Poland suffered a great tragedy today when its president, its top military leaders and 90 other people died in a plane crash in Russia. Initial reports indicate that bad weather and human error caused the crash.
Ironically, Polish President Lech Kaczynski and the country’s top military leaders were on their way to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn Forest Massacre. In March of 1940, Stalin’s Soviet Union murdered about 22,000 Polish prisoners of war, primarily military officers. The Soviet Union denied and covered up evidence of this event until 1990. Today, Russia (the Soviet Union’s core successor state) recognizes that the massacre occurred, but does not admit that it was a war crime.
It is appropriate today to look beyond today’s headlines at the important role Poland has played in the fight for human freedom in history and the continued fears Poland has with respect to Russia.
History is important if we want to understand the world we live in. If you find history boring, you haven’t had the opportunity to listen to teachers, to read books or watch movies that tell the story of human beings struggling to overcome adversity. Poland’s history is full of drama, suffering and triumph over evil. No contemporary movie or novel can compete with Poland’s history.
Earlier this year, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk got agreement from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to have a memorial ceremony to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn Forest Massacre. Putin, the former Russian President, has moved Russia from becoming a Western democracy to a repressive regime run for the benefit of the rulers. Putin has resurrected the Soviet Union’s brutal mass murderer Joseph Stalin as a symbol of Russian strength. Today he has taken responsibility for investigating the plane crash.
It is ironic that someone like Putin would investigate the death of the Polish President and Polish military leaders on their way to commemorate a Russian war crime. However, the news reports indicate that bad weather and pilot error are the cause of the crash, so let’s assume that this is not some evil conspiracy.
Why is Poland important to America and Western values of freedom?
Poland’s location in Europe has always made it vulnerable to occupation by its neighbors. Despite this, Poland has come to the rescue of Europe not just in the 20th century, but as early as 1683 when King Sobieski liberated Vienna from a siege by Ottoman Turks who were poised to conquer much of Europe if they could have defeated Austria at Vienna.
In the 20th century, the rape of Poland by Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union marked the official start of World War 2. After the war, we (the US and Great Britain) allowed the Soviet Union to occupy Poland, move its borders and make it a communist state for forty years. Not one of our best moments.
But Poland continued to resist tyranny. In 1978, a Polish bishop became Pope, the leader of the Catholic Church. The ascension of John Paul II to the papacy energized the Polish people, who are devout Catholic Christians, in their resistance to tyranny.
In 1979, Lech Walesa formed Solidarity, a labor union not controlled by the communist government. The struggle against communism continued throughout the 1980s. The communist regime tried to repress Solidarity, but was powerless when millions of people welcomed Pope John Paul II during his visits to Poland.
By 1989, the communist regime was out of options. They could no longer rely on the military to suppress the people and the Soviet Union no longer had the will or capability to enforce the status quo. Poland held its first free election in over half a century and Solidarity won. Solidarity leader Lech Walesa became the first elected president of Poland. During the next few months, the movement to overthrow communism spread throughout Eastern Europe and, by the end of 1989, the Berlin Wall had fallen and East Germany, Hungary, Chekoslovakia and Romania had overthrown their communist oppressors.
For the past 20 years Poland has been a leader in Eastern Europe in building a free, democratic and prosperous country. Poland is a member of NATO and the European Union and contributes troops to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A few years ago Poland agreed to host a missile defense system designed to shoot down nuclear missiles from rogue regimes like Iran. President Obama has canceled this project that required Polish leaders including President Lech Kaczynski to stand up to pressure from Russia not to cooperate with the US.
Today, Poland is an important part of Europe. It is a strong ally of the US and enjoys more freedom than the Western European socialist welfare states that are Obama’s model for America.
Poland has suffered a great tragedy. It continues to cast a weary eye east towards a Russia that celebrates Soviet strength during Stalin’s murderous rule. It is difficult for Americans to conceive the oppression, turmoil and brutal dictatorship that middle-aged and older Poles experienced in their lives.
Today, Poland is shocked by the tragedy of the plane crash, but we need to understand the bigger fears they have based on their history. Sadly, today America does not have a government that appreciates the heroism of Polish people, but there are still millions of Americans including many of Polish descent who understand that when it comes to America’s friends, it would be hard to find a friend and ally of America as reliable as Poland.