Katyń – the place where the Polish elite met its end

Interview with Professor Tadeusz Wolsza

polishhistory: In the spring of 1940, the Soviet secret police committed an unprecedented crime by secretly murdering more than 21,000 Polish citizens. What place does this tragedy occupy in Polish national memory?

Professor Tadeusz Wolsza: The Katyń massacre permanently, painfully, and deeply entered into our national history. Each subsequent anniversary is accompanied by new editions of monographs and source documents, popular science works, documentary film screenings and, of course, scientific conferences. The most outstanding Polish specialists take part in them, as well as Russian researchers from the independent organization ‘Memorial’. It is not surprising that the month of April was designated the month of remembrance for victims of the Soviet state. Over 25% of all Poles with higher education degrees fell victim to the Katyń massacre. They were Polish officers – often eminent scientists, intelligence and counterintelligence officers, political activists, local administration officials and policemen. It was a true extermination of the elite.

Tadeusz Wolsza – historian and professor at the Institute of History of the Polish Academy of Sciences, as well as the member of the Council of the Institute of National Remembrance. He is also editor-in-chief of the journal “Dzieje Najnowsze” [“Contemporary History”]. Prof. Wolsza published over 280 works. Some of them were translated into Russian, German, English, Italian, Serbian and Slovak (Polish Press Agency)

Are there still uncertainties in the study of Katyń?

Research from the last few years has shown that the topic is far from exhausted. Nikita Petrov, a historian, published a book Poczet katów katyńskich (An account of the Katyń executioners), which could only be written on the basis of documentation from Russian archives, currently unavailable to Polish researchers. The Institute of National Remembrance is planning to publish several books of a crucial importance. I mean the complete, for the first time in history, edition of the diaries found in the graves in Katyń, Miednoje and Bykownia. Th is is an interdisciplinary work undertaken by historians, linguists and archaeologists. In my opinion, it will be a real bestseller in 2020. Moreover, two other works will be published: the third volume of the documentation of the Ray Madden Committee, established by United States House of Representatives in 1951 to conduct an investigation into the Katyń Massacre, edited by Witold Wasilewski, and the documentation of the International Red Cross Committee  which operated at this site in 1943. Readers will also receive a history of the Katyń forest in this year, written by Jolanta Adamska on the basis of unknown documentation of German provenance. There will certainly be plenty of new books. After all, researchers do not work only to satisfy their own ambitions. I think that it is the duty of all scientists and academics dealing with the Katyń massacre to explain even the smallest details related to this tragedy.

The truth about Katyń was revealed to the public in unusual circumstances. How did this happen?

The murder of the Polish officers was revealed in April 1943 at a conference in Berlin. The Germans did everything in their power to publicise this information, employing all the possible technology of the time: documentaries, newsreels, press, interviews and radio programmes. Over 31,000 people participated in organised trips to the crime scene, of which approximately 30,000 were Wehrmacht soldiers, while the rest, about 1,000, came from occupied Europe. This clearly indicates the special status that the Third Reich propagandists assigned to Katyń. I think it was the largest propaganda campaign organised by the Third Reich during the Second World War.

Katyn Memorial Statue, Exchange Place Jersey City, NJ (photo by Paul Stein; CC BY-SA 2.0)

What did Germany want to achieve?

It seems that they considered Katyń an opportunity to break up the unity of the countries that made up the anti-German alliance. The Germans assumed that the Polish government would try to influence the governments of Great Britain and the USA to explain the circumstances of the Katyń massacre. This would have to caused a conflict with the Soviet Union, because in light of evidence found at the scene by the Germans, Soviet responsibility for the murders was obvious. The Germans were not able to predict the behaviour of the Americans and the English but they hoped that it would at least partially weaken the Anglo-Soviet alliance. This weakening could have resulted in military benefits on the front, at a time when the Wehrmacht was faltering. However, the whole operation failed. The Anglo-Saxons took the side of the Soviet Union and did not believe the German findings although the facts were clear.

Yet the Polish government strongly demanded that this situation be clarified?

Unfortunately to no avail – the Americans and the English failed to help the Poles, even as Jósef Stalin declared his support for them. The Polish government operating in London suddenly switched from a good partner into a nuisance. Poles were left alone (including the government of General Władysław Sikorski, later of Stanisław Mikołajczyk and President Władysław Raczkiewicz) and not only had to learn about the tragedy of over 21,000 murdered compatriots, but also understand that they had lost any influence on politics. This did not only affect them in the international arena, but was also reflected in their loss of control over the most important issues concerning Polish interests, such as: the future of the Polish government and the matter of borders, including the eastern Polish-Soviet border. It was Jósef Stalin who held the cards in this game and he dictated the terms.

Moscow broke off diplomatic relations with the Polish government after its intervention in the operations of the International Red Cross.

In fact, for Stalin it was only a convenient excuse. He deliberately broke off diplomatic relations in order to facilitate his intentions for the future by creating a communist alternative to the legitimate authorities of the Republic of Poland, i.e. those recognized by Western countries. The Anglo-Saxons abandoned Poland, and what happened later in 1944 and 1945 only confirmed this desertion. Poland, with the consent of the United States and Great Britain, was then in the Soviet sphere of influence, behind the so-called Iron Curtain – beginning at the Baltic Sea, and ending at the Adriatic. In this way, Poland won the war and, unfortunately for millions of Poles in the country and scattered around the world, lost its chance for peace.

German propaganda poster showing the victims of the Katyń massacre (public domain)

Shortly after the discovery of the mass graves in Katyń, the place was also visited by Polish observers.

In total, about 60 Poles were brought to Katyń, although the list is not yet complete. It was the Poles, including the families of the murdered, who were to play the most important role in the entire intricate propaganda game prepared by Berlin, and who would give it its credibility. In 1943, Germans did everything to send doctors, journalists, writers, politicians, workers, soldiers (prisoners of German captivity), priests and, of course, members of the families of the murdered, to Katyń. They were also aware of the fact that members of individual delegations included representatives of the Polish underground, i.e. the secret state structures of the Polish Republic.

The Germans even invited General Władysław Sikorski, leader of Poland’s government in exile during the Second World War, to go to Katyń.

Yes, and Major General Marian Kukiel even wondered if he should not have accepted the invitation, but it would have been associated with a severe diplomatic crisis in relations with the British and the Americans. Given the purpose of the action, the absence of the Polish government, and the presence of representatives of the Polish underground especially suited the West. The messengers of the Polish underground guaranteed that news from Katyń was forwarded immediately not only to the Home Army, Polish resistance movement, and Polish authorities, but above all to “Polish London”, and to the prime minister and president in exile.

How did Poles react upon hearing the news from Katyń?

At first, reactions varied, in Warsaw, Krakow and other cities of the General Government, people reacted differently than in the Wielkopolskie region and other lands directly incorporated into the Third Reich. Some did not believe that the Soviets were responsible for the death of the Polish officers. Knowing the history of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and the massacres in the villages of Palmiry or Wawer, they thought that the Germans were trying to attribute their own crime to others. The situation began to change gradually after first-hand reports from Katyń began to emerge from those who had visited the crime scene in April and May 1943. This was followed by studies and interviews in the propaganda press in the Polish language but published under German control, information provided by street megaphones, film screenings, and meetings with delegates from individual cities. In the following weeks, people living in the General Government became convinced that the Soviets were responsible for the Katyń massacre. Everyone could learn it from the newspaper “Biuletyn Informacyjny”, the most important magazine of the Polish underground. It was undoubtedly a success of German propaganda, measured by the circulation of several million copies of newspapers, brochures and leaflets in all European languages. Naturally, the Germans organized this action not because of a sudden surge of sympathy for Poles. They wanted to exploit it for their own propaganda purposes. The drama of the Poles themselves did not interest them much.

Found in Katyn: dog tag and memorial baptismal medal (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B23992 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

When the Red Army invaded the Polish lands, those who saw the Katyń graves were in great peril. Your book is primarily dedicated to their stories. Which of them do you consider the most poignant?

There were several dozen of these stories, often dramatic, recounted by those who officially visited Katyń in 1943. I believe that the story of Marian Wodziński, the head of the Technical Committee of the Polish Red Cross, was extremely dramatic. He stayed in Katyń for six weeks and acquired in-depth knowledge about the massacre. After the Red Army and the Soviet secret police invaded Poland, he was intensively sought by the Soviets. He went into hiding because he knew that if he fell into Soviet hands, and if he survived his arrest, he would spend long years in a labour camp or in prison. The communists could also threaten him and use him in the Katyń trial in Warsaw, organized at the Kremlin’s order, in 1945. Fortunately, he managed to flee to the West, where he prepared an invaluable document on the work of the Polish Red Cross in Katyń. Wodziński included his report in a book entitled Zbrodnia katyńska w świetle dokumentów z przedmową gen. Władysława Andersa (The Katyń massacre in the light of evidence with a preface by Władysław Anders) – generally considered the most important work on the Katyń massacre that has ever been written. It has been translated into several foreign languages.

We still learn new facts that refer to the stories we find in the book Encounter with Katyń. Can this story ever be told to its end?

I think that there is no chance to explain all the episodes from the stories of people visiting the scene of this tragic crime. However, one can try to add more and more new facts to these exciting biographies. Particularly important here is the role of the families of people who, in spring 1943, were involved in explaining the circumstances of the Katyń massacre. In home archives there are probably still priceless documents that would significantly supplement our knowledge on this subject.

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to the daughter of one of the journalists from the press controlled by the Germans and Soviets. The case concerned the editor Zdzisław Koss and the newspaper “Dziennik Radomski”. In my book Encounter with Katyń, based on preserved documents (e.g. testimonies of several people from Auschwitz-Birkenau), I assumed that he did not survive the camp. At the moment I have to verify this information, because it turned out that Zdzisław Koss had a dramatic experience in Auschwitz-Birkenau. After the war, he lived in Warsaw under a different name and was not (at least this is what his daughter claims) victimised by anyone. Apparently he lived peaceful life. I find the information that he behaved with dignity in a German concentration camp extremely important. Thanks to his attitude, other prisoners survived the German ordeal and torments.

Why do you think many years after the Katyń massacre an English-speaking reader should reach for your book?

In my work, I am introducing not only the lives of Polish heroes. I also present a collection of interesting data about the war and post-war fate of the members of the International Red Cross, a delegation of Allied prisoners of war from German captivity (e.g. American, English, New Zealand, Canadian) and fascinating stories of dozens of journalists from all over occupied Europe. This subject is particularly important in my work. The reader will find significant information about the Katyń massacre publicised by people who visited the crime scene. A lot of information, unfortunately, was kept secret, e.g. in the USA (the report made by Colonel John van Vliet) and in Great Britain (nearly every document indicating Soviet responsibility for the Katyń massacre). Therefore, readers will learn about the failure of British and American politicians and will be able to judge for themselves whether it can be excused.

Interviewer: Michał Przeperski
Translation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin