A Head of State has a symbolic importance for the nation, that transcends the personalityand politics of the individual in office. I am therefore very sorry for the Polish people at the loss of President Kaczynski and the Polish delegation in the air crash at Smolensk.
Looking at the list of victims, I knew at least five of them, though not colse friends, from my time in the British Embassy in Warsaw, which makes the tragedy more real to me.
The massacre at Katyn was one of the most dreadful chapters in Poland’s tragic history. It was not just a massacre of 22,000 soldiers – it was a determined attempt by Stalin to wipe out the entire Polish officer class, as a step towards eliminating Poland’s indigenous leadership potential.
You have to understand Polish history to fully guage the significance of this. In the eighteenth century Poland was wiped off the map in successive partitions by Austria, Prussia and Russia. For two and a half centuries the Polish nation disappeared from Europe. Poles werensplit between different Empires, with Poles expected to fight Poles on their new masters’ behalf. A brief period of existence under Napoleon helped keep Polish identity alive – and along with the Chopin story sparked a lasting attachment to France..
So when Poland reemerged from the mists of time – to quote Norman Davies – in 1918 as a nation again, it was a nation with a sense of the precariousness of its own existence, which was to be strengthened by the hard but succesful battles against Soviet invasion in 1921.
It was only 18 years later, and Poland had only existed anew for 21 years, when Stalin and Hitler treacherously invaded Poland and partitioned it yet again. Britian’s declaration of war was no practical help to the Poles. As Poland was fighting for its very existence, even the least warlike had signed up for the hopeless fight against both Hitler and Stalin, so the 22,000 Polish officers among Stalin’s prisoners of war were a broad cross section of Poland’s educated classes.
Stalin’s decision to massacre them was an attempt to eradicate the very idea of an independent Poland.
When I was in Uzbekistan I was astonsihed to find that in Uzbek schools and universities the Stalin-Hitler pact had been eradicated from the history books. That is true today. They are told the “Great Patriotic War” started inn 1941. The Soviet invasion of Poland is a banned subject.
Since Putin’s new brand of Russian nationalism, the Stalin/Hitler pact has again diasppeared from Russian school books, although it is not formally a banned subject and is taught at some universities. But Putin – who of course is a product of the Soviet secret services – has discouraged at every turn openness about the crimes of Stalin, and archives on the subject have again been closed to the public.
The Poles were therefore quite right to press the Russians hard on Katyn, and you can be sure that the ceremonies would not have been given much prominence in Russian media. The fascinating thing now will be to monitor just how much depth the Russian media give to explaining just what President Kaczynski was on his way to Russia for