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Friday, April 16, 2010

Bernard Margueritte (Photo: Daniele de Lutzel)Never before has Poland lived through such an emotional time. Even the trauma following Pope John Paul II’s death was not so intense. Thousands and thousands of people have come to the presidential palace, bringing, in tears and prayers, flowers and candles. It takes an estimated 13 hours of waiting in line to pay tribute for a few seconds in front of the coffins of President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria. People are still flowing in from all over Poland.

It seems that two reasons are key to creating this exceptional emotion. First the circumstances: the President and the other members of the Polish elite who died at Severny airport near Smoleńsk flew there to pay tribute to the 22,000 Polish officers killed by the Stalinists in 1940. This current drama is, in a way, a second Katyn, a new tragedy at this terrible place. Secondly, people feel ashamed that they had not recognized in time how great a President they had, betrayed as they have been by a large part of the political and media establishment. Many Poles speak openly about this. They have only now learned the truth about their President. Very often they swear that they will never again listen to what some politicians or media people tell them.

However we already see that a kind of miracle is happening: this second Katyn allows at last the whole word to learn the truth about the tragedy of 1940, when the Soviets deliberately killed 22,000 officers representing the elite of all segments of Polish life. The consequences were felt for a very long time in this country, allowing the communists to rule over Poland more easily. Now, on a much smaller scale, another Polish elite has been decimated. The president and his wife, but also--to speak of just a few--seven generals and a vice-admiral (among them general Gągor, Chief of Staff of the Polish Armed Forces, who was a few votes short of being elected as the head of the military committee of NATO in 2008), 17 members of parliament, bishops of the Catholic Church but also of the Orthodox and Evangelic churches, the last President of free Poland in exile in London, Ryszard Kaczorowski, the Citizens Rights Defender of the Republic, Janusz Kochanowski, the Head of the Institute of Polish Remembrance, Janusz Kurtyka, the shipyard worker who started the historical strike of 1980, which was at the beginning of Solidarnosc, and Anna Walentynowicz. I knew them all personally and they were all first rate personalities, thinking only about the good of Poland. How could the Poles react with any less sorrow?

At the same time they wonder: was such a terrible sacrifice necessary for the world to know the truth? Even in the Seventies and Eighties the West was reluctant to accept the truth about Katyn and was not willing to speak about it. A few years ago when the Poles suggested organizing an exposition about Katyn in the European Parliament they faced a rebuttal. This week the exhibit was installed there in two hours! The Poles have not forgotten that although the Wehrmacht discovered the graves in 1943 and the French fascists wrote about it at that time, the West refused for a long time to acknowledge that this mass assassination was perpetuated by the Soviets. Public mention of it was not allowed in order “not to offend the Russians”. But we knew: J. Epstein, a former American correspondent in Warsaw for The Herald Tribune, created in 1949 the American Committee for the Investigation of the Katyn Massacre and Rep. John Madden stood in 1951 at the head of a Select Committee to find the truth about Katyn.

Now there is no more escape from the truth. How could the Poles react with less emotion?

The intensity of their sorrow is also due to their feeling betrayed by their own establishment and to the guilt of discovering, too late, how great a statesman the late President was. Rarely has a political leader been portrayed in so ugly and false a manner as President Kaczynski. Not only was he not treated with the respect due to a head of state. He was mocked, depicted in a railing and scoffing manner. Now the politicians, who led the way in this regard, keep quiet and rightly so. They have lost their credibility. But so has a huge part of the media in Poland and abroad. The Poles tell you today that they will never again trust the media and in particular Gazeta Wyborcza and Adam Michnik, who was first in line to scoff at President Kaczynski.

The President was a tough negotiator inside the EU. They said that because of him Poland was losing its credibility. Today, the German press, for one, acknowledges how much respect they had for a President who fought so hard for the good of his country.

He wanted, in line with the teachings of John Paul II, to fight for the respect of the dignity of the human person, asking for the affirmation of strong ethical principles but also of social justice. He was presented as a backward far-right politician!

He advocated the freedom of nations, supporting Ukraine and Georgia in their struggles. He was accused of foolishly complicating Polish relations with Russia.

He suggested that the truth be known about collaborations of the past with the communist secret police, not to punish anyone but to clear the slate. They said he was launching a witch-hunt.

High on his agenda was the fight against corruption, the willingness to see Poland a state of law. They claimed he wanted to undermine the free-market society. 

In fact the root of the hatred of the establishment toward a President so much loved today by the people may well have been the fear of seeing him bring forth the truth about the past and an end to the rule of the mafias and various corrupted systems.

The miracle however is happening. The people of Poland are beginning to see the truth. The young in particular, who are the vast majority of those bringing flowers to the Presidential Palace, say they will not accept politics as usual from now on. Patriotism but with respect of others, moral principles but with social justice, are high on their agenda. It will not be so easy from now on to manipulate them! Poland is changing. Poland is experiencing a true catharsis; so strong is the impact of the drama.

But--and this is the second miracle--Russia also seems to be living through a powerful catharsis. Premier Putin acknowledged that the Katyn massacre was committed by the Stalinists. President Medvedev wrote moving words in the book of condolences at the Polish embassy in Moscow. The Russians at last are ready to admit that the murders of the past were not committed by the Russian nation but by the Stalinists, just as the murders of Hitler were the responsibility of the Nazis and not of the Germans. The families of Polish victims coming to Smolensk or Moscow are treated with great compassion and receive all possible help. The Poles see already that they are not dealing with the same Russians anymore, but with Slavic brothers. This might be the dawn of a new era of deep reconciliation between the two nations.

The sacrifice at the altar of the nation of the President, his wife and his companions is already bearing fruit, in a sad but powerful way, inside Poland but also for Russian-Polish relations--which will have a profound impact on the whole European scene and maybe around the world.

Bernard Margueritte, a leading TV commentator in Poland, is the President of the International Communications Forum.