Where History’s March Is a Funeral Procession

It is hard to come to terms with the deaths of so many people, including the Polish president, from the plane crash last Saturday. And it is hard to believe the uncanny coincidence that the plane went down near the Katyn forest in Russia, the site of the Soviet massacre of Polish officers in 1940. When we heard, everything went quiet. Then people rushed to the Internet and switched on their TVs, because no event, not even the most tragic, exists beyond the media.

The next day, as people began to emerge from church, I received an anonymous text message, sure to have been sent to lots of people, like similar messages announcing candlelight vigils or encouraging people to tie black ribbons to their cars. This message said: “History has come full circle. Mickiewicz’s Poland as the Christ of Nations is returning. Let us be united by this love from God. Let us strengthen the fatherland through brotherhood.”

I felt a shudder of horror that hasn’t really left me to this moment.

Two centuries ago, when our nation lost its sovereignty and was partitioned among Russia, Prussia and Austria, Polish Romantics like the poet and nationalist Adam Mickiewicz declared that independence would come only with great sacrifice. Ever since, this myth of the martyr, or messianic victim, has emerged during times of national crisis. This way of thinking has frequently been exploited by politicians; one famous result was the Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis in 1944, which was doomed from the outset and cost 200,000 lives.

Since the president’s crash, the Poles have again united over death.

I turned on the TV Sunday afternoon, and the more the night drew on, the more I heard words like nation, victim, mystical coincidence, sign, accursed place, true patriotism, Katyn, truth. Politicians who only a few days ago were at each other’s throats are now speaking, in trembling voices, of “deep meaning” and “the metaphysics of Katyn.” Not much more than 20 years ago, some of these same people suppressed the truth about the deaths at Katyn to follow the Communist Party line.

I am reminded that when a major trauma occurs, the kind that is both individual and collective, something happens that Jungian psychology calls an “abaissement du niveau mental” — a lowering of the level of consciousness. Intellect gives way to the gloom of the collective psyche. The horrified mind tries to find meaning, but lets itself be seduced by old myths.

I feel for the families of the victims. I can’t stop thinking about the 96 people who died and their terror at the moment of death. From death’s perspective, there are no differences between people; there are no presidents or flight attendants, no faiths or nations. There is just the person, always dear.

But sometimes I fear that the people of my country can unite only beside victims’ bodies, over coffins and in cemeteries. Like tribesmen who dance around old totems, we ignore the living and can only appreciate the dead. While the government prays on its knees, the Catholic Church, which is the custodian of this anachronistic mentality, has a monopoly on communal ritual and collective experience.

I am sick of building our common identity around funeral marches and failed uprisings. I dream of Poland becoming a modern society that is defined not by the crippling nature of history, but by our individual achievements, a sense of our own self-worth and ideas for the future.

Olga Tokarczuk, the author of the novel Primeval and Other Times. This article was translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones from the Polish.