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Katyn is the name of a village and nearby forest in the Smolensk region of Russia, about 230 miles west of Moscow. In 1943, German troops who were based in the area after Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union uncovered an enormous mass grave in the Katyn Forest. When they excavated, they found the rotting corpses of some 4,000 uniformed Polish army officers, their hands bound, most of them shot in the head. Ever since that gruesome discovery, the word “Katyn” has served, especially in Poland, as historical shorthand for the systematic execution by Soviet authorities of some 22,000 Poles—mostly army officers but also policemen and civilians—in the spring of 1940. Only about a third of the executions occurred at Katyn. The thousands of other victims were shot in camps located in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv and the Russian city of Tver (formerly Kalinin), about a hundred miles northwest of Moscow.
Among the manifold horrors of World War II—from the Holocaust and the Bataan Death March to the Blitz, Dresden, and Hiroshima-Nagasaki—relatively little attention has been paid over the years to Katyn (pronounced “KA-tin” by Poles and “ka-TIN” by Russians and Ukrainians). The reasons for the murders themselves and for their comparative neglect by history are many and complex. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, so much new material has become available from former East-bloc archives that scholars have for the first time been able to provide detailed, if still incomplete, descriptions of what happened and why. This, in turn, has created new interest among journalists, writers, and moviemakers. (In 2007, for example, a movie titled Katyń, by the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda, was released and later nominated for an Academy Award as the year’s best foreign film.)
Most of the scholarly and general-interest activity has until recently taken place in Poland and Russia. Now Yale University Press has published Katyn: A Crime without Punishment as part of its Annals of Communism series. An extensive collection of documents, photographs, and maps, interspersed with narratives, background, and commentary by its editors, the book synthesizes and translates much of the work that has been done abroad; it therefore seems more likely to serve as a source for English-speaking researchers and interested lay persons than as anything approaching a definitive account in its own right, all the more so because the editors’ writing style is, almost to a fault, scholarly and dispassionate. Still, the editors are to be congratulated for compiling and publishing a fairly exhaustive and beneficial one-volume summary of what is known today about a terrible tragedy and a monstrous crime.
The geopolitics of World War II and its aftermath help explain both why Katyn occurred and why, even today, it is not widely remembered or understood. As this book makes clear, the crime’s origins lie in the 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov non-aggression treaty between Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Josif Stalin’s Soviet Union. A then-secret section of the infamous treaty provided for the German invasion of Poland [End Page 122] on 1 September 1939 and for a Soviet invasion a short time later. This deal was intended to reestablish a “partition” of Poland similar to that which existed from the late eighteenth century to the end of World War I. The scheme, fulfilling what leaders in Germany and Russia had long seen as their historical destiny, was for Nazi Germany to control western and southern Poland and for the Soviet Union to control the eastern portion.
When the Red Army fulfilled its part of the bargain and invaded eastern Poland on 17 September 1939, it brought with it Stalin’s firm intention to create a Communist government there, enforced by his army and by Lavrentii Beria’s state security forces. The Poles already had far more than they could handle in their fight with the Germans and were utterly unequipped, in either manpower or weaponry, to wage a two...