On this day in 1943, the Germans began to exhume the mass graves they had discovered at Katyń, in today’s Russia. The graves turned out to contain the bodies of thousands of Polish officers. The Wikipedia states:
“About 8,000 were officers taken prisoner during the [17 September] 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland, the rest being Polish doctors, professors, lawmakers, police officers, and other public servants arrested for allegedly being “intelligence agents, gendarmes, landowners, saboteurs, factory owners, lawyers, officials and priests. Since ‘s conscription system required every unexempted university graduate to become a reserve officer, the NKVD was able to round up much of the Polish intelligentsia, and the Russian, Ukrainian, Tatar, Jewish, Georgian, and Belarusian intelligentsia of Polish citizenship.”
The Soviets, for whom the very thought of an independent Poland was an intolerable burden, decided to kill all these prisoners. Up to 22,000 Polish officers and professionals were murdered in a coordinated action in April, 1940, thereby practically decapitating a future non-communist Poland.
For the Nazis, the discovery at Katyń was potentially a great propaganda coup. but there were two problems with their claims. First, given their own well-publicized murderous behavior, no one really wanted to believe that they hadn’t done it. Second, the wartime Allied propaganda system had portrayed the USSR as a progressive, benevolent nation involved in a life-and-death struggle against an inhuman foe; it was so effective that anyone in the West (and, it goes without saying, in the USSR) who viewed the Soviets as potential perpetrators of the massacre was condemned out of hand, often with severe consequences.
Throughout the Cold War, the Soviets steadfastly maintained that Katyń was a Nazi crime. It wasn’t until the collapse of the USSR that the truth finally came out, but even then the Russian Duma refused to classify the event as a war crime or crime against humanity.
Note: the Khatyn massacre of Belarussians, which was perpetrated by the Germans.is not to be confused with the