75 years ago Soviets arrested Polish Underground State leaders

On March 27 and 28, 1945, the leaders of the Polish Underground State were deceitfully arrested by the Soviet secret police NKVD whose officers, having invited the Polish echelon, gave their word of honour that no harm would be inflicted upon them.

It was in the vicinity of Warsaw, in early March 1945, that the last leader of a Polish underground resistance movement the Home Army (AK) General Leopold Okulicki and Deputy PM, the Government-in-Exile’s delegate to Poland, Jan Stanisław Jankowski received an invitation sent by Soviet General Ivan Serov introducing himself as a representative of the 1st Belarusian Front, while in fact being the deputy head of SMERSH – the wartime counterintelligence department of the Red Army.

“Mutual understanding and trust will allow for the decision-making in terms of very important an issue and will preclude their exacerbation,” read the invitation, concluding in the following words: “As for myself, as an officer of the Red Army, tasked with this momentous mission, I absolutely guarantee to you, upon the officer’s word of honour, that your fate would depend on me from the moment of your arrival and that you would find yourself in absolute safety.”

The fact that the envoy managed to track down the Polish commanders and hand the letter over implied that the NKVD had already managed to figure out the Polish Underground. In spite of General Okulicki’s pessimistic take on the Soviet proposal, after a dramatic discussion, the invitation was accepted along with dire ramifications that ensued.

The general and the deputy PM also took the seminal decision due to a fallout between the Government-in-Exile and the Polish Underground State that manifested in February 1945. The discord revolved around whether to recognise the decisions made at the Yalta Conference, which made the Polish Underground State’s parliament believe that democratic elections would take place in Poland as a result of which a Polish government, independent from Soviet influence, would be elected. This was also what the Big Three, namely Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin had warranted during the Yalta Conference.

Putting trust in these guarantees, the leaders of the Polish Underground State attended the meeting in a suburban Warsaw town of Pruszków, where they woke up to a disastrous development as they were arrested, sent to Moscow and put in a staged trial in June. The trial came to be known as the Trail of the Sixteen that resulted in sentences of varying severity.

For General Okulicki and Deputy PM Jankowski however, the rulings were lethal. Sentenced to 10 years in prison, Okulicki may have been murdered on Christmas Eve of 1946 but may have died due to complications caused by hunger strike. Either way, the penalty turned out to be fatal. Deputy PM Jankowski had been sentenced to eight years in prison but was never released as he died in a Soviet prison on March 13, 1953, just two weeks before the end of his sentence. Suggestions have been made at him having probably been murdered.

SMERSH (Russian: СМЕРШ) was an umbrella organization for three independent counterintelligence agencies in the Red Army formed in around 1941 with its main tasks being anti-espionage, fighting "anti-Soviet elements" in the Red Army, investigating traitors, deserters and self-harm in the Red Army; and checking military and civil personnel returning from captivity. SMERSH worked parallelly with People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) which was the interior ministry of the Soviet Union whose secret police ended up transferred under SMERSH in 1946. Both NKVD and SMERSH were responsible not only for the culling of Polish officers, most notably, in the case of the former one, the Katyn Massacre, but also of Belarussian, Latvians and other nations.