The numerous footnotes were only translated where deemed essential for the understanding of the text or otherwise of particular interest.
The Soviet War Crimes against Poland: Katyn 1940
When the Red Army on 17 September 1939 crossed the eastern border of Poland, it de facto initiated, although no war was declared, an unprovoked hostile action against Poland. Thus the Kremlin fulfilled its obligations entered into when signing the Hitler-Stalin pact on 23 August 1939. At the same time, however, it broke the non-aggression pact with Poland from 1932 and violated numerous bilateral and international treaties. The defeat of the Polish troops, who had been fighting against the armies of the Third Reich for more than two weeks, was sealed with the Soviet invasion at the latest. This act has been correctly called a crime against peace by Russian researcher Natalia Lebedieva. In the face of the second aggressor’s attack the Polish government went into exile in Rumania. Together with it thousands of soldiers and civilians left the territory of the Polish state.
The Polish armed forces command, which was surprised by the USSR’s attack and couldn’t reach final clarity about Moscow’s intentions, did not make up its mind, however, to openly consider this attack as a declaration of war. The Polish units were ordered to move in the direction of the Rumanian border and to take up the fight against the Russians only in case of a hostile action from the Soviet side. Such engagements occurred very often. One of the reasons for this was that in the eastern voivod-doms of Poland reserve units, units of the rearguard or the more or less orderly retreating regular army units prevailed. During the following days the Red Army made about 250,000 prisoners of war. In the next months the majority of them, like other groups of society, became victims of the repressive policy applied by the Soviet rulers in the occupied areas. Given their inhumanity and dimensions these acts of violence must be considered crimes against humanity.
Among the population of the eastern frontier regions there were mass arrests. Of a total of 100,000 arrested the greater part was exiled to Siberian camps, and about 18,000 fell victim to shootings. From the civilian population about 320,000 were deported to the interior of the USSR, where tens of thousands died of hunger, cold or due to forced labor. Furthermore so-called “voluntary” - in fact forcibly drafted - laborers were recruited for working in the Soviet industrial centers and the Red Army, mainly in penal - and work battalions where the climate was similar to that in the camps. It is estimated that over 500,000 citizens of the Second Polish Republic were affected by the different forms of repression and forced resettlement. The greater part of them were Poles, who after their nationality and class were considered the USSR’s main enemies. The last, extremely bloody acts of violence were the massive executions of prison inmates, carried out in a hurry in the face of the approaching German armies at the end of June 1941.
The symbol of Soviet repression, however, was the place where in the spring of 1940 more than 4,000 Polish prisoners of war were murdered in a mass execution: Katyn near Smolensk. This name is furthermore inseparably linked to the tragic fate of ca. 15,000 Polish officers and policemen who in April and May 1940 were, in violation of all norms of international law, murdered by the NKVD (Soviet Ministry of the Interior). This happened at three sites: the already mentioned Katyn, Miednoye near Tver and Piatichatki near Kharkov. Katyn became known to the public in the spring of 1943; for the revelation of the two other extermination sites by Moscow as well as an official acknowledgment of guilt from the Russian side it was necessary to wait until the beginning of the 1990s.
The ‘Katyn question’, as this whole crime complex was shortly referred to, consists of two levels. On the one hand there are the events during the years 1939-1940, the functioning of prisoner of war camps, the interrogations by the NKVD resulting in a mass death sentence and the conduction of the executions proper. On the other there are the struggle for clarifying the fate of the people murdered here, which in the beginning was conducted by the Polish government in exile and after the Second World War was continued by Polish emigration in the west, and the efforts of the USSR and the Polish communists to conceal the actual authors of the murders. In the present article we will focus on the first level. Research literature on this subject is very voluminous and has in the last decade been enriched by important analyses and collections of sources which include Russian sources.
According to the sources from the Russian archives, the Soviet units attacking Poland were not prepared for taking in and isolating such a huge number of prisoners because longer and bloodier engagements with the Polish troops had been anticipated. The corresponding rules of international law on prisoners of war were to be found in the international special conventions. Before 1939 Moscow had on several occasions manifested the intention of complying with these rules, although they had never been initialed by the Soviets. As early as 18 September 1939, however, the Soviet rulers showed that they by no means intended to abide by these conventions. The responsibility for the prisoners of war, according to a statement of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the WKP (b), was to be taken over not by the army command but by the Ministry of the Interior, the infamous NKVD. This ministry received a newly constituted department for prisoners of war headed by Major P.K. Soprunieko.
Due to the supply -, transportation – and accommodation difficulties the living conditions of the prisoners were very difficult. This was so both in the ad hoc camps and collection centers at the Polish-Soviet border and in the eight provisional camps. Especially in the first weeks of captivity the prisoners were often hungry and slept in destitute buildings or under open sky. From the beginning political indoctrination was conducted and an exact data file of the prisoners put together. To the interior of the USSR the prisoners were sent by rail, but they had to cover many kilometers on foot to the railway station, where the NKVD’s collection point had been organized. According to the Soviet material, the NKVD took over at least 125,000 of the already mentioned 240,000 prisoners. The others were either released after detention or fled, taking advantage of the badly secured provisional camps.
In mid-October 1939 most of the prisoners found themselves in permanent camps that had been installed in inner Russia, namely at Ostaszkov, Pawiliszczev Bor, Koziels, Putwyl, Kosielszyzna, Starobielsk, Talice and Oranki. The living conditions at first were no different from those in the transit camps. It occurred that, despite the falling temperatures, the prisoners had to sleep in tents, destitute kolkhoz or monastery buildings or in the open. Lice spread, as did diseases caused by the catastrophic hygienic conditions. For this reason deaths occurred ever more often. Only sometimes there were Soviet medics or nurses. Thus the Polish physicians among the prisoners took over medical attention.
Interestingly the camp command was in no way prepared for registering the prisoners. The collection of such registration information, however, was closely linked to the persecution of higher officers and other “enemies of the people” hidden among the lower ranks, who were guilty of “anti-Soviet activities”, suspected of espionage or belonged to the PPS (Polish Socialist Party), the ND (National Democracy), social democracy, the Pilsudski associations or other counterrevolutionary parties and organizations.
Those detained, among whom many had a high level of education and who belonged to the intellectual elite, were submitted to primitive chat, the reading of anti-Polish articles and the joint hearing of radio propaganda broadcasts in order to convince them of the advantages of the Soviet system. At the same time a network of agents, informers and provocateurs was created among the prisoners. These matters were ruled in the “Instructions for the Operative-Chekist Attending of the Prisoners of War in the Camps of the USSR’s NKVD”, published at the beginning of October 1939.
Here the categories of prisoners to be more closely observed were named in detail. The security service was especially interested in members of Russian exile organizations and refugees from the USSR. This search for “informers”, “saboteurs”, “terrorists” or “conspirators” was characteristic of the Stalinist system and bound to lead, sooner or later, to the uncovering of “counterrevolutionary groups”. Shortly thereafter the decision was taken to separate three of the existing camps and give them a special status. To these camps the officers, policemen and gendarmes were to be transferred. The camps were Koziels, Ostaszkov and Starobielsk.
The difficulty of securing even a minimum existential level in the prison camps eventually led the Soviet rulers to consider the possibility of releasing a part of the Polish soldiers. In October 1939 the Politburo authorized the release of a part of the corporals and non-commissioned officers who had lived in the territories annexed by the USSR. Their comrades from the areas occupied by the Germans had to wait for the Soviet-German agreement about their further fate that was entered into in mid-October. These decisions, however, excluded all officers, independently of their domicile and their status (professional soldiers, reservists or retired servicemen). After the conclusion of releases and the exchange more than 40,000 Polish soldiers remained, thereof 8,500 officers (in the camps at Starobielsk and Kozielsk), 6,500 policemen (at Ostaszkov) and 26,000 corporals and non-commissioned officers in the camps. These were accommodated in four work camps. Upon requirement by the Commissariat for Foundries and Steel of the USSR they were sent to work in the mines in southern Ukraine, which suffered from grievous labor shortage. Furthermore they were used in other Ukrainian foundries, quarries and in the building of industrial installations.
In May 1940 the Soviet leadership decided to carry out a selection among the prisoners. There was no talk of letting them go home. Those who until then had effectively worked were ordered to the building of streets and airports in the Lemberg district. All others were deported to the northern parts of the USSR, where they came under the command of the ‘Labor Camp North for Railway Repairs’ (Pólocny Kolejowy Oboz Pracy Poprawczej) of the NKVD (short: Siewzedorlag), which was part of the GULag. Together with tens of thousands of other prisoners they were to build the Koltas-Vorkuta railway line. “In the further perspective” – wrote a Polish researcher – “this meant a death sentence for them, albeit one that was executed over a longer period of time and without a hangman.”
After the German attack on the USSR there began a fast evacuation of the camps. The prisoner columns were led east on foot. Those who couldn’t keep up were beaten, killed or fell victim to German air attacks. The Soviets managed to evacuate about 12,000 Polish prisoners; according to official data the losses amounted to ca. 1,800 people. The brutal living – and working conditions, which corresponded to those of the other GULag camps, constituted a clear violation of the international conventions regarding prisoners of war. Only the German attack on the USSR put an end to this slow extermination of the prisoners. For now Moscow became an ally of the anti-Hitler coalition and thus also an ally of Poland. In the sequence of a Polish-Soviet agreement signed at the end of August 1941 the fate of the Polish citizens detained in the USSR improved: Moscow granted them an “amnesty” by which the prisoners, inmates and deportees were freed. After leaving the camps they went to the south of the USSR, where the bases of a new Polish army were being created. The Polish army leadership registered the arriving soldiers and volunteers very exactly. Accordingly the absence of so many officers caused great preoccupation. The existence of the special camps for officers in 1940 was well known. What, then, had happened to their inmates ?
[to be continued]