The crash of a Polish airplane in the Russian territory of Smolensk last weekend is a stunning tragedy, taking the life of Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, and high-level figures in the Polish government. Upwards of 100 people were obliterated. Kaczynski was a former Solidarity freedom fighter, and wonderfully anti-Soviet, anti-Russian, and pro-American.
The event, obviously, is international front-page news. What was not, however, was the event that inspired Kaczynski’s flight: the 1940 Katyn Woods massacre. This, too, was a stunning tragedy, one not admitted by the Russians for nearly 50 years, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev finally, officially conceded the USSR’s responsibility.
Here, it’s worth pausing to revisit what happened at Katyn. Doing so is a fitting tribute to Poland’s horrible loss.
The Katyn Woods massacre was one of the worst war crimes of the bloody 20th century. It was rooted in a pact between two devils, Hitler and Stalin, who in September 1939 jointly invaded, annihilated, and partitioned Poland. The Soviets seized thousands of Polish military officers as prisoners. Their fate was secretly sealed on March 5, 1940 when Stalin signed their death warrant, condemning 21,857 of them to “the supreme penalty: shooting.”
What happened next remained a state secret for a half-century. The Polish officers were taken to three primary sites, the most infamous of which bears the namesake of the crime: the Katyn Woods, located 12 miles west of Smolensk, Russia. There, these unsuspecting men, Poland’s best and brightest, were methodically slaughtered like farm animals. The Bolsheviks covered their crime with a thin layer of dirt.
The locals shuddered at the howling cries of dying men echoing through their once peaceful woods. One Russian farmer later told authorities: “For approximately four to five weeks there were three to four trucks daily driving to the forest loaded with people…. I could hear the shooting and screaming of men’s voices.”
Some Poles were destroyed on site in the forest, whereas others were first shot in the NKVD prison in Smolensk, with their rotting corpses transported to Katyn for burial under a few inches of soil.
At the prison, bullets were fired 24/7 by a cadre of deranged, homicidal NKVD/KGB killers who were so consumed with bloodlust, and so taken by the dark side that, in the end, their work finished, they turned their guns on themselves. Death had consumed them.
Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College, executive director of The Center for Vision & Values, and author of the book, “The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor.” His other books include "The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism" and "Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century."