Prisoner Abuse Taken to the Extreme: The Fate of Polish Officers in the Special Camps and Related Prisons

The precise motives guiding the decision of Stalin and his inner circle to commit the Katyn massacre may unfortunately never be established with complete certainty. No documents are known to survive detailing Stalin's inner thinking or the private discussions among the top Soviet leadership that culminated in the final orders for the mass executions that followed.51 Nevertheless, the available record reveals that the massacre was intimately connected to the long-term territorial ambitions of the Soviet Union in eastern Poland. Although Soviet authorities victimized nearly every segment of Poland's society, the most brutal and widespread tactics were reserved for those groups viewed as most endangering their hold on Polish territory. Officers were to find out that they were at the top of this list. As one prominent historian of the war in Europe's east concludes, “The death of Poland's military cadres was part of a calculated strategy to rid the occupied areas of any elements capable of raising the flag of national resurgence against the Soviet invader."52

Even though direct proof of Soviet intentions may be lacking, several pieces of evidence point to the crucial role played by territorial motives. Unlike in earlier wars during this period, the Soviet Union entrusted the running of the prisoner program to the NKVD (Narodnyy Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del, or People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs), rather than the Red Army.53 This decision went against usual custom and further contradicted prevailing principles of international humanitarian law where prisoners were to be under the rules and regulations of the armed forces of the detaining power.54 As the internal security apparatus and home to the Soviet secret police, the NKVD represented the main arm of domestic political repression. It already possessed a good deal of experience in extrajudicial killings and administered the notorious Gulag labor camps for domestic political prisoners and other individuals unfortunate enough to meet the wrath of the central government.55 Delegating authority to the NKVD indicates that the treatment of Polish prisoners was viewed more as a problem of internal security to the stability of a now enlarged Soviet Union, rather than simply a matter of warfare involving an opposing state.

Lavrenty Beria, head of the NKVD and later a key player in the Katyn massacre, quickly formed a specific department within the organization, called the Administration for Prisoner-of-War Affairs, that was tasked with managing the Polish detention facilities.56 With the NKVD structure in place, the objectives of these facilities went beyond the simple custody and care of captured enemy combatants, which was the traditional purpose of most POW camps. NKVD captors instead formulated an intense program of interrogation and indoctrination to identify individual prisoners who might be amenable to the communist cause, on the one hand, and to weed out and eliminate threatening elements, on the other. Polish officers became a key target of this program across the special camps that were set up expressly for the initial purposes of inquisition, and eventually used for elimination.

The turmoil ensuing from the fighting, as hundreds of thousands of Polish troops fled or surrendered in a haphazard fashion, meant that most of the early camps contained prisoners spread across all ranks. From the beginning, however, Polish officers were treated differently from regular enlisted soldiers. The NKVD gave explicit orders early on that officers should be identified and segregated from the general prisoner population.57 Red Army commanders were forbidden from releasing any captured officers and further instructed to specifically seek out higher-ranking enemy combatants attempting to evade Soviet capture.58 The sorting of captured Polish military and security elites from other ranks was largely concluded in less than two months. A top-secret NKVD report from November 19, 1939, detailed the number and placement of officers, along with other high-ranking police and gendarmes officials, in three specially designated camps, while junior officers and the rest of the rank and file were distributed across various other facilities.59

These camps were in or near the towns of Kozelsk, Starobelsk, and Ostashkov, which are located in contemporary Russia or Ukraine. Kozelsk and Starobelsk were designated primarily as camps for officers, while Ostashkov became a residual facility for remaining categories of prisoners; alongside soldiers the camp included officers from the police, border and prison guards, and a number of civil and judicial officials.60 The emphasis on police and related officials at the Ostashkov camp may have illustrated a certain degree of projection on the part of Soviet authorities, overestimating the role of these individuals in running the former Polish state.61 A number of additional officers and officials were also held in various smaller NKVD prisons in western portions of Belorussia and Ukraine. The decision by the Soviets to isolate officers was thus made early on and reflects the special attention devoted to this particular group of enemy combatants.

Unlike the sparse conditions that prevailed in more than two dozen regular prisoner camps and hundreds of other labor camps for Poles, the special camps for officers were relatively more comfortable though in no way sumptuous.62 Work was still expected but was usually less arduous and often limited to building and maintaining camp facilities. The main purpose of segregating the officers from the rest of the prisoner population was to conduct a concerted screening process to identify candidates who might be sympathetic to the Soviet Union.63 Irrespective of the initial feelings of the officers toward Soviet authorities, all prisoners were subject to an intensive indoctrination campaign to convince them to join the communist cause.64

Reflecting the paranoia that had already enveloped the Soviet Union during earlier domestic purges from the 1930s, camp officials were extremely sensitive to any hint of opposition to Soviet authority emanating from the prisoners. For instance, in late November 1939 a special NKVD team was sent to Starobelsk to deal with a secret “anti-Soviet organization," which turned out to be a request by a group of prisoners to contact the local American consulate regarding the possibility of joining the Polish army-in-exile that had by then formed in France.65 In many respects, however, Soviet captors would ultimately be justified in their concerns over the beliefs of the prisoners from the special camps. Compared to most other countries that would be annexed or occupied during the Second World War by various powers, collaboration with outside authorities did not develop along a similarly large scale in Poland.66 Polish officers in general remained fiercely patriotic to their former home country and often derided what they viewed as clumsy Soviet attempts at indoctrination. As one indication of these feelings, Soviet authorities later conducted an investigation in March 1940 of officers held at Starobelsk asking where they would prefer to be sent should the prisoners eventually be released. Feedback showed around half of the respondents wished to go back to former Polish territories even though they were under German or Soviet military control, while most of the rest wanted to be transported to a neutral country. Only sixty-four respondents, just over 1 percent of all prisoners held at the camp, indicated any desire to remain in the Soviet Union proper.67

The refusal by the vast majority of Polish officers to toe the communist line, up to and including the outright rejection of the Soviet Union, became a sore point for NKVD officials and the Soviet leadership more generally. Polish officers at the three special camps and other prisons were aware that the interviews were related to some form of selection criteria, though none knew their answers could become a matter of life and death. Interrogations revealed that the vast majority of prisoners had little sympathy for the communist cause and would likely oppose Soviet rule if given the chance. By their words and deeds, the Polish officers demonstrated to their captors that they represented a long-term threat to continued Soviet control over eastern Poland. While other Polish civilians and prisoners certainly suffered under Soviet rule, the threat posed by Polish officers meant they were destined to be almost completely eradicated.

The internal discussions and exact steps leading up to the final order to liquidate the special camps have either been destroyed or survive still hidden in archives from the Soviet era.68 On December 3, 1939, the politburo ratified an NKVD bid to formally arrest all Polish officers in the three special camps as suspected counterrevolutionaries, putting them completely under the purview of the Soviet penal system rather than the laws of war.69 Based on the recommendations of NKVD chief Beria, on March 5, 1940, the politburo issued the ultimate order to empty the special camps and examine the files for each Polish prisoner, which would eventually lead to the killing of almost every single captive.70 The process that unwound involved the highest levels of secrecy; only Stalin, Beria, and a small inner circle of officials were privy to the discussions proposing the execution order in the first place, though it would later be distributed to other top members of the communist elite.

Even after the order had been authorized, just a dozen officials took part in the main planning, while it is estimated that those implementing the directives involved at most two hundred individuals.71 Indicative of the special importance attached to the mission, the actual killings were entrusted to a small group of elite executioners, such as Vasili M. Blokhin for the Ostashkov prisoners, who had been instrumental in the Great Purges and other executions committed earlier or around the same time inside the Soviet Union. Those closely involved in formulating and carrying out the killings were subsequently bestowed some of the most prestigious honors, including the Order of the Red Banner and Order of

Lenin, the latter being the highest award possible in the Soviet Union.72 Even the guards at the special camps were incentivized with extra pay for ensuring no prisoners escaped during the initial emptying of the camps, after which the captives were transported to the locations where they would ultimately be murdered.

Beginning in early April, prisoners from the three special camps were moved to nearby facilities where they would eventually be killed: those in Kozelsk were moved 150 miles northwest to the city of Smolensk, Starobelsk prisoners 150 miles northwest to Kharkov, and Ostashkov captives east just over 100 miles to the town of Kalinin (now Tver). Most were subsequently shot, with the Koselsk prisoners killed and buried in the Katyn Forest close to Smolensk, from which the massacre gets its name. There have been various estimates of the exact number of prisoners killed across all of the various sites. Part of the difficulty is that even many NKVD records tabulating the total number of victims at various points in time contain numerous inaccuracies and contradictions. Table 5.1 below provides the best available figures for the number of prisoners killed and those spared for each of

the three special camps.73 Across these camps alone almost fifteen thousand officers and other high-ranking officials were killed.

Because of the paucity of records, details on the composition and fate of various captured combatants and other Polish prisoners housed at several NKVD prisons in western Ukraine and Belorussia is less well established. Along with the original politburo decree, Beria issued a separate order a few weeks later on March 22 to “clear out" these detention centers and transport the prisoners to more central NKVD locations in Kharkov, Kherson, Kiev, and Minsk, where they were likely killed.74 It is now broadly believed that 7,305 out of 10,685 Poles originally held at these facilities were executed in a similar manner to prisoners from the three special camps.75 The remaining inmates from these other NKVD prisons did not fare much better, since many were subsequently sent to labor camps or received similar harsh punishments. Unlike the special camps, determining the exact identity and makeup of the victims and survivors from these prisons is much more difficult. These facilities contained a wider array of Polish detainees, including some officers like at the special camps, but also an assortment of land and factory owners, spies, alleged insurgents, and a significant number of refugees.76

Taken together, the most widely accepted figures suggest NKVD forces systematically killed at least 21,768 Polish prisoners from early April through late May 1940. Those executed included 10 generals, 300 colonels and lieutenant colonels, 500 majors, 2,500 captains, and 5,000 lieutenants and second lieutenants.77 The Katyn massacre destroyed around half of the Polish Army's prewar officer corps along with a large portion of the former state's domestic security apparatus.78 Furthermore, around half of the officers were composed of reserve forces drawn from some of the most elite segments of Polish society. As a result, in addition to their capacity as officers, Poland lost a further three hundred doctors, two hundred lawyers, three hundred engineers, twenty-one university professors, and a host of other professionals.79 Along with the destruction of Poland's military leadership, the annexed country also lost the “flower of the Polish intelligentsia," which both individually and collectively would have likely posed a stern challenge to the Soviet Union's continued hold over the conquered territory.80

Table 5.1 Death and survival statistics at the three Soviet special camps for Polish prisoners, April-May 1940

J47W Стир

Mass Craves

Niini|(r f.vvcrdJjTii

Number Surviving

Percent К milled


Katyn (near Smolensk)






3 рз®




Kalinin (now Tver)








Notes: Figures are based on Cienciala, Lebedeva, and Materski 2007, 122-36, 20?, 529 n.329; Sanford 200?, 04,115. Does not include an additional 7,30? captives from several other NKVD prisons in western Ukraine and Belorussia who were also killed around the same time-

What is perhaps most astonishing is how few prisoners survived. The executions of captives from the three special camps resulted in the deaths of almost every Polish officer in Soviet custody at Kozelsk, Ostashkov, and Starobelsk at the time, 97 percent in all. In the more mysterious circumstances surrounding captives at the other NKVD detention facilities, estimates suggest death rates nearing 70 percent with likely an even greater proportion perishing among the officer contingents. Compared to the violence wrought on Polish civilians and the larger POW population, the Katyn massacre took prisoner abuse to an almost unheard- of level of ruthlessness. Even Japan and Germany, not exactly known as the most humane captors during the Second World War, did not achieve similar levels of carnage when looking at the different groups of prisoners falling under their control.

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