Lech Kaczynski, 1949–2010

The president who extoled Polish nationalism

Lech Kaczynski was a Polish nationalist virtually from birth. Born to parents who took part in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, Lech and his identical twin brother, Jaroslaw, sang the Polish national anthem each night after saying their bedtime prayers. As adults, the brothers founded Poland’s conservative Law and Justice Party, which, with Lech as its standard-bearer, captured the presidency in 2005.

Kaczynski, who died last week when an airplane carrying him and dozens of other Polish dignitaries crashed in western Russia, grew up loathing the communist government that ruled the country from the end of World War II until its collapse, in 1989. “At home I learned a conviction that Poland was under oppression, that the communist system had been forced upon us,” he told an interviewer. A promising scholar, Kaczynski studied law in the early 1970s at the University of Warsaw and the University of Gdansk—“a propitious choice of vocation and location,” said the London Times, because the Solidarity labor union was founded at the Gdansk shipyards in 1980. “A natural colleague and advisor to the charismatic Solidarity leader Lech Walesa,” Kaczynski was one of many labor leaders imprisoned when the government declared martial law in 1981.

Kaczynski supported Walesa’s bid for the Polish presidency in 1989 and was named minister of defense and security after Walesa’s election. But he and his brother soon broke with the president, who complained that they were “always involved in intrigue.” Lech returned to academia, but re-entered government in 2000 when Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek appointed him justice minister. Two years later, Kaczynski, running on a strong law-and-order platform, was elected mayor of Warsaw. Known for his conservative social views, said the London Daily Telegraph, he banned two gay marches during his term.

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Viewed by critics as “overzealous and provincial,” said The New York Times, the Kaczynski brothers were nonetheless popular with Poles for their “image of honesty.” After Lech was elected president in 2005, he appointed his brother prime minister. As president, Kaczynski often sided with the U.S., alienating both Russia and the European Union, which Poland joined in 2004. He backed the entry of Georgia and Ukraine, two former Soviet satellites, to the NATO military alliance and he lobbied “hard for the United States to deploy part of its controversial shield against ballistic missiles in Poland.” Even his ideological adversaries never doubted his motives. “I’ve always remembered what a great patriot he was all his life,” said Polish intellectual Adam Michnik.

Kaczynski is survived by his mother, a daughter, two granddaughters, and his twin brother. Kaczynski’s wife, Maria, died in the crash with him.

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