Polish Heroes, Polish Victims

Moments after a plane carrying President Lech Kaczynski of Poland and 95 others crashed near Smolensk, Russia, on Saturday, killing all on board, hundreds of Poles were already in front of the presidential palace, lighting candles.

Soon after the National Assembly gathered to honor the dead last week, the Archbishop of Krakow announced that on Sunday, following their funeral tomorrow, Mr. Kaczynski and his wife would be buried at Wawel Cathedral — the Polish equivalent of Westminster Abbey or the Panthéon in Paris. Mr. Kaczynski is to be the first president to be buried there, among the greatest of Polish kings, two revered romantic poets and the three great military heroes Tadeusz Kosciuszko, Jozef Pilsudski and Wladyslaw Sikorski.

But Mr. Kaczynski was not one of these extraordinary men. Just before his death, his approval rating was under 30 percent, while his disapproval rating was twice that. His odds of re-election later this year were meager. He was widely considered the worst Polish president since 1989. Yet in death, he is a national hero.

The reason has nothing to do with Mr. Kaczynski himself, but where he died: Katyn forest, where Soviet troops executed nearly 22,000 Polish officers in April 1940. Indeed, Mr. Kaczynski’s death is only the latest chapter in Poland’s long-running conflict over the meaning of victimhood, martyrdom and death.

The Soviets blamed the Germans for the massacre, but in 1943 an international commission ruled that the bodies were too old for that. The Polish government in London urged further investigation, but the Allies needed Stalin’s help in fighting the Nazis, so they did not push the issue. The world soon forgot about Katyn.

Poles, however, did not forget, though the truth was long suppressed. My peers and I were raised in a society so closely controlled by the Communists allied to the Soviet Union that the very mention of Katyn was prohibited. My wife spent her life wondering why her father, a doctor mobilized as a reserve officer in 1939, never came home.

It was only after the fall of Communism that she learned the truth, when President Boris Yeltsin of Russia gave Poles a list of prisoners to be executed at Katyn, including her father. In 2007, the acclaimed Polish director Andrzej Wajda, whose father was also killed at Katyn, made a film about the massacre and the cover-up that followed.

By the time Mr. Kaczynski took office, Katyn had gone from a secretly remembered event to a symbol of Polish heroism and independence. The very fact that it was suppressed only made the mystique stronger.

Indeed, the story of Katyn took a step forward when Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia and his Polish counterpart, Donald Tusk, met there on April 7. Russia had long played down its responsibility for the massacre, yet Mr. Putin talked openly about the horror of the crimes and how both Russians and Poles were victims of an inhuman system.

Mr. Kaczynski wanted to share in the memory of Katyn and the opening of a new era with Russia. Because he was not invited to the earlier event with the prime ministers, he planned to commemorate the occasion by holding a separate ceremony with the victims’ families on April 10. He invited many of Poland’s political and military leaders, as well as representatives of the association of Katyn family members.

In their hurry to land, the pilots ignored warnings from the Smolensk air traffic controllers about the weather; diverting the flight would mean delaying the ceremony, where thousands were already gathered.

Though tragic, this was hardly a heroic death. Few will say it, but this was a stupid and useless crash. Calling it heroic dodges responsibility and prevents the development of measures for avoiding future disasters.

Not everyone agrees with the glorification of Mr. Kaczynski’s death. The well-known psychologist Wojciech Eichelberger was one of the first to express disdain for the reaction in the press, saying we should not confuse stupidity with heroism. The decision to bury Mr. Kaczynski in the Wawel crypt has likewise spurred demonstrations in Krakow and Warsaw. Yet most of Poland is, for now, enamored with the idea of Mr. Kaczynski as our latest national hero.

In the end, Mr. Kaczynski has become strangely aligned with Katyn. Had his planned celebrations taken place, they would have most likely had only a slight effect on his popularity. Instead, Mr. Kaczynski became a hero, because in Poland, any death in or near Katyn sounds heroic — a reaction that does disservice both to Mr. Kaczynski himself and the memory of those murdered by the Soviets.

Wiktor Osiatynski, a professor at the Central European University in Budapest and the author of Human Rights and Their Limits.