Woke up to an unimaginable horror for the people of Poland: Their president, first lady, and dozens of top government and military leaders have been killed in a plane crash in Russia. They were headed to a ceremony marking the slaughter of more than 20,000 Polish officers by the Soviet secret police in the Katyn Forest after the Red Army invaded Poland.
The crash came as a staggering blow to Poland, wiping out a large swath of the country’s leadership, including the commanders of all four branches of the military, the head of the central bank, the president and many of his top advisors. In the numb hours after the crash, leaders in Warsaw evoked the horror of the massacre at Katyn, which stood for decades as a symbol of Russian domination.
“It is a damned place,” former president Aleksander Kwasniewski told TVN24. “It sends shivers down my spine. First the flower of the Second Polish Republic is murdered in the forests around Smolensk, now the intellectual elite of the Third Polish Republic die in this tragic plane crash when approaching Smolensk airport.”
The Economist weighs in on the tragedy in Smolensk:
Polish historical sensitivies about Russia mean that many see the coincidence as sinister rather than tragic. But the plane tried to land four times, in bad weather. Accident is the overwhelmingly likely cause.
Yet like Katyn, which eliminated the flower of the pre-war Polish elite, the plane crash also seems like a decapitation of Polish society. Among the 96 people who died were the chief of the Polish general staff, the head of the central bank, the director of the Institute of National Remembrance (which investigates and documents crimes such as Katyn) and many other of the country’s top public figures. Many politicians from the opposition Law and Justice Party, which is led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the late president’s twin brother, were among the delegation.
A growing pile of flowers outside the presidential palace in Warsaw attested to the public’s stunning sense of loss. Radek Sikorski, the foreign minister, who broke the news to the prime minister Donald Tusk this morning and said that the head of government wept on hearing it. Both men had been at Katyn earlier in the week, at a ceremony attended by the Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin. The hawkish Mr Kaczynski did not attend that ceremony, instead insisting on his own visit three days later.