The Ultimate Crime

Katyn & the Invention of Genocide

Recent months have seen remarkable events and developments in the legacy of Katyn, the village in the woods of western Russia where, in April 1940, Stalin’s secret police shot some twenty-two thousand Polish military officers. Those killings have bedeviled relations between the two countries ever since.

Most of the officers killed at Katyn were not career military but reservists who, in their everyday lives, worked as lawyers, doctors, writers, or businessmen. Poles, who look back on a history full of invasions from east and west, have seen the Katyn executions as yet one more attempt to rob Poland of the intellectual and cultural elites crucial to self-government. Russians, for their part—and especially during the Soviet era—have routinely denied responsibility for the massacre, blaming the Nazis. Moreover, they wonder why—from the catastrophe of a war that consumed tens of millions of lives, including 6 million citizens of Poland—Poles insist on keeping the memory of Katyn alive. Why not focus instead on the hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers who died liberating Poland from Nazi rule in the endgame of World War II?

Since assuming power in 1999, Vladimir Putin has grounded his regime’s legitimacy in Russian achievements of the past, above all in the victory over Nazi Germany. He has argued that his countrymen cannot be blamed for Katyn because the killings did not reflect their will; in 2005, Russian prosecutors concluded an investigation of the...

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About the Author

John Connelly, author of From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews (Harvard), teaches history at the University of California, Berkeley.