In 1943 Poland’s wartime leader accused Moscow of ordering the Katyn massacre, the systematic murder of 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals. A few months later he was dead, the victim of an air crash. Was it murder? Almost certainly not, but Poland’s painful past, combined with official secrecy, created precisely the muggy and mysterious conditions in which conspiracy theory thrives.
In 2010 another Polish leader, President Lech Kaczynski, heads to Katyn to commemorate the appalling massacre that took place there. Within hours he too is dead, along with his wife and 94 other members of Poland’s elite, the victims of another air crash. Was this coincidence? Almost certainly, but a similar climate of suspicion ensures that the conspiracies are already sprouting, and spreading.
The thread connecting these events is secrecy, for it is concealment that turns a tragedy into a festering historical sore. Britain still has not released all the files on the death in 1943 of General Wladyslaw Sikorski, Prime Minister of the Polish Government-in-exile. For decades Moscow declined to admit what had happened at Katyn, and Vladimir Putin still refuses to apologise.
In the confusion and grief following the Smolensk air crash on Saturday, the whispers, rumours and accusations have begun to circulate. The Polish president’s plane, it is noted darkly, was Russian-made, and recently serviced in Russia. The Russian Government heartily disliked President Kaczynski, who had criticised Russia’s “new imperialism”. Moscow declined to invite him to a ceremony at Katyn last Wednesday — so Kaczynski decided to hold a second memorial service, and was killed en route.
Initial reports have ruled out mechanical failure, so was the pilot pressurised to make the landing by his august passengers? Polish conspiracists are already blaming the Russian secret service, while others suggest that Russian hardliners may have sought to undermine Mr Putin by sabotaging the plane.
Poland has a deeply emotional, almost mystical relationship with the story of tragedy, rebellion, courage and repression that is Polish history. The present is permanently refracted through the past. “The place is cursed,” declared Aleksander Kwasniewski, the former President, after the latest tragedy associated with Katyn.
Lech Walesa’s remark was even more telling: “This is the second Katyn tragedy; the first time they tried to cut our head off, and now again the elite of our country has perished.” Implicit is the assumption that “they”, unnamed enemies, must also lie behind Poland’s latest national calamity.
The only way to ensure against wild conspiracy theories is to conduct the crash investigation in the disinfecting sunlight; to eschew the secrecy that is Moscow’s natural instinct; and to ensure that the historical verdict on this episode is provided, or at least believed, by Poles. To do, in short, everything that Britain failed to do when investigating the death of another Polish leader, 67 years ago.
On July 4, 1943, General Sikorski, the Polish commander-in-chief of land under Nazi occupation, took off from Gibraltar in a converted RAF Liberator bomber, bound for England. A few minutes later the plane plummeted into the harbour, killing 16 passengers on board including Sikorski’s daughter, Zofia. The Czech pilot was the sole survivor.
A British court of inquiry conducted a swift and secret investigation, which ruled out sabotage but failed to establish the cause of the crash. The pilot said his controls had jammed.
The conspiracy theories erupted almost immediately, and have continued ever since. One held that the Nazis had orchestrated the crash, determined to remove a popular Polish figurehead. Even greater suspicion fell on Stalin, who had most to gain from eliminating the troublesome general. Three months earlier Sikorski had called for a Red Cross investigation into the Katyn massacres, prompting a furious Stalin to break off relations with the Polish Government-in-exile.
Alternative theories claimed that the assassination was the work of a Polish faction, or the British, keen to remove an impediment to good relations with its Soviet ally. Soldiers, a 1968 play by the German playwright Rolf Hochhuth, even suggested that Winston Churchill had played a role in the supposed assassination plot.
Many British documents relating to the crash remain classified, and for nearly seven decades the conspiracists have been allowed virtually free rein. Kim Philby, then head of MI6 counterintelligence for the Iberian Peninsula, was said to have had a hand in organising Sikorski’s death on behalf of his Moscow spymasters. Sikorski’s daughter was allegedly spotted in a Soviet gulag many years later. Sikorski himself was variously said to have been poisoned, strangled, suffocated or shot before being loaded on to the doomed plane.
Last year Polish forensic scientists exhumed the general’s corpse from a crypt in Cracow and concluded that he had died in the air crash after all. But, as Polish historians pointed out at the time, until or unless all the British and Soviet archives are released, the fate of Poland’s wartime leader will continue to be a source of friction and fantasy.
Sikorski’s plane probably crashed because someone accidentally placed luggage on the steering mechanism. An equally simple explanation — most likely pilot error — may lie behind the accident that deprived Poland of so much of its leadership last weekend.
If so, it is essential that the Polish people themselves see the truth being revealed. So far, Russia has made the right noises, promising an open investigation and agreeing to leave the aircraft at the scene.
But so long as Mr Putin heads the commission investigating the crash, Poles will wonder about the truth of its findings. Russia should invite Polish experts to take part in, and witness, every aspect of the investigation. Mr Putin has gone some way towards building a historical consensus about Katyn, even making a personal appearance at the service last week. This is another opportunity for him to demonstrate that history, as it unfolds, can bring old enemies together, as well as force them apart.
Like the Katyn massacre and the death of General Sikorski, the Smolensk crash will come to represent another tragic milestone in Poland’s history. The horror of Katyn was hidden for half a century behind Soviet lies; the fate of Sikorski was obscured, for far too long, by British secrecy. This time Poland itself should have the right to decide what really happened.