Politics and history infected by conspiracy in post-truth world
At 10.41am on April 10, 2010, the plane’s wing clipped a thick birch tree, the aircraft flipped over and nosedived, just short of the runway outside the Russian city. All 96 people on board were killed: president Lech Kaczynski, his wife Maria, the head of Poland’s central bank, MPs, ministers, senior clergy and military chiefs.
The Smolensk crash stunned Poland, plunged the country into mourning, evoked the ghosts of the past, and ignited a firestorm of conspiracy theory. About one third of Poles still believe that the crash was not an accident, and most blame the Kremlin for what is widely perceived as the political assassination of Poland’s leadership.
Last week Poland’s ruling right-wing Law and Justice Party, run by the late president’s twin brother, reopened an investigation into the crash and began exhuming the bodies of the dead, starting with Kaczynski and his wife. It is a move which is certain to damage relations with Russia and produce yet more speculation.
The Smolensk tragedy is more than just a continuation of the age-old enmity between Poland and Russia, an international fault line that threatens European peace and stability.
It is also proof that “post-truth”, the international word of the year according to Oxford Dictionaries, has infected history as well as politics: facts are secondary to emotion, the assertion of belief trumps mere reality, and not only in the present but in the past.
The Smolensk saga is a perfect example of how conspiracy theory metastasises in modern culture, from the assassination of JFK and the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, to the attack on the World Trade Centre: a dramatic event, inadequate initial explanation, a toxic admixture of ancient history and modern politics and unfettered internet speculation with no real regard for veracity.
In post-truth 21st-century history, the boundary between fact and fiction becomes blurred and no event just “happens”. The truth is irrelevant, giving way to what others fear, or want to believe, took place. Every successive inquiry, so far from delivering clarity, deepens suspicion that something must be afoot and dark forces are at work. A new prosecutor has been appointed to explore the unsolved assassination of the Swedish prime minister Olof Palme, a search for transparency after 30 years that seems likely to produce only more conjecture and uncertainty.
The Smolensk air crash simply happened, the consequence of pilot error and bad weather. The evidence of an accident is overwhelming and suggestions of foul play, at best, flimsy.
Two earlier investigations concluded the crash had been accidental but, reinforced by Russia’s decision not to return the wreckage, the conspiracy theories ran riot, ranging from a bomb on the plane to the bizarre allegation that Russian authorities pumped artificial fog on to the airfield.
This year saw the release of Smolensk, a Polish film in which a journalist, initially sceptical, becomes convinced that the plane crash was no accident.
For many Poles the pull of the conspiracy lies not in any facts but a subjective and bloody history in which Russia has played such a brutal part.
The doomed Polish presidential delegation was going to Smolensk to attend a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of World War II Katyn massacre, in which the Soviet secret police murdered 22,000 captive Polish officers, intellectuals and politicians. Stalin claimed the Nazis had carried out the massacre and Soviet responsibility was not acknowledged until 1990.
The link with the earlier political slaughter, and subsequent cover-up, was enough to sow deep suspicion in Poland, adding to the combination of mystery and martyrdom that is integral to the country’s history.
British refusal to release information on another wartime tragedy has also fuelled Poland’s national taste for conspiracy. In July 1943 the British plane carrying Wladyslaw Sikorski, Poland’s wartime leader in exile, crashed into the sea soon after take-off from Gibraltar, killing everyone on board except the pilot.
This provoked numerous assassination theories, variously attributing Sikorski’s death to the Soviets, the British, the Nazis and a rival Polish faction.
An exhumation of Sikorski’s remains in 2009 found no evidence of murder, but some of the British files on the accident are still classified, ensuring that in Poland the conspiracy theories rumble on.
The Smolensk air crash will haunt Poland (and Russia) for ever, like the murder of Palme and the grassy knoll of JFK infamy, not because there are dark mysteries at the heart of these events, but because in the post-truth world facts matter less than feelings.
The only way to defeat conspiracy theory is full and immediate disclosure of the evidence, a single, all-embracing investigation involving all interested parties, and a dispassionate approach assessing events independently of the past.
Russia should return the evidence from the Smolensk crash, and Poland’s leadership should cease using the tragedy as a weapon in international and domestic politics.
However, that warning comes six years too late.
Poland will never be free of the Smolensk ghosts, because objective truth died alongside the passengers of the Tupolev, and reality vanished long ago into the fog of post-truth conspiracy theory that is obscuring politics across the world.