For the second time this decade Poland has suffered the death of a leader when President Lech Kaczynski, his wife and many members of the Polish government were killed in a tragic plane crash on April 10 while flying to a ceremony in Russia to honor the 20,000 Polish citizens murdered by Soviet Communists in World War II.
It was a chance to heal the wounds spanning most of the 20th century between Poland and Russia and was seen as a chance to finally begin the healing process. It was the first time Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin took a personal role in matters with Poland signifying a major shift in relations between the two nations.
To his credit, Putin took charge of the disaster and honored the Polish President, demonstrating a rare glimpse of the personal side of the powerful Russian leader, as he personally oversaw the recovery and return of Kaczynski's remains to the Polish capitol.
Nearly five years ago to the day, April 2, 2005, Pope John Paul II, the Polish Pope who captivated the world, died in Rome. The beloved Pope John Paul was the first non-Italian Pope since 1520 and his election as Pope represented a major shift in the Roman Catholic church.
BBC World News
The Queen has expressed her "deepest sympathy" to the Polish government and people after the death of President Lech Kaczynski in a plane crash.
Gordon Brown said the whole world would be "saddened" and Tory leader David Cameron called it a "black day".
Scores died in the crash in Russia, including Ryszard Kaczorowski, Poland's president in exile during the Communist years, who lived in London.
The Rev Canon Bronislaw Gostomski, from a Polish church in London, also died.
The aircraft was carrying more than 80 passengers, including some of the country's top military and civilian leaders, as well as the president's wife, when it came down in thick fog as it approached Smolensk airport, in western Russia.
The delegation was flying in from the Polish capital, Warsaw, to mark the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre of thousands of Poles by Soviet forces during World War II.
Polish and Russian officials said no-one survived the crash.
In her message to the Polish government, the Queen spoke of the president's "long and distinguished public service".
She also paid tribute to the other victims, including Mr Kaczorowski.
"The deaths of many other of Poland's leading figures, including former President in Exile Kaczorowski, only serve to deepen this tragedy," she said.
Here in America President Barack Obama called Polish prime minister Donald Tusk to express his condolences: "Our thoughts and prayers are with the Kaczynski family, the loved ones of those killed in this tragic plane crash, and the Polish nation," he said.
What Obama did not say was Poland was long one of the strongest allies of the USA in Eastern Europe throughout the Cold War and after. There are over 10 million Americans of Polish descent.
I wrote a history of the Nazi and Communist movements called "Saviors of the 20th Century, Hitler and Stalin - The War of Annihilation between the Nazis and Communists" and in it was a chapter called Poland - Armageddon of WW II. Because of the tragic history of Poland throughout the century I believe it merits another look so we can understand the difficulties the Polish people have had to overcome. Here is the excerpt from the book.
Poland - Armageddon of WW II
Poland, the Armageddon of World War II, the proverbial scene of the decisive battle between good and evil. In the history of civilization it is doubtful any country faced the dire conditions and the deadly consequences faced by Poland from 1939-1945.
Sandwiched between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, it was the only nation to be partitioned without a vote between the Nazi and Communist Empires as a result of the 1939 non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin. Poland was a geographic buffer between these two menacing monsters, a buffer that vanished off the face of the earth during the month of September 1939.
Both Hitler and Stalin had reasons to hate the Poles. Fact is both felt justified in ravaging the nation for their own purposes. After World War I Poland humiliated the Germans as a result of the severe conditions of the Treaty of Versailles. Over one and one half million Germans were forced to abandon their homes to Poles because of the treaty.
In 1939 Poland was the fastest growing industrial nation in Europe and was much needed to support the German war machine. Both Hitler and Himmler had rejected their Catholic upbringing and there were more Catholics in Poland than any other country, making it a convenient target for religious persecution. It was also the gateway for the inevitable invasion of the Soviet Union and of vital strategic importance.
More ominously, it was the home to nearly three million Jews before the war. Ever since Catherine II established the Pale for Jews they had moved into Poland and had recently represented nearly eight percent of the population, the most of any nation in Europe.
Earlier in the 20th century, before World War I, there were over thirty million Poles, but four million were killed in World War I, thirty-four times the American loss in the war. Almost all the fighting of that World War took place on Polish soil. Yet deaths were not the only suffering by the Poles. Devastation was astounding as over 1.7 million buildings were destroyed, 6,969 churches, and 40% of all railway bridges and stations during the First World War.
The Soviets also had reason to dislike Poland. When the Communists swept to power in Russia and successfully won the Russian Civil War, the Soviet leaders decided to continue rolling right over Europe with their revolution. The mighty Red Army attacked the Poles in August of 1920 driving to the very gates of Warsaw.
A miracle of sorts happened when the embattled Poles fought back valiantly August 15 in the Battle of Warsaw outmaneuvering the stunned and vastly superior Red Army and routing them on August 18, thus saving Europe from Soviet conquest. It was a setback that reverberated throughout the Kremlin and caused the Communists to slow down the worldwide revolution they advocated. In time it came to be known as the day of the Polish Miracle.
Yet there was more, for though the Soviets were a new nation dominated by Jewish-Bolshevik leaders and committed to stopping anti-Semitic actions, they were also committed to driving the opposition Jewish groups from influence, adversaries such as the Jewish Zionist and Bund nationalist parties.
Because of its proximity Poland had become a haven for Jewish outcasts from the Soviet Union after the revolution and civil war - those on the wrong side of Judaism who became enemies of the Bolshevik State. It also was a safe haven for all those fleeing Communist persecution throughout the Soviet Empire. To the Soviets, Poland was a nation harboring many dangerous fugitives and traitors.
Poland also was a hotbed of another faction of Jewish revolutionaries who were committed to the Communist Marxist revolution and the Soviet Bolshevik leadership. Thus some Polish Jews were enemies of the Soviets and many more were allies. Ironically Jewish participation in the Marxist revolution in Poland earlier caused the Poles and Ukrainians to distrust them as well. Active Jewish involvement in the revolutions that swept Europe after World War I would come back to haunt them.
Beyond the desire of the Soviets to save some Jews from Nazis and punish some for opposing the Bolsheviks, the Soviets were also in desperate need of access to the Baltic Sea north of Poland. A treaty with Hitler gave Stalin freedom to overrun the Baltic States and gain that ocean access.
By 1921 the Polish population dropped to twenty-seven million, then grew to thirty-two million by 1931, the last official census before World War II. It was a diverse population as Ukrainians and Belorussians were the majority, Poles made up one third of the population, and Jews were about eight percent.
Germany and the Soviets announced to a stunned world the signing of the non-aggression pact at the end of August 1939 and on September 1 the Nazi invasion of Poland from the west was launched. It was to be a coordinated attack with the Red Army attacking from the east.
Over 1,800,000 German soldiers poured across the border with 2,600 tanks and over 2,000 aircraft supporting the invasion. Typical of the new German strategy designed by Hitler personally, it was to be a rapid and deadly strike. The Poles, like the rest of the world, were caught unprepared and less than a third of the Polish military was able to mobilize against the Nazi invasion.
Stalin, to the chagrin of Hitler, did not attack immediately as promised but waited to see what kind of resistance the Germans would encounter. He was also wary of the reaction of England and America to the invasion, as he needed Churchill and Roosevelt to be allies if he were to have any hope of defeating Hitler and Germany.
By waiting until the Germans destroyed the Polish army, he could proclaim the Soviets were invading Poland to protect the Ukrainian and Belorussian populations living in Poland from the Nazis, a tactic that infuriated Hitler when he learned of it.
The Soviet war machine finally did roll across the eastern border of Poland September 17 as Hitler's forces had secured the German half of the country and were rapidly moving into the Soviet territory. For a time it appeared as if the former bitter enemies and now allies might start fighting each other as they laid claim to the Polish nation.
One of the most intriguing comments of the dilemma faced by the Poles came from their decorated General Wladyslaw Anders, Polish Commander, speaking to General George Patton later in the war. Anders said:
"With the Nazis, we lose our lives; with the Soviets, we lose our souls… If I found my army between the Nazis and the Soviets, I would attack in both directions."
By October 5 Poland could hold out no longer against the onslaught from the Nazis and Red Army, and finally surrendered. Poland ceased to exist. Still in just a few weeks of fighting the Poles inflicted heavy losses on the Germans, 50,000 men, 697 planes and 993 tanks and armored cars, while thousands of Polish soldiers and civilians were able to escape to France and Britain.
The defeat in battle was just the beginning of the Polish suffering. In the 20 years following World War I Poland had rebuilt her industry and railroads. She now had over 5,500 railroad locomotives, 11,350 passenger cars, and 164,000 freight cars. Over 1,250 miles of new railroad track had been laid and Polish highways had been expanded by over 30%.
All of these resources were needed by the Nazis in their ambitious plans to reunite the German Empire. A vast network of nearly 200 concentration camps were soon developed throughout Poland and the surrounding area first for the purpose of providing labor, and later as the sites of the Nazi death camps. The need for industrial output was the priority and over two million Poles were among five million prisoners sent into forced labor.
When the occupation was completed Germany controlled about 13 million Poles including 2.1 million Jews, and the Soviets controlled about 13 million Poles including about 1.2 million Jews. Over 600,000 people fled from the German to Soviet sector including over 350,000 Jews during the next year. Of the total population in Soviet occupied areas about one tenth were Jewish, one third were Poles, and the majority were Ukraine and Belorussian.
Germany immediately threw 1.2 million Poles from their ancestral homes for resettlement in ghettos to make room for Germans who lost their homes after World War I. The Soviets and Polish were bitter enemies and the Soviets captured 230,000 Polish soldiers including 25,000 Jewish soldiers. Millions of Poles died in the hands of the Germans and Soviets.
Before the Nazis were driven out of Poland nearly 2.5 million Poles were murdered in camps and another 500,000 were starved to death. Millions more died during forced labor, resettlement and deportation.
As for Poles living in the Soviet lands, 1.6 million Poles were deported to the gulags and prisons of Russia including over 130,000 Jews sent from the Soviet occupied area of Poland to Siberia as "enemies of the state." Ironically this deportation probably saved them from the Nazi holocaust. In addition to the Polish citizens imprisoned or forced into labor camps the Soviets murdered many thousands of Polish military.
Soviet treatment of the Poles changed only when Hitler violated the non-aggression treaty and attacked the Soviet Union using Poland as the launch point in June of 1941. This action caused some positive events to take place in the midst of the carnage.
On August 12, 1941, with the German army advancing on Moscow, the Supreme Soviet granted amnesty to all Polish citizens and released all Polish prisoners from gulags and prisons in order to help in the fight against Nazi Germany. The millions of Poles sent to Soviet prisons were now free, unlike the fate of most Russian citizens sent to the deadly Soviet gulag prison system.
A total of nearly six million Poles died (civilian and military) during the war, ranking Poland third behind the Soviet Union and Germany for the most deaths in the European sector of World War II. This represented nearly 22% of the entire Polish population before the war.
When the dust finally settled on the deadliest conflict in history over fifteen million people had died in Polish concentration camps. Most were Soviet and Communist prisoners captured when the Germans overran the Soviet occupied Poland, the Ukraine and western Soviet territory extending all the way to Moscow. Tens of millions of Soviet military and civilians, Communists and Communist sympathizers were exterminated. Poland once again lay in ruins and it was to remain a Soviet state for the next half century.
As destiny would have it, Poland made history in quite another way. On the very same day as the Polish Miracle, May 18, 1920, when the Poles stopped the mighty Soviet Red Army and captured Kiev, in Poland a baby boy named Karol Jozef Wojtyla was born.
This young boy grew up and helped organize a secret theater group during the Nazi occupation. By 1944 he became a Catholic priest in a secret order in Poland. Soon the equally murderous Communists under Stalin drove out the murderous Nazi regime.
The priest became a Cardinal, and then the Cardinal became the first Polish Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II. In time he would use his influence as Pope to help the Solidarity movement in Poland oppose the Communist rule, and would help lead the Polish people out from under the shackles of Communism into a new life of freedom.