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Polish disaster stirs troubled history

The death of Poland’s president, his wife, and more than 80 of the country’s top civilian and military leaders on Saturday is a disaster of epic proportions for that country.

The death of Poland’s president, his wife, and more than 80 of the country’s top civilian and military leaders on Saturday is a disaster of epic proportions for that country. The plane crash is also an event rich in tragic irony and historic overtones and a blow to efforts to overcome the burden of history linking Poland and Russia.

Polish President Lech Kacznyski, a veteran of the country’s anti-communist underground, was on his way to an event marking this week’s 70th anniversary of one of the searing episodes of World War II: the brutal execution of more than 22,000 senior Polish military officers, civic officials, and intellectual leaders by Josef Stalin’s secret police in the Russian forest of Katyn.

A loss of this weekend’s magnitude is too cruel anytime, anywhere, but for it to come at this place, on this occasion, is a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions.

Katyn has had such a central role in Polish consciousness that when the great Polish filmmaker, Andrzej Wajda, was finally able to make a movie about it after the fall of communism, he called it the culmination of his life work. 

Katyn had been on forbidden-word list
During Poland’s communist era, from 1945 to 1989, Katyn had been on the censors’ list of forbidden words. The official version, insisted upon by Moscow, was that the murders had been carried out by Nazi Germany. Poles knew better; that they could not utter the truth was a source of great bitterness toward their own communist leaders and the Soviet government that put them in power. 

So when developments following the end of the Cold War meant that Wajda could finally make his 2007 film, “Katyn,” it represented significant progress, as did the presence of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister and former president, at one of this week’s Katyn commemorations. 

Putin’s participation was a welcome gesture, though perhaps a modest one to Poles, who count some 20 or so invasions from Russia over the centuries. They also remember that the Red Army sat on its hands across the Vistula River when Poland’s Home Army rose up in August 1944 to try to overthrow the Nazi occupiers. Some 200,000 Poles died in that noble if futile two-month battle.

And when the war ended, the Soviet Union installed a puppet government of its choosing in Warsaw, rather than the free Polish government in exile in London, consigning Poles to 44 more years of authoritarian rule.

Red Army liberated Auschwitz
It is also true, however, that it was the Red Army that eventually drove the Nazi Army out of Poland and that liberated the Auschwitz death camp in early 1945. When he visited Auschwitz on his first trip home as Pope in 1979, that great son of Poland, John Paul II, noted that there were many Russian victims there, too, and that Russia had lost more people in the war — soldiers and civilians — than any other country. 

After Poles managed to overthrow their communist system in 1989, they quickly sought — and gained — membership in NATO as protection against possible Russian moves to reassert their influence. More recently, Poland agreed to host a U.S. anti-missile unit, not because it fears Iran — the threat the system is ostensibly meant to counter — but because the Poles still distrust Russia.

Poland and Russia are both Slavic nations that share borders as well as memories of a deeply troubled past. This weekend’s plane disaster will certainly complicate efforts to overcome the burden of history.

Dick Virden is a former foreign service officer whose assignments included two tours in Poland.