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April 10, 2010

Polish President Lech Kaczynski was a "combative European" and a patriot. Saturday’s disaster in Smolensk brought his life to an unexpected and tragic end.

Lech Kaczynski surrounded by his family during the Polish presidential runoff in 2005
Kaczynski was elected president in 2005Image: AP

German Chancellor Angela Merkel remembered Lech Kaczynski on Saturday as a "combative European," an accurate description of the late Polish president.

Politically conservative, a Catholic nationalist and a euroskeptic, Kaczynski was seen both in Poland and abroad as a difficult negotiator and dialogue partner. The strategy of his to hold out on signing the EU's Lisbon Treaty and only sign it at the last minute was just one example of many.

His combativeness, a trait he shared with his twin brother Jaroslaw, became one of his political trademarks. In the eyes of his supporters, this combativeness wasn't a disadvantage. It was his fight for Polish interests that made Kaczynski a figurehead of the national conservative camp in Poland.

Born in Warsaw in 1949, he embodied the patriotic tradition of his country. His parents fought in the Warsaw Uprising, taking part in that failed attempt to secure Poland's independence from its powerful neighbors in the last days of World War II. The tragic fate of Poland and the resulting mistrust of Germany and Russia became an integral part of Kaczynski's upbringing and influenced his entire political life.

Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski in 2006
Kaczynski (left) and his twin brother Jaroslaw were close political alliesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

When the Solidarity trade union was established in 1980, Kaczynski, then an established law professor, was among the advisers to the legendary union leader Lech Walesa.

Walesa was elected president in 1991, and nominated Kaczynski as minister in the Presidential Chancellery. The two men parted ways six months later following a conflict, and the tight political partnership gave way to bitter animosity.

'The man with the clean hands'

Since the early 1990s, Kaczynski had styled himself as "the man with the clean hands," first as president of the Supreme Chamber of Control, then as minister of justice and finally as the corruption-fighting mayor of Warsaw.

Voters, tired of the corruption scandals of the post-Communist power elite, carried him into the country's highest office in 2005. This fall, the president was planning to fight for his reelection.

His death in the Smolensk disaster bears the characteristics of his entire political life.

On the one hand, there is a deep patriotism: Kaczynski was on his way to Russia to remember the massacre of Polish soldiers in Katyn during World War II. On the other hand, a deep rivalry: the visit to Katyn was to have upstaged the earlier visit of Prime Minister Donald Tusk, his main political rival.

The death of Lech Kaczynski was unexpected and tragic – but could also lead to the creation of a legend.

Author: Bartosz Dudek (cmk)
Editor: Kyle James