Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Past In Poland's Present

Upon a hill at the bend of the Vistula River in Kraków sits an ancient castle known as Wawel, the Polish seat of royalty for over 550 years. Within its walls is housed the city's cathedral known as the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Stanisław (Stanislaus) and Vaclav whose crypt holds the tombs of Polish kings, national heroes, generals and revolutionaries. Among them, one ornate silver tomb stands out. Unlike most of the other residents of the crypt, this man was neither King nor revolutionary yet almost all of the Polish kings beginning with Władysław I the Elbow-high were crowned while kneeling before his sarcophagus which sits near the center of the cathedral above. In order to understand the significance of the decision to bury Lech Kaczynki and his wife in this sacred place, one need look no further than the story behind the man whose remains are to be found within this silver tomb.

Saint Stanislaus of Szczepanów, whose name is now born by the most important cathedral in Poland, was one of the earliest native Polish bishops. According to legend, nearly a millennium ago this man was transformed into the martyr of Poland after paying the price for opposing King Bolesław II the Bold of his then young nation. Stanislaus first gained his reputation after purportedly resurrecting the body of a man named Piotr to testify against the king in a property dispute. However, when the Bishop dared to criticize the king of sexual immorality in his punishment of the wives of soldiers returning from war and had him excommunicated, the king accused him of treason and decided to have him killed without trial. When his soldiers refused to perform his order, Bolesław slew the bishop while he was celebrating mass in the Skałka outside the walls of Kraków, hacked the body to pieces and threw them into a pool outside the church. According to the legend, Stanislaus' members miraculously reintegrated while the pool was guarded by four eagles. Public anger was so great that Bolesław the suddenly not so Bold fled to Hungary and was succeeded by his brother Władysław I Herman. 

There may be no other nation in which history, martyrdom, the church and politics are so deeply intertwined. Most history books point to the AD 965 Catholic baptism of Prince Mieszko I as the birth of Poland and since Stanislaus' killing just over a century later, on either April 11 or May 8, 1079, the nation has seen more than her share of martyred symbols to go along with a long list of tragedies. Last Saturday saw another catastrophe added to the list as the Polish presidential Tupolev Tu-154 exploded short of the airport in Smolensk, where the presidential party was landing on their way to attend a remembrance ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre. In one stroke, 96 members of the Polish elite were wiped out leaving a nation to grieve a second national disaster on the same site. “First the flower of the Second Polish Republic is murdered in the forests around Smolensk,” said former president Aleksander Kwasniewski. “Now the intellectual elite of the Third Polish Republic die in this tragic plane crash when approaching Smolensk airport.”

It's not everyday that you wake up and find that the president of the country you're living in has perished in a plane crash. After the shock and sadness came the practical questions of what constitutes 'a week of national mourning' (does one work? are the stores going to be open? Yes, and some - not the national chain stores); why did the pilot try to land after being warned off by the tower (more conspiracies at work, Kaczynski may have pushed the pilot as he did in Georgia a couple years back, do you really think we'll get the real black box?); why were so many important people on the same plane (um, did I say conspiracy theory?). Most importantly today, seeing that life is going on and the constitution ticking like clockwork, there will be an election much sooner than the original October plan, an election that Kaczynski was virtually assured to lose. The date will be announced following the funeral, but June 20th seems the most likely date that will answer the question of whether Poland will allow the church and PiS to continue to keep the past in the way of her future.

Leave it to the conservative PiS party and their Catholic allies to turn a tragedy into a controversy by trying to take advantage of a disaster for political gain. Immediately following the crash, the well-practiced Poles were flying the national flag with a black ribbon of remembrance attached while gathering to pay their respects in public places, many of them laying candles used to mark the numerous mournful anniversaries across the country. Despite the unpopularity of the incumbent president, the nation was unified in its grief and condolences, with tributes pouring in from all points on the political spectrum. Both the leftist SLD party and the Kaczynski right-wing PiS have been left without candidates as Jerzy Szmajdziński was also on the passenger list of the ill-fated flight. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Lech's twin brother, along with the cardinal of Krakow, Stanislaw Dziwisz, have fired the first shot in the election campaign in an attempt to replicate the miraculous reintegration of Bishop Stanislaus body. Their answer, turn Lech into a martyr in order to re-brand his image and somehow resurrect his failed presidency.

The decision to bury Lech Kaczynski in the most sacred site has predictably turned a unifying moment into a political circus. Where just a few days ago Poles were amazed at the unity they had shown and the were proud of the resilience of their constitution, in its place we're seeing the return of the defeatist attitude so common here that expects nothing better than life gives them. When a major trauma occurs, the kind that is both individual and collective, something happens that Jungian psychology calls an “abaissement du niveau mental" a lowering of the level of consciousness. Intellect gives way to the gloom of the collective psyche. The horrified mind tries to find meaning, but lets itself be seduced by old myths. If only Kaczynski had done more than reinforce and perpetuate hatred and intolerance during his political career it would be easier to swallow his elevation to martyrdom. As mayor of Warsaw he banned a gay rights parade two years running while supporting a demonstration dubbed by the organizers as a "normality parade". This homophobia needs no encouragement here in Poland having been found guilty of violating human rights by the European Court.

Some critics of Cardinal Dziwisz’s decision to bury the Presidential couple in the Wawel Cathedral of Cracow next Sunday argue that his consent might have been imposed by an “election committee” of the PiS party, whose members wanted to use the national mourning and the burial of President Lech Kaczynski to promote his twin brother, the party’s Chairman, Mr. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, for the next President of Poland. What better boost to a presidential campaign than a martyred brother. The viral text meme quickly spread that "History has come full circle. Mickiewicz’s Poland as the Christ of Nations is returning. Let us be united by this love from God. Let us strengthen the fatherland through brotherhood." Senators begin comparing Kaczynski to past heroes. Before you know it, "The president, who died a heroic death when flying to Katyn to pay homage to the martyrs, and his wife will get a dignified place for their eternal rest," said Cardinal Dziwisz. "The final decision is that the most dignified place is Wawel, where he can rest together with those who have achieved so much for our fatherland—kings, heroes, commanders."

Lech Kaczyński became president in the 2005 election. His victory was a come from behind for the ages. Polish presidential elections are held on a two day system, where the first round sees the elimination of the whole field but the two leading vote getters. The first round on October 5th saw Donald Tusk (today's prime minister) win 36.3% of the vote to Lech Kaczynski's 33.1%. Yet two weeks later on the 23rd, Lech carried 54% to Donald's 46%. (Funny aside, Kaczynski is a variant of the word 'duck' in Polish, making the campaign the Donald Duck election). How did Kaczyński manage to turn the tables so drastically? Simple, operatives of his party, PiS, Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or Law and Order, circulated reports to the media on the eve of the presidential election's decisive second round that Tusk’s grandfather served in the Wehrmacht during the final months of the second world war. His ten days of service following forced conscription before escaping to fight for the Allies in the west were enough to tip the scales of the voting. Even though Tusk had no way to know this history as it was never discussed in the family, it was enough to turn the election, such is the mark left on the Polish psyche by the war.

The worst was yet to come for Polish politics. Just prior to the presidential election of 2005, Lech's twin brother Jarosław, with whom he founded the PiS party in 2001, had pledged not to take the position of prime minister in the event their party won the general election in order to not diminish Lech's chances of victory. This enabled the PiS party to build a coalition along with two other lunatic fringe parties, the Self-Defense of the Republic of Poland (Polish: Samoobrona) and the conservative Christian League of Polish Families party as party-member of the latter, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, was appointed Prime Minister. Predictably, less than a year later, a rift appeared forcing Marcinkiewicz's resignation and Lech had his brother anoint him as PM. Together, the twins tried to forge a ultra-conservative Catholic reality in their homeland. Often paradoxical, get your head around to pass a constitutional amendment to eliminate rape or incest as grounds for terminating a pregnancy while trying to reintroduce the death penalty, usually ridiculous, Lech opposed on-line voting as the internet attracts people who enjoy "pornography while sipping a bottle of beer"  and always intolerant, the Kacynski reign was fortunately short lived as 2007 elections saw Donald Tusk's PO party sweep into power. Kaczynki's added further comedy when he said that Internet users are "the easiest group to manipulate, to suggest who to vote for." Enter captain irony as the brothers' support base is principally composed of the most gullible and malleable of society, playing with the politically dangerous mix of Polish nationalism and religious conservatism.

The cornerstone of the Kaczynski ideology was their fanatical abhorrence of all things communist. In the 1970s, the brothers joined the anti-communist underground and later Walesa's Solidarity movement with Lech even thrown in prison for 11 months by the communist government after the declaration of martial law in 1981. Their disdain for the communist era and populist sound bites won over much of the country. "We must turn the state around to face its citizens," he said during his campaign for the presidency. "The scale of the repair will be so great that Poland will become a new republic." Yet their plans proved over-zealous as their Lustration Laws that they attempted to pass were exposed for the witch-hunt it was that made "the McCarthyites of the US in the 1950s look like amateurs at the practice of anti-Communism". Before being struck down by the constitutional court, it appeared that 700,000 Poles, all senior civil servants, university professors, lawyers, headmasters and journalists born before 1972 were to be given two months to fill in a form and answer the question: "Did you secretly and knowingly collaborate with the former Communist security services?". Unwittingly, the Polish Catholic church also got caught up. Fortunately, they seem to be experts in denial and cover-up. It is perhaps the effect that Lech Kaczyński's death has had on the world's knowledge of one of atheist Soviet Russia's greatest atrocities, the Katyn Massacre that is being used to justify his martyrdom - martyrologia in Poland.

It's hard not to catch the symbolism (not irony as so many have called it) surrounding the location of the plane crash. The Polish presidential Tupolev Tu-154 exploded short of the airport in Smolensk, where the party was landing on their way to attend a remembrance ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre. Perhaps even more than the near half century of repression Poland lived under thanks to the Soviets, this place is the source of greater animosity felt towards Russia to this day. On Stalin's direct orders, almost 22,000 of Poland's 2nd republic's elite were killed by the NKVD (the forerunner to the KGB, today it's the FIS) mostly with single bullets to the back of the head . The event was denied for decades and forbidden to be spoken of in Poland under Soviet domination then partially recognized by Gorbachev and Yeltsin before again threatening to erupt as Putin's Russia reasserted her nationalism collided with the Kaczynski twins anti-Russian foreign policy.

Ironically (now this is irony I think), 72 hours before the disaster saw tangible signs that the wound was going to be given a chance to heal as Putin joined Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk shake hands under the pines and over the graves. Putin went so far as to say "this crime cannot be justified in any way". He went on to condemn condemn Stalin's claims that the missing officers had "fled to Manchuria" as "cynical lies" and the "inhuman totalitarianism" during his speech in Katyn. What's more, everyday Russians were recently given a chance to catch Poland's take on those 1940 killings at various sites in the area, including Katyn forest, Tver and Kharkov as state television broadcasted the film "Katyn" by Polish director Andrzej Wajda, whose father was murdered by the Soviets there. Some 4,000 Polish officers, priests, officials and other "counterrevolutionary elements" were murdered by the Soviets in Katyn alone, killed by targeted shots to the neck with their hands tied behind their back.

Mind you Putin did hedge his words a bit and the movie was only shown on a niche art channel. After the ceremony he said Stalin was seeking revenge for the death in 1920 of Red Army soldiers in Polish prisoner of war camps, where around 32,000 troops under Stalin's command who had been captured by the Poles died of hunger and disease. "It is my personal opinion that Stalin felt personally responsible for this tragedy, and carried out the executions [of Poles in 1940] out of a sense of revenge". Oh yeah, he didn't forget to remind us that the Nazis killed a few folks in WWII as well, a fact Poles don't need reminding of any more than the scale of the most recent tragedy. “First the flower of the Second Polish Republic is murdered in the forests around Smolensk,” said former president Aleksander Kwasniewski following the crash, “now the intellectual elite of the Third Polish Republic die in this tragic plane crash. It is a damned place. It sends shivers down my spine." The atrocity committed at Katyn by Stalin's goons was intended to preemptively remove any threat of Polish resistance to the carving up of the nation agreed upon by the Hitler-Stalin nonaggression pact. Yet even Poland, a place where, as one of its great poets, Wislawa Szymborska, wrote, “History counts its skeletons in round numbers” couldn't imagine the scale of destruction she would suffer at the hands of her enemies during the war. The nation was literally transformed by the Nazis as it became the epicenter of their program to annihilate European Jewry, land of Auschwitz and Majdanek, killing field for millions of Christian Poles and millions of Polish Jews. No Pole could have viewed the failure of Hitler's Operation Barbarossa leading to the turning of the war at Stalingrad and the ensuing collapse of the Nazis with anything but joy, yet it was also impossible to view the prospect of Soviet liberation without anxiety as Katyn left an imprint on the Polish soul. Now the cover up has led to Poland's second leader dying in a plane crash, almost 70 years after her first.

A space next to General Sikorski has been apparently selected for Lech and his wife Maria. Sikorski was the WWII leader of the government constituted abroad in France and then later England after the occupation by Nazi and Soviet forces. It is general assumed, as a proper investigation was never held, that Sikorki was murdered when his RAF Liberator bomber went down July 4, 1943 a few minutes after take off from Gibraltar. The plane plummeted into the harbour, killing 16 passengers on board including Sikorski’s daughter, Zofia. The Czech pilot was the sole survivor who confirmed the cause of the crash to be a failure in the elevation controls. Not coincidentally, Sikorski had just gotten official word from the Red Cross report that the Nazi's hadn't been responsible for Katyn, but in fact, the Soviets were and was on his way back from visiting Polish troops in North Africa to confer with Churchill. Many point to this period as the origin of the cold war - the truth about Katyn may have fractured the Allies which may have changed the outcome of the war, so the truth had to be suppressed at all costs. We all know the history from there as Stalin's USSR was allowed to dominate the eastern third of Europe for the next half decade. Just to tie up history in a nice bow, another victim of last weekend's crash was the last "president-in-exile" during the Soviet years, 90-year-old Ryszard Kaczorowski.

His approach is to first destroy and then think about what to build,” Lech Walesa, hero of the Solidarity movement and former president, said in 2006 of Lech Kaczynski, who once served as Mr. Walesa’s national security chief. Born June 18, 1949, in Warsaw, the Kaczynski twins came to public attention in the 1960s as mischievous boys in the allegorical film "The Two Who Stole the Moon". Their family history was replete with stories of Polish bravery. Their father was a fighter with the Polish resistance during World War II; their mother nursed wounded soldiers. In the 1970s,ine the brothers joined the anti-communist underground and later Walesa's Solidarity movement. Kaczynski was not a charismatic speaker, but his steely disdain for the communist era and populist sound bites won over much of the country. His courageous stand with Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and others in the movement that challenged Poland's communist regime made Kaczynski a touchstone of the post-World War II era.

Also among the 96 dead was Anna Walentynowicz, the shipyard worker whose dismissal in 1980 sparked the Solidarity union protests that eventually led to the collapse of Polish communism and made the symbolic first chink in the Berlin Wall. Lech's presence in Walesa's Solidarity movement was key to the negotiations as his labour law background made him indispensable at the Round-Table discussions on the eve of the restoration of capitalism in 1989 where the “oppositional” Solidarity trade union agreed with the Stalinists to forget the pre-1989 past. The Kacynski lustration crusade of this decade was a result of what they saw after these agreements. A battle for influence among the two wings of the new corrupt ruling class in Poland erupted as the post-Stalinist “red managers” scrambled to fill important posts in the state and privatized industry at the expense of the Solidarity wing of the ruling class, from which the Kaczynski brothers hail. Kaczynski was not a charismatic speaker, but his steely disdain for the communist era and populist sound bites won over much of the country. For many Poles, remembering his courageous stand with Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and others in the movement that challenged Poland's communist regime, Kaczynski was a touchstone of the post-World War II era.

Even though Poland joined the European Union in 2004, Mr. Kaczynski often preferred dealing with the United States. He distrusted the EU, but he hated Russia. Much of the popularity that he had, which wasn't much with approval ratings just over 20%, came from playing upon the Russophobia fears held by many mainly rural Radio Marya type listeners found predominantly in the east of the country. "We must turn the state around to face its citizens," he said during his campaign for the presidency. "The scale of the repair will be so great that Poland will become a new republic." Admittedly, Poland's political spectrum is wonky as Lech's brother Jaroslaw's Law and Justice Party offers Poland the only other choice to Tusk's ultra neoliberal Civic Platform PO party. Where the PiS are very far right socially, the PO is as far right economically, witness their sell-off of $10 billion in state assets - welcome Goldman Sachs. So you either have PiS selling you out militarily to the US, remember their support for Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and of course the missile shield or the PO to it's investment banks. Did we mention that the President of the central bank of Poland, Sławomir Skrzype was yet another victim of the crash?

Sunday's burial ceremony was to see heads of state from around the globe jet in to pay their respects. It seems as though mother Earth is going to prevent many of them from coming, volcanic glass in engines isn't very good apparently. While this may lose much of the foreign media coverage, the death of the chief of the Institute of National Remembrance, Janusz Kurtyka in the crash won't cause Poland to suddenly develop amnesia. All sports events have been cancelled this past week to make sure we don't get distracted, heck, there isn't even any commercials on TV, all I've seen is Lech and Maria black and white homage reels at half time on Canal sport plus football - even El Classico (which wasn't very classic) between Barcelona and Madrid was shown with commentary. There still wasn't commentary for today's Manchester derby, but folks in Krakow are getting it even worse as there are no alcohol sales this weekend due to the funeral. Last time this happened was B-16's first papal visit to the city - I lived in Krakow at the time, we threw a helluva Pope Party as we'd stocked up on booze while those who didn't seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of homemade vodka.

The church and her allies are happy Lech was a good Catholic unlike his soon to be neighbour, Józef Piłsudski, whose atheism caused his internment in Wawel to be controversial as well - the church has enough controversies to deal with right now. He was no king either but Piłsudski and World War I brought about the rebirth of Poland after disappearing off the map for 123 years following the three step partition process that saw Russia, Prussia and those pesky Austro-Hungarian swallow up Poland entirely in 1795. The First Marshall led his country into independence then successfully defended it against the Russians in the 1920 war. His Wawel burial forever links Poland's immaculate re-conception in 1918 with the place of worship of St Stanislaus, ... the grave of the martyr has been considered the Altar of the Homeland. The crypt holds 17 kings including Casimir III the Great and John III Sobieski, saviour of Vienna. Other non-noble new neighbours for the Kaczynskis will be national poet Adam Mickiewicz, whose name is born by my university and Tadeusz Kościuszko, hero of the American Revolution and leader of the 1794 uprising against Imperial Russia and the Kingdom of Prussia. Lech Kaczynski was none of these things, just a "good, modest man" who happened to die in a plane crash at a place from which an urn of soil already sits in the sacred tomb. Poles and good Catholics are being instructed to muzzle the complaints out of respect for the dead, but using Katyn and the past to once again refashion the present is what I find the most disrespectful of all.