The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

US Documents Provide New Perspectives on Katyn ‘Cover Up’


Today Katyn remains a contentious and highly emotive issue, one that casts a long shadow over Russian-Polish relations. In recent years, some important gaps in our knowledge and understanding of the Katyn massacres – the mass execution of over 22,000 members of the Polish military and intellectual elite and their burial in mass graves in the forests around Smolensk during April-May 1940 – have been plugged. Developments in the post-Cold War period have tended to focus upon the information that has slowly (and often reluctantly) trickled out from the Russian archives, particularly in April 2010, when publication of key documents confirmed beyond any doubt that the mass executions had been carried out by the Soviet NKVD, acting on the direct orders of leader Josef Stalin. It is generally accepted that Stalin approved the massacre to ensure there would be no organised domestic resistance to the extension of Soviet control over Poland after World War II (for more details see my previous blog post about the Katyn massacre and its historical legacy HERE). However, the recent release of over 1000 pages of documentation held by the US National Archives has focused attention on a new and previously under-discussed perspective of this tragedy; assessing the extent of US and UK complicity in hiding the truth about Katyn.


The newly declassified documents, released on 10th September 2012, confirm that both the US and UK authorities were aware of strong evidence pointing to Soviet responsibility for Katyn soon after the initial German discovery of the forest graves in 1943, but deliberately chose not to question Soviet claims that it was the Germans who were responsible for the slaughter, in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary, due to the importance of maintaining good wartime relations with Stalin. Even after the end of World War II, they chose to remain silent about much of what they knew. Several years later, after the wartime alliance had irretrievably broken down and Cold War battle lines had been drawn, a Congressional Committee (‘The Madden Committee’) was established to review the available evidence relating to Katyn. Their official report revised the US stance, determining after a series of hearings held 1951-52 that the NKVD had been responsible for the executions, which the report described as ‘one of the most barbarous international crimes in world history.’ However, the material indicating the full extent of western wartime knowledge of Soviet involvement in Katyn was concealed, and although the committee recommended that the Soviets face trial at the International World Court of Justice, this was never pursued. The Soviets continued to deny any responsibility until the dying days of the USSR, and as recently as 1992, the US State Department maintained that prior to Mikhail Gorbachev’s official admission of Soviet guilt in 1990, they had ‘lacked irrefutable evidence’ to substantiate claims that it was the Soviets rather than Nazi Germany who had carried out the massacre.


Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin, pictured at the Yalta conference in 1945. By this point, the western leaders knew that the Soviets were responsible for the Katyn massacres, but chose to ignore the evidence and focus on attempting to maintain good relations with Stalin.


The documents released yesterday tell a very different story: comprised of detailed accounts from officials in the Polish exiled government; reports from U.S. diplomats; US army intelligence and testimony from two American Prisoners of War – Capt. Donald B. Stewart and Lt. Col. John H. Van Vliet Jr – all of whom provided strong evidence suggesting Soviet culpability. The testimonies provided by Stewart and Van Vilet Jr are particularly compelling. Theit accounts describe how they were taken to Katyn (which had recently passed from Soviet to German control) by their Nazi captors in May 1943. The bodies they viewed were all already in an advanced stage of decay, indicating that they had been killed prior to the recent Nazi occupation of the area. This was further supported by the good state of the men’s boots and clothing (suggesting they had not remained alive long after their initial capture by the Soviets) and the fact that none of the personal items found on the corpses  – including letters and diaries – were dated beyond the spring of 1940. The two men reported all of this in coded messages which were sent back to Washington, expressing their conviction that the evidence of Soviet responsibility for the massacre was ‘irrefutable’. However, their testimony was supressed. At a time when the allies remained desperate for Soviet military assistance, neither Roosevelt or Churchill were willing to risk confronting Stalin. Realpolitik took precedence over any sense of moral responsibility, as illustrated by one telegram Roosevelt sent to Churchill in June 1943, where he  strongly urged suppression of any evidence suggesting Soviet complicity at Katyn because ‘The winning of the war is the paramount objective for all of us. For this unity is necessary’.


Thus, when the Polish government in exile in London called for an investigation into the Katyn massacres, Roosevelt advised Churchill to ‘find a way of prevailing upon the Polish government in London … to act with more common sense’. In a letter dated May 1943, British Ambassador Owen O’Malley explained how ‘We have been obliged to . . . restrain the Poles from putting their case clearly before the public, to discourage any attempts by the public and the press to probe the ugly story to the bottom’ and acknowledged that ‘We have in fact perforce used the good name of England like the murderers used the conifers to cover up a massacre’.



A memorial inWarsaw, commemorating the 22,000 members of the Polish military and intellectual elite who were massacred by the Soviet NKVD in 1940 (Photo Credit: AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)


The US documents do not contain any radically new information or earth shattering revelations about Katyn. Rather, they simply confirm what most historians have long suspected. However, they do add to our knowledge of events, suggesting that both British and American administrations were aware of the truth about Katyn at an early stage (from at least mid-1943) but chose to conceal the truth, in a deception that extended up into the highest political levels. For this reason, Allen Paul, author of ‘Katyn: Stalin’s Massacre and the Triumph of Truth’ believes that the information revealed in the US documents is ‘potentially explosive’, suggesting that the US decision to cover-up the truth delayed a full understanding about the true nature of Stalinism in America, while George Sanford, author of ‘Katyn and the Soviet Massacre of 1940: Truth, Justice and Memory’  compared western attitudes towards Katyn to their unwillingness to accept or act on early information received about the killing of Jews in Auschwitz in a recent interview with Radio Free Europe.


As Dmitry Babich, a commentator for the Voice of Russia surmised in respnse to the latest findings, ‘No one looks particularly pretty … the moral of the whole story is that everyone behaved very cynically’. The information contained in the US documents could be used to support those who argue that it was Western ‘abandonment’ of the East European countries that left them helpless to resist Soviet expansion after World War II, condemning them to fifty years of enforced communist rule. There have also been suggestions that the new documentary evidence has the potential to  negatively influence contemporary Polish relations with the US and UK, although any serious ‘cooling’ in relations seems unlikely.


The documentation released by the US National Archives can be viewed online HERE.

The final report from the Madden Committee (dated 22 December 1952) can be viewed HERE.


September 12, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Search for Closure or Blame? Reflections on the Smolensk Tragedy


Yesterday (10 April 2012) marked the two year anniversary of the Smolensk air crash which killed Polish President Lech Kaczyński and 95 other members of the Polish political and military elite. Two years on from the tragedy, guest author Adam Reichardt shares some of his personal reflections on the disaster with us, while also considering the extent to which past tragedies and political posturing continue to colour the contemporary discourse surrounding Smolensk.


Search for Closure or Blame?

Reflections on the Smolensk Tragedy

by Adam Reichardt.


It is hard to imagine that it has already been two years since the tragic airplane crash that killed the Polish President, Lech Kaczyński, his wife and 94 others including many top Polish government and military officials. For those of us living in Poland, it was one of those events that you will never forget where you were when you heard the news. Just like 9/11, as I was in the US at that time. With national tragedies like these, the images and feelings stay with you forever. I can recall, even 12 years later, the emotions I felt and above all the feeling of fear and helplessness following the terrorist attacks on the world trade center in New York City. The same goes for April 10th 2010.


On April 10 2010, I was outside Krakow in a small village doing some work outside when the call came in – turn on the TV. We went inside to be greeted by the familiar image of the slightly confused news reporters on Polish TV reporting only what they knew. The Presidential plane had crashed outside Smolensk in Russia. THE presidential plane, with the President, his wife, and countless other officials including heads of military branches 15 members of Parliament, members of the clergy, and Polish citizens whose families had perished at Katyń 70 years previously. How could this have happened? The speculation began shortly after, with aviation experts weighing in and public officials visibly in tears.


The initial reactions, while fear was ubiquitous, were unifying. The Polish people came together. Their President and several other national figures had died, tragically. Even if President Kaczyński had not been a unifying figure, in death he brought the Polish people together, as they mourned publicly. No matter how divisive politics had been in the last few years, through this tragedy Poles were united.


Initially, the Smolensk disaster also brought Poles and Russians together. For some time, there was a glimmer of hope in the relationship between Poland and Russia, as Russia showed gestures of solidarity in the tragedy. I remember the strong images of Donald Tusk and Vladimir Putin together listening to updates from the investigators and responders on the scene. It was extremely symbolic and many Poles voiced their gratitude to Russian authorities for their openness and aid.


On a personal level, the hardest part was to explain to my kids what had just happened. The images and sense of fear that persisted was everywhere. Poles were glued to their TVs and the reports and commentaries focused on death, conspiracy and questions of who and why. Polish flags were flying everywhere and the mourning period was an entire week long. As an American living in Poland, it was not nearly as difficult as it must have been for Polish families who still live with haunts of history, either as victims of the Second World War, or the communist system, and the history between the Polish and Russian people. The fact that the Smolensk tragedy took place on the 70th anniversary of the Katyń Massacre, an event denied by Russia for several decades and over which questions still remain to this day, did not help.  The old wounds of history that had been passed down through the generations were suddenly reopened, at least for many. It didn’t take much time before the conspiracy theories emerged.


The mixed images of tragedy past and present which pulled at the emotions of the Poles quickly found their way to the political arena. No doubt, this had a lot to do with the fact that a large number of politicians (mostly from the far right Law and Justice – PiS – political party) were killed in the accident. Historical comparisons were made and conspiracy theories perpetuated. It was, of course, impossible to ignore the comparison with Katyń, a place where a large number of the Polish intellectual elite were murdered at the hands of the Soviets during the Second World War 70 years prior and the whole reason for the recent delegation to Smolensk [see the previous blog post HERE for more details].  But others were also quick to note the eerie similarities with the plane crash that had killed Władysław Sikorski, Prime Minister of the Polish government in exile, in 1943. His death, while officially explained as an accident, had also fuelled conspiracy theories. Was it possible that within the matter of 67 years, Poland had lost two leaders (both anti-Russian) in a ‘plane crash’? For some this was more than coincidental.


The politicians from Law and Justice, namely the late-President’s twin brother Jarosław Kaczyński, would not accept any official explanation that this was an accident made up of many factors. The majority of Polish society, however, disagreed. After some time, it became apparent that Smolensk was not a conspiracy and those trying to make more out of it than it was began losing sympathy and support. The Poles had their mourning. They publicly felt their pain. But the institutions survived. Society moved on. And when the media’s coverage of the Smolensk tragedy got to the point where no one in the mainstream could stomach the constant coverage, the media too, moved on.


10 April 2012 - On the two year anniversary of the Smolensk air crash, flowers adorn the tomb of former Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife at Wawel Castle in Krakow. Photograph by Adam Reichardt.


A recent poll (from April 5 2012) showed that only 18 per cent of Polish people now believe the Smolensk tragedy was an ‘attack’. 32 per cent in the same poll, however, believe that it was a result of error on the side of the Russians while 28 per cent believe the crash was  due to pilot error. The same poll showed that most (82 per cent) Polish people still believe that the death of Pope John Paul II was the most important event in Polish recent history followed by Poland’s entry to the European Union (57 per cent) and the fall of the Communist system (47 per cent). 40 per cent of responses indicated the Smolensk tragedy (of course it is important to note here that respondents were able to choose more than one answer).


One of the most shocking images to recently emerge has been a controversial painting “depicting” the tragedy on the Tupolev aircraft. The painting shows the victims midst-crash, the plane engulfed in flames and the hearts of these victims bursting out their chests. The painting, titled “Smolensk” was hung in a church in Bielany in Warsaw.


'Smolensk' - This controversial painting, which 'depicts' the air crash of 10 April 2010 hangs in a church in Bielany, Warsaw. Photograph by Agencja Gazeta (Przemek Wierzchowski).

Close up of 'Smolensk'. Photograph taken by Agencja Gazeta (Przemek Wierzchowski).


Two years on all official investigations have pointed to the same conclusion: The Smolensk crash was a freak, tragic accident as a result of multiple factors. Yes, it’s true – some questions remain, but clearly this was not an assassination at the hands of the Russians.  Nevertheless, the conspiracies surrounding the Smolensk tragedy have not fully disappeared. They survive because they serve a political purpose and can evoke a very emotional response. Those who stand to gain the most politically have tried to continue to take advantage of the fear surrounding Smolensk. Jarosław Kaczyński, who has always suggested that the crash was not an accident, has started to use more direct language. Most importantly the word ‘assassination’ has entered the discourse.


The daughter of the late President, Marta Kaczńyska, also continues to also be one of the most vocal perpetuators of the Smolensk issue. In March of this year, she stood in front of a hearing at the European Parliament in Brussels calling for a new international investigation into the tragedy. Her calls may carry some justification, in light of some recent revelations into the (at the very least) sloppiness on the side of the Russian authorities in some autopsy procedures. However, others have speculated that Kaczyńska has political ambitions of her own and is using Smolensk as a political springboard. Just two days ago, she not only blamed the government for fudging up the investigation and being too soft on Russia; she also went so far as to suggest that the government and the media are actively covering up any information about Smolensk by distracting Poland with a “soap-opera” style story about a mother who’s six month-old died in very suspicious circumstances in Sosnowiec (indeed, Polish media has over sensationalised the story of ” baby Magda” and a public obsession has grown around the strange plot twists and turns since February – but that’s a topic for a different post!). To fuel the speculation of  her political ambitions, a new film called “Córka” (“Daughter”) is being released this week in Poland. It is the first film which focuses on Marta Kaczyńska – mostly on how she handled the Smolensk tragedy and the death of her parents.


As we are now passing the two-year anniversary of the Smolensk tragedy, it is necessary to ask – will there ever be closure? Probably not for everyone. Some are just not satisfied with the answers, and in some ways they may be right (and have a right to be sceptical of Russian intent). And when we lose a loved one in such a tragic way, we need closure, and so does a nation. But unfortunately, unlike 9/11 when we had a clear enemy, reason, and even response which we could take, the case of 4/10 is not so simple.


The best thing that can be done is to honour the memory of the victims, not cast blame where it doesn’t belong or try to divide those suffering from this tragedy. Poland must try to move on and, as a nation, learn from the tragedy with the hope that something like this will never happen again.


As I reflect on the way Poland handled this tragedy, I am reminded how impressed I was when this strong nation came together, openly mourning the death of their president (and other public figures) and ultimately overcoming this national tragedy. It is a shame that those who are interested in political gain over collective closure continue to try to evoke the emotions of history, insecurity and fear. In the end, their actions divide Polish society more so than the tragedy ever united it.


Adam Reichardt



About the Author:


Adam Reichardt is is the Managing Editor of New Eastern Europe, a quarterly journal focusing on Central/Eastern European affairs. Adam has an MPA in public and nonprofit management from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, USA. He  lives  in Krakow. You can find out more about New Eastern Europe at their website.



April 11, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 2 Comments

Today in (East European) History – 5 March


It’s funny how sometimes, certain dates seem to have particular resonance in terms of their historical significance. A quick glance through my Twitter feed earlier this morning reminded me that, even amongst all of the current excitement over Putin’s victory in yesterday’s Russian election, 5th March is a date that marks a number of significant developments in the history of modern central and eastern Europe. On this day, the following events occurred:


5th March 1940 – Stalin signed the order authorising NKVD officers to commence the execution and burial of over 20,000 captured Polish Army Officers who were being held in the Katyn Forest, near Smolensk in Poland. Responsibility for the Katyn Massacre was subsequently denied by Soviet officials, who blamed the Germans right up until the dying days of the USSR, when Mikhail Gorbachev finally admitted Soviet responsibility. However, Katyn has continued to cast a dark shadow over Russian-Polish relations in the post-Cold War period, as discussed in more detail in my previous blog post HERE.


5th March 1946 – Concerned by the rapid spread of communist influence across central and eastern Europe, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill made his famous speech at Fulton Missouri, where he stated that ‘an iron curtain’ had descended across the continent, separating East from West, The speech signalled the beginning of the end for the wartime ‘Grand Alliance’ and the hardening of formal spheres of influence in post-war Europe. Churchill’s vivid depiction of an ‘iron curtain’ dividing the capitalist west from the communist east became a key metaphor in Cold War political language. You can read Churchills speech in full HERE.


5th March 1953 – Soviet leader Josef Stalin died, aged 74, after suffering a massive cerebral hemorrhage. Stalin’s body had been discovered several days earlier, collapsed in his private chambers. It has subsequently been alleged that Stalin may have been poisoned by Lavrenti Beria, his chief of secret police, Stalin’s death marked the end to his 29 years in power, a period which had seen the Soviet Union transformed politically, economically, socially and culturally through a series of sweeping reforms which had enabled the USSR to emerge from World War II as a victorious superpower, but had led to almost unimaginable hardship and suffering for millions of Soviet citizens. So while many Soviet people openly wept upon receiving news of Stalin’s death, many more exchanged secret smiles and secretly toasted his demise. Today, Stalin’s legacy remains highly contested, both within Russia and internationally, as discussed in a previous blog post HERE.


Also on this day in (East European) history:


5th March 1871 – Socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg was born in Zamosc (then part of Russian controlled Poland)

5th March 1918 – The Soviets moved the Russian capital from Petrograd to Moscow.

5th March 1933 – The Nazi Party won 44% of the vote in the German Parliamentary elections, allowing Hitler to assume dictatorial powers



March 5, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

2011: A Quick Review


2011 is a year that has prompted numerous historical comparisons, even before it has ended. This has been a year marked by economic turmoil, widespread international protest and revolutionary activity, as evidenced by Time Magazine’s recent announcement that their coveted ‘person of the year’ was to be awarded to ‘The Protestor‘. Throughout 2011, global news coverage has frequently been dominated by the growing wave of protest and demonstrations that swept the Arab World; quickly dubbed the ‘Arab Spring’ by international media and drawing frequent comparisons with the East European revolutions of 1989. Some (including, recently, Eric Hobsbawm) have suggested that comparisan with the ‘Spring of Nations’ of 1848 is more fitting although many have questioned the value of either historical analogy. Similarly, almost twenty years to the day, in the last weeks of 2011, mounting protests against electoral fraud in Russia have evoked memories of the collapse of the communist monopoly of power and the break-up of the USSR in 1991, with the last Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev recently advising current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to ‘learn the lesson of 1991’ and resign from power, although Russia-watcher Mark Galeotti has suggested that 1905 may turn out to be a more fitting historical parallel.


The increasingly uncertain economic climate and global financial downturn also dominated news coverage throughout 2011, particularly of late due to the growing crisis in the Eurozone. Across central and eastern Europe, economic crisis and social insecurity has generated fresh concern about ‘ostalgie’ with the release of surveys suggesting high levels of nostalgia for the communist era. In recent polls conducted in Romania 63% of participants said that  their life was better under communism, while 68% said they now believed that communism was ‘a good idea that had been poorly applied’. Similarly, a survey conducted in the Czech Republic last month revealed that 28% of participants believed they had been ‘better off’ under communism, leading to fears of a growth in ‘retroactive optimism‘.


Much of the subject matter presented here at The View East aims to combine historical analysis with more contemporary developments. During 2011 a range of blog posts have covered topics as diverse as the Cold War space race (with posts about Sputnik and the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin‘s first successful manned space flight); the role of popular culture (and specifically, popular music in the GDR) in undermining communism; the use and abuse of alcohol in communist Eastern Europe; espionage and coercion (with posts relating to the East German Stasi, Romanian Securitate and the notorious murder of Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov) and in relation to continuing efforts to commemorate contested aspects of modern history including Katyn; the construction of the Berlin Wall, German reunification, Stalin’s legacy and the continuing controversy over Soviet-era war memorials. This summer also saw the first ‘student showcase’ here at The View East, which was a great success, with a series of excellent guest authored posts on a range of fascinating topics, researched and written by some of my students at Swansea University.


Something that I constantly stress to my students is the need to recognise how our knowledge and understanding of modern central and eastern Europe was, in many respects, transformed as new evidence and sources of information became accessible to historians of Eastern Europe after the collapse of communism 1989-1991; and the ways in which our understanding continues to evolve as new information and perspectives continue to emerge today. So, with that in mind, here is a quick review of some of my own personal favourite topics of interest, events and developments during 2011. This short summary is by no means exhaustive so please feel free to add suggestions of your own in the comments section below!


Anniversaries for Reagan and Gorbachev


February 2011 marked the centenary of Ronald Reagan’s birth. Today, former US President and ‘Cold Warrior’ Reagan remains highly regarded throughout the former communist block, where he is widely credited with helping to end the Cold War and open a pathway for freedom across Eastern Europe. A series of events were thus organised to mark the occasion across central and eastern Europe, where several streets, public squares and landmarks were renamed in Reagan’s honour and and the summer of 2011 saw statues of Reagan popping up in several former communist block countries, including Poland, Hungary and Georgia. To mark the centenary, the CIA also released a collection of previously classified  documents, along with a report on ‘Ronald Reagan, Intelligence and the End of the Cold War’ and a series of short documentary style videos that were made to ‘educate’ Reagan about the USSR on a range of topics including the space programme, the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the Chernobyl disaster, which can be viewed here. An exhibition held at the US National Archives in Washington DC also displayed examples of Reagan’s personal correspondence including a series of letters exchanged with Mikhail  Gorbachev and the handwritten edits made to Reagan’s famous ‘Evil Empire’ speech of 1983.


A statue of former US President Ronald Reagan, unveiled in the Georgian capital Tblisi in November 2011. The centenary of Reagan's birth was celebrated throughout the former communist block in 2011.


Today, citizens of the former East Block tend to view Reagan much more kindly than his Cold War counterpart, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev who celebrated his 80th birthday back in March. Still feted in the West, Gorbachev was the guest of honour at a celebratory birthday gala in London and and was also personally congratulated by current Russian President Medvedev, receiving a Russian medal of honour. In a series of interviews, Gorbachev claimed he remained proud of role in ending communism, although for many, his legacy remains muddied.  April 2011 saw the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, while August 1991 marked the twentieth anniversary of the failed military coup launched by communist hardliners hoping to depose Gorbachev from power and halt his reforms and finally, the 25 December 2011 was 20 years to the day since Gorbachev announced his resignation from power and the formal dissolution of the USSR. Recently released archival documents have also provided historians with more detailed information about the dying days of the Soviet Union as a desperate Gorbachev tried to hold the USSR  together.


March 2011 - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev shakes hands with Mikhail Gorbachev during a meeting to celebrate his 80th birthday. Gorbachev was awarded the Order of St Andrew the Apostle, Russia's highest honour.


Half a Century Since the Construction of the Berlin Wall


August 2011 marked 50 years since the construction of the famous wall which divided Berlin 1961-1989 and became one of the most iconic symbols of Cold War Europe. The anniversary was commemorated in Germany as I discussed in my earlier blog post here and was also widely covered by international media including the Guardian and the BBC here in the UK. I particularly enjoyed these interactive photographs, published in Spiegel Online, depicting changes to the East-West German border. In October, the CIA and US National Archives also released a collection of recently declassified documents relating to the Berlin Crisis of August 1961, which have been published online here.


13 August 2011 - A display in Berlin commemorates the 50th anniversary of the construction of the Berlin Wall.


Thirty Years Since Martial Law Crushed Solidarity in Poland


13  December marked 30 years since General Jaruzelski’s declaration of Martial Law in Poland in 1981, as the emergent Solidarity trade union was declared illegal and forced underground. NATO have released a fascinating series of archived documents relating to events in Poland 1980-81 which have been published online here.  Today Jaruzelski still argues that he ordered the domestic crackdown to avoid Soviet invasion, claiming in a recent book that  his actions were a ‘necessary evil’ . but intelligence contained in the newly available NATO reports suggest that the Soviet leadership were actually ‘keen to avoid’ military intervention in Poland. Fresh attempts to prosecute 88 year old Jaruzelski for his repressive actions were halted due to ill health in 2011, as the former communist leader was diagnosed with lymphoma in March 2011 and has been undergoing regular chemotherapy this year.


13 December 2011 marked 30 years since General Wojciech Jaruzelski's declaration of Martial Law in Poland, designed to crush the growing Polish opposition movement, Solidarity.


The Communist-Era Secret Police


Stories about communist-era state security are always a crowd pleaser and 2011 saw a series of new revelations from the archives of the notorious East German Ministerium für Staatssicherheit or Stasi. I particularly liked the archived photos that were published in Spiegel Online, taken during a course to teach Stasi agents the art of disguise, as discussed in my previous blog post here and, in a similar vein, information from Polish files about espionage techniques used by Polish State Security which was published in October. In November, new research published in the German Press suggested that the Stasi had a much larger network of spies in West Germany than was previously thought, with over 3000 individuals employed as Inofizelle Mitarbeiter or ‘unofficial informers’, to spy on family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. The Stasi even compiled files on leading figures such as German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) and former East German leader Erich Honecker, gathering information that was later used as leverage to force his resignation in October 1989. A new book published in September also detailed the extent of Stasi infiltration in Sweden, with information published in the German media suggesting that Swedish furniture manufacturer  IKEA used East German prisoners as a cheap source of labour in the 1970s and early 1980s.


‘Tourist with Camera’ – a favoured disguise used by Stasi surveillance agents, unearthed from the Stasi archives and part of a new exhibition that went on display in Germany earlier this year.


The Death of Vaclav Havel


2011 ended on something of a sombre note, as news broke of the death of communist-era dissident and former Czechoslovakian/Czech President Vaclav Havel on 18 December. An iconic figure, Havel’s death dominated the news in the lead up to Christmas, (only eclipsed by the subsequent breaking news about North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s death on December 17!) with numerous obituaries and tributes to Havel and his legacy appearing in the media (such as this excellent tribute in The Economist, ‘Living in Truth‘), as discussed in more detail in my recent blog post here. Havel’s funeral on 23 December was attended by world leaders, past and present and received widespread media coverage. In recent interviews, such as this one, given shortly before his death, Havel commented on a range of contemporary issues including the Arab revolutions and the global economic crisis. RIP Vaclav – you will be missed.


December 2011 - News breaks of the death of playwright, communist-era dissident and former Czech President Vaclav Havel. Hundreds of candles were lit in Prague's Wenceslas Square in his memory, thousands of mourners gathered to pay their respects and tributes poured in from around the globe.


The Growth of Social Networking


The use of social networking as a tool for organising and fuelling protest and opposition movements has also been a regular feature in the news throughout 2011 with particular reference to the Arab Spring, the UK riots and the recent ‘Occupy’ movement. Many more universities and academics are also now realising the potential benefits of using social media sites to promote their interests, and achievements, disseminate their research to a wider audience and engage in intellectual debate with a wider circle of individuals working on similar areas of interest, both within and beyond academia.  The potential benefits of Twitter and other social networking sites for academics has been promoted by the LSE and their Impact Blog during 2011, including this handy ‘Twitter guide for Academics‘.  On a more personal note, promoting The View East via Twitter has also helped me develop a much stronger online profile and contributed to an increased readership in 2011, something I discussed further in a September blog post here.


Was 2011 the year of the 'Twitter Revolution'?


As 2011 ends, our twitter feed @thevieweast is heading for 500 regular twitter followers; most days The View East receives well over 100 hits, the number of regular email subscribers has almost doubled and I’ve been able to reach a much wider audience – some older blog content I wrote relating to Solidarity was recently published in a Macmillan textbook History for Southern Africa and in the last twelve months I have given interviews to ABC Australia, Voice of America, and Radio 4, all in relation to subjects I’d written about here at The View East. So, as 2011 draws to a close, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of you who have read, commented, followed and re-tweeted from The View East in 2011 – A very Happy New Year to you all, and I’m looking forward to more of the same in 2012!


Happy New Year from The View East!

December 31, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Smolensk Air Crash & The Fateful Legacy of Katyn.

This week heralded two significant dates in the history of modern Poland. 10 April saw the first anniversary of the 2010 Smolensk air crash, widely regarded as the worst national disaster to befall Poland since World War Two and resulting in the death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 other victims, including many members of the Polish political and military elite. Today (13 April) also marks 68 years since German radio announced the discovery of mass graves in the nearby Katyn forest in 1943, the result of a brutal cull of almost 22,000 Polish army officers carried out by the Soviet NKVD in April-May 1940. One year on from the Smolensk crash, Poland is still grieving, but attempts to commemorate Poland’s most recent tragedy have been overshadowed by political tensions and rising anti-Russian sentiment, which also threatens to re-open older historical wounds.


Wreckage from the plane crash outside Smolensk in April 2010. The crash claimed the lives of 96 people, including Polish President Lech Kaczynski.


The Fateful Legacy of Katyn

Despite occurring 70 years apart, the two tragedies are indelibly connected in the minds of most Polish people. On 10 April 2010, when his plane crashed after hitting trees while attempting to land in thick fog just outside the Russian city of Smolensk, Lech Kaczynski was leading a Polish delegation on their way to a memorial service to mark the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre. Even placed into a much longer historical tradition of antagonistic Polish-Russian relations dating back at least as far as the Middle Ages, Katyn remains a particularly painful episode in Polish history due to the subsequent level of Soviet disinformation about the tragedy. As Anna Berezowska recently surmised, even today, ‘For Poles, a single image is conjoured when we visualise Katyn: lies’ .


The exhumation of mass graves in the Katyn forest after their discovery in 1943. The graves contain the bodies of around 22,000 Polish Officers, shot by the Soviet NKVD in April-May 1940.


Throughout the post-war period, the Soviets continued to deny any responsibility for the Katyn massacre, claiming instead that it had been carried out by the German army, who had subsequently occupied the area and then used by Hitler as propaganda in an attempt to discredit the USSR. In Poland, the communist authorities forbade any public discussion of Katyn and while many Poles remained convinced of Soviet culpability, to openly express such beliefs was a punishable offence. It was only in 1990 that the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev finally admitted Soviet responsibility for the massacre. In recent years more comprehensive evidence has emerged from the Soviet archives, finally resulting in the online publication in April 2010 of documentation dated 5 March 1940, confirming that the massacre had been carried out by the NKVD on the direct orders of Soviet leader Josef Stalin. In November 2010 the Russian State Duma also formally recognised the massacre as a ‘crime of the Stalin regime’, and since the Smolensk disaster last April, Moscow has made more than 137 volumes of documents relating to the Katyn massacre available to Warsaw, although over 40 other volumes have yet to be sent, a process which Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recently promised to complete.


Memo written by Lavrentiy Beria, head of the NKVD, dated 5 March 1940. The memo recommends the execution of the Polish Army Officers held at Katyn and is authorised by Josef Stalin's signature, plus the signature of other Politburo members.


Despite the development of a more open dialogue between the two states in the post-communist period, neither side has been willing or able to fully face up to the legacy of Katyn, which continues to cast a long shadow over Polish-Russian relations. Only a few days before the fateful crash in August 2010, the first joint Polish-Russian memorial took place at the Katyn cemetery, attended by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk. Transcripts of the speech Lech Kaczynski was due to give in Smolensk also acknowledged that Katyn had ‘poisoned relations between Russians and Poles for many decades’.


After Smolensk

In the aftermath of the Smolensk crash, hopes were raised about the potential for further rapprochement and the possibility of healing old wounds. Current Polish President Bronoslaw Komorowski has urged ‘healing rather than recrimination’ in response to the tragedy, and earlier this week, in a ceremony to mark the first anniversary of the disaster, Komorowski and Medvedev laid wreaths at the crash site before bowing their heads to observe a minute of silence as a solo bugle mournfully sounded. This was followed by a visit to Katyn itself, to commemorate the victims of the 1940 massacre. This display of togetherness was swiftly followed by an announcement about the formation of a new ‘Centre for Dialogue and Understanding’, to be based at twin sites in Moscow and Warsaw, with the aim of ‘promoting projects conducive to a dialogue in Polish-Russian relations’. According to a statement on President Komorowski’s website, the Centre aims to help overcome ‘barriers and stereotypes [and] help to counter the dangerous attempts to falsify history’, which continue to threaten relations between the two countries.


Polish President Bronoslaw Komorowski and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev commemorate the first anniversary of the Smolensk air disaster together.


Despite conciliatory gestures from both sides however, some wounds are proving hard to heal. A Russian investigation into the Smolensk crash concluded in January 2011 by blaming the crew for attempting to land the plane in adverse weather conditions despite warnings from Russian air traffic controllers on the ground in Smolensk, claiming they may have come under pressure to land from Lech Kaczynski himself. This verdict has proved controversial however, and many Poles have refused to accept the investigative findings, criticising Russian handing of the disaster and blaming bad communication and lack of support from ground controllers for the crash. Questions have been asked about why the airport remained open, if landing conditions were so bad. Some even subscribe to more extreme conspiracy theories: it has been alleged that the Russians artificially created the fog and gave the pilots misleading information in order to deliberately bring the plane down, a theory that has also been publicised by the Polish media. While only a small minority really believe that the crash was not accidental – 8% according to one recent poll – the same poll indicated that 78% of respondents did not consider the circumstances around the crash to have been adequately resolved and supported further, more independent investigation into events. An alternative Polish-led investigation is currently underway, but the investigators say they are still waiting to receive important documentation from Russia.


Papering Over the Cracks?

One year on, the organisation of commemorative events to mark the first anniversary of the Smolensk crash have highlighted deep divisions within Poland and cast a shadow over recent attempts to improve Polish-Russian relations. Official commemoration of the anniversary began at 08.41am on 10 April, as Polish politicians, flanked by crowds, gathered at Warsaw cathedral to mark the time that the plane crashed in Smolensk. However, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, (the late Lech Kaczynski’s twin-brother and current leader of the main opposition ‘Law and Justice Party’), who has declared that Russia are ‘directly responsible’ for the crash and that the victims have been ‘betrayed’ by the current Polish government, boycotted the official ceremonies, choosing instead to hold his own ‘unofficial’ ceremony, laying a wreath outside Warsaw’s Presidential Palace, in a gesture of defiance that was supported by a 3000 strong crowd holding nationalist banners and shouting “Here is Poland!”. The weekend before the official commemoration a 2000 strong protest also took place in Warsaw, with one Polish man arrested after burning an effigy of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in front of the Russian embassy. This has fuelled fears that the ‘politicisation’ of the Smolensk tragedy in Poland is reawakening traditional suspicions of Russia and undermining still fragile attempts to build closer relations between the two states.

When in power, Lech Kaczysnski was a divisive political figure due to his conservative nationalist agenda and despite a genuine outpouring of grief in the aftermath of the fateful crash, controversial proposals to bury Kaczynski and his wife in Wawel Cathedral in Krakow soon split popular opinion. His death, particularly under such tragic circumstances, has also proved divisive, leading to charges that some parties in Poland are using the tragedy for their own political ends. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, in particular, has been accused of using the death of his brother to exploit ‘Russophobia’ in Poland and gain political leverage. The imminent prospect of an election by October 2011 – and a recent poll putting Kaczynski’s opposition Law and Justice party just 4% behind Donald Tusk’s ruling Civic Platform in the polls, gaining 28% and 32% respectively – have led to charges that Jaroslaw was effectively using this week’s commemorations to launch his own election campaign.

Now, a new squabble has broken out over the Smolensk crash site, after Russian authorities replaced a Polish plaque placed by relatives of the victims in November 2010 which referred to the 1940 deaths as a ‘genocide’ with a dual-language plaque that omits any mention of Katyn. Russian authorities have since claimed the original plaque was replaced because Russian law prohibits memorials written solely in a foreign language and in an attempt to quell rising tensions Medvedev and Komorowski have announced that a joint Russian-Polish panel will be set up to design a mutually acceptable commemorative plaque which will permanently mark the site.

April 13, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 5 Comments