Poland’s “Lady Di” moment

As with any sudden death, this morning’s tragedy is likely to provoke a big response.

Below are pictures from about 30 minutes ago outside the Presidential palace. There are coachloads more arriving every hour.

Are EskaRock trying to make a statement? Last three songs before we stopped the car – Stairway to Heaven (Led Zep), Creep (Radiohead), Jesus He Knows Me (Genesis). Their whole playlist has been uncannily appropriate / inappropriate depending on your point of view.

26 thoughts on “Poland’s “Lady Di” moment

  1. Terrible tragedy. I don’t think however, given the number of people killed, their political and social significance, and the political and administrative repercussions that this moment, and the expressions of grief and shock by the Polish nation come under, with all due respect, the heading ‘a Lady Di moment’.

  2. Ad, then we shall agree to disagree. Obviously there are differences but when I stood by the palace watching the flowers and candles being laid and when I saw the coaches of people arriving in town, the death of Lady Di was the first thing that came to mind.

    The sudden death of a prominent figure (figures) in a tragic accident under not entirely clear circumstances and the consequently immediate outpouring of national grief. You can’t say it is completely different. You’re just comparing the deaths, one relatively (by then) insignificant ex-princess versus a plane-full of people holding senior offices.

    I’m referring more to the ‘process’ of national grieving and shock, which as far as I can see is almost identical. Even down to the details, the BBC showed all the nice smiling moments of Lady Di, TVP are showing all the nice smiling moments of President Kaczynski and his wife….etc.

  3. I can see why superficially someone from the ‘outside’ could see it the way you describe. The outpouring of emotion is to be expected whenever a nation lives through a disaster. However, when you look at the core of society you will see significant differences. Many, in my estimation, fall on the plus side for the UK. Many however do not. Take for example how each nation behaves on All Hallows Eve and All Hallows Day. Someone arriving from the UK might perhaps think it another ‘Lady Di moment’. You, with a fair bit of experience of Poland under your belt, might disagree.

  4. All Saints is very different to this Adam and I don’t think anyone other than the very dimmest would confuse that with a Lady Di moment.

    Many of the readers of this blog are ‘outsiders’.

  5. I think the main difference is that, although tragic, many of the politicians on the plane were not particularly popular in the Poles’ eyes (there were exceptions of course). They were all prominent figures and some had lived through the worst times in Polish history, but nevertheless the nation is mourning them from a religious standpoint more than anything else.

    Lady Di was an immensely popular figure in Britain and stood for all that the Royal Family should be, but most of the time, are not. The mourning that was carried out for her was to show respect and to show the world that a much loved public figure and one that had always been the caring face of the Royal Family had been lost.

    The nationwide mourning for the loss and the sudden way in which they were lost are the only similarities. I think the reasons for mourning are a little different.

    I don’t think All Hallows Eve comes into it.

  6. All Hallows Eve was simply given as an example to underline what I perceive as a major difference in social character and which I hoped would inform as to the difference in the substance of the social response. Your masterful understatement ‘I think the reasons for mourning are a little different.’ highlights precisely what I was trying to point out to scatts .

  7. Adam, what “don’t I get”? There’s nothing much more annoying than this “If you were Polish you’d understand” treatment. At least that’s the way this comes across.

    What exactly is the “difference in the substance of the social response” that I don’t get? I’d really appreciate a little better explanation as to why this outbreak of national grief is so very different to Lady Di in terms of the reaction of the public and media and also the circumstances come to that. And what exactly is it about All Saints that would help me to understand that?

    My phone is off by the way and staying off today. ;)

  8. The difference is pretty simple

    the social response in England was great because Lady Di was “popular” and “loved”.

    the social response in Poland is like this because such a death means “more” (takes too much time to explain it) to Poles.

    …some of the roots are here:


    “Funeral ceremonies in Sarmatian Poland were highly unusual, and unknown in other parts of Europe. They were carefully planned shows, full of ceremony and splendour. Elaborate preparations were made in the period between a nobleman’s death and his funeral, which employed a large number of craftsmen, architects, decorators, servants and cooks. Sometimes many months passed before all the preparations were completed. Before the burial, the coffin with the corpse was laid in a church amid the elaborate architecture of the castrum doloris (“castle of mourning”). Heraldic shields, which were placed on the sides of the coffin, and a tin sheet with an epitaph served a supplementary role and provided information about the deceased person. Religious celebrations were usually preceded by a procession which ended in the church. It was headed by a horseman who acted the role of the deceased nobleman and was covered in his armour. A horseman would enter the church and fall off his horse with a tremendous bang and clank, showing in this way the triumph of death over the earthly might and knightly valour. Some funeral ceremonies lasted for as long as four days, ending with a wake which had little to do with the seriousness of the situation, and could easily turn into sheer revelry. Occasionally an army of clergy took part in the burial (in the 18th century 10 bishops, 60 canons and 1705 priests took part in the funeral of one of Polish noblemen).”

  9. Appreciate the effort, Gast, but we are still in this mysterious no mans land where somehow the death of a President / Princess means more to Poles than it does to anyone else. Like Poles have cornered the market in feeling hard done by, or something. Like nobody else could possibly understand (mainly because nobody who does understand can be bothered to explain).

    I do understand that the Poles ability to stick together as a nation is almost only experienced at times like this. Normal life being more of a “screw thy neighbour” than “love thy neighbour”. Is that the part that I’m missing, that times like this are the only times the nation feels ‘as one’? Does the nation lurch into what might be called very Israeli mode when it is ‘attacked’ – everyone is out to get us, we need to stick together, don’t trust foreigners because they just don’t understand?

    I’m not trying to be funny, or rude, but I’ve come up against this before and it would be good to understand it a little more than I do right now.

  10. Scatts it is a mixture of many things

    -catholic tradition
    -jewish genes
    -“oriental/sarmatian” nature
    and so on.

    The Brits and the Germans for example are quite the opposite. More cynical, down to earth, rational, protestant… The UK never experienced what it means having a president in exile or having a nation but not a state. And things like that.

    Poland and Israel are indeed quite similar…

    If you have some time watch this…

    it explains quite good the “differences”…

  11. I’m watching it and I’m sure I recognise the voice! Just can’t place it right now. Mind you, I don’t recognise the face at the end, if that’s the speaker. He goes on just like Adam does although I know it’s not him! To be honest, there wasn’t much in there that I didn’t already know, aside from a few quirks of language such as the months being different from one place to another.

    I suppose I DO understand that to Poles this is not the same as Lady Di but then that’s not what I was getting at as I have tried to explain.

    The ‘process’ of national grief as played out on TV is almost identical though. Today we have the coffin being paraded, crowds along the route, flowers being thrown…..exactly the same except I think Di had a horse and carriage? I’m sure it is the same everywhere under similar circumstances.

    Hence the reason I see nothing wrong with the title of the post. I’m not trying to belittle it, nor to big it up, nor to suggest it is EXACTLY the same – just to observe the very significant similarities between two nations reactions to sudden death of a national figure in strange circumstances on foreign soil.

  12. to be honest, as my husband said: we will not miss their political roles. majority of the victims represented radical consertive angle.

    I doubt that ‘the nation is mourning them from a religious standpoint’, I belive rather from the human grief for anormous tragedy.

  13. Point taken Mon. The sheer scale of the tragedy is also hard to comprehend. At the moment it’s all about the President, but later there will be more about the other passengers I suppose.

    But as my wife said when 6 Catholic priests in long, rather glamourous looking purple robes approached the cask at the airport as a group – some acts are still very Polish. Personally I think Poland still takes the religious acts slightly further than many other nations in Europe. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just that the Catholic Church enjoys making an open public display on occasions such as this. Also something to do with the strength and number of believers in Poland no doubt.

    I’m not being negative, it’s just an observation since moving to Poland as a non-Catholic. Perhaps I don’t fully comprehend the religious significance.

  14. ok scatts – I’ll start again. I admit that your reference to a ‘Lady Di’ moment ever so slightly irritated me because, however unintentional, it seemed , with all due respect, somewhat shallow. For me it was analogous with comparing the Polish reaction to the death of General Sikorski to that of Anna Jantar, or the British reaction to the death of Winston Churchill with that of John Lennon.

    Just because the “‘process’ of national grief as played out on TV is almost identical …. … we have the coffin being paraded, crowds along the route, flowers being thrown…..” I’m surprised the death of Lady Di is the first thing that comes to mind.
    The reaction of people in general, given the scale of the tragedy, the time of its occurrence and the political repercussions (which mark it out as a totally different event) needs to be seen in that light (never mind Poles having a totally different social and geopolitical reference point).

    However, you’ve explained what you were really getting at and I understand you were not actually saying it’s the same. That said, you satisfaction with the title of your post and (what seems to my ear to be a slightly prosaic tone of) your description of the ‘process’ of national grief and loss still strike me as wide of the mark.

    Anyway, what do I know?

  15. I also thought of the public reaction to Princess Diana’s death actually. It’s a fairly good point of comparison for British people: a public figure dies suddenly and in a terrible way and people react emotionally to that. And I don’t think it’s shallow – not that you can put a ‘value’ on one or other person because of their position – but Princess Diana was still a public figure and a relative of the head of state, not a popstar (Ad mentioned John Lennon). Not that popstars or indeed cleaning ladies are any less valuable as human beings than heads of state.

    I think what is different for us is that in Poland you already have a set tradition for paying respects to the dead: it’s quite normal to light candles, say prayers, keep silence, even for public figures with whom you were never personally acquainted. In Britain we have no set way to deal with this and I think people feel a loss when a public figure dies because to some extent they feel that they do get to know them through the mass media etc. I suppose in the case of Lady Diana the emotion took everyone by surprise and there was no set custom for expressing that. Although I think it’s the word ‘moment’ in the title that is wrong: it doesn’t seem to me that there is anything exceptional or out of the ordinary in the way that Polish people are commemorating the crash.

    I have to say though that I tend to be cynical in the face of British ‘public outpourings of grief’ while in Poland I (perhaps hypocritically) see the same thing as traditional and dignified (even picturesque to an observer).

    In any case my deepest sympathies are with those who lost friends and family in the accident, especially those who were representing the Katyń families: as if they hadn’t already suffered enough. I think for the rest of us we can just pay our respects quietly and decently and then move aside.

  16. scatts – just re-read the end to my last post – didn’t intend to be personal – my sincere apologies.

    pinolona – yes, that’s quite right. I agree and I’m also cynical, not necessarily in judging UK public reaction, but in comparing it to Polish reaction. T.V. and official pomp don’t count. I get your point about Diana and talented, charismatic and exceptional as she was, it still seems me like comparing chalk with cheese.

  17. I’d be a woos if I changed the title now whether completely or just to remove the word ‘moment’.

    These things don’t happen very often. It’s like seeing a comet and calling it a “Halley moment” to then be rounded upon because it’s not actually the same shape, size, chemical composition as Halley’s comet …….

    It was never my intention to get into a deep psychoanalysis of Polish versus British mourning, just to point out the rather startling similarities of behaviour.

    If I’ve upset anybody, I apologise but I stand by my observation.

  18. Hello all,
    I think many of the Brits here have forgotten how much the display of public grief after Lady Di’s death came as a surprise to many in Britain. Before then, the British though of themselves as having a stiff upper lip etc.

    Indeed, the public reaction to Lady Di was often described by he media as ¨Continental,¨ or ¨Mediterranean,¨ or ¨European.¨

    This was the first time that British people threw flowers at a hearse, cried openly in public en masse (rather than standing in silence), or even laid acres of flowers on the pavement.

    Secondly, it is easy to forget that Lady Di’s stock had actually been falling in the public eye before here death. A lot of people in Britain, not just TV satirists, thought she was becoming increasingly ridiculous, notwithstanding here charity work. Remember when she was ridiculed for visiting an operating theatre to witness an operation (with TV crew in tow and perfect make up?)

    Switch to Poland, where the behavior of the public is following well-established rules for death and mourning. Candles, vigils, flowers, the presence of Catholic clergy, periods of mourning. None of this has come as a surprise to Poles. They are simply following well-established traditions, indeed for many in may reaffirm their feeling that ¨I am Polish.¨

    For Lady Di, many Brits said: ¨This is so unbritish.¨ For the mourning in Poland, many Poles can say: ¨This is so Polish.¨

    Rather than saying, ¨This is like Lady Di,¨ it could be more accurate so day, ¨Lady Di was like this.¨

    I hope as a non-Pole, I am at least approaching understanding something that ¨only Poles can understand.¨

  19. Rather than saying, ¨This is like Lady Di,¨ it could be more accurate to say, ¨Lady Di was like this.¨

    There may be something in that, Richard and there’s a chance you may have got to the bottom of our apparent difficulties although I remain on standby for being told it’s nothing like that at all! :)

  20. All I know is that when Lady Di died, I was in shock and stayed up all night (eight hours’ time difference) to watch her funeral and sob while her boys walked in back of the carriage. Our sons were similar in age, and I always admired her charity work and the way she was a wonderful mother. I can honestly say that I felt sincere loss and shock when she died, for the world, for having lost a good-hearted person. The visceral response of candle- and flower-placing is similar to Diana’s reaction. I don’t see why we have to look so much further than that to find wide expanses of differences. When someone dies, it’s a blow. People react. The ceremonies vary, but those are austere, man-made events of public closure. Scatts was referring to the initial, visceral reaction in his similarities. I don’t think there should be any change in title for this piece, IMHO.

  21. Richard, yep, surprise is the exact word that I used, I hadn’t forgotten, it’s all there: people were taken by surprise because there is no format in our culture for expressing sorrow or regret for the loss of a public figure. However, the new mass media gives us the impression that we know that person as an individual, and so there is a sense of loss.

    Having said that, I personally do not feel emotional over the death of a person with whom I have not been personally acquainted. Sympathy for the family yes, but not actual grief, and so the reaction to Princess Diana’s death in 1997 seemed very odd to me at the time.

    BUT, I can understand the need to pay respects, say prayers, lay flowers etc: this all seems very natural to me and I think that aspect of Polish tradition is something we could learn from.

  22. Richard. I whole heartedly agree, puting it the other way is much closer to the gist of the matter.

    What ‘seemed’ out of character to the Brits was actually a genuine outpouring of love and grief by millions, which I think was a reflection of how they felt treated and regarded by Diana herself. Whatever her faults, Diana was a superb ambassador and a genuinely charismatic and warm human being. I felt it myself and was really upset at her death and later angry at the establishment reaction. She was someone the UK really needed.

    My wife agrees with you also, after reading your post, she summed it up to me like this – The UK had a ‘moment’ – presently Poles are not following suit. We’ve been living through and reliving countless personal and national tragedies long before and will continue to do so.

  23. Glad we got to the bottom of that and more importantly that I now understand everyone’s point of view!

    Phew – amazing what a title can do. There wasn’t exactly much else to comment on.

    The new post’s got more “meat” and gives me the possibility of upsetting entire nations!

  24. I might just add as a footnote that TVN were busy doing their own comparisons between Lady Di and this Polish tragedy the other day. In fact they compared these two plus the reaction to the assassination of JFK.

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