CER Central Europe Review


Aerial Photography and the Katyn Forest Massacre
Frank Fox
West Chester Univ of Pennsylvania, 1999
ISBN 1887732136

Joanna Rohozińska

In January 2000, Russia's president-elect Vladimir Putin telephoned Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski to inform him of the discovery of a mass grave thought to contain the bodies of Poles murdered by Soviet forces during the Second World War.

The grave was found near Smolensk, close to Katyń, where some 4000 Polish officers had already been found. Between 15,000 and 25,700 people were executed in April and May of 1940 following the Soviet invasion, and most of the bodies have never been recovered. The Katyń massacre, as the event is known, has long served as a symbol of Soviet crimes against Poland.

Monuments and martyrs

As part of death rituals in many societies and religions, the bodies of the deceased are put on display. This constitutes an integral part of the grieving process and dispels any questions as to whether the person is indeed dead. There often seems to be an almost pathological need to witness death, and anonymous death is regarded as the greatest insult a human being could be subjected to. It is no coincidence that the loss of many bodies in the deep mud of the trenches and battlegrounds of the First World War was followed by a boom in the monument industry.

Public executions and display of the criminal / victim served primarily as a warning to the populace of the strength of the ruling authority. Ironically, however, it also created martyrs, particularly in times of foreign occupation, thus strengthening the resistance of the occupied population.

Katyń occupies a special place in Poland's already martyr-packed pantheon. After the defeat of Polish forces at the hands of the Nazi and Soviet forces in the autumn of 1939, both allies took thousands of prisoners of war. The Soviet side received a majority of the Polish army's officer corps (whether they had them all in the first place or whether a portion was handed over by the Nazis remains unclear).

Many were not career soldiers but rather reservists, called away from their various professions (doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc) and represented Poland's elite. They were interned in several camps (Ostashkov, Katyń, Mednoe and Kharkiv), but had vanished by the time Germany had turned against its former ally in 1941 and General Władysław Anders was invited to re-form the Polish army on Soviet soil.

The discovery of mass graves

During their rapid advance, the Germans came across mass graves in the Katyń Forest, a wooded area near Gneizdovo village and a short distance from Smolensk. In 1943, they exhumed around 4000 corpses, dressed in Polish army uniforms, with their hands bound behind their backs, apparently killed by a bullet through the head. As was their habit, the Germans meticulously documented their discovery and made it public as irrefutable proof of Soviet barbarity.

But it is, after all, the victors who dictate history, and after regaining the territory in 1944, Soviet authorities exhumed the bodies again and thereafter steadfastly maintained that the Germans had in fact committed the crime following their advance. The fact that German-manufactured bullets had been used in the executions was their crucial piece of evidence.

Poland saw more than its share of death and destruction during the Second World War, but not so much that several thousand missing officers went unnoticed. Yet, despite being proclaimed a crime carried out by fascists, there were no further investigations into the graves; there were no public enquiries and all signs of mourning were discouraged or banned.

The years of silence

Katyń was a dirty word—to both the rulers and their unenthusiastic subjects. Through its persistent silence the Soviet government essentially confirmed what was rumoured to be true. Yet asking questions about a political crime was hardly wise in the immediate post-war period. None of this meant that the crime had actually been forgotten. Crosses were surreptitiously raised at night in the Powąski military cemetery in Warsaw, only to be dismantled by irate authorities in the morning. The dead of Katyń were regarded as the lost future of Poland—powerful ghosts for any regime to fight.

Ideally, history de-mystifies past events. The field of Soviet studies, including Soviet history, has always been an imprecise science mainly due to the lack of complete information. Aerial photography has contributed significantly to the establishment of certain facts. Over-flies by the Luftwaffe quite clearly demonstrate that the substantial disturbances of the earth's surface, which would subsequently be determined to be some of the burial sites, pre-date the German advance into the area. Therefore, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Soviets were indeed responsible.

God's Eye is clearly a work that was driven by passion. The author recounts numerous heart-wrenching episodes from all sides—the victims, the witnesses and the surviving family members—which relate the pain and suffering this crime caused. Also evident is the admirable dedication of those involved in researching various aspects of the case. Wacław Godziemba-Maliszewski's work as an amateur, though certainly not amateurish, historian is remarkable both for its skill and results. His patience and perseverance must be applauded and his studies acknowledged as invaluable.

Unfortunately, God's Eye makes the fascinating and important contribution of aerial photography to historical studies, and to this case in particular, peripheral. Instead, the author concentrates on Maliszewski's struggles to have his analysis recognised and credited. He also repeatedly chastises the dismissive attitude of the Allied governments, particularly the US, toward the crime. There is also a great deal of criticism levelled at the post-Communist Polish administration and academia. While the lack of action or thorough inquiry by any party may be troubling, even contemptible and horrifying, it is also hardly new or surprising. And—like the majority of mass murders—it is not personal.

The work also lacks clarity regarding its intended audience. Several times the author refers to the US government as "ours," presumably indicating an American audience. However, the event and its greater significance, be it in terms of Polish history and society, international relations, American society or Soviet history, are inadequately established for an uninitiated audience. At the same time, it offers little new or relevant information for an academic, or even an experienced, reader.

 Katyń today

Sixty years later, Katyń still stirs passions in Poland. Addressing the Sejm in autumn 2000, Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek declared, "These were not only Polish officers, Poland's elite, who were buried in the Katyń graves. For many years, Polish sovereignty was buried there as well." Around the same time, Poles and Russians gathered in Tver to open a state memorial complex at Mednoe, commemorating the 6313 Poles and more than 9000 Russians who were killed there by the NKVD during the Second World War. Buzek also noted that the official declaration of cooperation of the Russian side that came early in the 1990s was a "milestone in the work on unveiling the truth about Katyń." He didn't add that the admission of responsibility is really what had been key. The same year, Leon Kieres, head of Poland's National Remembrance Institute, mentioned the possibility of launching a formal investigation into the murder of the Polish officers.

As the author of God's Eye rightly notes, the pursuit of the Katyń case has been subject to the currents and whims of international relations and domestic policy, in all the states involved. Over the years the physical evidence has repeatedly been interfered with and has certainly eroded while documentary evidence has surfaced. Is the memory of the victims being desecrated, as their graves have been, because they are turning into (or being relegated to) a historical case study? Or because there no longer seems to be a pressing need to view the bodies and unmask the criminals? It would seem that within Poland the majority of people want to move forward rather than remain with the ghosts.

Is Katyń a crime without parallel? No. Much about this case and its mishandling over the years provokes outrage, but the century has seen many horrors, and some are far fresher. Should a new, thorough investigation and complete exhumation take place? Perhaps. There are a great number of victims of Soviet terror buried throughout the former empire and an awful lot of earth to be moved in order to uncover them all. There are also mountains of paper to be shifted, which may provide greater information that exhumation. Hopefully, the desire to establish historical accuracy will not serve as a cover for political motives.

It is doubtful that the dead of Katyń will be forgotten, and they remain Poland's lost generation. The crime was a political one and for many years their deaths served various political causes. Perhaps the wake should be over and they should rest in peace.

Joanna Rohozińska, 19 March 2001



Main sites:

Werner Page


O    O    O    O    O





Journal of the American Intelligence Professional



VOL. 46, NO. 3, 2002


Intelligence in Recent Public Literature


God's Eye: Aerial Photography and the Katyn Forest Massacre

By Frank Fox. West Chester, PA: West Chester University Press, 1999. 136 pages.

Reviewed by Benjamin B. Fischer

A number of police departments in the United States have created ‘cold-case squads’ to investigate unsolved crimes that are years or even decades old. To ‘clear’ old cases, detectives often use new methods such as DNA analysis and other modern forensic techniques to analyze data that was collected but not comprehensible when the crimes were committed. Professor Fox’s intriguing book is about an historical ‘cold case’ that took more than 50 years to clear.

The crime in question was the cold-blooded murder of some 4,500 Polish officers and soldiers whose bodies were discovered in April 1943 in the Katyn Forest, located 12 miles west of the Russian city of Smolensk. The hero of Fox’s book is a self-taught photo-interpreter of professional caliber named Waclaw Godziemba-Maliszewski. The data collected at the time of the crime were aerial reconnaissance photographs taken by the German Luftwaffe, which were seized, classified, and stored in the “evidence room” of the US National Archives until they were declassified in 1979. The methods used to finally solve the crime were modern photo interpretation and photogrammetry.

German occupation forces stumbled onto mass graves at Katyn in April 1943. Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels charged the Soviets with mass murder, hoping to exploit the grisly discovery to shatter the Anglo-American-Soviet wartime alliance. The Germans exhumed many of the corpses and brought in an international team of forensic experts and other observers to substantiate the Soviet atrocity. The plan backfired. All of the forensic experts were from Nazi-occupied countries, with the exception of one pathologist from neutral Switzerland. Stalin blamed the Germans for the massacres, and London and Washington accepted his version of the story as the truth. As time went on, most historians in the West concluded that the Soviets were to blame, since what little evidence there was suggested that the Poles were killed while in Soviet, not German, captivity. Nevertheless, doubts persisted for decades.

God’s Eye is part history and part biography. The historical part tells the story of Katyn and other killing fields where more than 20,000 Polish officers, soldiers, border guards, police, and other officials, as well as ordinary citizens, were executed during World War II. The narrative stretches from 1940 to the present, tracking successive investigations that uncovered the truth bit by bit. The biographical part of Fox’s book focuses on Maliszewski’s indefatigable efforts to identify execution and burial sites, establish Soviet culpability, and pressure Warsaw and Moscow to complete a full official investigation.

Maliszewski, who was born in Scotland in 1948, developed an interest in Katyn early in life when he learned that a relative had been among the victims. Interest turned into obsession, however, when he discovered that the solution to the crime might lie in aerial reconnaissance photographs that the Germans themselves had taken of Smolensk and the surrounding area. While doing research at the US National Archives, Maliszewski came across an intriguing article from the CIA’s in-house journal, Studies in Intelligence. The author, a respected CIA photo interpreter, had used the German film footage to analyze the physical characteristics of Katyn, identify burial sites, and draw inferences regarding German versus Soviet culpability.1 Maliszewski had a hunch that additional study of the Luftwaffe imagery would yield further insights.

From 1941 to 1944, the Luftwaffe flew 17 sorties in the Smolensk area, some of which included the Katyn Forest. There, recorded on film, were “snapshots” of the area taken before, during, and after the German occupation. In one series of photographs taken in April 1944, discovered by Poirer and reexamined by Maliszewski, the German cameras caught the Soviets removing bodies from mass graves and bulldozing the ground to cover up evidence of the crime. Maliszewski later found more burial sites using US intelligence satellite imagery and up-to-date maps based on satellite imagery that were provided through the good offices of Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to President Carter, who was sympathetic to the project.

Fox points out that Maliszewski’s research and his struggle to bring his findings to the attention of Polish officials and scholars were crucial to persuading the Polish government to reexamine the World War II tragedies. As a result, Katyn erupted as an issue in Polish-Soviet relations in 1990. In October of that year, Mikhail Gorbachev, under pressure from Warsaw and from his own advisers, revealed part, but not all, of the truth about Katyn. He pinned the blame on Stalin’s chief henchman, Lavrenty Beria, and Soviet military intelligence. It took two more years, the collapse of Soviet power, and a bitter rivalry between Gorbachev and his successor, Boris Yeltsin, for the whole truth to emerge. In 1992, Yeltsin released records from the Communist Party’s “special archive” that revealed that Stalin and five other members of the Politburo had approved the killings on Beria’s recommendation.2

Readers may not be surprised by Soviet and later Russian stonewalling, but they may be shocked to learn that prominent figures in post-communist Poland also impeded Maliszewski’s efforts to locate the final resting places of the murdered Poles and force a full and complete disclosure of the truth. Promises were made but not kept, funding for further investigation was offered but never materialized. Some Polish researchers expropriated Maliszewski’s findings and published them without attribution. When he finally succeeded in publishing his painstaking research in a prestigious Warsaw University scientific journal, the editor censored some of the more damning details.

In God’s Eye, Fox gives due credit to other historians who helped to establish the truth about Katyn. One was Professor Janusz Zawodny, the doyen of Katyn historians, whose 1962 book, Death in the Forest, was the first major exposé of the Polish tragedy. Another was Dr. Simon Schochet, a Polish-Jewish historian whose research revealed that several hundred of the Katyn victims were Jewish. Establishing the presence of Jewish victims illuminates the complexity of the Katyn story. Goebbels reportedly hesitated at first to expose the massacre when he learned that a number of the victims were Polish Jews. And some historians have attempted to portray Katyn as a “Jewish crime” perpetrated by “Jewish-Bolsheviks” against ethnic Poles.

Despite all the “hard” evidence that is now available, the Katyn tragedy continues to reverberate in Russia and Poland and in Russo-Polish relations. In 2000, the Polish government, with Russian and Ukrainian cooperation, dedicated military cemeteries and memorials at Katyn, as well as at Mednoye and Kharkiv, two other sites where Soviet executions occurred. The chairman of the Russian Duma recently said that this had “closed a chapter of a shared past that was a source of conflicts and served as a pretext for many to evoke tension in our relations.”3

Maybe so. But Russia has yet to formally apologize, and the Duma has refused to give the case legal standing so that the families of the victims can claim compensation. The head of the Association of Katyn Families recently charged that Warsaw itself is dragging its feet on demanding a complete investigation of the murders and punishment of the perpetrators who are still alive. Katyn, it seems, is a wound that will take more than one generation to heal.

God’s Eye: Aerial Photography and the Katyn Forest Massacre provides an eminently readable, detailed information base against which to gauge the continuing tensions between Russia and Poland over the Katyn atrocities.



1 See Robert G. Poirer, “The Katyn Enigma: New Evidence in a 40-year-old Riddle,” Studies in Intelligence, vol. 25, Spring 1981, pp. 53-63.

2 Russia’s revelations do not account for all of the probable Polish deaths at Soviet hands; the actual number will never be known. A 5 March 1940 Politburo memorandum signed by Stalin and five other leaders recommended executing 14,700 Polish officers, soldiers, civil servants, landowners, and others being held in Soviet camps and 11,000 more being held in captivity in Soviet-occupied eastern Poland. A KGB report dated 3 March 1959 stated that “21,857 Polish officers, gendarmes, police, settlers, and others” had been killed on official orders in 1940. See Dimitri Volkogonov, Autopsy for Empire: The Seven Leaders Who Built the Soviet Regime (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1998), pp. 148, 220. The latter number does not include some 90,000 Polish officers and soldiers captured in 1939 who have never been accounted for or the estimated 1.5 to 2 million Poles deported to Soviet Central Asia and Siberia, many of whom died in transit or after arriving in the USSR.

3 Yinnadiy Syclzcznyov, Interview, ‘There are no barriers between us.” Przeglad, 9 April 2001, p. 7.

Benjamin B. Fischer serves on the CIA History Staff.


Im Wald von Katyn 1940

Aufbereitet für den deutschen Leser: Ergebnisse der polnischen und russischen Forschungen

12. Juni 2003 Gerd Kaiser: Katyn. Das Staatsverbrechen - das Staatsgeheimnis. Aufbau Taschenbuch Verlag, Berlin 2002. 476 Seiten, 12,- [Euro].

Mit der neuen "Offenheit" könne über alles gesprochen werden - nur nicht über die Geschichte. So hatte Gorbatschow im Juni 1986 im Gespräch mit einer Gruppe sowjetischer Schriftsteller gewarnt: Wenn man beginne, sich mit der Vergangenheit auseinanderzusetzen, werde man alle Reformenergie einbüßen, das wäre, "wie wenn man den Leuten auf den Kopf schlägt". Dann ließ sich, wie Gorbatschow wusste oder ahnte, das retuschierte Bild, das die Partei von der Revolution und dem Bürgerkrieg, der Kollektivierung und forcierten Industrialisierung, ja selbst vom Großen Vaterländischen Krieg und vom Aufstieg zur Weltmacht gezeichnet hatte, nicht länger halten, weil die terroristischen Mittel, die katastrophalen Begleiterscheinungen und die schrecklichen Folgen der bolschewistischen Politik sichtbar würden. Dann bliebe nicht mehr viel vom Glauben daran, dass man auf den zurückgelegten Weg "stolz" sein könne, dass er "ohne Alternative" gewesen wäre, wie Gorbatschow selbst immer wieder versicherte. Mit diesem Glauben würde die Partei Stück für Stück ihre Legitimationsbasis verlieren und als Hauptverantwortliche für den eingeschlagenen Weg in den Terror, den Hunger und die Katastrophen dastehen.

Auf Dauer ließ sich diese Geschichtsdebatte nicht vermeiden, ohne die eigene Glaubwürdigkeit aufs Spiel zu setzen - weder im Innern, mit den zu erwartenden Folgen, noch nach außen, im Verhältnis zu den westlichen Nachbarn. Das musste auch Gorbatschow einsehen. Noch brisanter als die Fragen nach den Umständen des Einmarsches in die Tschechoslowakei 1968 und der Niederschlagung des Aufstandes in Ungarn 1956 waren dabei die Fragen nach der Vorgeschichte des Zweiten Weltkrieges, nach der Rolle der Sowjetunion im Pakt mit Hitler und dessen langfristigen Folgen. Immer weniger verfingen dabei die alten Formeln, mit denen die sowjetische Führung die Existenz der geheimen Absprachen, in denen Hitler und Stalin Osteuropa unter sich aufgeteilt hatten, jahrzehntelang geleugnet hatte (boten diese Lügen doch die Grundlage für die sowjetische Annexion Ostpolens, Bessarabiens, der nördlichen Bukowina und der baltischen Staaten). Und in Polen verlangte man die abschließende Klärung des Schicksals jener 15000 polnischen Offiziere, die beim sowjetischen Einmarsch in Ostpolen 1939 in sowjetische Gefangenschaft geraten waren und von denen viele 1943 in einem Massengrab bei Smolensk, im Wald von Katyn, entdeckt worden waren. Für dieses Verbrechen suchte die sowjetische Führung bis Ende der achtziger Jahre die deutsche Seite verantwortlich zu machen.

Kaum daß im Februar 1987 Gorbatschow dem Druck nachgegeben und selbst die Parole von der Beseitigung der "weißen Flecken" in der Geschichte ausgegeben hatte, war im April 1987 auch eine sowjetisch-polnische Historikerkommission eingesetzt worden, die die Umstände von Katyn aufklären sollte. Obwohl für die polnische Seite rasch einsichtig war, daß sich die bisherige sowjetische Version nicht länger halten ließ, dauerte es noch drei Jahre, bevor sich die sowjetische Führung dazu durchrang, Katyn als eines "der schwersten Verbrechen des Stalinismus" einzugestehen.

Schreckliche Einzelheiten

Die schrecklichen Einzelheiten brachten weitere Forschungen polnischer und russischer Historiker in den neunziger Jahren zutage. Sie fanden in mehreren Dokumentenbänden (in polnischer und russischer Sprache) ihren Niederschlag. Sie belegen, dass beim Einmarsch der Roten Armee in Ostpolen etwa 250000 polnische Soldaten und Offiziere in sowjetische Kriegsgefangenschaft gerieten. Berufs- und Reserveoffiziere - darunter viele Professoren, Lehrer, Ärzte, Juristen, Publizisten und Unternehmer -, Polizeiangehörige und höhere Staatsbeamte wurden von den Mannschaften getrennt und in drei Sonderlagern konzentriert: in einem ehemaligen Kloster bei Kosjelsk (250 Kilometer südöstlich von Smolensk), in Starobjelsk (einem ehemaligen Frauenkloster, südostlich von Charkow) und in einem Kloster bei Ostschkow (im Gebiet von Kalinin, dem früheren Twer).

Es war nicht eine wild gewordene Instanz des Militärs oder der Geheimpolizei, sondern das höchste Führungsgremium der Sowjetunion, das Politbüro der Kommunistischen Partei, das am 5. März 1940 auf Vorschlag des Volkskommissars des Inneren (Berija) beschloß, das Verfahren gegen die "14700 in Kriegsgefangenenlagern befindlichen ehemaligen polnischen Offiziere, Beamte, Gutsbesitzer, Polizisten, Gendarme, Ostsiedler und Gefängnisaufseher" sowie gegen "11000 in Gefängnissen der ukrainischen und weißrussischen Westgebiete einsitzende Mitglieder verschiedener konterrevolutionärer und Diversanten-Organisationen, ehemalige Gutbesitzer, Fabrikanten, ehemalige polnische Offiziere, Beamte und Fahnenflüchtige" unter Anwendung der Höchststrafe (Erschießung) zu entscheiden, und zwar in einem Sonderverfahren, ohne die Arretierten vorzuladen oder auch nur über die Anklageerhebung zu informieren. Unter der Vorgabe der Verlegung begannen die Transporte aus den Lagern. Doch nur wenige Lagerinsassen wurden wirklich in andere Lager verlegt. Die meisten wurden den regionalen NKWD-Behörden zur Liquidierung überstellt, den NKWD-Behörden von Smolensk, Charkow und Kalinin. Für über 4000 Insassen des Lagers Kosjelsk endete der Transport im Wald von Katyn; in den neunziger Jahren wurden auch die Gräberfelder in Mednoje (bei Kalinin) und Pjatichatki (bei Charkow) freigelegt.

Die Dokumentenbände belegen eindringlich und ausführlich, wie die Kommunistische Partei versuchte, die Verbrechen in ihren Antworten auf Anfragen der in London ansässigen polnischen Exilregierung und der Alliierten zu vertuschen. Ein "Vertuschungsmittel" war die Einsetzung einer eigenen gerichtsmedizinischen Sonderkommission bei der Vorbereitung des Nürnberger Prozesses; die folgenden Versuche endeten erst Anfang der neunziger Jahre. Als die Dokumentenbände dann in der zweiten Hälfte des Jahrzehnts erschienen, gab es "die führende Rolle" der Partei bereits nicht mehr und die Sowjetunion war zerfallen - nicht zuletzt, weil sich die baltischen Staaten und Moldawien (hervorgegangen aus dem ehemaligen Bessarabien) von ihr losgesagt hatten; da ihre Mitgliedschaft zur Sowjetunion auf den Absprachen zwischen Hitler und Stalin beruhe, sei sie unrechtmäßig und nicht länger bindend.

Dem vorliegenden Buch von Gerd Kaiser kommt das Verdienst zu, die Ergebnisse der russischen und polnischen Forschungen zusammengefaßt und dem deutschen Leser zugänglich gemacht zu haben, wozu auch die Übertragung von Schlüsseldokumenten ins Deutsche gehört.


Text: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 12.06.2003, Nr. 134 / Seite 8