Katyn 2? How the Tragedy of Smolensk is Used in Polish Politics
The crash of the Polish presidential plane near Smolensk in April 2010 was a tragic loss for Poland in its entirety and still haunts the country today. This essay sets out to investigate how the disaster and the historically-laden site of Katyn has been and is used by political actors in Poland.
By Florian F. Christ
Nine years since the crash of Poland’s presidential plane, the tragedy continues to haunt Polish politics. Carrying 96 high-ranking Polish dignitaries, it downed approaching Smolensk military airstrip, killing all aboard including the presidential couple. They were en-route to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre. In spring 1940, about 4,500 Poles -primarily members of the countries elite – were killed and buried in mass-graves by the Soviet secret police in the forests of Katyn, located 20km to the west of Smolensk in Russia. The atrocity was (mis)used by both Nazis and Soviets and many facts only emerged with the fall of the Soviet Union.
Immediately after the crash, close to this historic site laden with symbolic significance, Lech Walesa, the former leader of Solidarność and later President of Poland, referred to the event as “Katyn 2”. The similarities of both events “decapitating” Poland by killing members of the political elite, reminded many in Poland of the mass murder of 1940 which the now dead were bound to honor.
The conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) of the deceased President Lech Kaczynski uses the disaster in Polish politics until today in an ideological fashion, creating a grand narrative that links the past to the present for contemporary political purposes. Drawing on English newspaper articles, translated statements of Jaroslav Kaczynski, the leader of the PiS and brother of the deceased President, and the academic debate on the politics of mourning in post-crash Poland, this essay explores how the tragedy and the memory of Katyn have been used to shape public opinion, generate polarization and rally support for PiS.
Setting the Stage
Katyn, encompassing multiple killing fields and mass-graves, is singular as a place but plural as a symbol. The place stands for a series of mass-executions of approximately 22.000 Polish officers, most of them reserve officers. As civilians, they represented the Polish elite of economists, doctors, lawyers, veterinarians, and botanists. Fitting into a broader pattern of Soviet policies to weaken the Polish nation, they were targeted to “decapitate” Polish society. After being taken prisoners by the Soviet People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), they were detained in several camps. Approximately 4,500 of them were killed and buried in mass graves in the Katyn forest.
Discovering the mass graves in 1943, the Nazis used the atrocity for anti-Soviet propaganda, while the Soviet Union blamed the Germans. After taking control of Poland at the end of the Second World War, the Soviets prohibited mentioning Katyn in public. Soviet guilt was only admitted in 1990 by Mikhail Gorbachev. With historical facts being obfuscated for so long, Katyn became a consistent symbol in Polish collective memory. It transformed into a transcending symbol, conjuring images of Polish martyrdom, resistance, and triumph of memory, beyond the historical event itself. As such, it has been referred to repeatedly in popular culture, such as in Andrzej Wajda’s film “Katyń”.
On April 10th, 2010 the Polish governments’ Tupolev aircraft crashed near Smolensk, Russia, killing all aboard. Many of those killed were members of the military and political elite. Among them were the then President Lech (PiS) and his wife. The delegation was traveling to a commemorative ceremony of the 1940 Katyn massacre.
Multiple investigations have identified adverse weather conditions, pilot errors, to which the air traffic control might have unwittingly contributed, and the dilapidated state of the Smolensk military airstrip as the catastrophe’s causes. Nonetheless, the repeated loss of the Polish elite reminded many Polish people of the 1940 mass murder. The instrumentalization of the crash by political actors has become an ardently contested issue defining Polish politics. The late president has been styled as a national hero by PiS, while conspiracy theories have sprung up – most prominently promoted by Jaroslav Kaczynski – claiming that the crash was an attack. Election campaigns in Poland revolved around the denunciation of the political rival of PiS and their supporters as being unpatriotic or even conspiring against Poland. In general, the national tragedy has become a marker of political identity, dividing society in “righteous Poles” and “traitors”.
Not just the tragic loss of the Polish elite in the crash lends this tragedy to political uses, but precisely its circumstances and the history of its location. To understand why this catastrophe is specifically conducive to political instrumentalization or manipulation, an understanding of the peculiarities of the Polish nation’s mythic narrative is necessary.
Polish national identity is shaped by a strong sense of victimhood rooted in the view that Poland’s history is essentially a series of attacks from its neighbors and treachery by unpatriotic Poles, leading to a continuous betrayal of the interests and freedoms of Polish citizens. In this logic, it takes a strong Polish nation state to restore order and morality. This interpretation, linked with Polish Catholic messianism and its mission of salvation, constitutes the romantic construction of Polish identity and unity. The plane crash meant depriving Poland of its elite – an immense loss fitting seamlessly into this narrative of victimization and heroism.
The historian Klas-Göran Karlsson has identified six uses of history, namely scholarly, existential, moral, ideological, political, and non-uses. In light of the instrumentalization of the crash and Poland’s romantic tradition, what he defines as the ‘ideological use’ of history particularly helps understanding how the accident of Smolensk has been used in Poland. The ideological use is a political process producing “new grand narratives” to stress a sense of national and cultural independence by arranging historical elements into a relevant context. This is closely connected to the building of legitimacy through narratives that present clear dichotomies and a strong continuity of history, all of which proves particularly useful for nationalists.
Poland and the Tragedy
Immediately after the crash, thousands took to the streets in Poland, crossing political divides in communal mourning. Enduring long queues to pay tribute to the first couple at the Presidential Palace in Warsaw, they bore flags, wore black ribbons and lit candles. Most cultural events throughout the country were cancelled and news coverage beyond the crash was reduced to a minimum, centering around commemorating the deceased. The symbolic site of the crash and its cultural resonances linked the tragedy to Polish national identity and the experiences of pain and suffering. Joanna Niżyńska argues that the publics’ response was closely intertwined with the absurdity of the event killing the countries elite near a site central to national victimization. The national trauma became apparent when Lech Walesa labeled the crash “Katyn 2” and former president Alexander Kwasniewski called Smolensk a “cursed place”. In collective mourning and at this moment of fear, Poles resorted to patriotism and nationalist feelings. By bonding around a shared experience of mourning, the accident produced a sense of community.
This unity opened the possibility to bury the presidential couple at the Royal Castel Wawel in Krakow. Burying them alongside kings and national heroes sacralized the crash, elevating the president to a national hero and into martyrdom. Many Poles opposed the burial place, but protest was muted by the communal mourning and respect for the deceased. While the Wawel controversy highlights the early politicization of the crash, Niżyńska argues that the debate on the burial has eased the process of trauma appropriation for PiS. Invoking it as the party’s trauma pays off symbolic capital as it can be used as an identity marker.
Common grief and the obligation to serve the country in his brother’s spirit was also invoked by Jaroslav Kaczynski, as he announced his intention to succeed his brother in the presidential race: “We must complete their mission. We owe it to them and we owe it to our fatherland. […] Poland is our common, great commitment”. By drawing lines from Katyn to Smolensk, the late president and his political mission were sacralized and the crash elevated to a heroic dimension.
While both Polish and Russian investigations concluded that crew members made fatal errors approaching Smolensk airport in adverse weather conditions, PiS used the crash itself for the creation of a particular narrative with a strong political inflection. PiS officials cited alleged evidence that Russian involvement had downed the plane and that the liberal-conservative Donald Tusk government (Civic Platform in coalition with center-right Polish People’s Party) had conspired in either the attack or the cover-up. Such conspiracy theories were reinforced by the exhumation of the remains of the victims in 2016 in order to find evidence for an alleged bomb theory, blaming Russian involvement in the crash, as well as by Jaroslav Kaczynski encouraging the “Katyn 2” narrative. For the past eight years, Kaczynski has promised that the “true cause” of the crash will be discovered and has only recently switched to stating at commemorative rallies held each month that “we may never ever really know the truth”. Reaffirming the tragic fate of Poland either under oppression or betrayed by friends, this serves the further mythologization of Smolensk and its victims, who assume the role of pilgrims killed on their way to a memorial rite.
The 2010 snap presidential election polarized Polish politics further. PiS has historically opposed ruling elites and their purportedly ignoring Polish interests, and mobilized its electorate using strong denunciations of its political enemy (incl. Civic Platform). In doing so, they have changed the debate culture in the country, affecting relations between political parties and their supporters. Trying to muzzle critics, PiS had long labeled anybody who opposed them as “Uklad”, a term referring to self-interested elites. But in 2010, Niżyńska argues, the polarizing language became PiS’s norm. PiS used the catastrophe to legitimize its politics and the way in which Poles related to the crash became a test for true patriotism. Invoking the conspiracies surrounding the crash, a categorization into “us” versus “them” truly gained traction in the tactics of PiS. This split divided society into “righteous Poles” and “those who would betray their country”. This polarization is invoked until today, with Kaczynski referring to the “fatal tradition of national treason that lies within the genes of the worst of Poles” who are “not right in the head”.
The multifaceted utilization of the plane crash in Polish public debate by PiS aims at creating an ideological narrative to rally electoral support. They did so in multiple ways: first they drew on the victimization and heroism in the romantic tradition of Poland. Second, the historical symbolism of Katyn was invoked during the new national shock, drawing lines from one event to the other. Third, PiS sacralized the crash and its victims by making the deceased president a national hero via his burial in Wawel. Fourth, PiS fostered black and white descriptions of people being either with or against them, by accusing the Tusk government of having conspired in the alleged attack and calling into question the official inquiries into the causes of the crash. Lastly, they continue to use the crash to split society into “us” against “them” until today.
Consequently, PiS is “arranging historical elements into a relevant context of meaning”, to use the phraseology of Karlsson, creating a narrative proving their legitimacy in succeeding the late President and unifying righteous Poles against a perceived internal and external enemy.
Florian F. Christ is studying for an MA in European Studies at Maastricht University and writing a thesis on the EU Migration Partnership Framework. He holds a BA in Political Science and Public Law from the University of Mannheim, Germany.
This article is a revised version of a paper produced for the course Post-war Europe: Political and Societal Transformations within the MA in European Studies at Maastricht University.
Cover image credit: Pexels; public domain.
Florian F. Christ: Katyn 2? How the Tragedy of Smolensk is Used in Polish Politics. In: RUB Europadialog, 2019. URL: http://rub-europadialog.eu/katyn-2-how-the-tragedy-of-smolensk-is-used-in-polish-politics (02.05.2019).