Poland's Bitter Spring

The April 10 crash of the plane carrying President Lech Kaczynski and scores of other Polish dignitaries shook Poland to its core. Professor John Micgiel looks at the aftermath—and the significance of the plane's destination.

by John Micgiel Published Summer 2010
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Katyn I and Katyn II

Poles were horrified when they turned on their radios and televisions on April 10 and heard that President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, Maria, and 94 others — a cross section of Poland’s political elite — had been killed when their airplane crashed in the woods of Smolensk, Russia. The delegation had been flying to Katyn, where in April 1940 the Soviet NKVD massacred more than 4000 Polish officers and reserve officers.

On the plane were 2 presidential candidates, 3 senators, 15 parliamentary representatives, clergy, members of the families of the Katyn victims, and the heads of the various services of the Polish armed forces. Two vice ministers responsible for relations with NATO and with Russia also perished in the disaster.

Not since the death of Pope John Paul II five years before had the Polish people been so shaken. Most of them did not go to work for a week. For 10 days they watched the planes come in with coffins and saw the processions of Mercedes hearses. (The country had neither enough hearses nor caskets; extra hearses had to be brought in from Germany and special caskets from Italy.) But then, no country is ever prepared to have nearly 100 of its leaders killed and then have public funerals for all of them. The sense of disbelief was intensified by the fact that the tragedy had occurred in, of all places, Katyn.

In September 1939, while the Poles were fighting the Germans to the west, north, and south, the Soviets invaded eastern Poland and captured hundreds of thousands of POWs. Most of the Polish enlisted personnel were allowed to go home, while the officers were kept in three holding camps. Andrzej Wajda’s 2007 film Katyn re-creates the soldiers’ confusion and their families’ anguish, as many who thought that they were being transferred to different camps and better situations were murdered.

In all, the Soviets killed about 22,000 officers and reserve officers, along with doctors, professors, and other professionals — the elite of Poland — and for decades blamed the Germans. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the second-largest party in Russia, blames them even today.

Until 1989, the Communist Party line in Poland was, “We don’t talk about Katyn.” In Polish schools, children were not told about the massacre unless a teacher was willing to risk the consequences.

Katyn represents part of the battle for Poland’s historical memory. In 1992, Boris Yeltsin, president of what was by then Russia, very publicly admitted Soviet responsibility for the atrocity and even pledged to punish any perpetrators who were still alive. But after Putin came to power in 2000, that was the end of that. Along with cancelling the subsidization of energy exports and moving to more commercially oriented dealings, Putin backtracked on Katyn, and Polish-Russian relations went into a deep freeze.

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