The plane crash this morning that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and members of his country’s military, political and church elites is an almost unspeakable tragedy to anyone who contemplates why a planeload of Polish elite were flying on a Soviet era airliner in the first place. The 70th Anniversary of the Katyn Massacre was to have been a mournful enough occasion; the airplane crash has not only made it worse–it is, as Polish priest Jan Kaczmarczyk has called it, “a second Katyn massacre”.

So what, exactly, was the Katyn massacre? Poles, friends of Poland, and students of WWII history know the story but many are just learning it now for the first time. To understand it–and the depth of the feelings that Poles have for this tragic event– it is necessary to go back to the beginning of World War II and recall that Germany invaded Poland from the West on September 1st. On September 17 Russia invaded Poland from the east, taking between 250,000 and 400,000 Polish military and police personnel prisoner. Many of these were released–but those that remained prisoners constituted the absolute elite of the Polish officer corps.

The Katyn Massacre occurred April 1940 and was part of simultaneous executions of Polish prisoners in a number of locations approved by Stalin and carried out by the NKVD. Those who died at Katyn included an admiral, two generals, 24 colonels, 79 lieutenant colonels, 258 majors, 654 captains, 17 naval captains, 3,420 NCOs, seven chaplains, three landowners, a prince, 43 officials, 85 privates, and 131 refugees. Also among the dead were 20 university professors (including Stefan Kaczmarz); 300 physicians; several hundred lawyers, engineers, and teachers; and more than 100 writers and journalists as well as about 200 pilots. In all, the NKVD executed almost half the Polish officer corps. Altogether, during the massacre the NKVD murdered 14 Polish generals.

After Germany invaded Russia and came to be in control of Katyn, the mass graves were discovered and the German military, fearing they would be blamed, in 1943 reported the news of the discovery of the mass graves. They brought American and British POW’s to view the exhumation. Yet after the war, and all the way through the entirety of the cold war, the Soviet leadership refused to acknowledge Soviet responsibility for the deaths even though it was widely understood in Poland and throughout the world that indeed, the massacre had been a Soviet operation. It was only in 1990 the USSR, under President Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of ‘perestroika’, finally acknowledged Soviet responsibility.

On April 7, 2010 — just three days before the plane crash–Soviet leader Vladimir Putin and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk jointly commemorated the massacre, marking the first time that Polish and Russian leaders had commemorated the event together.

A personal note: When I served at the American Embassy in Warsaw in 1980, I was in Poland during what was the 40th anniversary of the Katyn Massacre and I was deeply touched by the degree to which the massacre–which at that time was still being denied by the Soviet government–was remembered with real agony by the Polish people. Remembering that pain just makes me wonder what they must be feeling now, as another unspeakable decapitation of Polish political and cultural elite. Our hearts should really be with Poland in the coming days.

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