Monday, April 12, 2010
It's difficult to overstate just how stunning last weekend's terrible plane crash must be for Poland. Like most of its neighbors in central Europe, Poland's history is a long and tragic litany of invasion and destruction, and a great deal of both came from its massive neighbor to the east.
Everyone even minimally conversant on World War II knows that Hitler invaded Poland, but it's far less widely known that thanks Stalin did as well; the Red and Nazi armies met on friendly terms in Warsaw in September of 1939, having mutually wiped Poland off the map--and that was the second time Russia participated in destroying the Polish state, Catherine The Great having colluded with other powers to annex Poland out of existence in the late 1700's. Even fewer Westerners are aware of Poland's roll-back of a Bolshevik invasion in the 1920 Polish-Soviet War, a miraculous feat that likely saved all of war-exhausted Europe from the boots of Lenin and his successors.
Polish President Lech Kaczynski and almost all of Poland's senior military leadership were traveling to a commemoration of the Katyn Massacre, one of the blacker events in a very dark history. It's difficult to state just how large Katyn looms in the Polish psyche. Virtually every national site and every church of any size in Poland contains a Katyn memorial (such memorials were, of course, entirely banned during the 45 years of Soviet occupation). The closest American equivalents would be Pearl Harbor or September 11, 2001, but I suspect even those dreadful days fall short in terms of their fundamental impact on the national psyche.
Vaclav Havel called the crash "A tragedy that has no analogy," and said, "I think that this catastrophe will again influence Polish history... Those speculations will influence the elections and the course of events in Poland, those speculations (will have an influence) rather than the real facts."
Havel, who had been a close ally of Kaczynski, is right. The accumulations of coincidence in the Saturday crash are simply staggering. An anti-Communist Polish president, leading a memorial contingent to Katyn itself, is killed along with the core of his nation's military commanders, in Russia, while flying on a Soviet-built aircraft. And as if to complete the circle, ex-KGB strongman Vladimir Putin puts himself in charge of the Russian investigation.
Even if the crash was, as initially suspected, simply an accident, few Poles will be able to accept such a verdict. And it will be hard to blame them for that refusal.