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.
Intuition for Poland's Emotional State
Even before their 2005 election as president and to parliament, respectively, Lech and Jaroslaw demonstrated a strong intuition for the emotional state of their people. They promised to abolish the so-called Third Republic -- the political order following the collapse of Communism in 1989 -- and replace it with a "Fourth Republic." Their vision saw the old post-Communist elite definitively stripped of power, corruption fought effectively, the prosecution of former informants to the secret police and the emergence of a harmonious society following good Catholic values -- one without abortion or gay marriage.
The message caught on in a country where frustration over the scandals and nepotism of the left-wing politicians currently in power was running high. The Kaczynskis drew votes not only from those who had lost the most in the fall of Communism -- their vision hit home with educated city dwellers as well.
In mucking out the remains of the Third Republic, the Kaczynskis sent the previous government's foreign policy guidelines off to the landfill too. Mazowiecki, as well as the left-wing governments who followed him, had valued good relations with Germany highly. That era ended with the Kaczynskis and the tone of conversation between Warsaw and Berlin deteriorated dramatically.
Germany had taken a complacent attitude toward its small and supposedly weak eastern neighbor. It advocated for Poland's EU membership and believed that to be enough penance for the Nazis' crimes. Now it suddenly found itself faced with a Polish government -- Jaroslaw was by now prime minister -- unwilling to be fobbed off with rhetoric and "reconciliation kitsch," in the words of former Ambassador Janusz Reiter.
"Some in the West seem to have thought Poland had no interests of its own anymore and would just follow others' opinions. That is by no means the case," Lech Kaczynski once declared in a SPIEGEL interview.
Furious Polemics Against Germany
Poland under the twins' leadership raged against the Baltic Sea pipeline, whose construction was negotiated between Russia and Germany without any Polish participation. They also issued polemics against a planned memorial center in Berlin for ethnic Germans forcefully expelled from Eastern Europe after World War II and against Germany's influence in the European Union, which they considered disproportionately strong. A new generation of right-wing journalists even accused Germans of trying to forget their own history. Poland's western neighbor, so the line went, was trying to paint Jews and German expellees as the sole victims of the war.
In no time at all, Jaroslaw said, things would go so far that the Poles would find themselves having to apologize to the Germans for World War II. In Brussels, meanwhile, Lech Kaczynski nearly caused the collapse of the Lisbon Treaty package of EU reforms. His argument: Poland deserved greater voting weight, because the country would have been much bigger and wealthier if Germany hadn't made it the battlefield of World War II.
Many on the German side felt their prejudices had been confirmed. To them, the divisive twins at the head of the Polish state confirmed what many Germans already thought to be true -- that the Poles, as a people, were uptight, backward nationalists quick to collapse into fits of historical pathos.
But the hysteria soon ebbed away. Germany is Poland's most important trading partner and in the western part of the country especially, German mayors meet with their Polish counterparts and Polish businesses work together with their German neighbors every day.
A liberal civic platform won the Polish parliamentary election in October 2007. The country had grown tired of polemics and the Kaczynskis' deft ability to turn any political conflict into a simple black-and-white issue and reduce everything to two-dimensional, friend-versus-enemy images. Poland grew tired of the constant polarization. It wasn't only abroad that the Kaczynskis perceived themselves as being surrounded by enemies. At home, too, they constantly lashed out at the country's supposed enemies -- be they rich entrepreneurs, allegedly gay Teletubbies, or old communist cronyism.
Lech made a far weaker president without his brother Jaroslaw at his side as prime minister. He was still good for the odd petty spat with Donald Tusk's government, but for the most part simply played the country's highest master of ceremonies, without much political impetus left to give. He would have had to run for re-election this fall, but at the time of Kaczynski's death on Saturday, his challenger, Polish parliament speaker Bronislaw Komorowski, was leading in the polls.
In the wake of the tragedy in Smolensk, Komorowski will assume the office of president a bit earlier than planned.