Speech prepared by Lech Kaczyński, the President of Poland, for the celebrations scheduled for 10th April 2010.
It happened 70 years ago. They were tied up and killed with a shot to the back of the head, as there was less blood spilt this way. Later on the bodies – still with the buttons of their uniforms depicting eagles on – were placed in deep ditches. Here, in Katyn, four thousand four hundred people died this way. In Katyn, Kharkiv, Tver, Kiev, Kherson, and Minsk a total of 21,768 people died. The murdered were Polish citizens, people of various denominations and professions; military men, policemen, and civilians. There were generals and regular officers, professors and village teachers. There were military chaplains of different denominations: Catholic, the main Rabbi of the Polish Army, the main Greek Catholic chaplain, and the main Orthodox chaplain. We refer to all those crimes, although committed in several places, as the Katyn Crime. What they have in common is the nationality of the victims and the same decision of the same perpetrators.
The crime was committed at Stalin’s behest, in agreement with orders from the highest authorities of the Soviet Union: the Politburo of the Soviet Communist Party. The decision to kill was made on 5th March 1940, at the suggestion of Lavrentiy Beria. He justified his recommendation by saying that the prisoners were “declared enemies of the Soviet Union, with no hope of re-education.”
These people were killed without trials or court decisions, murdered in violation of the laws and conventions of the civilised world. What can one call the death of tens of thousands of people – of Polish citizens – without trial? What else can one call it than genocide? If that was not genocide, then what is genocide?
We keep asking ourselves one question: why? Historians suggest that what happened was due to the murderous mechanisms of the communist regime. Other victims of this regime are buried nearby, in the forest of Katyn. There are thousands of Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians and people of other nationalities there. There are also other reasons underlying the crime, one of them being the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact which led to the fourth partition of Poland. There were also the imperialistic, nationalist aspirations of Stalin. The Katyn Crime is – as Stanisław Swianiewicz, a professor at the last moment exempted from being transported to the murder site, wrote – a part of “activity (…) aimed at preparing the ground for further expansion of the Soviet empire.” The crime was a key constituent of a plan aimed at destroying free Poland: a country which – ever since 1920 – had stood in the communist regime’s way to conquering Europe. This is why the NKVD tried to re-educate the prisoners: they were to support the plans of conquest. Officers of Kozielsk and Starobielsk chose honour and remained faithful to their Fatherland. Stalin and the Politburo wreaked vengeance upon those who would not yield: they ordered them killed. The murdered were buried in ditches in Katyn, near Kharkiv, and in Mednoye. These hollows were intended to be the grave of Poland, the free Republic of Poland.
In June 1941, Germany invaded the USSR: the former allies of September 1939 became deadly enemies. The USSR joined the anti-Nazi alliance and the Moscow government re-established diplomatic relations with Poland – subject to the agreement of 30th July 1941. Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill formed “the Big Three.” Millions of soldiers of the Red Army – Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Georgians, Armenians and Azerbaijani, as well as other peoples of Central Asia – gave their lives in the struggle against Hitler’s troops. Americans, Englishmen, Poles and others also perished in this conflict. Let us recall some facts: it was we Poles who first opposed Hitler by force of arms. It was we who fought Nazi Germany from the beginning of the war until its end and, by the end of the war, ours was the fourth most numerous army of the anti-Nazi alliance. Poles fought and died on all fronts: at Westerplatte and near Kock, in the Battle of Britain and at Monte Cassino, near Lenino and in Berlin, and also as guerrillas and in the Warsaw Uprising. Among our soldiers, there were brothers and children of the victims of Katyn. Aleksander Fedorońko, the eldest son of Szymon Fedorońko – the main military Orthodox chaplain murdered in Katyn – died in a bomber of the Polish Army in the 3rd Reich, at the age of 26. Szymon Fedorońko’s youngest son, Orest, a soldier of the Polish Home Army, aged 22, died on the first day of the Warsaw Uprising. His elder brother – Wiaczesław, aged 24 – fought in the “Gurt” Battalion of the Home Army and perished 17 days later.
In May 1945, the 3rd Reich lost the war. Nazi totalitarian regime crumbled and fell. Soon we will be celebrating the 65th anniversary of this event. For our nation, however, this was a bitter victory, an incomplete triumph. We fell under the influence of Stalin and the communist regime. After 1945, Poland did exist, but it was not a free Poland. We were not free to choose a political system for ourselves and there were attempts at altering our memories of Polish history and identity.
Lies about Katyn were a part of this attempt to deceive and historians even refer to them as the “founding lies” of the Polish People’s Republic. Lies had been told to us since 1943 and it was in connection with them that Stalin discontinued diplomatic relations with the Polish government. The world was never supposed to know the truth – families of the victims could not mourn them in public, could not grieve them or pay them a decent last tribute.
The lies were supported by the power of the totalitarian empire and by Polish communist authorities. People telling the truth about Katyn, even students, paid for it dearly. In 1949, Józef Bałka, a twenty-year-old student from Chełm, was sentenced to three years in prison by a military court for daring to speak the truth about Katyn during a class.
It seemed that – as the poet said – the only witnesses of the crime would be “the unyielding buttons” found at the Katyn graves. There are, however, also people who would not yield and – after four decades – the totalitarian Goliath was defeated. Truth – the ultimate weapon against violence – triumphed. The People’s Republic of Poland was based on lies about Katyn and now the truth about Katyn constitutes the foundation of a free Poland. This is a great achievement of the Katyn Families and their struggle for the memory of their beloved dead – this was also a struggle for the memory and identity of Poland at large. This is also an achievement of the youth, of students such as Józef Bałka, and of teachers who – in spite of being forbidden to do so – told children the truth. We should also be thankful to priests, including Prelate Zdzisław Peszkowski and Rev. Stefan Niedzielak who proposed that a cross in memory of the Katyn victims be placed in the Powązki Cemetery and who was murdered in January 1989. We should be thankful to publishers of underground publications and we also owe much to independent initiatives, the Solidarity movement and to millions of parents telling their children about the real history of Poland. The Prime Minister of Poland was right in saying, just a couple of days ago, that Poles are becoming united as one great Katyn Family. I would like to thank all members of this community, especially the friends and relatives of the victims. We were victorious in this battle against lies thanks to you! You have served your country well!
Russians have also done much to counter lies about Katyn, especially activists of the Memorial society and those Russian lawyers, historians and officials who bravely exposed the truth about Stalin’s crimes.
Katyn and lies about it wounded Polish history deeply and they have been spoiling relations between Poles and Russians for decades. Lasting relationships cannot be built on lies. Lies divide people and nations. Lies bring with them hatred and anger. This is why we need truth. Arguments are never of equal importance but those who fight for freedom are right. We Christians know it very well: truth, however painful it might be, sets us free. It connects us. It brings justice with it. Truth guides us on the road to reconciliation. Let the wound of Katyn heal at last. We are already on the road to reconciliation – in spite of various trends and hitches, the truth about the Katyn Crime is now much more apparent than it was a quarter of a century ago.
We appreciate what Russia has done in the service of truth, including the visit of the Russian Prime Minister in the forest of Katyn, at the graves of the victims, which took place on Wednesday. Yet truth needs more than words – it also needs action. All documents connected with the Katyn Crime need to be disclosed. Circumstances surrounding the crime need to be investigated and explained. Here, in Katyn, a dialogue between the youth of Poland, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus needs to take place. It is essential that the innocence of the victims be lawfully confirmed. We need to eradicate lies about Katyn once and for all. We should still follow the road which brings our nations closer together – we must not stop and we must not go back. This road to reconciliation, however, requires that certain express tokens be presented. We need partnership, we need to engage in a dialogue of equal parties – and we definitely do not need longing for imperialism. We need to think about values we share: democracy, freedom and pluralism; zones of influence should no longer matter to us.
The tragic Katyn Crime and the battle against lies connected with it constitute an important experience for future generations of Poles. This is a part of our history, our memory, and identity – and it is also a part of the history of Europe and the world at large. It is a message concerning every individual and all nations which is about both the past and the future of human civilisation. The Katyn Crime will forever remind us of the threat of nations and people being enslaved and destroyed. It will remind us that lies can indeed be powerful, but it will also be a token of the fact that people and nations can – even in the most difficult of times – choose freedom and defend the truth.
Let us together pay our tribute to the victims by praying at their graves. Glory to the heroes! Venerate their memory!