Czechs and Poles: a special relationship
The decision of the Czech Republic to declare two full days of mourning to remember the victims of the air crash in Smolensk was no overreaction. The fates of the Czechs and the Poles, whose countries today share a common border of nearly 800 kilometres, are closely tied and always have been. The sense of loss that many Czechs felt at the news of the crash was deep and sincere.
A Czech medieval legend has it that the ancestors of the Czechs and the Poles were two brothers, called Čech and Lech, who came north from today’s Croatia in the seventh century. Standing on the round hill Říp, north of Prague, Čech decided that this was to be the land where he would settle, while Lech headed off to the north to found Poland. The story is pure fairy tale, but it is true that medieval Czech and Polish history intertwine again and again, and until the twelfth or thirteenth centuries, the two languages would have been indistinguishable. To this day, one of the pleasant surprises for Czechs travelling to Poland is that you can always make yourself understood.
The common thread of Czech and Polish history has survived through to our own time, and explains both the closeness of the two nations and a lingering hint of suspicion.
Paradoxically, at the time of Munich, Poland had sided with Germany, not because of sympathy for Hitler, but because it saw the dissection of Czechoslovakia as a chance to annex the mainly Polish-speaking region of Těšín. This was an area that the new state of Czechoslovakia had controversially claimed for itself in 1918. Last September, President Kaczynski was the first Polish leader to apologise unconditionally for the 1938 annexation, describing it, unequivocally, as a “sin”, a gesture that did much to warm Czech-Polish relations.
During the Second World War, the Czechoslovak and Polish governments in exile worked together in London, while their soldiers and airmen, who had fled to Britain, also fought alongside one another. But, ironically, news of the Katyn massacre – which reached London in 1943, three years after the event itself – damaged relations. The Polish government had no choice morally but to break off contacts with Moscow, while the Czechoslovak President, Edvard Beneš, knowing that it was far from certain that Czechoslovakia would even be reinstated after the war, felt that he could not afford to alienate Stalin.
The resulting mistrust reached such a scale that, when the Polish Prime Minister in exile General Sikorski was killed in a plane crash in July 1943, and the pilot and sole survivor was a Czech, quite unfounded rumours spread that the Czechoslovak government in London had deliberately staged the accident.
The shadow of this mistrust remained for many years, reinforced, rather than ironed out, by the two countries’ straight-jacketed post-war alliance within the Warsaw Pact. It is yet another paradox of history that Polish troops were among the Soviet-led forces that invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, to end the reforms of the Prague Spring.
In the years that followed, it was the dissident movement in both countries that did most to heal the wounds. Czech, Slovak and Polish dissidents worked closely and courageously together. Their secret meetings on the top of the Czech Republic’s highest mountain, Sněžka, that straddles the border, have become legendary. They formed strong personal links that remain to this day.
Many of those who died in Smolensk last week, including the Polish president himself, were veterans of that movement, and their part in setting aside any lingering mistrust between Czechs and Poles cannot be underestimated. Today Czech-Polish relations are genuinely warm and open, and above all, normal.