Kaczynski was no conservative caricature
For anyone who knew Lech Kaczynski from his memorable public utterances, meeting him was a pleasant surprise.
The conservative Polish president is best remembered in Ireland as the man who torpedoed an otherwise flawless state visit in 2007 by claiming that promoting homosexuality would lead to the extinction of the human race.
HIs words seemed in keeping for a man who, as mayor of Warsaw, had banned gay pride parade two years earlier. But despite his hardline, for some unacceptable, views, Lech Kaczynski was no conservative caricature.
In person, he was a warm and friendly man whose regular provocations seemed to be about demanding the same respect for his conservative views that that his liberal opponents demand for theirs.
“It’s about opposing a world where a Christmas tree is becoming suspicious and the most obscene gay demonstration is not,” he said, summarising his views to the Irish Times in 2007.
Though his views were controversial — staunchly pro-American and pro-death penalty, suspicious of Germany and anti-Russian — they were in tune with the millions of Poles who voted him into office in 2005, months after his twin brother Jaroslaw became prime minister.
Though stubborn, Lech Kaczynski was by far the softer of the twins and Jaroslaw, older by 45 minutes, was the political brains behind their national conservative “Law and Justice” party.
It was a long road for the former child stars of the classic Polish film “The Two Who Stole the Moon” to the portly brothers dubbed the “terrible twins” of European politics. In the end, few western pundits got beyond the caricature to try and understand the motivations and traumas of the Polish president.
“I was born four years after the second World War but I cannot remember a period of my life when I didn’t realise there was a war,” said Mr Kaczynski to this newspaper. After a childhood in the ruins of Warsaw, listening to the stories of their parents’ resistance stories with black and white heroes and villains, it was natural to be drawn to the growing Solidarity movement that would eventually topple communism.
Interned for 10 months in 1981 and a close confidant of Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, the men eventually split acrimoniously over how they viewed Poland’s negotiated transition to democracy in 1989.
For Walesa it was a necessary evil; for Kaczynski, failure to make a clean break left Poland soaked in corruption and croneyism.
The brothers viewed their 2005 double win as carte blanche to draw a “thick line” between Poland’s past and the present they ignored the complexities of life, of Polish history and of the human character.
Success in fighting corruption at home — with sometimes questionable legal methods — was eventually overshadowed by endless upsets with EU neighbours. Mortified Poles ousted Jaroslaw in 2007 and his brother’s chances at a second presidential this year were looking dim.
“Lech Kaczynski didn’t follow the modern rules of politics,” said Ryszard Bugaj, a close confidant. “He didn’t sell himself, he just said what he thought.”