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Truth, justice and memory

14 October 2005

A new book by Dr George Sanford examines the Soviet massacre of Polish prisoners of war at Katyn and other camps in 1940.

Let us think of these things always and speak of them never

Sir Owen O'Malley, British ambassador to the Polish Government-in-Exile, despatch of 11 February 1944

The crime of Katyn, however, occupies a special place in the collective memory of Poles.  It is a great sore, which we have to talk about ceaselessly - just so that it can be healed.

Speech by President of Poland, Aleksander Kwaƛniewski at the military cemetery in Kharkov, 27 June 1998

In Spring 1940 Stalin's security police (NKVD) massacred about 14,700 Polish prisoners of war, captured in September 1939 during the jointly agreed Nazi-Soviet war against Poland.  Taken from camps at Kozelsk, Starobelsk and Ostashkov, they were shot and buried at Katyn, a fact uncovered and publicised by the Germans during their advance into the USSR in Spring 1943.  However, killings in Kharkov and at Mednoe near Tver only became known much later.  Another 7,300 Poles were shot in Ukrainian and Belarusan prisons at the same time so the 1940 massacre totalled around 22,000.

In his new book, Katyn and the Soviet Massacre of 1940, Dr George Sanford uses the Soviet documentation released in the early 1990s to explain how the failure of NKVD interrogation and recruitment attempts and acute Polish-Bolshevik rivalry and hatred decided the Stalinist leadership on the massacre of all but 395 of the Polish prisoners.

An authoritative case study of the processes of Stalinist Terror

This detailed English language study of the mechanics of the prisoners' transportation and execution provides an authoritative case study of the processes of Stalinist Terror.

The truth about the massacre was suppressed by both the Soviet Union and their postwar subordinate communist regime in Poland. But the management of this issue by the American and British governments after 1943, also examined in the second half of the book, has major contemporary significance. 

The Western Powers failure to question the Soviet cover-up was an embarrassing part of their wider policy of accepting Poland's takeover at the end of the Second World War.  It now has even wider significance with post-communist debates on how the memory of atrocities can be assuaged by justice for victims through truth telling and apologies for aggrieved nations leading to their reconciliation.

Katyn and the Soviet Massacre of 1940 (Basees/Routledge Series on Russian and East European Studies) published by Routledge, August 2005. 

Dr George Sanford/Department of Politics

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