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Healing Poland

Igor Lukes on the pain and an eerie historical parallel


Poland’s government is coping with the deaths of its leaders, says Igor Lukes; its emotional recovery may take more time. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

How does Poland rebuild a government after a plane crash on April 10 wiped out its president and dozens of leaders, all flying to a commemoration of the Katyn massacre, long denied by Russia? Rebuilding, says foreign affairs expert Igor Lukes, is the easier task. The real challenge will be healing the wound to Poland’s heart. To explain, Lukes strays outside his discipline into poetry.

The professor of international relations and history at the College of Arts & Sciences has a hand-copied translation of Zbigniew Herbert’s “Buttons,” about the 1940 massacre of 20,000 Polish troops by the Soviets in Russia’s Katyn Woods: Only the buttons were relentless / Survived and now turn up, unbent eyewitnesses to buried crimes / The mass graves’ only monument …

“I was born in Czechoslovakia, so although I’m not a Pole, I fully share this sentiment of ‘damned’ Katyn,” says Lukes. “Herbert’s uncle died at Katyn. Show me a Polish family, and chances are good that one of their extended family is linked to this tragedy.”

BU Today spoke with Lukes about fallout from the tragic crash and Poland’s long and emotional road ahead.

BU Today: How is the Polish government doing in terms of rebuilding?
Lukes: Poland has showed a vibrant democracy. The constitutional succession kicked in. Bitter political rivals were united by this tragedy. The executive powers of the state were immediately transferred to the president of the senate, Bronislaw Komorowski, who assumed the powers of president. He is obligated to organize a presidential election within 74 days.

The prime minister and his cabinet, who run the government day to day, were not on the plane. Will average Poles see any disruption?
Certainly not. The only positive aspect is that the Polish democratic system, in place for only 20 years, has withstood this test. Civil servants are, quite frankly, replaceable. It’s even more true in the military, because the military has a line of succession, and they are used to taking casualties, especially the Polish army.

I expect the presidential campaign is going to be more gentle and civilized, because in this tragedy, rivals are going to be less vicious. The president and president of the senate despised each other.

There is a chilling historical parallel with a World War II crash.
After the Katyn massacre, the Polish government in exile requested that a commission under the Red Cross look into the allegations by the Nazis of Russian guilt. Prime Minister Wladyslaw Sikorski stopped in Gibraltar. As the plane took off, the pilot reported that the stick was locked. The plane crashed into the sea. Sikorski died, as did his entourage. There has never been any proof, but one speculation has been the Soviet secret service was involved in sabotaging the plane.

Tell us a bit about the emotional significance for Poles of the death in this crash of Anna Walentynowicz, the shipyard worker whose firing led eventually to such monumental change in Poland.
That incident triggered the strike that evolved into the Solidarity trade union movement in 1980. A gutsy, gutsy woman who stood up to that regime. If there had been a Polish Woody Guthrie, there would have been songs about Walentynowicz.

These civilians on the airplane are poignant. When the space shuttle exploded in the 1980s, one of the crew was a teacher. The American public focused on her more than the military people who died.

What effect is the tragedy likely to have on Poland’s stands on international issues?
The impact will be real. President Lech Kaczynski detested the Russians, being a vigorous critic of the Stalinist legacy he saw in people like Putin. He was a Polish patriot. As far as Kaczynski was concerned, World War II ended yesterday. He was bitter about the German role in the destruction of Poland. He never hesitated to point it out, in the face of German politicians. You don’t bring up the ghosts of World War II in today’s European Union. When the budget was being debated, Kaczynski said, “The reason Poland now has fewer people is because you people killed so many Poles. If they had been alive, they would have had children.” The others were looking at him in disbelief.

He believed Brussels was in the pocket of the French, British, and Germans, so he resented Brussels, too. America could not have had a closer ally. He devoted so much energy to having the United States create military bases. Other countries resent foreign army presence.

Whoever takes over will probably be more diplomatic. However, Polish-American relations are not a reflection of the personal preferences of a few politicians. The love of America is in the Polish DNA.

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.


5 Comments on Healing Poland

  • Anonymous on 04.14.2010 at 9:25 am

    The last statement is incorrect

    I’m not sure that saying “The love of America is in the Polish DNA” is an accurate statement anymore. In the 90s this may have been more true but Kaczynski did not represent the views of many people in Poland today. In fact, many people resented him and there were protests against his extreme conservative actions, such as his attempts to take away women’s rights and basically set them back 100s of years.

    It is a rather well known fact that Kaczynski preyed on the extreme religious right who listens to Radio Maria in order to get elected and was unpopular among the well educated.

  • Anonymous on 04.14.2010 at 12:40 pm

    love of America

    The love of America is in the Polish DNA? So the man despised Russians just so he can sell out to the Americans… Apparently the lesson of the dangers of foreign influence has not been learned.

  • Danièle Cosson-Schéré on 04.14.2010 at 2:14 pm

    reductio ad hitlerum

    In a democracy, the will of the people rules, and if you discount patriotism, a value the left has spent over half a century denigrating, and religious activism, the only sign of resistance during Soviet occupation, in your analysis of what happens in this country, you understand nothing about Poland. The millions who mourn their president and the tragic death of his entourage reflect obviosly an other order of priorities than yours.
    Beeing a half-Pole, (and half-French) I think of the latter as my better half and I can only quote to you Napoleon who said, “you can drink like a Pole, but you should fight like one.” (Soyez saoûl comme un Polonais, mais battez-vous comme lui)

  • Anonymous on 04.14.2010 at 4:56 pm

    Prof. Lukes’s comments on Poland’s love for the US do not refer to Kaczynski’s views. He is not drawing on the news of the moment, nor on Poland’s support for the Iraq war, nor even on the Cold War. This statement, as well as the sentiment itself is reflective of how Central Europeans look at the past, not in terms of headlines in a 24/7 news culture, but in terms of centuries of history. Love of America has been in the Polish DNA as far back as the days of the American Revolution, when Gen. Tadeusz Kościuszko came from Poland to join the Continental Army, quickly becoming its chief engineer. There are quite a few monuments in the US honoring his accomplishment (including a statue in the Public Garden, here in Boston).

    This is the deep root of Poland’s love for America, and not the penchant for conspiracy against Russia. We have not always corresponded the Poles (for instance, we let Warsaw burn in 1944 while everybody rushed to save Paris), but that too is part of history, and not the headline news of this morning.

  • Anonymous on 04.17.2010 at 4:43 pm

    Healing Poland

    Some of these questions and comments are rather far off the mark of what is actually happening in Poland. I have lived in Poland for over ten years and am married to a Pole and have been watching events in Polish all week. This article seems to reflect what people in America think that Poles are thinking and feeling. For example, Anna Walentynowicz was singled out as someone whose loss will have a great emotional impact on Poles. She is only one of 96 who died – I’ve not heard any more about her than any others who died and less than most. The last Polish President in Exile Kaczorowski has received more attention, though of course, the most focus has been on the President and his wife.

    A huge controversy has been generated here by his internment in Wawel, the royal chapel in Krakow. At least two thousand people publicly protested earlier this week against it. Most people (apparently including his daughter) wanted him and his wife to be buried in Warsaw where they lived, where he was President of Warsaw for five years and spent almost five living in the Presidential Palace as leader of the country. While he was not loved by all, people came from all over the country and stood in line for 10-11 hours to pay respects at the palace. Poland is a very complicated country with many incongruities which needs to be seen from the inside to even begin to understand it. There is a bit of a national schizophrenia here in that Poles work great together in a crisis but when things are good it’s usually every man for himself. (The old joke about 4 Poles and 5 political parties is pretty close to the mark.) There are many opposing currents running together in one stream.
    Regarding Kaczynski and Germany, he wasn’t just anti-German because he was a Polish patriot and “World War II ended yesterday.” He was lampooned by the German press as a “sack of potatoes” – for a man who had some complexes, that’s a hard thing to take. However, if Angela Merkel offered to send the Berlin Philharmonic to play at his funeral things are not so nasty between countries.
    Tusk handles politics and foreign relations, esp. with Putin, very differently. Kaczynski and Tusk both wanted Russia to admit the truth about Katyn. The President however took a far more combative approach to Putin, partly because of his tendency to stick up for the underdog, esp. the ones like Georgia.
    There’s a lot more I could write but will close with this – if you want to understand Poles and Poland – come and observe them at home. And spend a few years learning the language so you can read their literature – literature, history and religion are the keys to comprehension but also the burden that Poles carry.

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