The Plane Crash Conspiracy Theory That Explains Poland
Five years after the country’s president and 95 others went down in a forest in Russia, Poland’s new leaders are pouring fuel on the cover-up fire.
In 2007, the same year the first Law and Justice government, headed by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, lost power, the legendary Polish movie director Andrzej Wajda released his epic film Katyn. Over the course of two hours, Katyn tells the story of the thousands of Polish prisoners of war — mainly military officers and professional-class civilians — who were murdered in 1940, in the Katyn forest, on Stalin’s orders. It is actually a film about two crimes: the execution of Polish patriots in a wood near Smolensk and the subsequent smothering of the truth.
The official version of the tragedy, propagated by the Communist government in postwar Poland, was that the Nazis had been responsible for the executions. But there were Poles who were not ready to live with the lie. One of the main characters in the movie, Agnieszka, wants to erect a marble headstone for her murdered brother simply bearing the true date of his death — 1940 — as an indicator that only the Soviets, who controlled the area at the time, could have carried out the killings. She is persecuted for spreading a conspiracy theory; she knows she is spreading the truth.
When Kaczynski — back in charge as leader of the once-again governing Law and Justice party — announced in a speech on Dec. 10 that he plans to erect a plaque at the presidential palace in Warsaw to commemorate his twin brother, he likely saw himself as carrying on the legacy of people like Agnieszka, who refused to swallow the Communist lie. Kaczynski’s brother, President Lech Kaczynski, died in 2010 along with 95 other members of the Polish elite when his plane crashed upon landing at the Smolensk military airport in western Russia. (As it happens, they were traveling in order to attend the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Katyn.) Jaroslaw Kaczynski has devoted an inordinate amount of time and energy since the crash working to prove that it was not an accident and that the then-governing Civic Platform party, for political or geopolitical reasons, has covered up the truth.
The parallels between the two proposed monuments — Agnieszka’s and Kaczynski’s — are there. But the analogy is not so straightforward. The opening of the Soviet archives in the 1990s left no doubt that in 1940, the Soviets did kill some 22,000 Poles (the exact number of victims is still debated). The events of April 10, 2010, when the plane went down, aren’t so easy to reconstruct. But there is no credible evidence to support Law and Justice party suspicions that what happened in Smolensk was an assassination organized by the Russians or that Russian air controllers are mostly responsible for the catastrophe. In Wajda’s movie, Agnieszka wanted to build a monument to truth. What Kaczynski is proposing is a tribute to conspiracy theory.
Kaczynski’s fight for the truth about Smolensk and the glorification of his brother’s legacy have been at the center of the Law and Justice party’s political strategy for the past five years. Kaczynski often personally attended the marches that took place in Warsaw on the 10th of each month to commemorate the crash victims, using them as a tool to help mobilize support for the party. For their part, Poles have seemed increasingly ready to buy in: If, five years ago, most Poles rejected Kaczynski’s version of events, and even approved of Russia’s handling of the tragedy, today one in three blames Moscow. In opinion polls, the Law and Justice party has support among all age groups and polls similarly across income and education levels; it is belief in the Smolensk cover-up that appears to be the strongest predictor of whether a person will support Kaczynski.
Poles are not unique in believing, en masse, in the existence of a government cover-up, despite a dearth of evidence. According to opinion polls, between half and three quarters of people in various Middle Eastern countries doubt that Arab hijackers pulled off the 9/11 attacks; four out of 10 Russians think that Americans faked the moon landings and half of Americans think their government is probably hiding the truth about the 9/11 attacks. Conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists have existed in abundance everywhere, for as long as there have been suspicious deaths and powerful people. But the sense of never-ending transition has made post-Communist European societies particularly fertile ground for their spread. Scholars tend to agree that these sorts of theories are at their most popular during periods of major social change and that they represent a desire for order in a complex and confusing world. The dozens of reports that “prove” Smolensk was not an accident are classics of the form: carefully footnoted, like a doctoral thesis, and built around both breathtaking generalizations (“when the head of state dies in [an] airplane crash, invariably … sabotage is involved”) and also around tiny details (the 10,000 small pieces of debris found at the crash site, for instance, which are pointed to as evidence of an explosion).
But what is happening in Poland today has revealed something more: how, in some cases, a shared belief in a particular conspiracy theory can play a role previously reserved for religion, ethnicity, or a well-articulated ideology. It can now be a marker of political identity.
Politicians like to talk about unity, but the real currency in politics is in things that divide. Poland is ethnically homogeneous. The overwhelming majority of the population is Catholic. Neither nationalism nor religion provide the proper cleavages around which to build a sense of distinctiveness. This helps explain why the Smolensk conspiracy has become quasi-ideology within the Law and Justice party. The “assassination hypothesis” has helped to consolidate a certain “we”: We who do not trust the government’s lies; we who know how the world really works. The Smolensk conspiracy was critical for bringing Kaczynski back to power, because it both mined a vein of deep distrust Polish people have in any official version of events and fit with their self-image as victims of history. Law and Justice supporters were not ready to accept former Polish Prime Minster Donald Tusk’s claim that Poland is now a normal European country, run by rules and not by shadow puppet masters. For the Kaczynski crowd, the claim of normality was the deceit.
Conspiracy-minded political parties, however, are typically better suited for the opposition than for governing. As outsiders, they are able to offer their followers a smug, self-satisfied parallel universe in which to dwell. But when it comes to governing, being bound by a shared belief in a conspiracy theory has its disadvantages. If you believe that secret powers run Poland, what, then, happens when you run Poland? In this case, the only way to keep the loyalty of supporters who do not trust anything that comes from the government is to govern in a war-like fashion. Thus, we see Kaczynski calling his critics “traitors” and comparing them to Gestapo collaborators, and taking to the airwaves to denounce those against him as “people of the worst kind, who are now most active as they are sensing a threat.”
Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party comes from the tradition of the Solidarity movement, but not the optimistic and self-confident Solidarity of 1980, when 10 million people joined the trade union and citizens felt empowered. Rather, it was born out of the Solidarity experience of the mid-1980s, when the opposition had gone underground, most of its leaders were in prison, the majority of Poles had retreated to their private lives, and frustration and fear of infiltration were running high. Law and Justice’s politics of radical suspicion have their roots in these paranoid times. So, it should not come as a surprise that for the new Polish government, nothing appears accidental. All of the government’s opponents are connected to each other, and EU politicians are conspiring to erode Poland’s sovereignty. In this state of mind, it is dangerous to trust anyone who is not part of the inner circle, and it is logical to try to concentrate all power in party hands, because independent institutions like the courts, media, and central bank are not really independent: They are either controlled by us or by our enemies. One has the feeling that Kaczynski in power feels like the hero of one of those science fiction horror movies, where the hero discovers that, one by one, everybody around him has been replaced by dangerous mutants.
And here is where a conspiracy-minded government can become a liability. The new Polish government, lost in the labyrinth of its own conspiratorial fantasies, threatens to become a danger to the principle of separation of powers: Law and Justice provoked a constitutional crisis this year by rejecting the previous parliament’s nominees to the constitutional court — and instead appointed its own. It could destroy the civil service: Some have suggested it might take steps to purge the civil service of government critics. It will be a very difficult partner for both the EU and NATO, and it will be ever ready to overreact in times of crisis. The idea that Poland should ask for nuclear weapons on its territory, an idea which, for several hours, was flying around in Warsaw, is a good example of this type of catastrophic thinking. Indeed, the overnight raid staged by Polish military police on a NATO office in Warsaw in order to place it in the hands of new leadership bodes poorly for future cooperation.
But what should also not be forgotten is that conspiratorial thinking can be contagious. Those who subscribe to one conspiracy tend to be open to any conspiracy. So don’t be surprised if many of those who believe that Smolensk was a plot between Russian President Vladimir Putin and then-Prime Minister Tusk are one day persuaded that Germany has made a deal with the Russians to partition Poland or even that the current Law and Justice government, all the way up to Kaczynski himself, is in on it, too — whatever the next “it” happens to be.
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