Poland's ruling party campaigns with Auschwitz

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Poland's liberal opposition plans to hold the largest protest march since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 on Sunday. With a controversial video spot, the government wants to dissuade people from participating.

The train tracks and the entrance gate of the concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz

Almost four months before the parliamentary elections in Poland, nervousness is mounting in the national-conservative government camp. Liberal opposition leader Donald Tusk has called for a protest demonstration against the government. Next Sunday (06/04/2023) more people are expected to take to the streets in Warsaw than at any time since the end of communist rule in 1989. The ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) fears that a large-scale demonstration with mass participation could be a turning point in the election campaign.

To discourage people from taking part in the demonstration, Jaroslaw Kaczynski's party tweeted a video on Wednesday, which caused outrage in Poland and beyond.

Election spot with Auschwitz footage

The short spot shows the gatehouse to the Birkenau extermination camp and the entrance to the main camp at Auschwitz. The cynical inscription “Work sets you free” is clearly visible above the gate. Then the information that more than a million people were murdered in the camp and that six million Poles died in World War II. A tweet from the government-critical journalist Tomasz Lis, who is a hate figure for the PiS, is displayed.  

Two days earlier he had written on Twitter that there would be a “chamber” for President Andrzej Duda and Jaroslaw Kaczynski. In Poland, “chamber” is mostly understood to mean a gas chamber. Lis had apologized and deleted the tweet. With the “chamber” he meant a prison cell, he explained. However, the PiS took the opportunity to strike at the opposition and their planned demonstration. While the logo of the protest demonstration is shown in the election video, an off-screen voice asks: “Do you really want to follow this motto?”

Liberal Polish journalist Tomasz Lis, here in a photo from 2019

With the election spot, PiS builds on previous successes. Because cheeky videos have so far been a strength of the Polish national conservatives. A video accusing Tusk's grandfather of volunteering in the Wehrmacht helped Lech Kaczynski win the 2005 presidential election. The spots, which allegedly impoverished the population through the policies of the Liberals, played a decisive role in the success of the PiS in the parliamentary elections in the past. But the campaign staff's latest idea could prove counterproductive.

Outrage

The Auschwitz spot triggered a broad wave of outrage. The Auschwitz Memorial publicly protested against the video. “The instrumentalization of the tragedy of people who suffered and died in Auschwitz, regardless of which side of the political debate, offends the memory of the victims,” ​​explained the museum's management. The video is “a sad expression of the moral and intellectual decay of the public debate”.

Poland's President Andrzej Duda bows in memory of the victims of the Holocaust on April 28, 2022 in Auschwitz

Poland's President Andrzej Duda was also critical. “The memory of the victims of German crimes in Auschwitz is sacred and inviolable. The tragedy of the millions of victims cannot be misused in political struggles. Such actions are unworthy and inexcusable,” wrote Duda, who otherwise almost always supports the PiS the social media.  

“It breaks a taboo,” said the liberal mayor of Warsaw, Rafal Trzaskowski. Jewish organizations active in Poland also protested against the “abuse of the Holocaust in the current political struggle”.

Will the video harm or benefit the ruling party?

“The Auschwitz spot, which brings the protest march close to anti-Semitic slogans, can do great harm to the PiS,” writes Michal Plocinski in the Rzeczpospolita newspaper (June 1, 2023). “The ruling party is wasting all the 'soft power capital' that Poland has gained from supporting Ukraine in the world.” the second is not correct, according to the publicist.

PiS boss Jaroslaw Kaczynski stands for right-wing national politics in Poland

“This controversial video testifies to the desperation in the government camp,” said political scientist Wojciech Rafalowski from the University of Warsaw on private television channel TVN. “The PiS is under pressure and has made a mistake with this manipulation,” said the scientist.

The recent decisions of the ruling party, in particular the convening of a special commission to examine Russian influences, which is intended to prevent Tusk takes over the government if he wins the parliamentary elections would have consolidated the opposition.

PiS defends the video

When Tusk called for a protest march weeks ago, the other parties critical of the government initially reacted with restraint. The leaders of two centre-right parties – Szymon Holownia's Polska 2050 and Wladyslaw Kosiniak-Kamysz's Peasant Party PSL – feared the dominance of the Tusk party. Now both politicians are calling on members of their parties to take part in the demonstration.

Understood by the criticism, the PiS defends its election advert. Michal Moskal, head of the political office of PiS Chairman Kaczynski, told the Internet platform Interia: “We have shown the hypocrisy (of the opposition). It hurts.” Moskal is suspected by the media to be the idea behind the spot.   “We only responded to the language of hate,” argues PiS MP Marek Ast. And MEP Anna Zalewska shared the tweet with the Auschwitz video, adding “For Germany”.  According to the language used in the PiS, Tusk represents German interests in Poland. For some he is even a German “collaborator”.