Will Poland Ever Overcome the Katyn Massacre?

The Polish president's fatal plane crash opens old wounds

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One of the eeriest facts surrounding Polish President Lech Kaczynski's fatal plane crash is that he was traveling to Smolensk, Russia to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre. The brutal WWII-era tragedy involved the killing of roughly 22,000 Polish reserve officers by Soviet agents. For Poles, the massacre remains a painful national wound. Conspiracy theories have surfaced alleging Russian involvement in Saturday's crash. However, overwhelming evidence suggests that dense fog, human error and mechanical problems caused the crash. Still, this grim incident may threaten Russian-Polish relations. How will Poland grapple with its latest tragedy?

  • A Cruel Irony, writes The Independent: "The site of the disaster, in the forest of Katyn near Smolensk, adds a bitter and mocking irony. Of all the places in the world where the Polish President's plane could have met with catastrophe, it had to be here: so close to where the elite of the Polish military was murdered on the orders of Stalin – a place, and an act, that prevented any real normalisation of Polish-Russian relations for the whole of the post-war period."
  • Diplomacy May Suffer write The Daily Beast staff: "The crash could have a strong effect on Polish-Russian relations that have been strained due to Poland’s close relationship to the U.S. and tensions over the Katyn massacre the president was intending on honoring." They quote James Sherr, the head of the Catham House think-tank: "Katyn has been the most difficult issue up to the present moment. Everyone in Poland knows that the Katyn massacre was a very small part of a systematic effort by Russians to get rid of a whole class of Polish people."
  • This Opens Up a Deep Wound, writes Neal Ascheron at The Guardian: "A people whose collective memory has relied so much on mystical coincidence, the sense of a providence sometimes loving but often malign, will be tempted for a moment to think that Katyn will never be over, that Lech Kaczynski and his companions are not just part of the tragedy but part of the crime."
  • This Carries a 'Terrible Echo,' writes The Economist: "Some find the conspiracy theories irresistible. Was not General Wladyslaw Sikorski murdered in 1943 for embarrassing the Soviet Union about Katyn? Now the same fate has befallen another brave Polish president. The sinister symmetry of that theory is misleading, though. Despite extensive investigation, nobody has found a credible sign of foul play in the death of General Sikorski. And it seems overwhelmingly likely that the latest plane crash is a tragic blunder-cum-accident."

  • Time for Russia to Fully Repent, writes David Satter in The National Review: "Poland and the world will now be distracted from the struggle for the whole truth about Katyn as the Polish nation mourns its dead. But Katyn was the subject of a great cover-up, and the eerie symbolism of the Katyn tragedy, brought home again by the air crash, will not disappear from Russian-Polish relations until, after 70 years, the Russian side realizes that there is no virtue in clinging even to the remnants of what was one of the 20th century’s greatest lies."
  • Poland Must Stop Living in the Past, writes Magdalena Rittenhouse, a Polish journalist: "There are many reasons why we should learn from, cherish, and feel proud of our history. But it would be good if it remained confined to the history books—along with the mystical coincidences, phantoms, and demons that keep haunting us."
  • There's Still Hope for the Future, writes The Independent editorial board: "What happens next does not depend only on Poland. It depends also, and crucially, on Russia. So far – in the early and respectful expressions of official condolences and the dispatch with which arrangements have been made for recovery and repatriation of the victims – Russia has conducted itself with propriety and sensitivity. And there is just a chance that, if this continues, the disaster could help foster a new atmosphere of mutual confidence. With feelings running high and rumours rife, however, leaders on both sides will have their work cut out if the damage from this latest chapter in Poland's difficult relationship with its eastern neighbour is to be limited."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.