In 1939, Nazi Germany and its then-ally the Soviet Union divided conquered Poland between them per the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Some senior members of the Polish government and military were able to escape and form a government-in-exile in London under the leadership of Gen. Wlayslaw Sikorski. On July 30, 1941, with the Soviet Union now a member nation in the Allied camp following Germany’s invasion in Operation Barbarossa, the Sikorski government signed an agreement with the Soviet Union that guaranteed the release of Poles who had been incarcerated by the Soviet Union. Though a number were released, thousands of Poles remained missing. In December 1941 Sikorski, in a meeting with Soviet leader Josef Stalin, specifically asked about those missing people. Stalin insisted that they must have escaped and denied any knowledge of their whereabouts or fate. There matters stood for sixteen months. Then on April 12, 1943, Germany’s propaganda ministry issued the first of a series of explosive press releases: the discovery of mass graves near Katyn, in what had been Soviet occupied Poland, containing thousands of Polish officers.
In his diary entry of April 14, 1943, propaganda minster Dr. Josef Goebbels wrote, “We are now using the discovery of 12,000 Polish officers, murdered by the [Soviet secret police], for anti-Bolshevik propaganda on a grand style. We sent neutral journalists and Polish intellectuals to the spot where they were found. Their reports now reaching us from ahead are gruesome. The Führer has also given permission for us to hand out a drastic news item to the German press. I gave instructions to make the widest possible use of the propaganda material. We shall be able to lie on it for a couple weeks.” Goebbels’ hope for a breach of Allied unity soon bore fruit.
The Sikorski government, anxious for a full accounting, called for an independent investigation by the International Red Cross. But Stalin refused. In a blistering “Confidential” message to President Franklin Roosevelt dated April 21, Stalin wrote, “The campaign of calumny against the Soviet Union, initiated by the German Fascists regarding the Polish officers they themselves slaughtered in the Smolensk area on German occupied territory, was immediately taken up by the Sikorski government and inflated in every possible way. . . . In view of these circumstances, the Soviet government has come to the conclusion of the necessity for breaking relations with the present Polish government.”
“The stench was bad. When we came the Germans were removing a layer of earth about a meter thick. And then there were coats, bodies and coats, lying there in a row. . . . The Germans wanted witnesses. They wanted us to act as witnesses for history.”
—Dmitry Khudykh, Katyn resident
He was not alone in his manipulation viewpoint. Under the headline “Shirer Says Poles Have Fallen for Goebbel’s [sic] Gruesome Atrocity Story” respected journalist William L. Shirer, author of Berlin Diary, chided the Sikorksi government for playing into the Nazis’ hands, “to keep the Poles and the Russians at each others’ throats.” He concluded by writing, “One need have no illusions about Soviet gentleness. But to fall for German propaganda or to feed it when we know what its purposes are, seems to this correspondent, at least, a good way of trying to lose the war.”
But the truth was that the Nazis were right—NKVD head Lavrenty Beria, under Stalin’s orders, had conducted the execution of approximately 22,000 Polish Army officers and other individuals. And President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill knew it, but chose to not pursue the matter for the sake of Allied unity.
In June 1943, in compliance from orders by Churchill, British representative to the Polish government-in-exile Owen O’Malley submitted a report about the massacre to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. The document irrefutably detailed Soviet responsibility for the murders. In his summary, O’Malley agreed that for the sake of Allied unity, the truth had to remain hidden. He was nonetheless troubled by the moral consequences of such an act, writing, “we now stand in danger . . . of falling under St. Paul’s curse on those who can see cruelty ‘and not burn.’” Separately Roosevelt ordered an investigation that reached the same conclusion regarding Soviet culpability. It, too, was suppressed.
Without support from the United States and Great Britain, Sikorski’s government was forced to back down. At the Nuremberg war crime trials, Soviet officials attempted to indict a number of Nazis for the Katyn massacre, embarrassing the American and British prosecutors, but U.S. and British judges dismissed the charges.
The truth of the massacre remained hidden until 1989, when in the final days of the Soviet Union a joint Polish-Soviet commission of scholars revealed that Stalin had ordered the massacre. The subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union led to the declassification and study of additional documents on the massacre that continue to this day.