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1940s / Katyn Forest Massacre - 1940
One of the most horrifying events during the Second World War was the Katyn Forest massacres which occurred in the spring of 1940. About half the officer corps of Poland was put to death by the Soviet Union's secret police (NKVD). In August 1939 Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union--two ideological enemies--shocked the world by signing a non-aggression pact. As part of the deal, Germany was allowed a free hand to invade Poland from the west on September 1. The Soviets would invade from the east half a month later. The Poles were utterly overwhelmed. The Soviet Red Army met almost no opposition as the Polish Army was told by its government to not confront the Russians. In effect, conquered Poland was divided into two sections: one controlled by Nazi Germany, the other under the heel of the Soviet Union. Polish prisoners in the Soviet Sphere numbered about 30,000. At least 22,000 were executed methodically by gunshots to the back of their heads from close range. Along with most of the Polish officer corps, numerous intellectuals, journalists, doctors, lawyers, and professors were also killed by the NKVD on the special order of Josef Stalin. Their corpses were hastily buried in mass graves in the Katyn Forest. After the Germans attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, they learned about the mas graves. Sensing a propaganda bonanza that would demonize the USSR, they exhumed thousands of corpses. International Red Cross officials and top forensic scientists were called in by the Germans to make a report. They all agreed the massacre was done by the Soviets. Some Allied POWs were also brought in to witness the scene. One American agreed, saying the Russians were undeniably to blame. After reconquering the area, the Soviets blamed the Germans for the massacre. It took until 1990 before the Soviet Union accepted responsibility for the mass extermination of the cream of Poland's officer corps and much of its intellectual community half a century before.