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Alternative Explanations for the Katyn Massacre

Several alternative accounts have sometimes been put forward to explain the Katyn massacre. First, looking at another general factor used to explain many past patterns of prisoner abuse, cultural differences appear to figure prominently in the Soviet-Polish case. Animosities between Russia, whether in its Orthodox tsarist or communist incarnations, and its Catholic Polish neighbor were deep- seated. The clash of identity and ideals between the two countries could presumably explain the desire of Soviet Russia to rid itself of its culturally dissimilar foe once and for all. The cultural argument is consistent with the overall high level of abuse the Soviets unleashed on both Polish combatants and civilians. Cultural factors are less convincing, however, when trying to account for variations in the degree to which different groups of essentially ethnically similar Poles were targeted. If the motive was to destroy members of an opposing society, why were officers targeted more than regular soldiers or civilians, and especially to a much greater extent than even other Polish elites?

The cultural argument also does not account very well for why a later group of Polish officers first interned in the Baltic states did not end up being executed. As noted earlier, as many as fifteen thousand Polish soldiers had managed to initially escape to Lithuania and Latvia. Polish prisoners in both countries were later arrested after the Soviet Union annexed the Baltic states in June 1940.— It might be expected that these incoming prisoners would meet a similar fate as their earlier brethren from the special camps. By the time the new shipments of Polish officers had been detained in camps inside the Soviet Union, however, the broader strategic situation in Europe had changed drastically.

Over the course of May and June of that year, Germany achieved surprisingly rapid victories over many of the countries in Western Europe, including a crushing defeat of France in just six weeks. The hopes of the Soviet leadership that the fascist and capitalist powers would exhaust each other in a war of attrition appeared to be dashed.106 The successes enjoyed by the Third Reich in the summer of 1940 greatly heighted the menace posed to the Soviet Union by its accomplice in the earlier dismemberment of Poland. With no ready counterweight on the horizon in the west, Germany potentially threatened the very survival of the Soviet Union, as well as Stalin's ability to hold on to annexed territories in eastern Poland.

One of the predicaments following from Soviet ambitions in Poland was that the newly gained territories provided many benefits in terms of greater land and resources, but also some disadvantages to its strategic position. The prior Soviet borders presented a more formidable set of natural barriers, which had been bolstered during the interwar period by a series of fortifications. In contrast, the new boundaries incorporating various portions of Poland were relatively lacking in both sorts of protection. Logistics and transportation also became more problematic, since Soviet forces now had to cope with two different railway gauges across the Russian and Polish areas. In particular, the disappearance of Poland removed what was often historically seen as a useful buffer against

incursions by other great powers.107

Nevertheless, from the Soviet point of view, any drawbacks resulting from the 1939 partition have to be counterbalanced by the costs of potentially doing nothing in the face of German designs on Polish lands. Buffer states like Poland during this period were especially at risk of dismemberment, as surrounding great powers feared that rivals would take over and exploit the intervening territory at their expense.108 Better for the Soviet Union to cooperate with Germany over the division of spoils than risk losing an even greater share of Poland to the Third Reich. Stalin also did not hold much trust in the Polish government to actually serve as a viable buffer against any Nazi attack, and even vetoed German suggestions to reserve a rump Polish state.109

Whatever the precise strategic merits in acquiring Polish territory, the Soviet Union nonetheless quickly found itself immediately opposite German forces and vulnerable to a surprise attack—an event that would later come to fruition with devastating repercussions. The resources and effort devoted to incorporating the newly conquered Polish lands were compounded by the generally accepted poor military planning by the Soviet leadership in the years leading up to the German invasion.110 One Red Army officer expressed his skepticism over the wisdom of annexing Poland, judging that the operation “was not such a good move from the military point of view."111

Greater proximity to Nazi Germany combined with Wehrmacht successes in western Europe drastically changed the strategic situation facing the Soviet Union by the early summer of 1940, and correspondingly its conduct toward Polish prisoners. Just a few months earlier the Katyn prisoners were viewed as expendable, but as the German threat grew the Soviet Union preferred to hold on to those Polish officers taken from the Baltic countries should they be needed to help repel a future Wehrmacht offensive.112 By November 1940, over half a year before the eventual German invasion, Beria discussed with Stalin the possibility of organizing the remaining Polish officers and soldiers into military units to operate alongside the Red Army. Although still preferring to select officers who demonstrated procommunist leanings, he concluded, “As a result of the work carried out, it has been established that the great majority of POWs can be undoubtedly utilized for organizing a Polish military unit."113

Considering NKVD records from the time listed 18,297 Polish prisoners in their custody, many of whom were officers of various ranks, this stands in stark contrast to the handful deemed sufficiently trustworthy to be spared from execution earlier that same year. If the German armies had indeed become bogged down in western Europe and in their weakened state posed much less of a threat, as the Soviets had initially hoped, the treatment of the later Polish prisoners would almost certainly have been much more brutal. It is more than likely the remaining Polish officers would have been branded as counterrevolutionaries and sacrificed to Soviet territorial ambitions in manner similar to their predecessors. Motives driven by cultural differences do not provide a convincing explanation for the very different treatment accorded to the various sets of Polish officers over time. The shift of the prisoners in the eyes of Soviet authorities, from liabilities to be eradicated to assets that could be employed, is more consistent with the Soviet Union's changing hold over the conquered territories in light of the growing German peril to its west.

Second, perhaps Soviet abuse of the Poles was rooted in a particular historical hatred of its neighbor far greater in magnitude than that reserved for any other adversary, irrespective of the Polish people's specific cultural attributes. The resort to arms rarely takes place in isolation from past events or expectations of future military confrontations. Conflicts involving adversaries with a long-standing rivalry are likely to be more frequent and intense than those between states without a similar acrimonious history.114 Past wars often fundamentally transform the beliefs and decision making of leaders, especially when faced with renewed crises and conflicts.115 Related to this point is the contention that the Katyn massacre was retribution for the Soviet Union's humiliating defeat twenty years earlier during the 1919-20 Russo-Polish War.116 Grievances from the earlier war certainly loomed large within the Soviet leadership, but if the thirst for vengeance drove Soviet actions it is again not clear why the later group of Polish officers taken from the Baltic states were not also executed. In the opinion of Stalin and the politburo, these prisoners should have been just as guilty as the Katyn victims for the humiliating outcome endured by the Soviet Union in the prior war. Furthermore, one of the main survivors of the massacre, Zygmunt Berling, who would later become the commander of the Soviet-sponsored Polish People's Army, had fought valiantly against Red Army forces and distinguished himself during the previous conflict between the two countries.117

Some defenders of Soviet actions claim the brutality unleashed at the Katyn massacre was a direct response to Polish conduct during the 1919-20 war. A large number of Russian prisoners died in Polish captivity during the war, and several Russian officials and historians have sought to portray these events collectively as a sort of “anti-Katyn" to demonstrate that Poland had been guilty of comparable levels of prisoner abuse.118 On the same day that Putin became the first Russian leader to commemorate the massacre with his Polish counterparts, he later claimed the Soviet leadership was primarily motivated by retribution for earlier Polish wartime conduct, stating “It is my personal opinion that Stalin felt personally responsible for this tragedy, and carried out the executions (of Poles in 1940) out of a sense of revenge."119

Historical records show this is a difficult case to make. It is true that upwards of 20 percent of Russian prisoners did not survive their time in Poland's camps during the war. Nevertheless, this was more a function of neglect rather than a calculated strategy on the part of the Polish government, compounded by the already sick and weakened condition of many Russian prisoners upon entering captivity.120 Furthermore, Polish prisoners in Russian hands did not fare much better during the conflict, which casts doubt on the notion that Katyn was largely committed in retaliation for earlier one-sided killings committed by Poland.121 At best, both sides were guilty of abuse during the earlier conflict, and the Soviet Union did not possess a monopoly on prisoner-related grievances.

Placing Russo-Polish relations in the broader context of twentieth- century warfare reveals similarly weak support for the role of past conflicts and conduct on the decision of captors to resort to prisoner abuse. Building on the main model of prisoner treatment outlined previously in chapter 3, Table 5.2 reports the effects of different measures of prior military competition and armed conflict on the likelihood a captor engages in the highest levels of prisoner abuse. The first rivalry measure comes from the work of Diehl and Goertz, which identifies rivals based on the frequency, intensity, and linkages between their past military interactions and thus expectations of future conflict.122 The results show that belligerents who are rivals are around 8 percent more likely to engage in high levels of prisoner abuse compared to warring parties who do not share a similar conflictual history, and the effect is statistically significant at the 10 percent level. While the result is suggestive that rivalry can directly lead to prisoner abuse, the effect is relatively modest compared to annexationist war aims with an absolute rise of more than 50 percentage points in the risk of extreme prisoner abuse, which was established in the prior statistical analysis. Moreover, the finding for rivals is not robust, since another commonly used indicator of rivalry by Thompson has no significant impact on prisoner abuse and is actually slightly negative.123 Even though such explicitly activated feelings and a sense of animosity might be expected to have the greatest impact on wartime conduct, the evidence suggests that the presence of such a rivalry has little bearing on how antagonists treat each others' captives during war.

Table 5.2 Rivalry, revenge, and prisoner abuse in interstate wars, 1898-2003


Change in probability of high-level abusf.


Rivals (Diehl & Goertz)


Rivals (Thompson)


Prior twir and outcomes

Fought prior war


Won prior war


Drew prior war


Lost prior war


Prior tear and ftrifoiwr ajwdse

Low abuse


Medium abuse


High abuse


Nolfs-, 4Significant at 5 percent; t Significant at 10 percent.

Each value represents the effect of the variable on the absolute change in the probability of high levels of prisoner abuse, holding other related variables at 0 (in the case of the models including prior war outcome or prior prisoner abuse) and ail other variables a I their means-

In a similar manner, the experiences and lessons of past wars may have enormous repercussions on national interests and other areas of foreign policy but do not seem to affect the treatment of prisoners all that much. Countries that fought a war at some point in the previous twenty-five years against their opponent are slightly more prone to abuse prisoners, but the rise of 3 percent is negligible. Whether the prior war was won, lost, or settled by a draw also does not appear to have much impact. In fact, a country being defeated in the most recent war—the outcome that should especially fuel the fires of revenge as in the Russo-Polish case—has the weakest effect on the subsequent treatment of enemy combatants.

On the other hand, the actual conduct in the prior conflict does have some more lasting consequences, but only at the lower end of abuse. Interestingly, a captor whose troops were well treated by the adversary in their prior war is likely to show greater restraint in a later conflict, with a decline of 21 percent in the probability of resorting to high levels of prisoner abuse. This extension of reciprocity across conflicts suggests one possible pathway through which humanitarian impulses can diffuse over time even among belligerents. Yet harsher treatment of prisoners by the adversary in past wars does not translate into a greater desire to seek retribution later. Prior medium and high levels of abuse committed by the enemy are both positively associated with a captor subsequently engaging in greater abuse, but neither is significant and the effect for prior high-level violence is especially small at only 2 percent. In light of the strong results for reciprocity from the earlier main quantitative analysis, retaliatory impulses thus seem to be limited to the present war itself rather than carrying over into later conflicts. The collective results from Table 5.2 indicate that motives embedded in feelings of rivalry and revenge have little influence on the resort to abuse, and even if there are some effects they pale in comparison to the incentives generated by territorial conquest.

A third alternative is somewhat related to territorial issues but instead emphasizes Soviet concerns to please Germany after their mutual dismemberment of Poland and demonstrate its trustworthiness as a partner.124 Because the Wehrmacht was the first to attack Poland, followed only some weeks later by Red Army forces, Germany ended up taking almost three times as many

prisoners as the Soviet Union, around seven hundred thousand in all.125 Germany directly incorporated large portions of Poland into the Third Reich in a manner similar to the Soviet Union, though it also installed an occupying administration over the remaining territory, which it called the General Government (Generalgouvernement). Although never reaching the same degree of targeted mass killings of Polish prisoner as at Katyn, Nazi occupiers followed a similar territorial pattern of committing very high levels of abuse against Polish prisoners as well as civilians.126 Since Poland was one of the eventual central sites for the Final Solution, German conduct toward prisoners remained extremely harsh.127 Mass arrests, executions, and widespread use of hard labor became staples of Nazi rule over Poland both to extract as many resources as possible and to cement control.128

Both conquerors also engaged in a certain degree of cooperation, including prisoner exchanges and a modest amount of intelligence sharing. The Katyn massacre appears perfectly in line with requirements under the second secret protocol of the German-Soviet Friendship Treaty, which called for both parties to eliminate possible sources of agitation within their respective Polish territories.129 Indeed, around the same time the Soviet executions were taking place in the Katyn Forest and nearby towns, Germany was engaging in its own massive repression of Polish elites. In the spring and early summer of 1940 German authorities initiated AB-Aktion (Aufierordentliche Befriedungsaktion), a large- scale program targeting the Polish intelligentsia along with some members of the military, which resulted in the execution of over six thousand people with tens of thousands of others sent to concentration camps.130 The fact that the respective Nazi and Soviet operations coincided so closely has given rise to claims the actions were coordinated as part of a larger fascist-communist effort to destroy Poland.131 While new evidence may still come to light showing active collaboration, the biggest problem with this argument is that the NKVD took every step possible to conceal the massacre from German authorities. It seems strange that the Soviet Union would try to cover up the crime and not report anything to the partner it was supposedly so eager to impress.

The lack of concern over the reactions of outside parties, German or otherwise, would continue in a different way as the war widened and ground on. After German revelations of the discovery of the Katyn mass graves in April 1943, only Poland's government-in-exile expressed much outrage. Although expatriate Polish leaders formally sided with the anti-Axis coalition, the democratic powers were unwilling to take any concrete actions as evidence of Soviet responsibility began to mount. Displaying a similar pragmatism to that shown in their own prisoner affairs discussed in the previous chapter, British and U.S. leaders valued their Soviet military ally above all else, even at the expense of the Polish victims. Indicating what was to come, Winston Churchill stated plainly in a meeting with the Polish general Wladyslaw Anders the year before, “No good could come of antagonizing the Russians."132 Franklin D. Roosevelt went so far as to suppress a report by a U.S. diplomat condemning the Soviet Union for the massacre, and even reassigned the official to American Samoa for the remainder of the war where he could cause less trouble from the American standpoint.133 Documents declassified in 2012 by the U.S. National Archives definitively show that both of the major Western Allies were aware of Soviet culpability but actively covered up the origins of the massacre so as not to upset their ally. In a May 1943 letter to Churchill, Britain's ambassador to Poland's government-in-exile, Owen O'Malley, wrote, “We have in fact perforce used the good name of England like the murderers used the conifers to cover up a massacre."134 It was only in the face of growing East-West tensions after the war ended that the Western powers expressed greater interest in uncovering the truth about Katyn.135

Finally, perhaps it was the Soviet Union's ardent attachment to communist ideology that led the leadership to destroy the Polish officer corps. An enormous body of literature points to the widespread use of violence internally by communist regimes as part of an ideologically driven project to consolidate power and hasten radical changes to their societies.136 Several quantitative studies of repression and mass murder confirm that communist regimes are much more

likely to commit extreme levels of violence.137 The previous century is unfortunately full of episodes where millions died at the hands of communist rulers, from Stalin's Great Purges to Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward. If these regimes could be so cruel to their own citizens, then it follows that they probably would act in similar ways toward the populations of their foreign enemies.

In the realm of prisoners of war, communist regimes have taken certain notable steps that could be indicative of a greater likelihood to harm captured combatants. One of the avowed reasons for why the Soviets refused to ratify the 1929 Geneva Convention on Prisoners was that it represented a bourgeois institution that reinforced class hierarchies by according greater privileges to officers over regular enlisted soldiers.138 Despite widespread participation in the later 1949 Geneva Conventions, most communist states entered a reservation to Article 85 of the Third Convention relating to prisoners, which provides that prisoners charged with crimes committed prior to their capture maintained protection under the laws of war even if they were subsequently found guilty.139 Communist signatories instead interpreted their reservation to mean that even enemy soldiers suspected of alleged crimes could be denied POW status, which in turn allowed captors to treat these prisoners with much greater latitude.

Several cases certainly seem to reflect a communist tendency toward abuse, since both North Korean and Vietnamese care for captives during their wars with the United States was far from humane.140 Examining the full set of interstate wars from the last century indicates, however, that the relationship between communism and prisoner abuse is much less straightforward. Using the same baseline model for the determinants of prisoner treatment introduced in chapter 3, Table 5.3 reports the effect of different types of communist regimes on the probability a captor resorts to high levels of abuse.141

Contrary to their behavior toward internal opponents, communist regimes are on the whole only slightly more prone to engage in higher levels of prisoner abuse than governments of other ideological orientations, but the rise of 8 percent fails to be statistically significant. Focusing only on the Soviet system reveals that Russian communist captors were actually slightly less likely to abuse captives, while holding everything else constant. But perhaps the negative Soviet finding is glossing over more brutal prisoner abuse during the period when Stalin reigned supreme. After all, many commentators from both the East and West hold Stalin personally responsible for the most heinous crimes committed during the history of the Soviet Union, including the Katyn massacre.142 When Soviet authorities finally admitted responsibility for the Katyn massacre in 1990, they laid the blame firmly at Stalin's feet.143

Irrespective of the precise role of Stalin in wider communist history, the seeming restraints on prisoner abuse were actually even stronger during wars when Stalin firmly controlled the Soviet Union, though the effect is only significant at the 10 percent level. The result for the Stalinist period is particularly surprising: even though he represented one of the most murderous leaders in history, these predilections for extreme levels of violence did not automatically carry over to the general treatment of prisoners during war. On the other hand, non-Soviet communist regimes, which include several Asian countries, Cuba, and a number of other regimes, were slightly more likely to go after enemy combatants, though again the effect is fairly modest statistically. What the results show is that communist ideology does not appear to have a clear and systematic impact on how captors from these regimes choose to treat their prisoners.

Table 5.3 Communist regimes and prisoner abuse in interstate wars, 1898-2003

Ti/ja1 of Communist reg m:c

Orange in probability of bi^h-lei'ei abuse

Communist (all)







0.21 +

Notes: t Significant at 10 percent.

Each value represents the effect of the relevant typo of communist regime on the absolute change in the probability of high levels of prisoner abuse, holding democracy at 0 (nondemocracy) and all other variables at their means.

Even if the ideals that began with Marx and Engels are not the strongest predictor of prisoner abuse overall, perhaps communism played a more important role specifically in the Polish case. The targeting of Poland's officer corps, who were likely more removed from the Polish proletariat, might explain the particular pattern of abuse in the Polish case as a way for the Soviet Union to guard against the larger menace of “bourgeois contagion."144 Writing about a future war with a capitalist state, which Poland would have certainly been from the Soviet point of view, one prominent Soviet legal scholar at the time argued ordinary enemy combatants would be welcomed as common brothers in arms. The attitude toward captured officers was quite different and potentially foreshadows the eventual fate of the elite Polish military contingents:

The situation would not be at all the same were officers taken prisoners, however. Obviously, it could not be expected that officers, who in the majority of cases do not belong to the proletariat, would be converted to communism by mere theoretical instruction. Hence the officers would always be considered by the


Soviet authorities as class enemies.

The elimination of the Polish officer corps also bore some eerie resemblances to the Great Purges a few years earlier in the Soviet Union, where one of the groups most targeted were high-ranking officials from the country's own armed forces. Although most of the prisoners at the Kozelsk and Starobelsk camps were officers and might indeed fall under the bourgeoisie moniker, the vast majority of the inmates at Ostashkov were policemen, prison guards, and other individuals who could not credibly be accused of being comparable societal elites. Despite their more working-class background, they were sought after with the same ferocity as officers from the armed forces. The collective punishment of the prisoners from the special camps seems more consistent with an attempt to dismantle the coercive apparatus of the Polish state rather than undermine the bourgeois class per se. On the other hand, two survivors from Katyn were princely aristocrats who would reasonably be more deserving of the label of class enemies than many of the eventual victims.146 In contrast to those officers who were spared, Soviet authorities were also known throughout this period to liquidate avowedly Polish communists found to be too independent-minded.147 Soviet decisions on who lived or died appeared to be a function more of which individuals posed the greatest threat to their continued rule over Polish territory rather than based on purely ideological grounds.

After examining a number of alternative explanations, none performs as well as the territorial motive in accounting for the various aspects relating to the Soviet decision to commit the Katyn massacre. The underlying motive for the killings was preventative in nature, to stamp out any future rebellion in newly conquered Polish lands. Polish officers were selected for a particularly brutal punishment because they represented the most salient threat out of the entire Polish population to the Soviets' territorial interests.

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