Communicating Murder

The Katyn Massacre in Political Communication during the Cold War
Claudia Weber

(Last modified May 2013)

The massacre of more than 15,000 Polish prisoners of war by the Stalinist NKVD in the spring of 1940 has been, for more than twenty years, a recurring theme in Eastern European research on violence and a constant point of contention in the tense relations between Poland and Russia. For decades it was unthinkable to make knowledge of Moscow’s secret mass executions public without being caught in the snare of an ideological memory of the World War II era.

Only Mikhail Gorbachev, the last president of the Soviet Union, admitted that the NKVD was responsible for this crime. In the wake of this admission, Russian archives were opened and research began on the massacre, which had been variously treated as a Soviet, German, or unexplained and enigmatic war crime, depending on the degree of ideological rigidity of those labeling these murders. Gorbachev’s disclosure had the effect of including the Katyn executions in the history of Stalinist violence. As necessary as it was to take this step in the wake of glasnost and perestroika, and under growing pressure from the Polish population, it did little to remove the Katyn atrocity from an established role. The massacre became the subject matter of Eastern European history.

The project is an attempt to retell the story of the Katyn mass shootings after the end of the Cold War, which was previously divided ideologically between left and right, geographically between East and West, and, in terms of their histories of violence, between Stalin and Hitler. Katyn is described here as a multi-phased, continuous story of German-Soviet interactions that had no place in the dichotomous war memory of the Cold War, but without which neither the crime itself nor its sustained relevance can be understood. The project takes up a methodological approach that explores a history of intertwined relations that not only makes comparisons but also examines the places and events of cooperation, the entanglements, and reciprocal references to National Socialism and Stalinism.

In the first section, the story of Katyn will be reconstructed from the moment officers, doctors, and intellectuals were arrested to their execution as a result of the Hitler-Stalin pact and the terror of German-Soviet occupation. Stalin’s motives and the background to his orders for the massacre are still disputed. These will be investigated from both Soviet and German perspectives. The project works on the assumption that the reason for Stalin’s decision to kill 15,000 people lies in the immediate situational logic of the German-Soviet alliance of violence. However, the influence of traditional Polish-Soviet resentment, ideological class constructions, and Stalin’s personal Poland phobia are not to be underestimated.

The second section again takes up the perspective of mutual interaction―albeit from a different direction―to analyze Nazi and Soviet Katyn propaganda in the spring of 1943 and in January 1944. The study will investigate the argument that after Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, knowledge of the Katyn massacre and the violence propagated by the other side became a weapon in a war about war crimes. This also served, as in the case of Stalin, immediate strategic goals such as realizing his post-war order for Eastern Europe. The project will describe how propaganda campaigns laid the foundation for dealing with Katyn after the war ended and during the Cold War. It generated powerfully effective images and patterns of communication about Katyn in the Cold War on the political left and right—ranging from Goebbel’s self-representation as the authority who shed light on Bolshevik atrocities to Stalin’s highly political accusation of collaboration. For various reasons, neither Nazi propaganda nor the Soviet rendering of its version of the Katyn massacre was accepted by the public internationally.

The analysis of ideological communication about Katyn is the focus of the third section of the project. Against the backdrop of a dichotomous memory of World War II, the decision to accept a Soviet or a Nazi version of the Katyn massacre during the Cold War was tantamount to positioning oneself on the left or on the right. The unconditional nature of this decision, which has accompanied the story of Katyn since the orchestration of propaganda began, concealed the historical interactions which are the starting point of the project. It aims to "de-ideologize" the study of Katyn and other Soviet war crimes and place them in the context of a European history of war crimes. The project aims to move beyond hierarchies of violence and appeals for revision to depict the complex interrelationships that linked the era of the Hitler-Stalin pacts and the subsequent war and post-war eras.