Katyn: Tragedy upon Tragedy: In April, in the Cruellest of Ironies, Many of Poland's Political Elite Perished When Their Plane Crashed on the Way to a Ceremony Marking the 70th Anniversary of the Massacre of an Earlier Generation of Polish Leaders

By Fox, John P. | History Today, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Katyn: Tragedy upon Tragedy: In April, in the Cruellest of Ironies, Many of Poland's Political Elite Perished When Their Plane Crashed on the Way to a Ceremony Marking the 70th Anniversary of the Massacre of an Earlier Generation of Polish Leaders


Fox, John P., History Today


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This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre, when officers of the NKVD (the Soviet Union's secret police organisation) murdered around 16,000 Polish officers in a forest in what is now Belarus. The victims had been selected for elimination, on the basis of social class, from the 181,000 Polish prisoners of war captured by the Red Army when the Soviet Union annexed the eastern marches of Poland on September 17th, 1939.

The region where the bodies were found had been under Polish control since the end of the 1919-21 Polish-Soviet war. On September 1st, 1939, shortly after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact on August 23rd, Hitler invaded western Poland, while on the 17th the Red Army invaded Poland's eastern half as part of its aim to extend Soviet territories westward into Ukraine and what was then known as Belorussia. Russian military and civilian forces remained in occupation until June 22nd, 1941 when the Nazis invaded Soviet-controlled territories, including the Baltic States and the Soviet Union itself.

On April 13th, 1943, Radio Berlin announced that the remains of the bodies of thousands of Polish officers, together with their personal effects, had been found in mass graves at a place called Kozy Gory ('Goat's Hill'), a Soviet health resort situated in the Katyn vicinity, just west of Smolensk and at two other sites near Tver and Kharkov.

Each of the Polish officers had been held upright and shot by execution squads at point-blank range with a bullet to the back of the head, actions vividly recreated in the 2007 Polish film, Katyn, directed by Andrzej Wajda, whose father was one of the victims. However, until the collapse of Communism, the Soviet Union denied responsibility for the massacres. The unbending Soviet line, at least until 1990, was that the Germans were responsible for the crimes at Katyn, insisting that they had taken place after 1941. This year, on April 2nd, amid claims of a new Russian openness, Wajda's film was shown for the first time on Russia's Kultura television channel, apparently with the approval of Prime Minister Putin himself:

A further sign of a thaw for Polish-Russian relations was Putin's decision to become the first Russian leader to attend a commemoration ceremony at the Katyn cemetery on April 7th, 2010. More remarkable was the offer he made to his Polish counterpart Donald Tusk to join him, the first Polish leader to receive an invitation from Russia to mark the anniversary.

For the Polish nation as a whole, though, the 70th anniversary of Katyn will now be remembered for the disaster that occurred three days later: the crash involving the Soviet-built Tupolev Tu-154 carrying Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others travelling to Katyn to attend a Polish ceremony. Among those on board who perished with the president were Slawomir Skrzypek, governor of the Polish Central Bank, Franciszek Gagor, Poland's military chief and Andrzej Kremer, Deputy Foreign Minister. Much talk followed, both from Poles and Russians, about how recent efforts to improve relations between the two countries might be further developed in the light of the tragedy. But why had KaVa remained such an intractable fixture in Polish-Soviet-Russian relations up to this point?

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Poland and the Baltic States have long viewed Stalin's Soviet Union as an aggressor equal to Hitler's Third Reich. Consequently they have held Stalin co-responsible for the outbreak of the Second World War, a fact which infuriates Russian leaders to this day. Before attending ceremonies in Gdansk on September 1st, 2009 to mark the 70th anniversary of the German attack on Poland, Putin betrayed Russian sensitivities over such accusations. In an article published ahead of his visit, while condemning the Nazi-Soviet Pact he attempted to deflect blame from Stalin and the Russian people by stating it was 'not the only trigger' for the Second World War. …

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Katyn: Tragedy upon Tragedy: In April, in the Cruellest of Ironies, Many of Poland's Political Elite Perished When Their Plane Crashed on the Way to a Ceremony Marking the 70th Anniversary of the Massacre of an Earlier Generation of Polish Leaders
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