the localities involved were named, and the total given fell short of the true figure.

In 1990, fifty years after the fact, the Kremlin finally admitted Soviet complicity in the killings in the Katyn Forest.

The Polish statement was striking not only for its content but because it had been drafted under the authority of Jaruzelski—a communist leader installed under Soviet protection. In September of that year, he was forced to resign and in December he was replaced as president by the elected anticommunist leader Lech Walesa.


In his 1959 memo to Krushchev, KGB head Shelepin noted that Soviet propaganda efforts to blame the Katyn massacre on the Germans had "taken firm root in international public opinion." To keep the truth from coming out, Shelepin recommended that all records pertaining to the murdered Poles be destroyed. In other words, "We did it, but the world believes the Germans did. Therefore, leave the story as its stands." Thankfully, the documents were not destroyed and we now know the truth about Katyn.

Uncovering the Past: Supplementary material from the Hoover Institution Archives.