The Death of a President The Tragic End of Kaczynski's National Mission

Together with his twin brother Jaroslaw, Lech Kaczynski shaped Polish politics for years -- at times keeping the rest of the European Union on tenterhooks over its next political moves. On Saturday, the Polish president died in a tragic plane crash -- on his way to a memorial ceremony in Katyn, of all places.



Lech Kaczynski and his twin brother Jaroslaw made a bizarre political team. Aware of their own power, with an intuition for their people's current emotional state and a passion for political battles, the brothers kept the European Union on tenterhooks for years. Relations with Germany in particular suffered. But in the end, they took things too far -- and it's unlikely Lech would have been reelected as president this fall.

Now Lech Kacyznski is dead, the victim of a plane crash this Saturday as he flew to the airport at Smolensk, Russia, on his way to Katyn, a particularly emotionally charged site for Poland. There and in the surrounding forest in 1940, Soviet secret police murdered around 20,000 Polish officers captured after the Soviet and German invasion of Poland. Stalin gave the orders to have the Polish leadership -- including military officers, engineers, teachers, and priests -- shot.

The crash of the presidential plane Saturday morning also meant the deaths of dozens of other Polish dignitaries, including the president's wife, several bishops, the head of the national bank, deputy government ministers, and the head of the Polish commission that oversees the files kept by the country's former secret police. "Our country's elite has died," former Polish President Lech Walesa said in the wake of the catastrophe.

Had any other politician crashed on the way to a memorial event in Katyn, Lech Kaczynski would surely have declared him or her to have died in the service of the country. Kaczynski and his brother Jaroslaw, who was not on board the plane, always understood service to the country to mean a political interpretation of history more than anything. In their eyes, Poland was best served by remembrance of its history of suffering, especially during and after World War II, and by consistently reminding the perpetrators -- Communist rulers, Russia, and Germany -- of their crimes against Poland. Their country's martyrdom, full of victims and glory, was political currency for the Kaczynski brothers.

Child Film Stars

Lech Kaczynski was born in Warsaw on June 18, 1949, about 45 minutes after his brother Jaroslaw. Their father Raimund, an engineer, and mother Jadwiga, a philologist, had fought against the German occupying forces. The brothers, strikingly identical even for twins, achieved fame while still children, as the main characters Jacek and Placek in a children's film called "The Two Who Stole the Moon." The shape their symbiosis would take was clear even then -- Lech as the friendly, approachable one, the foreign minister of the pair, and Jaroslaw as the cynical strategist and mastermind. When Lech became president in 2005, he reported back to his brother and announced, "Mission accomplished."

The brothers joined Poland's anti-communist opposition in the 1970s, while studying law. For them, the fact that Poland fell within the Soviet Union's sphere of control was another chapter in the country's history of suffering, following the partitioning of the country in the 18th century and the high death toll of its war against Hitler's Germany. The fight against Soviet hegemony was -- and remained -- their national mission.

After the fall of communism, the Kaczynskis briefly belonged to various governments, but had a falling out with the dissidents surrounding Lech Walesa. Those politicians had joined round table discussions with the communists in 1989 to negotiate a gradual power transition. Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Poland's first non-communist prime minister, proposed drawing a "clear line" on the country's communist past and not allowing the connections many Poles had to the secret police to overshadow its new beginning. The Kaczynskis found his position unacceptable.

By 2002, the Kaczynskis and their Law and Justice party had become the strongest force on the right side of the Polish political spectrum and Lech Kaczynski won the election to become Warsaw's mayor. His main objective was to build a museum about the Warsaw Uprising, the 1944 rebellion of the city's inhabitants against the German occupation. The resistance put up weeks of fighting, while the Red Army dug in within firing range on the east bank of the Vistula River. Stalin betrayed Poland, allowing Hitler's troops to raze Warsaw to the ground and carry out an unprecedented massacre of the Polish people.

The exhibit on Grzybowska Street became the Kaczynski era's central political-historical project. Its stated goal was -- through teaching about their ancestors' heroic deeds -- to give modern Polish people a new national solidarity and the feeling of belonging together that many sought amid the confusion that followed the fall of communism.


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