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Poland, the Soviet Union, and the Katyn Forest Massacre

The Second World War was in many ways harder on the Polish people than almost any other nationality. Caught between Nazi Germany on one side and the Soviet Union on the other, the Polish state was occupied by the two great powers and became a key battleground on the eastern front. Poland lost upwards of 20 percent of its prewar population by the end of the conflict.16 Despite the extreme hardships felt by most Poles, certain groups suffered to a much greater extent than others. Polish combatants who were captured during the course of hostilities were a particularly vulnerable group, but not all prisoners were treated in an equal fashion.

This section lays out in greater detail the treatment of Polish prisoners of war, and in particular the systematic execution in the spring of 1940 of around twentytwo thousand Polish officers and related elites by Soviet forces in what has become known as the Katyn Forest massacre. After capture the officers had initially been sequestered for more concerted interrogation in several special camps near the towns of Kozelsk, Ostashkov, and Starobelsk,— as well as a number of smaller facilities located across modern-day Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. The imprisonment of the Polish officers would eventually culminate in the execution of nearly every single inmate. The massacre is named after the Katyn Forest, though this site only contained mass graves for the Kozelsk victims. It emerged as a common reference for the entire Soviet massacre of Polish POWs because Katyn was the only site to be exhumed during the Second World War, becoming the most well-known mass grave from the conflict.

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