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The tragedy that defined Polish politics

April 10, 2018

Eight years ago, a plane carrying Poland's presidential delegation crashed in Smolensk, Russia. The president's twin brother Jaroslaw Kaczynski has used the accident to influence Polish politics ever since.

Smolensk Lech Kaczynski
Image: Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images

As is the case every year, April 10, 2018 was a day of patriotic demonstrations and memorial services in Poland, commemorating a tragic plane crash eight years ago in Smolensk, Russia. This year's events were especially important for Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of Poland's ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), as a memorial plaque honoring his twin brother Lech — who was president at the time he was killed in the crash — was unveiled at the country's parliament, the Sejm.

A national hero

Although hundreds of memorial plaques and sculptures across Poland honor Lech Kaczynski, in the Sejm he is afforded an especially prominent space — at the entrance, right next to Pope John Paul II, a man considered a national hero in Catholic Poland.

For the last eight years, Jaroslaw Kaczynski has attempted to style his dead brother as a national hero. When addressing crowds at memorial services that are held monthly, not just on April 10, Kaczynski likes to say of his brother Lech: "He rekindled Poland's national consciousness and restored its honor." The mourning of the victims killed in Smolensk, and especially the former president, seems to have no end.

Annual memorial for Smolensk
Poland regularly holds memorials for the victims of the Smolensk crashImage: Reuters/K. Pempel

Russia conspiracy theory   

The ominous dual symbolism of the tragedy lends itself to the ongoing remembrance. On April 10, 2010, the Polish president and a high-level government delegation were on route to Katyn, a village near Smolensk in western Russia. Seventy years earlier, between April 3 and May 11, 1940, 22,000 Polish officers were executed by Russian intelligence service agents at the site. That horrific event became known as the "Katyn massacre." When an entire Polish delegation died in a plane crash near the old Russian military airbase at Smolensk, just miles from Katyn on the anniversary of the killings, many Poles had — and continue to have — great difficulty believing that it was just a tragic coincidence.

The circumstances surrounding the crash have thus given rise to numerous conspiracy theories. According to opinion polls, between 26 and 28 percent of Polish citizens believe it was not a coincidence the plane went down, but rather a Russian attack. The PiS government has consistently rejected official Polish and Russian investigations that found pilot error, misleading air traffic controller instructions and the dilapidated state of the Russian airstrip all led to the crash. 

The 'religion of Smolensk'

The incident has also provided Jarolslaw Kazynski with the explosive emotional material that makes his politics possible. Zbigniew Mikolejko, a philosopher of religion at the Polish Academy of Sciences, calls the PiS leader a "chosen one" who has constructed an entire "religion of Smolensk" atop his own personal trauma. Elements of that religion include the martyrdom of the victims, the Christian symbols of crosses and prayers that dominate memorial ceremonies, but also "pagan elements" such as torchlight processions.

Smolensk crash wreckage
Official reports found the crash was due in part to pilot error, but a popular conspiracy theory blames RussiaImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Chirikov

"The mix is intended to speak to a cross section of society — from pious old ladies to soccer fans, the lower-middle class and those with nationalist views," Mikolejko told DW. Religion seeks to unite different groups of people under a common narrative, he explained, and the PiS chairman has been successful at doing just that.

Mikolejko says Kaczynski's Smolensk rituals have helped bring about an "emotionalization" of Polish politics over the last several years. He believes the fact that large swaths of Polish society felt no particular connection with the economically minded Liberal party made Kaczynski's task all that much easier. The Liberals are guilty of not having recognized, "that Poles need national myths more than most other countries," says Mikolejko.

Tragedy as a political instrument

That melding of pseudo-religious ritual and politics is viewed by many people as an attempt to instrumentalize a national tragedy. "I still remember the initial unity that the tragedy brought about across Poland. But Jaroslaw Kaczynski quickly realized he could use his brother's death to push his own political agenda," sociologist Jakub Bierzynski told DW.

Sarcophagus of Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria in Krakau
Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria are remembered as national heroes in PolandImage: Getty Images/S. Gallup

In Bierzynski's opinion, Kaczynski is "a completely rational politician" who doesn't even believe in the Russian attack conspiracy himself, but he consistently pushes that narrative because it suits his needs. "Many Poles simply cannot accept that pilot error caused the deaths of 96 people at that historical place. It makes no sense to them," says Bierzynski. So by propagating the Russian attack theory, Kaczynski is pandering to "the basic human desire to find a deeper meaning in things."

The consequences of the tragedy

Kaczynski has found it increasingly difficult to maintain the viability of Russia conspiracy theory, however. Evidence for the explosions that supposedly downed the president's plane has never been produced. Every month for the last eight years Kaczynski has promised that the cause of the crash would be found. His slogan has been, "We will be victorious" — with the word "victorious" implying the discovery of irrefutable evidence. But recently, Kaczynski has begun saying: "We may never really know the truth."

Kaczynski is now planning to end the monthly memorial services, which, once attended by thousands, draw only hundreds of mourners these days. His "victory" also appears ever less likely. The national tragedy and personal trauma of Poland's most influential politician have, nevertheless, left their mark on the country. Namely, strained relations with Russia and the division of Polish society.