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Katyn was not just a Massacre—it was Genocide

Katyn was not just a Massacre—it was a Genocide

This article was written by Monika Brzozowska-Pasieka, Ph.D., 2020-2021 VOC Senior Research Fellow in Poland Studies. It is the fifth in a series of five articles about The Katyn Forest Massacre. To view all five articles, click here.

Reading the historical description of the Katyn Forest Massacre, one cannot avoid calling this event a genocide, or at least part of a genocide of Poles. The Katyn Massacre was very well prepared. It was a Soviet crime that included the persecution and murder of Poles, the deportation of whole groups of Poles to the USSR, and the methodical confiscation, devastation, looting, and plunder of the property left behind by its victims. All later violence was not a by-product of the genocide but rather an integral part of systematic Soviet efforts to erase the Poles: not only were anti-communist leaders and members of the Polish intelligentsia murdered in Katyn, but also average Poles, including whole families—children and adolescents, adults, and elders.

One may ask: Was Katyn a genocide? Or more generally: Was the treatment of Poles by the Soviets genocidal treatment? Doubtless, it was.

The term genocide etymologically derives from the Greek γένος, or génos (family, tribe, race) and the Latin cide, cidium, caedere (to kill, to murder). The term was used for the first time by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent, in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress, published in 1944. According to Lemkin,

By “genocide” we mean the destruction of a nation or […] ethnic group. […] Genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation. […] It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves (emphasis added). The objectives of such a plan would be the disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.[1]

Lemkin also distinguished two phases of genocide: first, the destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group, and second, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor.

In 1946, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 96 (I) on “The Crime of Genocide,” which was the first document recognizing genocide as an international crime. It defined genocide as follows:

Genocide is a denial of the right of existence of entire human groups, as homicide is the denial of the right to live of individual human beings; such denial of the right of existence shocks the conscience of mankind, results in great losses to humanity in the form of cultural and other contributions […] and is contrary to moral law and to the spirit and aims of the United Nations.[2]

The resolution became the basis of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, commonly known as the Genocide Convention, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 9, 1948.

The Genocide Convention was the first instrument of international law to codify genocide. According to Article II of the Genocide Convention, genocide refers to any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, such as:

(a) killing members of the group;

(b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.[3]

The Genocide Convention does not protect all types of human groups. Its application is limited to national, ethnic, racial, and religious groups. There is no precise number of people who should be killed to call the killing a genocide. It could be a large or small number of individuals who are affected for a particular reason. Nor is there a requirement for the perpetrators to have the intention to erase the protected group from every corner of the globe. In some circumstances, when the political, religious, academic, or intellectual leadership of a group is targeted, the conclusion may be drawn that such killing amounts to genocide. If a group has its leadership exterminated, killed, deported, or forced to flee, one can consider it a form of genocide.

It seems that, taken together, the Katyn Forest Massacre, the killing of Poles in Soviet prisons, the mass deportation of Poles to the Soviet Union, and the taking of property away from the families of the Katyn victims—starting in March 1940 until the signing of the Sikorski-Maysky peace treaty[4] in 1941—may and should be considered a genocide of Poles in its purest form.

With regard to the Katyn Massacre, one can call it “the Katyn genocide” or—in a broader sense—one of the stages of a wider genocidal operation, which also included the killing of Poles in Soviet jails pursuant to the order of March 5, 1940. Because of the March 5 decision, Polish prisoners of war were designated as “enemies of the Soviet authorities filled with hatred for the Soviet system of government.” This led to capital punishment for the Poles held in Soviet camps and prisons without any investigation, trial, indictment, or formal charges against them. The decision also meant the mass deportation of Poles to the Gulag, where many of the deportees died.

In assessing whether the crimes can be referred as to as “genocide,” we need to determine if the circumstances of the massacre and of the other crimes had been calculated to bring about the physical extermination of the group. This could be established by looking at the perpetrators’ “pattern of conduct,” from which the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn is that there was intent to destroy the protected group (in whole or in part).

With regard to the pattern of conduct, we can distinguish the following features:

  1. the Soviet political doctrine according to which the protected group were enemies (often enemies of the state) and had to be destroyed;
  2. statements by the Soviet authorities, officials, and public figures demonizing and humiliating the members of the protected group;
  3. propaganda against the protected group, inciting to violence and action against members of the protected group;
  4. the scale of the attacks against the protected group and the conscientiousness in carrying out the massacre of particular members of the protected group;
  5. the intention to eliminate the elite, intellectual leaders of the protected group;
  6. the precise indication that members of the protected group are to be killed or attacked while members of other groups are to be left alone;
  7. the number of members of the protected group killed;
  8. the looting, seizure, and destruction of property belonging to members of the protected group, including the destruction of artworks and religious items, monuments, places of worship, churches, etc.; and
  9. denial of having committed the crimes, protecting the perpetrators, and blaming the protected group and others for genocide or massacres.

In light of this analysis, another critical factor is that for forty-five years, the Soviets denied murdering the soldiers in Katyn or deporting, plundering, and murdering others whose only crime was that they were Poles, which only magnified the trauma and harm suffered by the Katyn families.

In September 1943, Smolensk was retaken by the Red Army, and the Soviets set up their own commission to persuade the public of German guilt. Like the Germans, the Soviets also exhumed bodies of murdered Poles and searched them for documents. Contrary to the German statements, on January 22, 1944, the Soviets announced that it was the German Army that had executed the Polish prisoners in the autumn of 1941. The Soviet commission was headed by Nicolay Burdenko, an outstanding scientist and member of the old Union Academy of Sciences who was respected by other doctors, and who served as a personal physician to Stalin in the Kremlin since 1936. Other commission members included A. N. Tolstoy (academic and author) and Nikolai, Metropolitan of Kiev and Halich (his secular name was Boris Dorofiejewicz Jaruszewicz). According to N. Burdenko, the massacre was the work of Nazi Germans.

The Soviet authority tried to raise the Katyn issue during the trial before the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, accusing German officials of committing this crime. The accusation was based on the Burdenko Report, pointing out the Germans’ guilt. What’s interesting is that the Soviet prosecutors called the Katyn Massacre a genocide committed by Germans. The tribunal (despite the objections of the Soviet prosecutor) interrogated three witnesses for the prosecution and three witnesses for the defense, in effect leaving this issue aside and not mentioning the Katyn Massacre in the judgment. There was no reference to the murder of Polish officers at Katyn—neither in the final judgment of the International Military Tribunal nor in the dissenting opinion of Judge I. T. Nikitchenko.

In 1952, the Madden Committee was established by Resolution No. 390 of the US House of Representatives. The committee declared the Katyn Massacre a genocide.

Doubtless, like the deportations and other crimes against Poles, the Katyn Massacre was a physical and biological attack against the Poles and against the economic and cultural life of the Polish people.



[1] Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress(Washington, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1944), 79.

[2] UN General Assembly, Resolution 96 (I), The Crime of Genocide, (Dec. 11, 1946),

[3] UN General Assembly, Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, (Dec. 9, 1948),

[4] “Sikorski–Mayski Agreement,” Wikipedia, last modified November 10, 2021,