Thursday, November 27, 2008

Sikorski and me: a cryptic journey through Krakow

My hopes of seeing the crypt today at Krakow's Wawel Cathedral were dashed by world events. I had made it to freezing Krakow after an overnight nine hour train journey from Prague and I was eagerly looking forward too visiting the cathedral and castle on the acropolis at Wawel. But the cathedral crypt proved to be a no-go area.

I had wondered why there were so many TV cameras hovering around the cathedral grounds. It seems the body of General Wladyslaw Sikorski, the exiled Polish WWII prime minister, was exhumed from the crypt yesterday in an investigation into his death in 1943. He was now being reburied after an autopsy this morning. He certainly deserves a bit of peace. 65 years after his death, the poor chap was forced to undergo DNA analysis, computer tomography, radiology and toxicology tests. The results of the test will be announced in a few weeks time.

Władysław Eugeniusz Sikorski was the hero of the Polish-Soviet war of 1919-21 when the young Soviet Russia invaded Poland intent on taking revolution to the heart of Europe. Things were looked bad for the Polish until Sikorski masterminded the "Miracle of the Vistula" defeating a numerically and materially superior Russian army near Warsaw. Shortly after, the Russians sued for peace and abandoned the idea of international revolution. Sikorski and a young French instructor with the Polish army, a certain Charles de Gaulle, saw how lightning fast warfare would be the way of the future and were both instrumental in the new science of blitzkrieg.

Sikorski was rewarded for his efforts by becoming the Polish army chief of staff and served in the national government in the mid 1920s. He withdrew from politics after Poland became a dictatorship in 1926 and spent much of the next ten years in Paris. He returned prior to the war he predicted would occur but escaped to London after Poland was invaded (where the Germans showed they had been paying attention to Sikorski's blitzkrieg techniques). There he was appointed Prime Minister in exile and placed at the head of the large Polish army based in England. After the German invasion of Russia, Churchill sent Sikorski to negotiate with Stalin to reopen diplomatic relations. But Stalin wanted a piece of the Polish pie after the war and demanded unacceptable concessions.

In 1943, the German Wehrmacht discovered the mass grave of Katyń where the bodies of 4,500 Polish officers were piled up in several pits. The Soviets had killed the officers in 1940 after they had carved up Poland with the Germans. Radio Berlin gleefully reported the news in an attempt to put a wedge between the Russians and Polish. The wedge was successful. The Russians claimed the Nazis had carried out the killings in 1941 but Sikorski didn't believe them and wanted the matter investigated. The Russians used this as an excuse to break off diplomatic relations with Sikorski's government and Stalin campaigned for a Soviet-backed Polish government led by Wanda Wasilewska, a dedicated communist.

Sikorski was becoming a serious thorn in the side of the relationship between Britain and Russia. He was conveniently removed from the equation after he died in mysterious circumstances. On 4 July 1943, he was returning from an inspection of Polish forces deployed in the Middle East, when his plane crashed on take off into the sea off Gibraltar killing him and eight others (including his daughter). A British court of inquiry found no reason for the crash merely saying the "aircraft became uncontrollable for reasons which cannot be established". The files of the investigation were to be kept secret until 2050. In the absence of hard facts and the absurdly long secrecy requirement, conspiracy theories have abounded.

It didn't help when it was revealed a Soviet aircraft was parked next to Sikorski's unattended plane at Gibraltar. The head of M6 on the Rock at the time was Kim Philby, who would later be exposed as a Soviet spy. Security was casual in Gibraltar, by wartime standards. Sabotage was certainly possible and there was a strong motive. With the imposing Sikorski out of the way, it proved a lot easier to install a puppet pro-Soviet government in Warsaw once the war ended.

After his body was recovered from the Mediterranean, Sikorski was buried in a brick-lined grave at the Polish War Cemetery in Newark-on-Trent, England. In 1993, his remains were exhumed and transferred to the royal crypts at Wawel Castle. In July this year, Polish prosecutors announced they would reinvestigate the matter and the Archbishop of Krakow gave permission for Sikorski's body to be re-exhumed. "Given Sikorski's important role in Poland's history and having the tools and the know-how that we have now," said Ewa Koj, the prosecutor overseeing the investigation "we cannot let this remain a historical mystery." Good luck to them, at least the mystery why I couldn't see the crypt today has been solved.

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