Deadly Polish Plane Crash Still Mired in Mystery

Peter Jukes reports on the disaster that killed the Polish president in 2010, which is once more grabbing headlines.

Two and half years since the air crash in Russia which killed the president of Poland, Lech Kaczyński, and wiped out a generation of Polish dignitaries, conspiracy theories about the doomed flight still haunt Poland.

When an aging Polish government Tupolev plane crashed short of a Russian military runway in foggy conditions in April 2010, 96 Polish officials, lawmakers, military officers and clerics were killed. It was a devastating national trauma, and—to add to the shock—emotively piled a new tragedy onto an historic one. The government plane was en route to a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre when more than 20,000 Polish officers, intellectuals, and politicians were executed by Stalin as he tried to decapitate the Polish nation, having carved it up with Adolf Hitler by joining the invasion which initiated World War II.

Within a year of the "Katastrofa Smoleńska," both the Russian and the Polish authorities had concluded the disaster was an accident: the Russian report emphasized pilot error, while the Polish included additional criticisms of the ground-control crews. However, President Kaczyński’s surviving twin, Jaroslaw, has consistently claimed the air crash was actually an assassination and part of a secret coup d’état. While Jaroslaw failed to succeed his brother in the role of president, his Law and Justice Party (PIS) has suggested the current prime minister, Donald Tusk, was part of a coverup. Though many Poles sympathize with Jaroslaw’s grief and paranoia about the loss of his brother, Law and Justice have suffered electoral setbacks ever since.

However, this week, the conspiracy theories seemed to gain more traction when one of Poland’s leading daily newspapers, Rzeczpospolita, published an article claiming traces of high explosives had been found in the plane’s wreckage. A respected reporter on military and intelligence matters, Cezary Gmyz, cited no less than four unnamed sources alleging traces of TNT and nitrogylcerine had been detected, lending weight to the theories that the plane had been shot down. Within hours, Jaroslaw Kaczyński was demanding that Prime Minister Tusk resign, openly airing allegations of assassination. “The murder of 96 people, including the Polish president and many other public figures,” Jaroslaw declared “is an unheard-of crime.”

The confirmation of conspiracy didn’t last long. On Wednesday, the chief military investigator into the crash was pointing out that the chemical traces could have been caused by cosmetics or pesticides. "It's not true that traces of TNT or nitroglycerine were confirmed either inside or on the exterior of the wreckage," Colonel Ireneusz Szelag told journalists. The editor of Rzeczpospolita, Tomasz Wróblewski, issued a public apology, admitting that the claims for trace of TNT or nitroglycerine were “premature,” and conceding it was “abominable” to use the Smolensk tragedy for “political purposes.” He has since offered his resignation as editor in chief of the paper.

To many Polish journalists, Rzeczpospolita’s blunder can be explained by the declining fortunes of both the newspaper and the party it has historically supported. Aleksander Kaczorowski, currently editing the Aspen Review of Central Europe, was Wroblewski’s deputy at Newsweek Polska and thinks the pressure was more commercial than political. “This is a nationalist-conservative paper that sympathizes with Law and Justice,” Kaczorowski told The Daily Beast. “It sells only about 80,000 thousand copies a day, compared with 200,000 a few years ago.” The popularity of conspiracy theories about the crash is, in Kaczorowski’s view, just the “everyday madness we have to live with … the vast majority of Poles do not really care about this anymore.”

Apart from the original accident, a series of errors in the investigation, and the failure of Russian authorities to hand over parts of the wreckage, have been eagerly interpreted as something more than incompetence. To Tomasz Stawiszyński, a Newsweek Polska reporter who has written about the various far-out theories about the Smolensk tragedy, these sinister narratives suit not only different political agendas within Poland, but also play to the troubled historic relations with its larger neighbor, Russia. “There is of course one rational conspiracy theory possible here,” he told The Daily Beast, “that the Russians deliberately withhold evidence and muddy the waters to keep other countries in awe of them.”

Just as the "truther" movements in the United States, which believe the 9/11 attacks were somehow an inside job, or the "birther" conspiracies which persist in doubting President Obama’s U.S. citizenship, the Smolensk tragedy theories are hard to kill, and a recent opinion poll suggested more than a quarter of Poles believe President Lech Kaczyński was assassinated. Another poll on Thursday for the television station TVN24, showed the number had leapt to more than a third, with 36 percent of Poles giving credence to the assassination theory.

To David Aaronovitch, a Times columnist and author of Voodoo Histories: the Role of Conspiracy Theory in Modern History these numbers are quite high. ”That’s bigger than normal,” he told The Daily Beast: “You can usually get 15-20 percent support anywhere for a conspiracy theory.” As to why such a large fragment of the public are addicted to complex stories of secret coverups, Aaronovitch observes a psychological need for coherent narrative, even if the narrative is malign. “It’s actually a more tolerable and ordered universe,” Aaronovitch says, “where accidents don’t happen.”