Another Polish Tragedy


The nation of Poland is still in shock
over the plane crash that killed 97 people, including President Lech Kaczynski, first lady Maria Kaczynska, the national bank president, the deputy foreign minister, the head of the National Security Office, the deputy Parliament speaker, the Olympic Committee head, two presidential aides, several priests, and 17 other lawmakers. The flight went down while trying to land in dense fog near Smolensk airport in western Russia.
The delegation was flying to Russia to attend a memorial at Katyn Forest, where thousands of Polish military officers, policemen, intellectuals, and civilian POWs were executed and buried by Josef Stalin’s secret police (a slaughter that, for decades, the Soviets tried to blame on the Germans). Thousands of Poles had already arrived in the area for the memorial. Instead of the ceremony they had expected for the victims of 70 years ago, a requiem Mass was said for the new victims.
The decimation of Polish leadership is unprecedented for modern nations in peacetime. It is, however, sadly reminiscent of another plane crash that killed Polish leaders during World War II.
When the Germans and the Soviets overran Poland in 1939, a temporary government was set up in London. General Wladyslaw Sikorski was named prime minister of the Polish Government in Exile and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He was killed on July 4, 1943, when his plane crashed on takeoff from Gibraltar.
Debate surrounded the cause of the crash for many years, but never so much as in the late 1960s, when German playwright Rolf Hochhuth and British historian David Irving teamed up to claim that it was no accident. Rather, they alleged that Winston Churchill had ordered British agents to enter the plane prior to takeoff and kill Sikorski and others (including Sikorski’s daughter, two members of Parliament, and a dozen other innocent people). Then, they said, the assassins abandoned the plane and the pilot intentionally crashed (after taking special precautions for his personal safety), making it look like Sikorski was killed by the impact. The pilot survived, but he was supposedly later killed by British agents to keep him quiet.
Interestingly, the Katyn Forest Massacre played a role in this story, too. The story behind Churchill’s reasoning for supposedly ordering the murder (the explanation would change as time went on) was that the recent discovery of mass graves containing dead Poles caused Sikorski to oppose an alliance with the Russians. Churchill, on the other hand, argued that the Soviet commitment to the defeat of the Axis meant that they were important allies. In order to avoid problems, then, Churchill had Sikorski killed.
When the play making this charge, Soldiers, was set to open in London, it caused a significant uproar and was initially banned. That generated great debate about the freedom of artists in Britain. Theater critic Kenneth Tynan and Sir Lawrence Olivier (the artistic director and literary manager of the British National Theatre) saw their effort to have the play produced as a battle against censorship. As it turned out, however, the central charge of the play was groundless.
In December 1968, television host David Frost had Irving and Tynan (the “Hochhuth contingent”) as his guests to discuss the play. Central to their theory, of course, was that the pilot, Edward Prchal, had been in on the plot and had later been killed. When Prchal came out on camera, he called this story “a slander of the century.” Prchal later filed suit for defamation and won a £50,000 judgment from Hochhuth. Actor Carlos Thompson, who originally wanted to help bring the play to stage, ended up writing a book, The Assassination of Winston Churchill, exposing the shoddy and dishonest work that went into the assassination theory.
Irving went on to become known as the world’s foremost Holocaust denier (with the possible exception of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad). Hochhuth, his longtime friend and collaborator, was also the author of The Deputy, a play that is generally credited with causing people to stop seeing Pope Pius XII as a hero of the Holocaust and start seeing him as a mute witness, if not a co-perpetrator.
Hochhuth’s sloppiness and dishonesty vis-à-vis Churchill was exposed on television, in print, and in the courts. When, in 2005, he defended Irving’s claim that “more women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy’s car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz,” newspapers in Germany called him an anti-Semite, and the President of the Central Jewish Council in Germany said he was denying the Holocaust. His publishing house even cancelled his autobiography project. Unfortunately, despite being so overwhelmingly discredited, many people still accept Hochhuth’s groundless charges against Pius XII.
There is now significant evidence to support the claims of Ion Mihai Pacepa, the former Romanian intelligence chief, that The Deputy was part of a Soviet plot to destroy the Vatican’s moral authority. The German producer worked at the direction of the Communist Party; the Broadway producer and the American publisher were Communists; the French translator spent a decade organizing clandestine activities for the Communist Party of Spain — and the list goes on. (Interestingly, some versions of The Deputy — there were many — try to shift blame for the Katyn Forest Massacre from the Soviets to the Germans.) British intelligence in 1969 concluded: “Nor can we discount the possibility of long-term efforts by the communists to foster Hochhuth’s allegations until they become legend.”
There is much curiosity about the cause of the recent devastating crash. I hope it was simply an accident, as it was when Sikorski was killed. I hope it was not some nefarious plot to advance a political agenda, of the kind seen when Soldiers and The Deputy came to the stage.


  • Ronald J. Rychlak

    Ronald J. Rychlak is the associate dean and MDLA Professor of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law. He is the author of Hitler, the War, and the Pope (Revised and Expanded) (2010) and Righteous Gentiles (2005).

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