The shock and sorrow felt by people in Poland and around the world after much of that country’s leadership perished in a plane crash should not cover up important victories for world peace that their planned trip signified.
The move by Russia’s political leadership to invite Polish leaders to a joint observance of the 1940 murder of Polish officers in the forests of Katyn marks another serious blow to proponents of the nuclear arms race.
Polish government leaders, including the president, who died in the plane that crashed as it was on its way to that memorial were long on record as favoring acceptance of U.S. nuclear missiles in their country. Russia saw such a development as a hostile move and as a danger to its national security.
The right-wing Polish leaders’ decision to accept the friendly gesture from the Russians would not have happened were it not for mass opposition to the missile deployment in Poland itself.
Most important, the decision by the Obama administration to cancel the deployment originally sought by the Bush administration helped to spur the improved prospects for Polish-Russian cooperation.
For many years the cold warriors and the right wing generally tried to use the events in the forests of Katyn to their advantage. The Nazis were actually the first to do this when they claimed, in 1943, that they had “discovered” the graves of Polish officers, thereby “proving” Soviet atrocities against Poland. At the time the Nazi propaganda didn’t get much mileage with either the Poles or the Russians. (The fascists had already slaughtered millions of citizens of both countries.) The rest of the anti-fascist allies reserved judgment about what had or had not happened in Katyn, not just because there was no evidence one way or the other, but because they did not want to jeopardize the unity that was needed to stop the Nazi war machine.
In 1989 leaders of the Soviet Union said, for the first time, that it had indeed been the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, that was responsible for the murder of the Polish officers. Vladimir Putin’s attendance at the memorial last week was the first time a Russian prime minister has commemorated the Polish officers killed at Katyn.
At the memorial he correctly pointed out that many Soviet citizens also were unjustly killed during purges in the Stalin era and that many of them too were buried in that forest. He also made it clear that many thousands buried there and elsewhere in Western Russia were Red Army soldiers and partisans slaughtered by the Nazis. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens buried in Poland itself died in the fight to liberate that country from fascist occupation.
The Russians deserve credit for their gesture for improved relations with Poland. It comes not only after Polish support for nuclear missile placement on Russia’s border but also after repeated attempts by Poland’s current political leadership to torpedo any agreement between the European Union and Russia.
President Obama deserves credit for defusing tensions and improving prospects for world nuclear disarmament by pulling the United States back from the nuclear brinksmanship practiced by the Bush administration.
The Polish government deserves credit for being responsive not just to the international consensus for peace but to the popular forces in its own country that are demanding a sane, internationalist outlook as opposed to a narrow nationalist one.
Photo: Polish people protest in Warsaw in 2007 against the Bush administration plan to place a missile defense base in Poland. They said it would only make their country more vulnerable to attack. (AP/Czarek Sokolowski)