On 5 March 1940, as the USSR stamped its authority on a Poland it had partitioned with Hitler, Stalin signed a decree to murder 14,700 Polish officers in the woods by Katyn. These ‘hardened, irremediable enemies of Soviet power’ were not informed of their sentence and simply shot in the back of the head, a form of execution favoured by the secret police, the NKVD, for whom this method was just part of bureaucratic procedure.
When the Nazis turned on the Soviets in 1941 and marched east, they found the mass grave. Goebbels was quick to use the discovery for propaganda purposes and expose the atrocities that the Soviets – the new ally of supposedly freedom-loving Britain – were capable of committing. Whitehall wanted to play down the event, since Churchill was busy making ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin look less awful. The Poles fighting with the British were understandably appalled.
In 1943, the Soviets retook the Katyn woods. Now it was their turn to lay on a propaganda show quite as effective as Goebbels’s, though with less relation to the facts. NKVD forgers changed the dates on the documents found in the dead officers’ pockets to make it look as if they had been alive when the Germans invaded. They then brought in western reporters, stationed in Moscow to cover the war, to spread the Soviet version of events. This is the cast of conformists, useful idiots, cynics, adventurers and occasional heroes that populate Alan Philps’s spectacular book, The Red Hotel.
On the train to Katyn the journalists dined on caviar, served on silver plates. But through the lace curtains they could see wounded soldiers, wrapped in bloodstained bandages, being taken on cold freight trains in the opposite direction.