The Katyn Tragedy

Posted on April 12, 2010

For anyone associated with AEI, the first reaction on learning that the Polish presidential aircraft had crashed came instantly: Was Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski on the plane? Relief at learning he was not quickly turned to shock at the scope of the tragedy. The jet lost in the fog of Western Russia was carrying not only the president of Poland, but also many historical figures in the Polish struggle for liberty: Anna Walentynowicz, the Gdansk shipyard worker whose firing sparked the Solidarity trade movement and ultimately the collapse of communism, and Ryszard Kaczorowski, the 90-year-old former president of the Polish government in exile, who resigned his office only when Lech Walesa became Poland’s first democratically elected postwar president.

The leaders of Poland’s past perished in that crash, but also those of its future. Only a flight for an event like the commemoration of the Katyn Massacre would have included so many current and rising political and intellectual leaders: the deputy foreign minister, the deputy speaker of the parliament, the chiefs of the army and navy, the president of the national bank, the head of the national security bureau, and a dozen members of parliament—97 dead in all. In this sense, the tragedy mirrored the Katyn massacre. The execution of Polish officers in the Russian forest seven decades ago wiped out much of the nation’s intelligentsia. This weekend, in that same forest, much of Poland’s 21st century intelligentsia was wiped out as well—particularly, its pro-American, conservative intelligentsia, those who stood up to Russia, reached out to Ukraine and Georgia, and looked to the United States and NATO before the European Union. The effect of their loss will be felt long after the tears dry—in Poland and in the United States as well.

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