Exhuming Poland’s President: The Third Katyn Grave

Yesterday the Polish government removed the bodies of former Polish president Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria from the crypt in Wawel Castle in Krakow. The Kacyznskis, along with 94 other senior members of the Polish government and military, were killed in a plane crash in the Russian city of Smolensk in April 2010, on their way to a memorial service for 5,000 Polish officers executed by Soviet NKVD in 1940. The 2010 crash was a tragedy build upon a tragedy, and in recent years has become a focal point of Polish identity. It has also become a rallying point for Polish nationalists, who claim that just as the Soviets covered up the 1940 executions for half a century — Gorbachev only acknowledged NKVD responsibility in 1990 — the Russians have covered up the real cause of the 2010 crash. The crash was no accident, these groups believe; rather, it was an Russian assassination, a purge of Poland’s top levels of government. A re-examination of the Kaczynskis’ bodies is intended to reveal the truth. In practice, though, it will likely only compound three quarters of a century of confusion.

The First Katyn Grave

In September 1939, during the joint German and Soviet invasion of Poland that started the Second World War, an estimated two hundred thousand Polish soldiers and military personnel were killed or injured in the 27 days of fighting. Many more were taken prisoner: the Soviets took almost a quarter million prisoners of war (POWs); the Germans took nearly 700,000. About five thousand officers were transferred to a POW camp called Kozielsk, one of three facilities in the western Soviet Union used to hold officers. In early March 1940, the head of the NKVD, Lavrentiy Beria, wrote to Stalin that the officers were “irredeemable enemies of Soviet power.” Beria recommended “the supreme punishment, [execution by] shooting.” Stalin granted his approval, and executions started less than a month later. By mid April, all 5,000 Polish officers lay in mass graves in the Katyn Forest, near the now-Russian city of Smolensk. In the largest grave, an “L” shape about 50 feet wide by 100 feet long, bodies were stacked neatly, face down, in twelve layers. Dirt had been replaced on top of the bodies, and then, a final touch: two-year-old conifer saplings were planted in the clearing over the graves.

Three years later, after the German army captured the city of Smolensk from the Soviets, a German Signal regiment stationed in the Katyn Forest discovered the graves, and announced their finding to the world. The Soviets denied any knowledge of or responsibility for the Polish officers’ deaths. But the Germans refused to drop the issue — for propaganda reasons as much as anything. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazis’ Propaganda Minister, and other members of the Nazi government in Berlin set about organizing groups of visitors to view the results of the forensic efforts, including representatives from the international medical and forensic community, including the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross. The forensic doctors came from across the political spectrum, but they all agreed: the Soviets were responsible. A year later, after the Red Army recaptured Smolensk, the Soviets launched their own investigation — one led by Stalin’s personal physician, hardly an impartial observer. Even so, it took decades to sort out who was telling the truth. In 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev released the memo bearing Stalin and Beria’s signatures that ordered the officers’ execution. A half century after the crime, the Soviets admitted their guilt.

The Second Katyn Grave

One of the forensic scientists who participated in the Nazi-led exhumation was a man named Francois Naville, a professor at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. Naville spent the rest of his life defending the work he did at Katyn: it was not in defense of Nazi Germany, he maintained, but in defense of the truth on behalf of Polish officers and their families. Naville passed away in 1968, at the age of 84. His personal archive, which rests at the International Committees of the Red Cross archive in Geneva, contains a red leather box, embossed with gold piping around the edges of the lid. Inside, on a plush pillow of cream-colored satin, lies a gold and red medal in the shape of a star. A Polish military eagle stands in the medal’s center, this one silver and raised, almost three-dimensional. In 2007, almost forty years after Naville’s death, Poland’s then-President Lech Kazcynski bestowed this medal to the family of Swiss doctor, posthumously honoring Naville with the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit in the Republic of Poland, an honor awarded to foreigners or Poles living abroad in recognition of their service to the Polish nation. Kaczynski’s government had political reason to award Naville such an award: it leaned right and nationalist, and in general sought to revive the heroic narrative of Polish history as the history of suffering nobly at the hands of others. Honoring Naville as a neutral voice who stood up for Poland and Polish dignity against her Russian and German aggressors fit nicely into Kaczynski’s version of Poland’s past.

Three years after he awarded Naville this honor, an odd and tragic twist would rip open Poland’s Katyn wounds once more, and focus an international spotlight on Kaczynski’s efforts to remember the past. On April 10, 2010, The Polish President, First Lady, and 94 other members of Poland’s military and political elite boarded a plane in Warsaw. The plane, an aging Russian-made Tupolev TU-154 aircraft, was delayed on the runway in the Polish capitol for 27 minutes due to bad weather. Finally, it lifted off and turned east, heading toward a military airfield in Smolensk. It was a rainy early spring morning in Warsaw, but by the time the plane began its approach into Smolensk, the weather conditions had deteriorated considerably. A heavy fog hung over the airfield, limiting visibility to far under what would normally be required to allow a plane to land in Smolensk. Under any other circumstances, the Russian ground crew should have closed the airport, but the significance of the day prevented them from doing so; it was suggested later that they feared closing the airport might cause a diplomatic incident. The Polish pilot also may have feared the reaction — from the Polish President sitting behind him on the plane, as well as the Russians’ disapproval — if he chose to divert.

Gorbachev had admitted NKVD responsibility for the Katyn massacre twenty years earlier, but the issue continued to roil various political factions in Russia and Poland. Just three days prior to Kaczynski’s flight to Katyn, on April 7th, the Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk attended a ceremony in the Katyn forest with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin was the first Russian official to attend a memorial service for the seven decade-old massacre. The two men laid huge pine wreaths outfitted with sashes bearing the colors of the Polish and Russian flags on a stone memorial commemorating the Polish officers’ tragic deaths. “We bow our heads to the men who bravely met death here,” the Russian president intoned before the solemn crowd of Polish and Russian officials. Polish Prime Minister Tusk spoke next. “I want to believe that the word of truth can bring together two great nations, which have been painfully separated by history.”

But even as the Russian and Polish soldiers placed the wreaths at the base of a large Russian Orthodox cross — no small irony at a ceremony marking the deaths of Polish Catholics — on the Katyn memorial, some in Russia were already pushing back. Russia’s Communist Party lambasted Putin for “going to Katyn to apologize.” The Russian President could bow to international pressure to apologize all he wanted, a statement on their website declared, but “no one can hide the fact of German responsibility for the shootings of Polish soldiers.” Then, the Poles and Russians alike bowed their heads as the air filled with the stirring chords and crescendos of the Russian national anthem. This, again, was not without irony: the music of the Russian national anthem varies little from the anthem of the USSR, the very song that would have been played by the NKVD officers who executed the Polish officers at Katyn.

The Polish President Kaczynski was scheduled to attend a ceremony three days later, on April 10 — there is some controversy within Poland as to which April day should memorialize the Katyn killings — involving representatives of Polish organizations dedicated to preserving and validating the memory of Katyn. It was this group that boarded the Tupolev aircraft that morning, and lifted off in heavy fog from Warsaw. The Polish president was eager to make it to Smolensk for the ceremony. For one thing, ideological and historical tensions between President Kaczynski and Prime Minister Tusk had been growing over the previous three years, since Tusk assumed the job of second in command. Tusk, a historian by training, put no stock in Kaczynski’s romantic and tragic view of Polish historical suffering; instead, he saw righting relations with Russia as critical for Poland’s diplomatic and economic future. In contrast, President Kaczynski’s ceremony would memorialize precisely that Polish suffering. The President planned a counterpoint to Tusk and Putin’s joint ceremony: he would surround himself with advocates of Katyn commemoration, and to reaffirm Katyn’s symbolic place in Poland’s history of tragedy. According to a group devoted to memorializing the Smolensk crash, the speech Kaczynski planned was clear on that point: on “the path of the Polish Golgotha of the East,” the President planned to say, “the most tragic station […] was Katyn.”

The Polish pilot flying Kaczynski’s plane into Smolensk surely understood the importance of the day, and the importance of delivering his President to the ceremony. The Russian air traffic controller told the approaching Tupolev crew that visibility had reduced to under 400 meters, and that there were “no conditions to land.” The Polish pilot radioed back, asking for clearance to make a test approach to the runway. Smolenk’s air traffic controller granted that request, and advised the plane to stay above 100 meters in altitude. But the topography surrounding the landing strip may have confused the plane’s instruments and the flight crew. The approach to the runway led over a deep ravine, which caused the plane’s altimeter to show the plane 60 meters above the ground when they were really 15 meters below the level of the runway. The pilot realized his mistake too late to pull the plane back up. One of the wings clipped a birch tree, and the force of the impact sent the plane into a spinning nosedive. It smashed into the ground nose-first and upside down. Modeling done after the crash suggested that the impact created G-forces more than ten times what the human body can withstand. Everyone on board was killed instantly.

Because the plane crashed on Russian soil, by International Civil Aviation Organization regulations the Russian government was responsible for leading the official investigation of the crash. That report, released in January 2011, noted that the Commander of Poland’s Air Force appeared briefly in the cockpit to impress upon the pilot the importance of landing and of delivering the Polish luminaries to the Katyn ceremony. The pilot, the report suggests, may have felt he was under a direct order from his most senior of supervising officers to land. The Polish Committee for Investigation of National Aviation Accidents released a report of its own six months later. Although it largely agreed with the facts of the Russian MAK report, it downplayed the charge that the pilot had felt any pressure to land. The Polish investigation also shifted some of the blame for the crash onto the Smolensk air traffic controllers’ actions, such as their attempt to talk the Polish pilot through a landing despite its obviously wrong approach trajectory, as well as the failure of the tower to inform the crew that the plane was coming in far too low until it was too late.

After the two official reports were published, Polish nationalists spun conspiracy theories about Russian complicity in the crash: the Russians pumped fog onto the runway to obscure the pilot’s view; the bodies of the crash victims were doctored and sewn back together before fake autopsies; the Russians planted explosives on the plane. In November 2012, Poland’s leading conservative newspaper, Rzeczpostpolita, published a front-page story that claimed Russian investigators had buried evidence of foul play. The article claimed that investigators found traces of explosives such as TNT and nitroglycerin in the plane’s wreckage. The newspaper was forced to recant the story shortly thereafter; the newspaper clarified that the chemical traces could have come from such explosives, but they also could have come from various other more benign sources. But to many, the suspicions it raised about foul play seemed reasonable. In 2013, fully one third of Poles said they “took into consideration” the possibility that the crash was no accident.

Treatment of the victims’ bodies during the Russian-led investigation also came under fire from some groups of Poles. The Polish Minister of Health told Poland’s lower house of Parliament that the ground was cleared to a depth of one meter in the vicinity of the wreckage, and that even the smallest speck of human flesh found was genetically tested. But in September 2010, a group of Polish pilgrims to the airfield claimed they found a skeletonized human jaw lying on the ground near the crash site, along with two other human bones. A significant number of victims’ families remain unconvinced that genetic testing was done, at least in any systematic manner, and serious doubts have arisen about the Russian autopsies on which many of the identifications were based. With the help of a Polish lawyer living in Berlin, families exhumed a dozen bodies of crash victims, and had their remains retested. The tests confirmed at least some of their suspicions: two of the female victims, they found, had been confused for each other.

In the minds of many Poles, Katyn and Smolensk — the term that has become shorthand in Poland for the plane crash and Kaczynski’s death — are inextricably linked, two events that mirror each other both symbolically and very literally. Together, they are seen as two punctuation marks in Polish-Russian history — points that demonstrate that no matter the circumstances, interactions with Russia end with Polish bodies in the ground.

The Third Katyn Grave

The exhumations this week — of Lech and Maria Kaczynski from the Wawel Castle as well as eight other victims from their family burial plots — willfully rip open the wound another time. President Kaczynski’s twin brother Jaroslaw, head of Poland’s leading Law and Justice Party, oversaw the removal of his brother’s remains from the Wawel Castle with what must have been no small measure of satisfaction. The Law and Justice Party had claimed for years that the Russian investigation into the crash was biased at best and a cover-up at worst — upon taking power in 2015, Jaroslaw Kacyznski’s party immediately re-opened a Polish investigation. There is no way to know yet what they will find, and even more importantly how they will interpret evidence like the traces of chemical explosives — though the much-heralded recent release of the film “Smolensk,” which outlines the theory that a Russian bomb brought down the plane, may give us some indication. Forensic investigation can close cases only when the scientists are given the freedom to discover and report inconvenient facts. Yet the second Katyn tragedy seems bound for the same fate as the first: dueling, contradictory forensic reports, with questions of national identity at stake and an international public that does not know what to believe.