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Katyn massacre

April 7, 2010

On Wednesday, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his Polish counterpart Donald Tusk met to remember the massacre at Katyn 70 years ago. DW's Bartosz Dudek calls this a milestone for Russian-Polish relations.


If you want to see the wounds of a country, it is sometimes enough to visit its cemeteries. In almost every cemetery in Poland, you will find traces of the country's bloody history, mostly in the form of symbolic graves marking the horrors of the Nazi regime during the Second World War. But not every grave stone and plaque is connected with the Nazis; there are also those that remember the deaths of Katyn.

It was one of the most horrifying war crimes committed in history - and one with the most lasting effects. The victims were mainly Polish army reserve officers, including doctors, lawyers, officials, teachers, businessmen, and bankers - in a word, Poland's intellectual and economic elite. The officers fell into Soviet hands in September 1939, after Poland was divided into two parts by the warmongers Germany and the Soviet Union. A few months later, on March 5, 1940, Josef Stalin ordered the deaths of the over 20,000 intern officers. The order was carried out a month later.

Polen Redaktion Bartosz Dudek
Deutsche Welle's Bartosz DudekImage: DW

The criminal logic behind the murders is clear: It is easier to conquer a country robbed of its elite. This same logic was a key part of the holocaust carried out by Stalin's counterpart, Adolf Hitler. The concentration camp Auschwitz was originally designed to be a place of extermination for Poland's intelligentsja, or its intellectual elite.

Hitler, however, notwithstanding his indisputably barbaric nature, didn't dare execute captured Polish officers at Auschwitz. With regard to the cruelty of the Katyn massacre, one can say Stalin outdid even Hitler.

Nazi propaganda and Stalin's lie

After marching into the Soviet half of Poland on their way to Belarus, it is not surprising that the National Socialists used the discovery of the mass graves at Katyn as a propaganda tool. Hitler displayed his shock at the atrocities and offered compassion to the victims' families in an attempt to drive a wedge between Poland's Western allies and the Soviet Union.

Stalin countered by simply attributing the murders to the Germans. For decades, the Polish people were told - by the Communist government - that the Katyn massacre was committed by the Nazis, which even became part of the country's official history. The Polish government - fearing reprisals from the Soviet Union - forced the victims' families to conceal the truth of who really killed their relatives.

An historical gesture

The deciding moment came in 1990, when Mikhail Gorbachev admitted for the first time in public that the Soviet KGB was responsible for the Katyn genocide. Gorbachev's declaration, however, was missing a symbolic apology. This came from Gorbachev's successor, Boris Yeltsin, on a visit to Poland in 1993. Yeltsin asked the Polish people - with tears in his eyes - to forgive the Soviets for their atrocities and handed over the records documenting Stalin's ordering of the murders to the Polish government. To this day, however, no Russian leader has visited Katyn to remember the massacre, making Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's visit on April 7, 2010 a milestone in the history of Russian-Polish relations.

After the reconciliation with Germany - which was made possible only by a thorough confession and acceptance of the horrors of the Nazi regime - it is now Russia's turn to open up to its traumatized neighbour. Germany and Poland showed together that this is the only way forward. The wounds of Poland's past, which one can see all across the country, will only begin to heal when the perpetrators take responsibility for their crimes.

Author: Bartosz Dudek (glb)
Editor: Rob Turner