At the heart of my novel, When We Fall, lies one of the most notorious crimes of the second world war; the murder of more than 22,000 Polish prisoners of war near Katyn in the USSR. When We Fall imagines the fate of Janina Lewandowska, a pilot in the Polish air force who was the only female victim of this slaughter. The story also tells of a desperate quest for justice based on a real attempt to preserve evidence of the atrocity at the end of the war. But despite in-depth investigations at the time, Katyn is a crime for which no-one has ever been punished. And the fifty-year cover-up of the killings, a cover-up in which the British and US governments were active participants, make it the 20th century’s most outrageous example of fake news
Poland was the first casualty of the second world war, but contrary to the outdated clichés about the campaign of September 1939, Polish military forces put up a fierce fight. The Polish Republic was a new country but it had a huge army with modern tank battalions and a sizeable air force. After the German invasion from the west on 1st September, the Poles fought numerous pitched battles leaving high casualties on both sides. This was a stark contrast to the Wehrmacht’s easy conquest of France nine months later. But when the USSR invaded from the east on 17th September, Poland was quickly overwhelmed.
Hundreds of thousands of Polish combatants were taken prisoner. Amongst those captured by the Red Army, the officers were separated out and mostly sent to three prison camps in western Russia. The officers were imprisoned over the winter in conditions that were harsh but comparable to German prisoner of war camps. The prisoners’ diaries and letters suggest that the Soviets were adhering, more or less, to the Geneva Convention. So, when the spring thaw arrived and movements out of the camps began, the remaining prisoners were full of hope. Surely, their lucky comrades were being returned to their homeland? In fact, what awaited them was a single bullet to the back of the head and burial in a mass grave in the forests of Katyn.
The prisoners’ fate had been sealed in March 1940 when Lavrentiy Beria, the head of NKVD (the Soviet secret police) recommended to his boss, Joseph Stalin that 25 700 of the Polish officers held in captivity should be executed as ‘nationalists and counter-revolutionaries.’ For reasons that are not entirely clear Stalin gave his assent. The killings were perhaps an extension of the Soviet state’s ‘Great Purge’ of the 1930s, political murders which often targeted citizens of Polish heritage. Stalin had never forgiven Poland for defeating his own forces in 1920 during the Polish-Soviet war. In 1940, many of Polish officers were reservists who had been the core of the country’s professional middle class. The Katyn massacres wiped out around 40% of Poland’s doctors as well as lawyers, engineers, teachers and journalists. And it could be argued, given Poland’s post-war history, that if this genocide was part of Stalin’s strategy to cripple Poland’s independence, it was highly effective.
In May 1940 though, Stalin halted the killing spree possibly because he suspected that he had made a big mistake. Hitler was about to invade France, and when that goal was accomplished, Stalin perhaps sensed that his erstwhile ally would turn his eyes to a bigger prize in the east. Then, once Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Stalin would need the help of the western Allies who might regard the slaughter of the Poles as an obstacle to alliance. Britain had, after all, declared war on Germany because of a commitment to protect Poland. It was time, therefore, for the Soviets’ long Katyn cover-up to begin.
Sure enough, when Germany invaded Russia in July 1941 and the USSR suddenly became Britain’s ally, questions were asked about the ‘missing’ Polish officers. General Anders, the head of Polish forces under Allied command, pressed Churchill to make the prisoners’ return a condition of alliance. But Stalin gave Churchill a vague excuse about sending some Polish prisoners to the east and then losing track of them ‘in Manchuria.’ In the summer of 1941, that excuse was good enough. For the Allied leaders, the importance of a pact with the mighty USSR overrode every other consideration.
So, in 1943, when German forces occupying Smolensk discovered thousands of decaying corpses wearing Polish uniforms, the news was dismissed by the Allies as a hoax. The British government said the Nazis must be to blame. And although the German authorities did their best to convince the world otherwise; with a multi-national Red Cross commission and then allied prisoners of war visiting the exhumations at Katyn and a team of forensic scientists carefully preserving the dated evidence found on the bodies, the world would not believe them.
Even evidence about Katyn from other sources was dismissed. In 1944, Ron Jeffrey, an escaped prisoner of war who joined the Polish resistance before making his way back to Britain, provided documents from the Polish underground movement detailing Soviet responsibility for the Katyn killings. Jeffery later believed that his evidence was binned because it landed on the Foreign Office desk of the Soviet secret agent Kim Philby.
Then, at the chaotic end of the war in Poland, Dr Werner Beck, a German scientist who had been working on preserving documents from the Katyn graves, decided to protect some of this evidence from the coming Red Army onslaught. In a mission similar to that attempted by one of my characters in When We Fall, Dr Beck loaded crates of the Katyn victims’ diaries, letters, notebooks and passports onto a truck and made a daring solo dash from Kraków towards the American forces in Czechoslovakia. But the truck could not get through and to avoid falling into Soviet hands, its precious cargo was incinerated.
Dr Beck survived though, and in 1952 gave evidence to a US congressional investigation of the massacres at Katyn. The final report agreed with him that culpability for the killings lay firmly with the Soviet Union, not Nazi Germany. But by then it was too late. The world was gripped by another conflict, the Cold War, and no-one in the west wanted to bring nuclear annihilation closer by ramping up tensions with the Soviet Union over a bygone wartime controversy.
Even in the 1970s, the subject was politically inflammatory. The building of a Katyn memorial in Gunnersbury cemetery, London was delayed for years by an argument over the inscription; ‘Katyn 1940,’ because at this date only the USSR could have been behind the atrocity. In Poland, the very mention of ‘Katyn’ was taboo. Families who had lost a loved one in the massacre had to keep it secret. Jobs, university places or friendships would all be jeopardised if a personal connection to this toxic subject came to light.
Finally, after 50 years of ‘fake news,’ the collapse of the Soviet Union allowed the truth about Katyn to emerge. In 1990, President Gorbachev first admitted Soviet responsibility for the deaths of Polish officers held in captivity in 1940, and in a symbol of final reconciliation on 7th April 2010, Prime Ministers, Putin of Russia and Tusk of Poland, together laid wreaths in the forest at Katyn.
And then three days later, on its way to a commemoration at Katyn, the plane carrying Poland’s top dignitaries including President Kaczyński crashed into the fog-bound forest killing all 96 people on board. The repercussions of this modern twist in the Katyn tragedy and the conspiracy theories it generated still re-bound through Polish political and cultural life but it dramatically brought the long-hidden truth about Katyn to the world’s full attention.
This article first appeared in Historia magazine.
Objects recovered from the mass graves at Katyn
Photo: Katyn Museum, Warsaw