Mass Murderers Discover Mass Murder: The Germans and Katyn, 1943

By Ledford, Kenneth F. | Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Mass Murderers Discover Mass Murder: The Germans and Katyn, 1943


Ledford, Kenneth F., Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law


After the German army in 1943 discovered the graves of murdered Polish army officers in the Katyn Forest, Joseph Goebbels embarked upon a cynical publicity campaign to spread before the world the perils of Bolshevik success. But the Nazi discovery of Soviet crimes against leaders of Polish state and society elided the reality that from the very beginning of the German invasion of Poland, the SS had carried out identical mass murders of Polish intellectuals and other social leaders. Goebbels's campaign amounted to mass murderers "uncovering" mass murders on the part of their adversaries and seeking cynically to use that "shocking" discovery to the advantage of the Third Reich. This essay situates the Nazi campaign to mobilize the Katyn discovery to German advantage in three steps. First, it sketches the events leading up to the Katyn massacre in April 1940 and the Nazi discovery of the victims in late March 1943. Second, it examines the course and substance, as well as the immediate consequences of Nazi propaganda exploitation of the Katyn massacre to promote Goebbels's ends. And third, it adverts to the impact of that propaganda campaign on the Allied war effort, on the Polish government in exile in London, and thus on the course of wartime and post-war Cold War history. To conclude, it situates Katyn in the bloody twentieth-century history of Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine as the cockpit of genocide that Timothy Snyder has called the "Bloodlands."

I.   INTRODUCTION
II.  THE MASSACRE AT KATYN AND THE NAZI DISCOVERY
III. THE PROPAGANDA CAMPAIGN AND ITS IMPACT
IV.  CONCLUSION: KATYN AND THE "BLOODLANDS"

I. INTRODUCTION

On April 9, 1943, Joseph Goebbels exulted in his diary:

   Polish mass graves have been found near Smolensk. The Bolsheviks
   simply shot down and then shoveled into mass graves some 10,000
   Polish prisoners, among them civilian captives, bishops,
   intellectuals, artists, et cetera.... Gruesome aberrations of the
   human soul were thus revealed. I saw to it that the Polish mass
   graves be inspected by neutral journalists from Berlin. I also had
   Polish intellectuals taken there. They are to see for themselves
   what is in store for them should their wish that the Germans be
   defeated by the Bolsheviks actually be fulfilled. (1)

Goebbels resolved to incorporate this grisly discovery into his ongoing "anti-Bolshevik" propaganda focus of the late winter and spring of 1943, which aimed to distract attention from the reeling retreat of the Wehrmacht in the east after the crushing defeat at Stalingrad in February and the Afrika Korps in North Africa. (2) He saw a chance to use this news to address three audiences: the Polish population in the "General-Government;" the western Allies of the Soviet Union, Britain and the U.S.; and the increasingly pessimistic German population in a campaign of "Strength through Fear" (Kraft durch Furcht). (3)

Goebbels embarked upon a publicity campaign to spread before the world the perils of Bolshevik success: "One hardly dares to imagine what would happen to Germany and Europe if this Asiatic-Jewish flood were to inundate our country and our continent. All hands must be put to work to the last breath to prevent such a misfortune." (4) He undertook a multi-pronged propaganda campaign to unearth the facts about the murdered Polish officers uncovered in the Katyn Forest, and he framed a narrative that aimed to disrupt the Allied war effort against Nazi Germany. But Goebbels failed in his primary goal of driving a wedge between the western Allies and the Soviet Union. And the entire propaganda campaign embodied a cynicism breathtaking even for Goebbels, for the Nazi "discovery" of Soviet crimes against leadership segments of Polish state and society elided the reality that from the very beginning of the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, Action Groups (Einsatzgruppen) of the SS carried out mass murders of Polish intellectuals and other social leaders identical to the Soviet crime that the Wehrmacht uncovered at Katyn. …

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Mass Murderers Discover Mass Murder: The Germans and Katyn, 1943
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