Roger Cohen: The Glory of Poland





[Roger Cohen is a columnist for the NYT.]

My first thought, hearing of the Polish tragedy, was that history’s gyre can be of an unbearable cruelty, decapitating Poland’s elite twice in the same cursed place, Katyn.

My second was to call my old friend Adam Michnik in Warsaw. Michnik, an intellectual imprisoned six times by the former puppet-Soviet Communist rulers, once told me:

“Anyone who has suffered that humiliation, at some level, wants revenge. I know all the lies. I saw people being killed. But I also know that revanchism is never ending. And my obsession has been that we should have a revolution that does not resemble the French or Russian, but rather the American, in the sense that it be for something, not against something. A revolution for a constitution, not a paradise. An anti-utopian revolution. Because utopias lead to the guillotine and the gulag.”

Michnik’s obsession has yielded fruit. President Lech Kaczynski is dead. Slawomir Skrzypek, the president of the National Bank, is dead. An explosion in the fog of the forest took them and 94 others on the way to Katyn. But Poland’s democracy has scarcely skipped a beat. The leader of the lower house of Parliament has become acting president pending an election. The first deputy president of the National Bank has assumed the duties of the late president. Poland, oft dismembered, even wiped from the map, is calm and at peace....

Michnik was referring to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s words after he decided last week to join, for the first time, Polish officials commemorating the anniversary of the murder at Katyn of thousands of Polish officers by the Soviet Union at the start of World War II. Putin, while defending the Russian people, denounced the “cynical lies” that had hidden the truth of Katyn, said “there is no justification for these crimes” of a “totalitarian regime” and declared, “We should meet each other halfway, realizing that it is impossible to live only in the past.”

The declaration, dismissed by the paleolithic Russian Communist Party, mattered less than Putin’s presence, head bowed in that forest of shame. Watching him beside Poland’s prime minister, Donald Tusk, I thought of François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl hand-in-hand at Verdun in 1984: of such solemn moments of reconciliation has the miracle of a Europe whole and free been built. Now that Europe extends eastward toward the Urals....

So do not tell me that cruel history cannot be overcome. Do not tell me that Israelis and Palestinians can never make peace. Do not tell me that the people in the streets of Bangkok and Bishkek and Tehran dream in vain of freedom and democracy. Do not tell me that lies can stand forever.

Ask the Poles. They know.



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