Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

In Poland: Solidarity Beyond Tragedy

April 12, 2010

A message from Watson Institute Director Michael D. Kennedy

The death of Lech Kaczynski, president of Poland, and his wife, the vice marshal of the Sejm, Jerzy Szmajdzinski, himself a presidential candidate for the scheduled fall elections, the president of the Polish National Bank, Slawomir Skrzypek, the leader of Poland’s Institute for Historical Memory, Janusz Kurtyka, and 83 other prominent passengers plus eight members of the crew in Saturday’s terrible crash is profound tragedy by itself. That this plane was headed toward the commemoration of the Katyn Massacre of 1940, where over 20,000 of Poland’s military, political, and intellectual elite were killed on Stalin’s direct orders, means that today’s sadness rests on historical trauma. Prime Minister Donald Tusk declares national mourning, as families recognize personal calamity. Those who lost family members on that plane traveling to recognize the killing of an earlier generation of that same family line is a succession of sadness hard to appreciate for those beyond. Poles, unfortunately, know tragedy far too well. Poles also know solidarity.
 
Solidarity is evident on the streets of Warsaw, and across Poland, in these last days; people weep, spontaneously sing the national anthem before the return of the Lech Kaczynski’s body to the Presidential Palace, and pray for the souls of the departed as they pray for the future of their country. But as Poles also know, solidarity is not only a Biblical injunction to bear the burden of others. In Polish history, Solidarity was political – a way of uniting the nation in peace and democracy against communist rule. But that very Solidarity movement also became political in a different way after communism’s collapse, where different interpretations of Poland’s past, laced with various political ambitions, turned Poland into a normal democratic country. That democratic normality is an achievement by itself, something to be celebrated in the evident institutional solidity and smooth succession of power we have seen in the past days. But let us not overlook the spiritual side of solidarity in all of this.
 
The responsible leadership in Poland today transcends the normal political contest of interpretation to sanctify this horrific loss; even those like Adam Michnik, whose criticisms of President Kaczynski were not always so restrained as they might be, now recognize him as a person deeply devoted to his family, his friends, his Warsaw, his nation. Despite political disagreements, often on profound issues, Poles of different political persuasions return to the spiritual solidarity that bound them in the 1980s. And that spiritual solidarity can radiate.
 
We can of course see it in the messages of condolence political leaders offer, but these can be formulaic; what inspires more is when those formerly at odds can find common ground in the tragedy of loss this accident on such an occasion represents. President Medvedev’s moving message to the Polish people, Prime Minister Putin’s personal expression and commitment to exploring the precise causes of this outcome, contribute to a new feeling between Poles and Russians. 
 
Many have thought that the full accounting for the crimes of Katyn in 1940 could be the only foundation for the normalization of Polish and Russian ties. Perhaps this weekend’s martyrdom of so many of Poland’s elite might do something even more, where Polish and Russian mutual recognition in the face of immediate tragedy creates the foundation in spiritual solidarity for moving the complicated politics of the real world to a better place.