Hoover exhibit revisits mass murder of Polish soldiers in 1940

The murder of 22,000 Polish soldiers and members of Poland's professional class was a top-down, top-secret operation ordered by Stalin – but for decades the Soviets tried to pin the massacre on the Nazis. A new exhibition lays out the truth.

Polish Ministry of Information and Documentation records, Hoover Institution Archives Germans investigated the site in the Katyn Forest in 1943

Germans investigated the site in the Katyn Forest in 1943.

In April 1940, Soviet operatives carried out a top-secret operation: the unprovoked mass shootings of about 22,000 Polish soldiers and civilian elites. The executions in the Katyn forest near the Russian city of Smolensk are remembered as the Katyn Forest Massacre.

An exhibition at the Hoover Institution, Katyn: Massacre, Politics, Morality, revisits the atrocity with documents, photos, commentary and a documentary film. The exhibit, produced by Poland's Council for the Protection of Memory of Combat and Martyrdom, was launched at the EU headquarters in Brussels and then at the Library of Congress.

Its most extended stay will be here, at Stanford, through Jan. 29. While at the Hoover Institution, the exhibition has been augmented with documents from the Hoover Institution Library and Archives, home to the largest and most comprehensive holdings on modern Poland outside Poland.

The exhibition is closed during winter break, Dec. 18 through Jan. 3, but otherwise open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The story of Katyn was long suppressed by Soviet authorities. It began like this: When the Soviet Union occupied Eastern Poland in September 1939, tens of thousands of Polish professional military officers and reservists, policemen, landowners, lawyers, doctors, educators and civil servants were arrested. In short, the people Poland needed to function as a nation were imprisoned. The following spring, the Soviet Communist Party Politburo ordered the execution of nearly 22,000 of them.

"As a typical NKVD [Soviet secret police] operation, the killings were done in great secrecy," writes Hoover fellow Paul R. Gregory in Lenin's Brain and Other Tales from the Secret Soviet Archives.

"They required a month to carry out because necessary orders had to be distributed to the various camps, victims had to be processed by NKVD tribunals, executioners assembled, and prisoners transported to killing fields. Lacking the sophisticated mass killing machinery of the Nazis, victims were shot one by one before open trenches.

"An adequate supply of vodka had to be brought in for those who did the actual shooting.

For the next half-century, Communist leaders lied, evaded and attempted to pin the crime against humanity on the Nazis. 

The incriminating documents were held in a top-secret Kremlin file, which included 52 pages, beginning with the proposal of NKVD Chief Lavrenti Beria to execute Polish prisoners en masse and Stalin's March 5, 1940, execution order. Nikita Khrushchev was briefed on its contents in 1959. In 1981, the file was reviewed by Konstantin Chernenko and Yury Andropov, then head of the NKVD's successor, the KGB.

It wasn't the crime, but the cover-up, that formed the bulk of the file. "The executions were the work of Stalin and Beria; the cover-up and its continuation were the work of the second generation of Soviet leaders – the Brezhnevs, Andropovs, Kosygins and even Gorbachevs – who came to power after Stalin's purges of the old Bolsheviks," Gregory wrote.

In 1981, Solidarity, the Polish anti-communist trade-union federation, erected a memorial with the simple inscription "Katyn, 1940." It was dismantled by the police, to be replaced with an official monument: "To the Polish soldiers – victims of Hitler's fascism – resting in the soil of Katyn."

Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz, who survived the destruction of Warsaw, wrote in A Year of the Hunter: "The Soviet state went to great pains to convince the world of its innocence, and its allies took it at its word, or pretended to, so that the Poles were left to stand alone – with the truth, but with a truth proclaimed by the German enemies."

Even Gorbachev's minimalist confession in 1991 cited only an obscure operational order from Beria, with another low-ranking NKVD officer as an additional scapegoat, rather than a top-down job ordered by Stalin himself.

The massacre was the subject of award-winning director Andrzej Wajda's acclaimed 2007 film, Katyn. Wajda is the son of an officer murdered at Katyn.

Katyn again made the news last April, with the airplane crash, en route to a Katyn memorial, that killed Poland's President Lech Kaczynski and first lady Maria Kaczynska, along with Poland's deputy foreign minister and a dozen members of parliament, the chiefs of the army and the navy, church leaders, the president of the national bank and others.

At the planned memorial, President Kaczynski's prepared remarks were to conclude: "The Katyn Crime will forever remind us of the threat of nations and people being enslaved and destroyed. It will remind us that lies can indeed be powerful, but it will also be a token of the fact that people and nations can – even in the most difficult of times – choose freedom and defend the truth."