The Territorial Logic behind the Katyn Massacre
Why was the final order given to annihilate almost the entire Polish officer corps in Soviet hands? The text of the March 5, 1940, memorandum from Beria requesting Stalin to authorize the executions offers several indications of the territorial motives underlying the decision-making calculus of the Soviet leadership. In the opening paragraphs, Beria justifies his preferred outcome for the Polish prisoners as follows:
Prisoners-of-war officers and police in the camps are attempting to continue their c-r [counterrevolutionary] work and are conducting anti-Soviet agitation. Each one of them is just waiting to be
released in order to be able to enter actively into the battle against Soviet power.
He goes on to note that NKVD officials had also uncovered a number of insurgent organizations in the western portions of Ukraine and Belorussia, two of the main areas of Poland annexed by the Soviet Union the year prior. In all cases Beria charged that former Polish military officers or members of the police were instrumental to the planning and operation of these organizations.
After describing the specific number and distribution of prisoners across the special camps and other prisons, Beria concludes by recommending the prisoners be dealt with “using the special procedure, apply to them the supreme punishment, [execution by] shooting."82 The document also definitively establishes that the highest echelons of the Soviet leadership both possessed knowledge of the massacre that was soon to unfold and played a direct hand in its authorization. Plainly marked on the memorandum were the signatures of Stalin, Foreign Minister Molotov, and other members of the politburo.
The memorandum thus reflects a deliberate policy of the Soviet leadership to eliminate the major sources of likely future resistance within the former Polish territory. Alongside the mass deportations and abuses of other soldiers and civilians, “The main aim of Soviet policy during 1939-1941 was to destroy Polish political, social and cultural influence entirely, and to disperse the Polish population throughout the USSR, where it could be controlled effectively."83 A cornerstone of this policy would be the destruction of the Polish officer corps and related elements, in other words those who possessed the greatest capabilities and willingness to oppose from within Soviet power in the region.
Beria's discussion of counterrevolutionary threats, whether real or perceived, perhaps could have been a pretext for other motives to kill Polish officers, several of which will be examined in greater detail below. Taking into account later developments in Poland, however, the orders were a brutal, but in many ways foreseeable, strategy given their desire to consolidate power and hold on to the annexed territories. The Soviet Union only ended up enjoying their spoils of conquest for a little over a year after the Katyn massacre. Nazi Germany's offensive the following summer of 1941 would see the entire area of interwar Poland relinquished to the Third Reich for much of the remainder of the war. Yet by 1942, domestic resistance had consolidated into the formation of the Armia Krajowa, or Home Army, which became the primary indigenous opponent to German rule over Poland. At its height the Home Army fielded around four hundred thousand members, but its strength was widely believed to be rooted in a core of former Polish military officers. For instance, Stefan Rowecki, a former Polish Army officer, headed one of the precursors, the Zwia^zek Walki Zbrojnej (Union of Armed Struggle), and would later command the entire Home Army.84 These officers coordinated all aspects of the Home Army's fighting force and turned it into one of the most formidable national resistance movements of the entire war.85 Although the Soviet Union never faced the full force of Polish resistance, later events show the Soviet leadership appears to have been justified in its distress over the threat posed by the officers in their custody.
Examining other elements of the killings yields additional insights into the territorial motives behind Soviet decision making. First, the timing of the massacre in the spring of 1940 is interesting in that the Soviet leadership waited more than four months after it had completed the capture and separation of the vast majority of the Polish officers before commencing the executions. Part of the delay appears to have been balancing the future threat posed by the officers against the potential gains from using these captives as a bargaining chip and resource to be exploited in the wider European war. Beginning in late November 1939, the Soviet Union found itself in the small but hard-fought Winter War against neighboring Finland. There has been some thinking that the special camps were liquidated to make way for large numbers of Finnish prisoners.86 Consistent with this line of thinking, Grigory Korytov, head of the Special Section in the Ostashkov camp, noted the following in a report from early March 1940 to his NKVD superiors: “it is rumored that in March we must basically clear out the camps and prepare to receive the Finns."87 In this light, the Katyn massacre was merely a pragmatic and ultimately ad hoc solution to a housing shortage for the wider enemy prisoner population rather than a systematic plan to consolidate recently won territorial prizes.
This contention does not stand up well when looking at the overall course of the Finnish war. Contrary to Soviet expectations the Finns put forward a resolute defense, which translated into the Red Army capturing only around eight hundred prisoners throughout the entire war while suffering significant losses to their own forces.88 The number of Finnish troops captured does not represent even one-quarter of the total prisoner population at the smallest of the three special camps, Starobelsk. The Katyn massacre also took place several weeks after the war with Finland formally ended on March 12, 1940. Space constraints would no longer seem to be an issue, since it was unlikely that more Finnish prisoners would be falling into Soviet hands. Unlike many of the captives from the defeated powers who languished in Soviet camps for years after the formal termination of the Second World War, all Finnish prisoners were promptly repatriated within three months once the fighting was called to a halt.89
The Polish prisoners did appear to figure prominently in Russian decision making during the Winter War, though not for the reasons initially thought. After war broke out with the invasion of Poland, the Soviet Union was accused of the international crime of aggression and expelled from the League of Nations in December 1939. In early February of the following year, Britain and France put forward a proposal to send an intervention force to help their democratic Finnish counterpart.90 There was some discussion about whether or not the Polish government-in-exile in London would contribute troops to the mission to thwart the Soviet Union, since the latter was one of the occupiers of the Polish homeland. Some historians have conjectured that Stalin kept the Polish officers in reserve as a source of leverage, should any military contributions to the expeditionary force on the part of the Polish administration in London ever take place.91
In the end the Western powers were unable to provide any significant aid to the Finns because of a variety of obstacles. Although the Red Army continued to suffer far greater casualties on the battlefield, Soviet material superiority ground down the Finnish forces, and by late February Finland had opened armistice negotiations with their adversary. Peace with Finland appeared more than likely by the start of March 1940. The possibility of any definitive Western intervention dwindled, and with it the usefulness of the special categories of Polish captives under Soviet control. Far from the threat of war, it appears more likely that the expected termination of the conflict with Finland helped seal the fate of the Polish prisoners at Kozelsk, Starobelsk, Ostashkov, and the other NKVD prisons. The Soviet leadership during this period also firmly believed a war against Germany was in no way imminent, since German attention was largely oriented westward in what the communist regime hoped would be a long and drawn-out war of mutual destruction between the fascist and capitalist forces. The need for a Polish ally was correspondingly perceived to be quite small at the time, which could allow Soviet desires to dispose of the Polish officers to come to full fruition.92
When turning to the details of the executions themselves, several aspects point to the particular importance Soviet leaders placed on destroying the capacity for future Polish resistance. In the sequence in which prisoners were selected, the first batches sent off to their deaths generally included the highest-ranking officers, in particular a select number of generals, as well as those individuals the NKVD diagnosed as possessing a particularly strong aptitude for leadership.93 Removing the main leaders early on made the later executions easier to implement but also ensured that the most threatening elements were terminated at the soonest possible moment. Although the survival rate was extremely small across all prisoners within the special camps, those groups with particularly high levels of technical expertise were eliminated to the last person. For instance, Soviet authorities made certain to round up all officers from the Polish Institute of Gas Warfare, and every single staff member was executed.94
To eliminate or at least reduce later possible sources of grievances, the Katyn massacre was carefully coordinated with targeted deportations of other likely hostile elements. Soviet authorities had acceded to requests from officers in the special camps that they be allowed to correspond with their families, which was generally not the case with other prisoners. But the seemingly humanitarian gesture of permitting mail between the prisoners and their loved ones also contained a more nefarious motive—to gather the names, addresses, and other details of those closest to the interned officers.95 Armed with this information, and in conjunction with the killings of prisoners from the special camps, the NKVD purposefully planned the mass deportation of the officers' families from their homes in Soviet-controlled areas of Poland. Three days before the March 5, 1940, execution order, the politburo issued a directive to the NKVD for plans to
assemble the approximately twenty-five thousand families of the inmates.96 By mid-April 1940, in the midst of the ongoing killings of the Polish prisoners, the family members were swept up and deported to collective farms and other facilities to perform hard labor in the Kazakh interior of the Soviet Union. Because the families mainly comprised women and children, the grueling work and harsh
conditions killed a large though ultimately unknown number.97 The aim was not only to punish those families of Polish officers but also to further remove any later sources of organized resentment against the Soviet Union that could coalesce into opposition to communist rule over the conquered territory.98 The decision to liquidate the special camps, therefore, had much broader ramifications that would eventually embrace a number of groups beyond the original prisoners.
Although much of the discussion up until this point has centered on the officer contingents from the special camps, at Ostashkov and many of the smaller prisons in Western Ukraine and Belorussia the prisoners were high-ranking policemen, border guards, and other officials. Disposing of all these victims meant the Soviet Union was able to destroy not only the military leadership, but also almost the entire security and coercive apparatus of the former Polish government.99 This had the effect of undermining the capability of any aspiring Polish state to reconstitute itself at a later date, but also eliminated almost every individual in Soviet custody at the time with the ability to meaningfully organize and lead a resistance force. The documentary evidence, along with the patterns and timing of the killings themselves, suggest the Soviet Union was primarily driven to this highly ruthless, yet targeted, strategy of prisoner abuse because of its long-term objective to assert complete control over recently conquered Polish lands.
Alongside the mass of prisoners killed in the special camps, a small number were not executed. Why were a select few spared? The vast majority who were eliminated had been deemed enemies of the Soviet Union in one form or another. The exact criteria for those who were lucky enough to be saved are not known with certainty, though it is generally assumed they fell into one of three categories: professed communists; those thought to be more susceptible to further indoctrination; and those with some aspect of their background that aroused sympathy from their NKVD interrogators.100 As the executions concluded by the middle of May 1940, the remaining officers from the three camps were sent to the Pavlishchev Bor facility at the Yukhnov camp before ending up in the Gryazovets camp.101 Ironically, many were initially disappointed, since they assumed their compatriots had already returned home while they were being held back for some unknown reason. They would later find out that they were largely saved to become the core of a procommunist Polish Army under the command of the Soviet Union. In the end, however, the indoctrination program was an overall failure, since even among those specifically selected for further education only around a dozen ended up approved by Soviet authorities as genuine communists.102
Despite the few who managed to avoid execution, the objective of Soviet conduct toward the prisoners was clear—to destroy the Polish officer corps and all related elements under Soviet control. Although having immediate consequences for the Polish officers and their families, the Katyn massacre is better seen as part of a long-term Soviet plan to destroy any meaningful indigenous Polish influence within the newly absorbed territories.103 Looking even more broadly, the massacres had an additional benefit of ensuring that any Polish rump state that might have somehow arisen out of the German-controlled areas was deprived of effective military leadership and would thus be as weak as possible.104 In one way or another, Soviet territorial ambitions in Poland had dire implications for the general Polish prisoner population but would produce an especially brutal end for captured Polish officers.