Eight years since the crash of the plane carrying Poland’s presidential delegation, the tragedy continues to dominate Polish politics. The governments Tupolev carrying 96 members of the Polish elite downed while approaching the military airstrip of Smolensk. The accident killed all aboard, including the then President, his wife and other high-ranking Polish dignitaries. They were en route to a ceremony commemorating the massacre of Katyn which happened 70 years prior. In the days of April and May 1940 the Soviet secret police executed around 22.000 Polish officers at three sites in the Soviet Union. One of them was close to the village of Katyn in the forests of Smolensk, where about 4500 Poles were killed and buried in mass-graves. The atrocity attained its special foulness because the historical truth was suppressed for so long. It was (mis)used both by the Nazis and the Soviets and the full truth was only publicly acknowledged with the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.
Immediately after reports on the air crash so close to a historic site laden with such a symbolic significance appeared, the catastrophe was referred to as “Katyn 2” by Lech Walesa. Too close were the similarities, both events decapitating Poland in killing members of the political elite. The disaster reminded Poland of the mass murder of 1940 which the now dead were bound to commemorate.
This paper theorizes that the disaster of Smolensk is used by the Law and Justice party (PiS) of the deceased President in an ideological fashion, to create a grand narrative and to rally support for the party. It will analyze the process of narrative creation and its characteristics. In doing so it explores how PiS (mis)uses the crash and the memory of Katyn in the public debate to shape opinion, generate polarization and rally support.
This will be done by drawing mostly on newspaper articles in English, translated statements of Jaroslav Kaczynski, as well as the academic debate on the politics of mourning in post-crash Poland, as those authors rely on Polish news media sources. The paper is structured as follows: First there will be a short discussion of the historical backdrop of the 1940 Katyn massacre as well as the 2010 plane crash to set the stage. Secondly the theoretical framework will be carved out drawing on polish peculiarities and the uses of history according to Karlsson. In the third part the sources will be introduced and analyzed. In the concluding section, the findings will be recapitulated and evaluated.
2. Setting the Stage
The singular place of Katyn is used as plural symbol. It implies multiple killing fields and mass graves. The massacre consists of a series of mass executions of approximately 22.000 Polish officers. While oftentimes being referred to as officers of the Polish army, most of them were officers of the reserve. In their civilian function they were economists, doctors, lawyers, veterinarians and botanists representing the Polish elite. They were decidedly targeted by a campaign to “decapitate” the society (Sanford, 2005, 25). This fit into a broader pattern of Soviet policies directed to reduce the Polish nation.
Taken prisoner by the Soviet People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) in 1939 they were detained in three camps at Kozelsk, Ostashkov, and Starobelsk. Upon recommendation of the NKVD’s chief, Stalin ordered the execution of the prisoners. The approximately 4500 prisoners at Kozelsk were buried in mass graves in the Katyn forest.
The Germans discovered those graves in 1943 and tried to use the massacre for anti-Soviet propaganda. Throughout World War II, both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union engaged in extensive propaganda, using the atrocity without establishing guilt. After the Soviets retook control of Poland, the mentioning of Katyn was suppressed. Full truth only emerged when documents confirming Soviet guilt were released in 1990 by Gorbachev. As the historical truth was obfuscated for so long, Katyn has remained a consistent symbol in Polish collective memory until today. This memory goes beyond the historical event itself. It transformed into a transcending symbol, conjuring images of Polish martyrdom, resistance, and triumph of memory (Etkind et al., 2013).
On April 10th, 2010 the Polish governments’ Tupolev crashed near Smolensk, Russia, killing all 96 persons aboard. Many of those killed were members of the country’s military and political elite. Among them then president Lech Kaczynski and his wife. The delegation was traveling to a commemorative ceremony of the 1940 Katyn massacre, adding to the tragedy.
Multiple investigations have identified adverse weather conditions, errors of the pilots, the air traffic control and the dilapidated state of the military airstrip at Smolensk as the causes for the catastrophe. Nonetheless the repeated loss of the Polish elite in one stroke reminded Poland of the mass murder of 1940 which the now dead were bound to commemorate. The instrumentalization of the crash has become a hotly contested issue defining Polish politics. The dead president has been styled as a national hero in Poland. Conspiracy theories have sprung up claiming that the crash was an attack, rather than an accident. Election campaigns revolved around the denunciation of the political rival and their supporters instead of content. In general, the national tragedy has become a marker of political identity.
3. Theoretical Framework
It is not just because of the tragic loss of life and of the Polish elite at the crash site, that lends this tragedy to political uses, but precisely its circumstances and the history of its location.
To understand why this second loss of the country’s elite is so particularly exposed to political use, it is integral to understand the peculiarities of the Polish nation’s mythic narrative. Polish national history is shaped by a strong sense of victimhood rooted in the view of Poland as target of attacks from its neighbors and treachery of its citizens (Kuzio, 2017). Early on, Polish history was reinterpreted as a series of crimes against its freedom. It was deemed Poland’s task to restore order and morality (Burnell, 2009, 56). This interpretation, linked with Polish Catholic messianism and its mission of salvation constitutes the romantic construction of Polish identity and unity (Ni?y?ska, 2010, 468; Porter, 2002, 16). The death of 96 people meant an immense loss for the country depriving Poland of its elite. It thus fits seamlessly into this narrative of victimization and heroism, deeply rooted in the romantic tradition of Poland.
In order to analyze how the accident of Smolensk was used, the typology of different uses of history produced by Karlsson is employed. He identifies six different uses, namely scholarly, existential, moral, ideological, political, and non-uses (Karlsson, 2007, 34). In the light of the instrumentalization of the crash and Poland’s romantic tradition mentioned above I will particularly draw on the ideological use.
Karlsson classifies this use as political process producing “new grand narratives” to stress national and cultural independencies by arranging historical elements into a relevant context (2007, 38-39). He stresses that this is closely connected to legitimacy building, clear dichotomies of narratives, a strong continuity of histories and proves particularly useful for nationalists (Karlsson, 2007, 39).
In order to analyze how the catastrophe is used by PiS to produce “new grand narratives” scholarly articles from the time shortly after the crash, contemporary English-speaking newspaper articles, and translated statements of Jaroslav Kaczynski are used. As he was never holding a state office, Poland does not issue official translation of his speeches. Furthermore, PiS does not provide an English translation of its website. The analysis is thus limited, unable to analyze original Polish sources. Nonetheless the sources are considered adequate for multiple reasons. The scholarly articles chosen, draw heavily on the public debate in Poland after the crash, analyzing various domestic newspaper and television sources. Anglophone media also heavily reports on Poland, ensuring sufficient coverage.
Chronologically the analysis starts with the shock after the crash. Thousands took to the streets across political divides in communal mourning. They endured long queues to pay tribute to the first couple at the Presidential Palace in Warsaw. They bore flags, black ribbons and lit candles. Most cultural events were cancelled, news coverage beyond the crash was reduced to a minimum, and public debate centered around commemorating the deceased. The symbolic site of the crash and its cultural resonances linked it the tragedy to Polish national identity and the experiences of pain and suffering (Ni?y?ska, 2010, 470). She argues that the publics’ affect was closely intertwined with the absurdity of the event killing the countries elite near a site central to national victimization and thus repeating this complex (Ni?y?ska, 2010, 470). The national trauma showed when Lech Walesa labeled the crash “Katyn 2” and former president Kwasniewski called Smolensk a “cursed place” (Dabrowski, 2010). In this period of mourning people were coming back to what held them together, and in these moments of fear they resorted to patriotism, conservative and national feelings (Szeligowska, 2014, 491). The accident was able to produce a sense of community bonding around the shared experience.
The unity instigated by the crash allowed to bury the presidential couple at the Royal Castel Wawel in Krakow. Burying the deceased alongside Polish kings and national heroes manifested the sacralization of the crash. It elevated the president into martyrdom making him a national hero (Koczanowicz, 2012, 819). Many Poles were opposed to a funeral in such a historic site, but protest was muted by the communal mourning and respect for the deceased. Ni?y?ska argues that this debate has eased the process of trauma appropriation for the Law and Justice Party and pays off symbolic capital (2010, 474). The Wawel controversy highlights the early politicization of the crash.
This narrative of common grief and obligation to the country was also invoked by Jaroslav Kaczynski, as he announced 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. … we are obliged to carry out their will. … Poland is our common, great commitment (Kulish, 2010).
The sense of Polish suffering and its romantic tradition allowed to create a unity in grief amongst the population. By drawing lines from Katyn to Smolensk this sacralizes the president and the crash to a heroic dimension.
A next step in the creation of such “grand narrative” was the utilization of the crash itself. Both Polish and Russian investigations concluded that crew members made fatal errors approaching Smolensk airport in adverse weather conditions. Nonetheless PiS officials soon cited alleged evidence that Russian involvement had downed the plane and that the Tusk government had conspired in either the attack or the cover-up (Traub, 2016). These allegations were further strengthened as the remains of those killed were exhumed in 2016 to find evidence for the bomb theory. Jaroslav Kaczynski not only encouraged the narrative of “Katyn 2” but also the belief in conspiracies. For the past eight years he promised that the true cause of the crash will be discovered and only recently switched to telling: “we may never ever really know the truth” at commemorative rallies held each month (Sieradzka, 2018).
This serves the mythologization of Smolensk and its victims, as ones killed on a pilgrimage to a memorial rite (Etkind et al., 2013, 138). It reaffirms the tragic fate of Poland either under oppression and betrayed by friends (Koczanowicz, 2012, 815).
Thus, it is utilized to create a narrative around the crash, its historic site and the Polish nation, which PiS uses to build legitimacy and rally support.
The snap election of 2010 marked another step of polarization of Polish politics. Ever since PiS was founded in 2001 the party was opposing ruling and ex-elites purportedly ignoring Polish interests. Mobilizing their camp using denunciation of the political enemy, debate culture and relations between political parties and their supporters changed. Before PiS rose to power in 2007 the term “Uklad” was introduced referring to self-interested elites and used to muzzle critics. But only in 2010, Ni?y?ska argues, the polarizing language became their norm (2010, 477). Against the backdrop of the catastrophe Jaroslav used his brother’s death to legitimize his politics and utilized the relation to the crash as test for true patriotism (Koczanowicz, 2012, 822). Invoking the conspiracies about an assassination and accusing the ruling coalition of staging the crash is, where a categorization into “us” versus “them” truly gained traction in the tactics of PiS. They divided society into righteous Poles and those who would betray their country. Sobkowicz and Sobkowicz find that this split society unbridgeable on all levels (2012, 499).
PiS continues to use this strong polarization and this divide of righteous Poles and traitors until today. In a TV interview from 2015 Kaczynski refers to the “fatal tradition of national treason that lies within the genes of the worst of Poles” and in a speech only a few days later he refers to those as “not right in the head” (Porter-Sz?cs, 2016).
This section examined whether the way PiS uses the Smolensk tragedy in an ideological fashion. The utilization of the crash is multifaceted as I showed above. Coming back to the research question, this usage can indeed be classified as creating a “new grand narrative”.
The analysis has followed public debate in Poland after the crash and identified how certain aspects thereof were used ideologically as Karlsson defines it.
It has to be noted though, that these findings are solely based on reports of Polish politics in Western media, translated statements of Kaczynski therein, and academic articles analyzing Polish public debate based on Polish media. Unable to purely receive original content in Polish this imposes limitations on this paper. As Poland is an EU member receiving sufficient attention by Western media, ensuring adequate coverage of Polish political debate in English, this is negligible.
The tragedy is an unescapable loss for the whole country. But PiS in particular appropriated this trauma in order to create a “new grand narrative” to instill support for the party and its policies. 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 were invoked in a renewed national trauma drawing lines from one event to the other. Third, PiS sacralized the crash and its victims by making the death president a national hero via his burial in the Wawel and invoking to be completing his mission. Fourth, they fostered black and white descriptions by accusing the then government of having conspired in the alleged attack and calling into question the official inquiries into the causes for the crash. Lastly, they continue to use the crash to split society into “we” against “them” until today.
Consequently, PiS is “arranging historical elements into a relevant context of meaning” (Karlsson, 2007, 39) creating a narrative proving their legitimacy and unifying righteous Poles against a perceived internal and external enemy. Thus, PiS is using the history of the crash at Smolensk airport in ideological fashion.