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Poland’s tragedy: one year on

The air disaster that killed Poland’s president and many of the country’s leading figures in April 2010 is now a source of national division rather than unity, says Adam Szostkiewicz.
Adam Szostkiewicz
8 April 2011

The aeroplane crash near Smolensk that killed Poland’s president, Lech Kaczynski, and almost a hundred of the country’s dignitaries was the worst single tragedy to befall Poland since the second world war. The fact that the plane was heading to a commemoration of the thousands of Poles killed at Katyn forest in 1940, in the early stages of that war, only added to the deep national pain of the event.

Yet, a year on, the tragedy of 10 April 2010 is a source of great political division in Poland. And there are no signs of the chasm between them abating.

In the early hours of that day, a Soviet-made Tu-154 owned by the Polish state, was descending towards the military airfield near Smolensk in the Russian Federation. The weather conditions were very foggy. The plane was carrying, in addition to President Kaczynski and his wife, many parliamentarians, members of the government, and as well relatives of the Polish officers murdered at Katyn by the Soviet secret police (NKVD) on Josef Stalin’s orders.

The planned commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the massacre recalled Poland’s tragic fate during the war, when the country was divided between two totalitarian states: the Nazi and the Soviet. Both aimed at enslaving the Poles by decapitating their political, military and intellectual elites: those best able to represent the country and lead its struggle for freedom and independence. Katyn, where at least 7,000 Polish military and police internees captured by the Red Army after it invaded Poland on 17 September 1939 were shot and buried in mass graves, was but one such episode of collective murder in the vicinity which took  22,000 Polish lives.

The true agent of the Katyn killings became an official taboo for decades after 1945, when Poland was part of the Soviet bloc and the official story - which no one in Poland believed - was that they were a Nazi atrocity. The many real German ravages in Poland were exposed in detail, but what the Russians did - including the ethnic cleansing of pre-war eastern Polish territories, for example - was untold in school textbooks and media.

The pro-Soviet Polish rulers made every effort to stifle the memory of Katyn. The truth of the event remained in Polish hearts and homes, until it could return to the public arena after the fall of the communist regime in 1989. Since then, the Katyn story has been fully recovered: in historiography, in a film by Andrzej Wajda, in the honouring of the murdered officers by every Polish democratic government. The Katyn massacre became after 1989 one of the principal national rites of remembrance and unity.

The immediate aftermath of the Smolensk crash seemed to deepen this shared meaning by bonding Poles in sorrow. The first traumatic days were marked by spontaneous commemorations where people gathered at a symbolic cross in front of the presidential palace in Warsaw (and at equivalent sites in other Polish cities) to lay flowers, light candles, and pray or reflect.

All that is now gone. There is no more solidarity in mourning, no common effort to identify the true cause of the catastrophe (most probably a series of human errors). Instead, the anniversary finds Poles divided over the event and the country in a state of growing tension as the day itself approaches.

A lost unity

What has happened? This too is contested, but the most straightforward answer is as follows. The deceased president’s twin brother, Jarosław Kaczyński, is the leader of the largest opposition party, the nationalist-populist Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law & Justice / PiS). The PiS headed the government from 2005-07 before losing the parliamentary election in 2007 and the presidential one in 2010. At every turn Jarosław opposes both the prime minister, Donald Tusk of the centre-right Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform / PO), and his brother’s successor as president of the republic, Bronislaw Komorowski.

The PiS has politicised the Smolensk disaster too. Jarosław Kaczyński and his party inner circle constantly imply that Tusk and his colleagues have no genuine desire to establish the whole truth about the crash, and portray the government as Russian puppets acting on Moscow’s instructions to evade questions of Russian responsibility. This accusation fuels the PiS’s wider narrative that it is the only truly patriotic party while the PO is subservient to foreign pressures. Thus does the PiS attempt to undermine both Poland’s democratically elected leaders.

The PiS’s main criticisms of Donald Tusk’s government have no serious factual basis. But 2011 is a parliamentary election year, and the PiS seems to have made Smolensk a focus of its campaign. It knows that Poles are tired of the war-of tug over the issue, but also sees benefits in playing the anti-Russian card while delegitimising the current state leaders. The social damage inflicted by this toxic combination is already great. The rest of the year will show how effective the PiS’s rhetoric of pride and prejudice can be on the political stage.

Perhaps I can conclude on a personal note. My uncle was killed at Katyn twelve years before I was born. I always knew the truth from my father. But I welcome Polish-Russian reconciliation over the Katyn graves, of which the planned commemoration of 2010 was a symbol and which the Smolensk disaster at first reinforced. I cannot see any good reason to undermine Warsaw’s efforts to conduct a joint investigation with Moscow, nor to use the tragedy to spread false and hurtful accusations. Poland and Poles deserve better.


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