The Katyn Massacre and the Ethics of War: Negotiating Justice and Law

In: Thinking About War and Peace: Past, Present, and Future
Vanessa Fredericks
Search for other papers by Vanessa Fredericks in
Current site
Google Scholar

Purchase instant access (PDF download and unlimited online access):


This chapter focuses on a particular event in Polish history, namely the Katyn massacre of WWII. The word ‘Katyn’ has come to represent the massacre of approximately 22,000 Polish citizens, held captive by the NKVD in the spring of 1939. The prisoners were executed and buried in various undisclosed locations in the Soviet Union and the Ukraine as part of Stalin’s attempt to implement ‘class cleansing’ in Poland. The first of the mass graves was discovered by German soldiers in 1943 however, the Soviet government denied responsibility for the massacres and accused the German government of being guilty for the crime. Successive Soviet governments continued to deny responsibility for the crime until the admittance of Soviet guilt in 1990. During the 70 odd years since the event noone has been prosecuted for the crime or its cover up. Historical narratives regarding Katyn tend to focus on humanist discourses regarding historical truth, justice, forgiveness and reconciliation. But what are the limits of humanism and how might a poststructuralist approach to this event be more beneficial? This chapter will examine Derrida’s definition of justice as proposed in ‘Force of Law’ (1992) in order to suggest that the relationship between justice and law is arbitrary, and that the concept of justice needs to be deconstructed if we want it to achieve something. Drawing on Lyotard’s notion of the differend (Lyotard, 1988), this chapter will propose that conflicts between narratives will always exist, and consider the possibilities for rethinking Katyn and the question of justice outside the limits of humanist discourses.