Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

April 15, 2010

Tragedy in a tortured country

Filed under: Uncategorized — Stephen W. Browne @ 9:48 am

Note: My weekend op-ed.

Last Saturday morning I waited until my wife woke up to tell her the news. An airplane crash in Smolensk, Russia had killed the president of her country, his wife, and 94 others, including the Polish equivalent of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, government ministers and other notables.

The horrible irony was, the crash occurred at the site of one of the 20th century’s most tragic events for Poland, the massacre in the Katyn Forrest of over 22,000 Polish military officers by the NKVD Soviet secret police, on Stalin’s orders in 1940.

At that time, virtually all Polish university graduates had reserve commissions. Most became prisoners when the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany invaded and divided Poland between them. The victims included doctors, lawyers, police, priests, and academics, as well as professional military officers.

The aim was to decapitate Polish society, culture, and the military. The prisoners were handcuffed, taken out one-by-one, shot in the back of the head, and buried in mass graves. One NKVD agent alone killed an estimated 6,000 with his pistol, over the course of a week. Some of the murderers are still living.

Because the USSR was our ally at the time, Britain and the United States found it expedient to believe the Soviets, who said the massacre was done by Nazi Germany. But Roosevelt and Churchill both knew the truth.

The truth came out in the U.S. in the 1950s, though those who did publicly mention it at first risked being branded as “McCarthyites.” It was only in 1990 the Soviet Union grudgingly acknowledged responsibility for the massacre in its last year of existence. It was only in 2008, in an interview with a Polish newspaper, that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called Katyn a “political crime.”

And it was only this year Russian television broadcast the film Katyn, by director Andrzej Wajda, the son of a Polish officer murdered by the NKVD.

That is what the Poles were waiting for. That is why the heads of Polish government and society were on that plane. And that is probably why they were determined to land in spite of the dangerous conditions on the airfield.

Lech Kaczynski, hero of the Solidarity resistance and third president of free Poland, his wife Maria and their colleagues were traveling to a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the massacre. Traveling with them was Ryszard Kaczorowski, the last president of the Polish government-in-exile in London.

From the fall of Poland in 1939 the Polish community abroad maintained the government-in-exile as a reminder to the world that Poland was a captive nation, not a free partner in the Soviet bloc. In December, 1990 Kaczorowski formally dissolved the government-in-exile and presented the presidential banner, the presidential and state seals, the presidential sashes, and the original text of the 1935 Constitution, to Lech Walesa, first president of the Polish Third Republic.

In 1992, the new government officially recognized the military medals and other decorations awarded by the government-in-exile during the years of the Soviet occupation.

That same year in Poland I met Pan Gorski, who had fled Poland to England during the World War II. There he joined the Royal Air Force and flew bombers. After the war he became a test pilot, and immigrated to America, where he earned a degree in aeronautical engineering, and worked on the Apollo and Minuteman missile projects.

He first returned to a free Poland to escort the standards of the Polish Air Force, kept in London since World War II, and present them to the Polish Air Force Academy. He stayed at the invitation of the academy to teach the history of aerial tactics.

“The were not the Polish Air Force,” he told me. “There was no continuity. They became the Polish Air Force when we presented them with the standards.”

He, like Kaczorowski and many other Poles, looked forward to seeing Poland a free and prosperous nation again, rather than one of what a colleague called, “the tortured countries.”

And that’s what hits so hard. Aside from the tragedy, the symbolism is ominous.

When Kaczynski’s predecessor in office Aleksander Kwasniewski was interviewed about the tragedy, he called Katyn, “A cursed place.”


  1. Has anyone considered the possibility this accident was not so accidental?

    Comment by Ted Amadeus — April 17, 2010 @ 11:48 pm

  2. Almost everybody.

    But it doesn’t look like it. The factors for an accident were all there: an aging plane, fog, and 3-4 unsuccessful approaches.

    And, ground control advised them to land at another field. First rumors, which will be confirmed or dis- by the flight recorder, have it the pilot allowed his judgement to be overruled by the VIPs on board.

    Of course, people are going to suspect anyway. The Russians are just going to have to live with the fact that Eastern Europeans are going to suspect their hand behind every stroke of bad luck for quite some time.

    Comment by Stephen W. Browne — April 18, 2010 @ 7:02 am

  3. When I first read of this, my first thought was the Soviets- er, Russians. But as you say, the evidence seems pretty solid.

    It’s part of the “normal fear that anyone in Poland- or those of Polish descent- have of their neighbors, of course. I recall writing a paper in school about the 1944 Uprising. My original intent was to make it an anti-Soviet paper. But as I did my research, I discovered that the Soviet leadership had warned the Poles they wouldn’t be able to render much (or any) materiel support. The Poles went ahead with the uprising anyway, and were butchered for it.

    I wonder if there isn’t some degree of hubris in the Polish character that makes them decide to do things even when advised otherwise…..

    Still, a great article. I didn’t know that the Polish government remained in London for so long. I don’t recall reading anything about them, so it’s nice to know that the Poles stood fast in the face of their enemies. Like they always do.

    Comment by Bob — April 21, 2010 @ 1:55 pm

  4. Bob,

    I guess you’ve done more research than I have, but I seem to remember that the U.S. wanted to supply the Poles with arms and food via air drops – and Stalin wouldn’t let them use Soviet air fields.

    And in Poland I was told the Red Army marched up to the Praga side of the Visla (runs through Warsaw, my wife grew up on that side) and stopped.

    I was told the Soviets waited until the Germans destroyed the city and withdrew.

    Perhaps they didn’t feel militarily able to force a crossing of the river – but there were some things they could have done.

    Instead they arrested all leaders of the Armia Krajowe, the non-communist underground army, and sent them for various terms to the gulag.

    Comment by Stephen W. Browne — April 23, 2010 @ 8:16 am

  5. Steve,

    All true. There certainly were things that could have helped the Poles, but the Soviets did make it pretty clear that the Poles would be on their own-apparently the commander on the ground thought that if the attack started, the Soviets would be forced to jump in. Could they have done so? On a small scale, perhaps. But even Liddell-Hart said in his history of WWII that they were overextended and needed time to regroup and resupply.

    All that being said, my paper was written in the early 1980s. It would be interesting to see if anything has come out of the Kremlin archives showing that information to be false.

    Comment by Bob — April 27, 2010 @ 2:24 pm

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