This is undoubtedly the biggest tragedy Poland has endured since the end of the Second World War. This morning the presidential plane, en route to Smolensk in eastern Russia, crashed in thick fog as it came to landing.
The initial reports were unclear and confusing, but now we know that Poland has lost its current President, Lech Kaczynski. This morning’s crash wiped out a large part of Poland’s political elite as, apart from the President and his wife, there were 94 other high-ranking dignitaries onboard the plane.
Among those who tragically died in the accident were the former London-based President of Poland in Exile, Ryszard Kaczorowski, deputy heads of both chambers of the Polish parliament: Krzysztof Putra, Jerzy Szmajdzinski and Krystyna Bochenek, the head of the Polish National Security Office, Aleksander Szczyglo, the head of the Polish National Bank, Slawomir Skrzypek, several MPs, top army leaders, church leaders and numerous members of the late President’s entourage.
The painfully ironic, if the word is appropriate here at all, aspect of the tragedy is the fact they were en route to Katyn near Smolensk to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn Massacre. Seventy years ago Soviets killed over twenty thousand Polish prisoners of war. By murdering top intellectuals, military personel, public servants etc. they wiped out the Polish elite. For decades, until 1990, Moscow denied any involvement, blaming Nazi Germany for it.
The fact that this tragedy mirrors the events of March 1940 is a very cruel twist of history and a massive blow to a country which in recent years has been emerging from decades of humiliation and suffering. And that’s regardless of what whoever thinks about the President, whose conservative policies and controversial comments often polarised the society.
Poland will need to brace itself for a very difficult period of rebuilding its power structures. Questions will be asked about the incident, about security policies, about the next steps. But I just hope this time Poland will take a more mature, less divisive approach to these issues.
The former Polish President, Aleksander Kwasniewski, referring to today’s tragedy in the forest outside Smolensk and the Katyn Massacre of 1940 said: “This place is damned.”
It’s very difficult to disagree with him.