The removal of these men [fifteen thousand Polish officers]—and all but one of them were men—was a kind of decapitation of Polish society. The Soviets took more than one hundred thousand prisoners of war, but released the men and kept only the officers. More than two thirds of these officers came from the reserves. Like Czapski and his botanist companion, these reserve officers were educated professionals and intellectuals, not military men. Thousands of doctors, lawyers, scientists, professors, and politicians were thus removed from Poland.
In Operation Tannenberg, Heydrich [Himmler’s assistant] wanted the Einsatzgruppen to render “the upper levels of society” harmless by murdering sixty-one thousand Polish citizens. As Hitler put it, “only a nation whose upper levels are destroyed can be pushed into the ranks of slavery.” The ultimate goal of this decapitation project was to “destroy Poland” as a functioning society. By killing the most accomplished Poles, the Einsatzgruppen were to make Poland resemble the German racist fantasy of the country, and leave the society incapable of resisting German rule.
A particular wound was caused by the intentions, in both Moscow and Berlin, to decapitate Polish society, to leave Poles as a malleable mass that could be ruled rather than governed. Hans Frank, citing Hitler, defined his job as the elimination of Poland’s “leadership elements.” NKVD officers took their assignment to a logical extreme by consulting a Polish “Who’s Who” in order to define their targets.
Two side notes: Part of the first chapter in Ryszard Kapuściński's Travels with Herodotus touches on what it was like to attend a university in Poland after World War II, where instructors and books were hard to come by.
For one view on how the USSR wasted scientific talent, find the out-of-print Five Billion Vodka Bottles to the Moon by Iosif Shklovsky. Shklovsky’s anecdotes and insights on working as an astrophysicist in the Soviet system provide a fascinating peek behind the curtain from World War II to the 1980s.