Death of Polish Katyn Delegation 169

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

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169 thoughts on “Death of Polish Katyn Delegation

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  • Mark Golding - Children of Iraq

    I also am so sorry – My Polish neighbours and my mother’s Polish companion are gutted and let us not forget the large number of Poles exterminated in German prisons including my mothers friend’s father. Bless you ‘Tad.’

  • ANiN

    Good blog on Poland and Hitler Stalin

    The old Stalinists always used the exscuse

    that Stalin was buying time and thought the UK was trying to forment war with Germany.Also how strange the first great atrocity of the War revealed by the NAZIs

    How come you have not commented on the “events” in Kyrgyzstan? Are there similarities to the way the UK Govt has treated the Uzbeks?

  • dreoilin

    Jimmy, you sound more and more like my e-friend in Australia. He claims that the hard seats in schools don’t suit the more boney bottoms of boys, and that this is why girls do better in school.

  • dreoilin

    I too have been upset by the news of this crash and my thoughts are with the people of Poland today.

    [We’ve had a large number of Polish workers in Ireland since the advent of the “Celtic Tiger” and they earned themselves great respect from Irish people.]

  • Jake

    I’m waiting for the conspiracy theories to surface about this one.

    Yet another reminder not to fly in Russian-built soviet-era aircraft.

  • renan

    I read from news minute ago that there are no survivor this is a big tragedy from Polish government. Possible that the vice president will be the president after this tragedy.

  • Akheloios

    A nicely reasoned post that actually changed how I thought about the crash. I was expecting a ‘What do you do when a bad person dies whilst trying to do a good thing, cheer or boo?’ post.

    Never thought about a Head of State that way before, with the Queen, it’s largely ceremonial and slightly arcane. Interesting to see that the role plays a much bigger part in the day to day life of people form other countries.

    Also, spoiled slightly by the nutjob worried about his Precious Bodily Fluids and his huge false equivalence argument.

  • ingo

    So much for flying in rotten old aircraft, the plane was from the 1960’s and is not the safest.

    meanwhile here in Blackburn, I had my picture taken with Jack Straw last night, I am still recovering from it.

    I will try and keep you up to date as to what happens. jack has enetered polling stations on election day some years back, was reported to the police and filmed doing so by the BBC, the tape disappeared and nothing ever came off it.

    This time we will make sure that should he do it again, he’ll be a u-tube hit.

    Todays afternoon meeting will have 300+ muslim women listening to Yvonne Ridley and Bushra Irfan, the candidate, Aaifa Siddique case, coming before US courts on election day, will be part of the debate by looking at the emailed question we received.

    Over and out from Black burn, got to rush.

  • Dr Paul

    A Polish leader dies in an aeroplane crash. Shades of Wladyslaw Sikorski.

    And on his way to a Katyn commemoration; talk about irony.

  • writerman

    I always thought the Kacynski twins were… close to being barmy, religious nutters, extreme right-wing nationalists, who were determined to turn Poland into an American vassal state and pick arguments with there two most powerful neighbours, Russia and Germany, for no real reason. It’s ironic that after such a history the Polish elite would willingly choose to repeat the mistakes of the past all over again by turning Poland into a loyal outpost of the US empire, despite their geographical position.

    Poland’s history is somewhat more complex and less “romantic” than the version which is peddled in the West. Poland’s major “problem”, for centuries, was that it was a state that was in the wrong place, between competing great powers, a battleground.

    Poland didn’t have to choose confrontation with Germany, as in many repects Polish militarism and nationalism, was a natural ally of German ultra-nationalism. Poland’s anti-semetism for example. Poland’s agressive anti-communism. One could go on…

    One things seems clear though, looking at Poland’s history. Poland’s ruling elite have been intoxicated with their own vastly inflated romantic nationalism to the stage that it totally blinded them to reality. They preferred the grand, romantic, gesture, to a rational, sober, apprasal of their objective interests, and realpolitik.

    What on earth possessed the Polish ruling class to imagine that the Western powers, France and Britain, could or would, protect them from Nazi agression? Didn’t they have the sense to look at a map?

    In my opinion, having talked to many Poles from the south and east of the country, or what was the old Polish easter border; Poland was led up the garden path by France and Britain, who wanted above everything to push Germany into a war in the east with Russia. Poland was a stepping-stone and an expendible one at that. The Poles were incredible gullable in making an alliance with the western powers who didn’t have the means to come to their aide in any meaningful way. Arguably Poland would have been better served by a policy of de-facto alliance with Germany against Russia, or even neutrality.

    But this is a massive complex historical subject to get into here.

    All I’m trying to say is that one shouldn’t swallow Polish nationalist mythology uncritically, like many Poles do, and this has led them over and over again into very hot water.

  • RR

    “Arguably Poland would have been better served by a policy of de-facto alliance with Germany against Russia, or even neutrality.”

    Hitler wanted to incorporate Poland and replace the Poles with Germans. So how would and alliance with Germany have helped the Poles? Are you suggesting that by inviting the Germans in the Poles might have spared themselves from Hitler’s genocidal intention?

  • writerman

    Hitler, Hitler, Hitler… Germany was always more than just Hitler. One needs to step back from the traqedy that engulfed Poland and examine the run-up to the war dispassionately and obejectively, surely after so many decades it’s possible to do that, or maybe not?

    What Hitler did or did not want is important and relevant, but not the whole story. Of course he was a dictator, but before the outbreak of the war he did not have absolute power to chart Germany’s course. If one carefully examines Germany’s relations with Poland one discovers a surprising willingness for compromise with Poland. But of course once the war started all hell broke loose, literally; which seems to be common in wars.

    Poland could have adopted a more “realistic” attitude to Nazi Germany which would have made blatant agression far more problematic for Hitler in relation to German public opinion, which was against another war, for obvious reasons. Poland didn’t play it’s cards at all well, relying on diplomatic and military “promises” from the western powers that weren’t worth the paper they were written on, at least not in the real world. But of course Poles are loathe to examine their own responsibility for their historic disasters, preferring a comforting fairytale to harsh reality, which is common to the mindset of romantic nationalists all over.

    It’s a gross over-simplification of a complex and contradictory period of european history to just accept the version that Germany was totally alone in it’s agressive stance to its neighbours and 100% guilty or bad.

    Hitler’s charismatic rhetoric was one thing, what was possible was something else.

    I think one can make, if one chooses, if one takes a long and hard look at the available historical record, and steps away from the war-propaganda, a case that Poland was bait in a trap and the Polish elite were too stupid to realize this and led Poland towards disaster as they had done so many times before. The trap was to turn Germany towards the east to fight the war in the east, by promissing the eastern nations a lot but not delivering on those promises. Objectively one can argue that the war was in fact fought mostly in the east, so this strategy worked. After all over 80% of the Germany army was fighting in the east for most of the war. Poland was sacrificed and the Polish elite allowed their country to be sacrificed.

    Germany didn’t start out with a crazed plan for Poland, that came after the war started and total barbarism took over.

    If Poland had adopted a realistic attitude to Germany based on its own national interest and an alliance with Germany, or an understanding with Germany, it would have been very difficult for Hitler to launch a war of conquest against Poland indeed. Hitler had to work hard to convince the German people that he was fighting to defend German interests from a country surrounded by agressive enemies united in an unholy alliance aimed at Germany.

    Poland didn’t have to join that alliance, there was an alternative strategy that could have been contemplated and tried, only the Polish elite were too stupid to realize it, with tragic consequences to follow.

  • Suhayl Saadi

    It’s not surprising if conspiracy theories do begin. I don’t know much about Poland’s politics. But I do know that the death in a Road Traffic Crash of Alexander Dubcek was, and is, deemed extremely suspicious by many people in Slovakia. Mozambique President, Samora Machel’s death over South African airspace was also highly suspicious. Jorg Haider’s, too. Dag Hammarskjold’s as well.

    It’s not a parallel situation, obviously. I’m simply saying that whenever senior politicians die in transit, it’s to be expected that there are going to be serious questions and serious suspicions too.

  • Larry from St. Louis


    Drang nach Osten. Look it up sometime. And while you’re at it, Lebensraum.

    I don’t mind alternative theories, but blaming the victims of fascist aggression seems a bit silly. Your multi-paragraph screed above amounts to nothing more than “she, the rape victim, was dressing provocatively.”

    I think you were one of the silly gooses that was arguing that 911 was an inside job on a previous thread, so this doesn’t surprise me.

  • Alfred

    “Germany didn’t start out with a crazed plan for Poland, that came after the war started and total barbarism took over.”

    Is that so? Is it not the case that when Ribbentrop visited Churchill at Chartwell in 1937, showed him a map of Germany’s plan for an eastern empire and asked what Churchill thought, Churchill replied:

    “We don’t like the Russians, but we don’t hate them that much.”

    And Hitler’s plans were hardly original. Bismark did not want African colonies. “Here” he said pointing to eastern Europe, “is my empire.”

    Poland could have been defended by Britain and France, through an attack on Germany’s Western front. At the time France had three million men under arms, whereas Germany had only eight divisions on the Western front. But the French were defeatist, and the Brits, like the French, preferred fascism to communism and so feared to weaken Germany as a bulwark against Russia. That is why, when Leo Amery and others urged the government to bomb German munitions stores in the Black Forest, the air Minister, Sir Kingsley Wood, replied “Are you aware it is private property? Why you will be asking me to bomb Essen next” (Essen being the home of the Krupp munitions factories).

  • Davie Park

    Off-topic but important Craig. Gary McKinnon’s mum will be standing against Jack Straw.

    Jeff over at his ‘SNP Tactical Voting’ blog has his say. He’s a very sound chap is Jeff but, I’m staggered to say, he proffers the view that Jack Straw “seems like a decent guy”.

    I referred him to your blog.

  • writerman

    This is moving towards levels of historical complexity that are perhaps out of place here.

    I’m not a fan of Churchill. I think he was a disaster for Britain and it’s longterm interests. Britain virtually destroyed itself fighting Germany for what exactly? Was it to save Poland? Well that didn’t work did it? Poland was destroyed, lost for decades, because it was not defendable. It was obvious that if Germany invaded Poland Russia would too. So promising to defend Poland was an easy promise to make, because it was totally unrealistic.

    What did Britain gain from fighting the war exactly? A defeated Germany? But Germany never wanted to fight Britain, on the contrary “all” they wanted from Britain was that Britain kept out of their sphere of influence, which was the East, the fight against the Soviet Union for the East. And did Britain save the East? No, the Russians took the East, after they crushed Germany.

    So, Britain’s two main war aims came to nothing. But what about the price that was paid? Britain bankrupted itself fighting a war it didn’t really need to fight and “lost”. Britain became an American vassal state, firmly in the American sphere of influence. Instead of Germany becoming Europe’s great power, Russia and the United States carved up Europe between them, and the UK turned towards nostalgia and the great historical myth that it had won the war against Germany.

  • Courtenay Barnett

    Putin’s brand of nationalism has a long and consistent history. Lest you think I am incorrect just consider this, and Stalin did play a role…

    Why Do the Russians Need a Headache in Chechnya?

    The Chechen culture is different from the Russian culture. Sixteenth century Tsarist Russia provides a precursor and historical hint at the long lines of tensions between the two societies. Turks and other alien forces required a buffer and the Chechen region from time of earlier Russian domination set the stage for resistance, and the broad template remains the same. Different cultures, strong sense of independence from any Russian domination, harsh Russian attacks ?” harsh Chechen resistance.

    The Russians do not so much need a “headache” ?” they seek a buffer and a range of control of neighboring countries. When the Americans stirred things up in Georgia with attempts to install missiles and do various mischiefs, the Russians felt threatened and retaliated. It is more about world power, geo-politically perceived spheres of influence and security. When the Russians are unable to accomplish such ends, and elements of determined “Muslim” inspired resistance still fight on, the “headache” becomes the war for dominance and violence breeds more violence. Putin or Medvedev ( see: or whoever rules believe and voice the idea that overwhelming brutality will conquer and quell ?” in this very Tsarist/Czarist approach. Simply stated, it will not ?” but that’s the Russian way, it is the way of all large powers. And the evidence is there:-

  • writerman

    My old family, being large, sometimes rich and powerful, well-connected, highly militarised, have fought in most of the wars fought in Europe over the last three hundred years, on an extraordinary number of different sides, often in the same battles.

    In the last great war in Europe, WW2; which has to be seen in the context of WW1, or a continuation of it, otherwise it makes no sense; they fought for Russia, for Poland, for France, for Germany, for Denmark, for Britain, for the United States, and at enormous cost, even for those on the winning side.

    So, I’ve become aware of conflicting histories, mythologies, and competing nationalisms. All of them, all the fighters in these various armies, apparently believed they were fighting for God and the Fatherland, or King, and that they were in the right and only fighting to defend themselves from foreign agression and domination, for freedom. They knew, and felt they were right.

    Now, I’ve become highly sceptical of the entire ghastly business behind nationalism, folk and blood, and sacred land, especially about the land bit.

    I don’t think people in the UK really understand Europe very well. I think they are insular and don’t speak the languages or know much about the history, preferring over-simplification instead, after all Britain had an empire to take care of. Britain’s policy towards Europe was very simple for centuries wasn’t it? We go to war with anyone, any country that seems likely become too powerful and potentially rival us and our empire. But we are not agressors, we are only defending ourselves and our freedom. But is this true, or is it a convenient and powerful myth?

  • mike cobley

    Quoth Writerman – “So, Britain’s two main war aims came to nothing.”

    You’re not serious, surely. We played a crucial part in resisting the onslaught of the Nazis and their depraved ideology, and were in at the kill. True, the cream of the Nazi war machine was chewed up on the Eastern front, but millions of servicemen and women knew they had to fight to win or a horrific regime might prevail. Germany never wanted to fight Britain? Such wishes were voiced but the expansionist logic of Nazism could only to a clash between the Nazis and Britain. Get real.

  • craig


    I can’t quite believe you are serious. You seem to be saying that the problem was that Hitler was not appeased enough and should have been given bits of Poland like he was given bits of the Czech republic.

    And left to pursue the final solution unimpeded or what? I really cannot quite believe you are saying this.

  • writerman


    I’m not sure how much historical detail to go into here, or whether it’s really worth it, as this is still a highly emotive and controversial historical area. Unfortunately I just don’t uncritically accept the British version of European history as the only valid or incontravertable one.

    I am not defending Hitler. Hitler though a powerful dictator, wasn’t Germany, despite what he thought. Hitler was able to rule Germany because he tapped into a vein, or culture, inside many Germans that reacted against what was perceived as foreign agression aimed at dominating Germany and boxing it inside artificial post WW1 borders which left millions of ethnic Germans outside the homeland. This redrawing of Germany’s borders was always going to lead to problems sooner or later. Problems that Hitler and his party skilfully exploited. Tapping into a nationalist feeling that Germany was surrounded by enemies, which has been part of German culture for centuries, linked to its geographical position and lack of natural borders.

    I am not defending Hitler. I loathe Hitler and all he stood for. But he didn’t just appear out of nowhere. He was a product of an historial epoc that wasn’t created by Germany alone. Like Germany wasn’t responsible for the first world war alone. Hitler and the Germany he came to rule over was, I would argue, a product of WW1 and it’s aftermath. Surely nobody can argue that Germany uniquely responisble for the world that came into existance after WW1?

    Germany’s historical relationship to Poland is complex and of long standing. The reason Hitler could play his Polish cards so successfully was that there was a game to be played. Cutting Prussia in half and giving so much territory to a newly created Poland after WW1 was an attempt by the western powers to weaken Germany, and it was ceretainly seen as such inside Germany. It was a source of conflict and resentment just waiting to explode. We are talking about Dazig and the corridor here.

    All, and that’s obviously an understatement, I’m saying is that I don’t believe the Polish government played it’s hand well, or intelligently, in relation to Germany in the years leading up to WW2. Poland relied too much on alliances with countries that couldn’t deliver, namely Britain and France.

    The whole thrust of German policy was not to fight, if it could be avoided, in the west, but in the east. Unfortunately Poland was in the way.

    Was it sensible for Poland to adopt a confrontational line with Germany? I think history shows that it wasn’t. The question is of course, could Poland have chosen a different course? Wouldn’t Germany have invaded them anyway and enslaved them, as Germany was an agressive, fascist regime, led by a maniac?

    Well, I’m not sure about this. Couldn’t Poland have adopted a role like Vicy France which had a degree of autonomy and was nominally independent, yet under German influence?

    Wouldn’t “appeasement” have been preferable, and giving bit of land back to Germany, have been better than what actually happened to Poland? That is being destroyed and then occupied by the Russians. Was the price in suffering worth it for Poland?

    As to the final solution which I didn’t mention. I believe the final solution was a product of the war, not a reason for it being fought. In the chaos that ensued as the war progressed and degenerated into a racewar between a radicalized Germany and the “salvic hordes” typified by Russia, a war of racial survival according to the Nazis, terrible, terrible, things became possible and the ideology of total war took over from all concepts of civilization and barbarism ruled.

    Surely, given the scale of the destruction and killing that emerged from the two great wars in Europe, one is allowed, or perhaps one has a duty, to examine the causes of the conflict dispassionately, even if that means questioning historical “truth” and the version of events and cause and effect, which for the most part have been written by the victorious side?

  • Apostate

    The plan,to which Britain’s elite was party,was indeed to use Poland as bait to start a general war.

    How else do we explain Britain and France’s willingness to declare war on Germany in 1939 when the Soviets had committed exactly the same crime as Hitler?

    How else do we explain the assassination of Sikorski by British intelligence at the end of WW2?

    We are in WW2 territory here and this war has had more lies told about it (especially by the British to themselves) than any other.

    On the creation of Hitler to regain control of international communism see Landowski’s account of the Rakovsky interrogation in 1939.Rakovsky,a Rothschild agent,had been given the truth drug and sang like a canary!

    It’s online at Google Red Symphony.

  • writerman

    Oh, dear. I’ve just seen how much I’ve written, sorry. I didn’t intend to hijack anything. Neither did I intend to anger anyone or insult anyone in particular. I suppose I have bit of a thing about Poland. I still have family in Poland, or what’s left of them.

    To be honest. I lost a large part of my family in Poland, almost all of them were killed, one way or another. Bizarrely not by the Germans, or the Russians, but by Ukrainian facists who were encouraged and let off their leash by the Germans and their own hatred of Jews, whoops, I may have given the game away there!

  • writerman

    As I seem to have irritated a few people, I suppose I should mention as a kind of explanation, that at one of the universities I studied at in Europe I took a two year course in something called “conflict studies” which dealt specifically with the mechanisms involved in international conflicts/war, and how, if possible, one could avoid them in the future. This necessitated a lot of study relating to the causes of wars, especially WW2, which is an extreme case, and therefore both interesting and instructive, and the ultimate challenge for those interested in avoiding war and preserving peace.

    The central question was, could one have adopted strategies short of military conflict that could have stopped Hitler? The answer seemed to be that one should never have fought WW1 in the first place, as that led both to Hitler and Stalin taking over. The rise of the Nazis and the Russian Revolution.

    Obviously one cannot rewrite history, but of course one can, but one cannot change what’s happened. The past is the past, but one can try to understand it, what actually happened and why, one can try to learn from the mistakes of the past and use this knowledge to protect the future from the same or similar tragedies that may have been avoidable.

  • Kingfelix


    It’s not what Britain gained from WWII, it is how much more would have been lost without pursuing the course they did. For example, on the question of technological progress, with war machines bursting into life all around them, would it make sense for Britain not to be participating in this process? (Arguably, every well-developed industrial nation *had* to take part in WWII)

    Ireland, for example, remained ostensibly neutral, but also largely agricultural, and so on. If Ireland had joined the Allies, how might their economy have developed between the 50s and 90s, when a miracle was engineered by paying (yes, paying) host foreign capital at rock-bottom prices and let them use their skilled labour force.

    For the amount you’ve written here, the wheat to chaff ratio could be a touch higher.

  • jives

    @ kingfelix


    “Also, please don’t write a response more than 1.5 x longer than my post.”

    Why not let the fella answer as succintly or long-windedly as he likes? You scared of sustained argument?

    Wheat from chaff ratio you say?

    Could say the same about your input..


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