With a war on the other side of the eastern border and a faltering economy, the Polish election campaign has an unexpected protagonist: Germany. Or rather, an antagonist, because the governing party has turned on the country’s NATO ally and main trading partner. The parliamentary elections being held in Poland on October 15 have exacerbated anti-German sentiment in the ultra-conservative Law and Justice party (PiS), which is looking to renew its mandate. The attacks have taken place right under Berlin’s nose. The German government remains undaunted, however, as it has become accustomed over the years to conservatives stirring up anti-German sentiment whenever their base needs to be mobilized.
Berlin has always been in the sights of the team led by Jarosław Kaczyński. But now the attacks are almost daily. Germany thus joins the list of targets, headed by Brussels and, above all, by the leader of the main opposition party. Liberal conservative Donald Tusk has been painted as a puppet that dances to Germany’s tune, and Moscow’s before that.
In a campaign ad, Kaczyński put his acting skills to the test by answering an alleged call from the German embassy asking him to reset the retirement age at 67, where the party’s main opposition Civic Platform (PO) had set it while it was in government. “Tusk is no longer here and those customs are over,” Kaczyński responds curtly, before hanging up and banging his cell phone against the table with a defiant look at the camera.
In these elections, where getting the vote out is going to be crucial, attacking Germany has become one of the central planks of the campaign. Basically because it pays off. “The percentage of Poles who consider German-Polish relations to be good is the lowest since 2000,” says Kai-Olaf Lang, researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), from the other side of the western border. A little less than half of Poles think that relations are good, although at the same time half of those surveyed thought that the fault lies mainly with the Polish government, adds the expert.
Even though eight decades have passed, World War II is still an open wound for part of Polish society. According to analyst Adam Traczyk, director of the Warsaw-based More in Common Foundation, it is not surprising, therefore, “that a right-wing nationalist party is playing the anti-German card and using history as a political tool.” The examples are countless. “Sometimes he attacks Germany’s dominant position in the EU, other times, he denounces German capital in Polish media, or he criticizes Berlin for working with Russia in the field of energy, and for not giving sufficient aid to Ukraine at the beginning of the war,” the political scientist explains, adding: “And of course, there is the big issue of reparations.”
Poland claimed €1.3 trillion ($1.37 trillion) from Germany last September for damages resulting from World War II, approximately double the Slavic nation’s annual GDP. It is an issue that Berlin considers settled, because Warsaw renounced any compensation in 1953, when Poland was a Russian satellite. Although Polish society feels that there is awareness in Germany about the Holocaust, according to Piotr Buras, director of the Warsaw headquarters of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) think tank, the Poles also consider that there is “not enough knowledge about the atrocities they committed” when invading their neighbor to the east.
The polls — which give a narrow victory to PiS, without a majority to govern — show that in next Sunday’s elections, getting voters to go to their polling places will be key. For Kaczyński’s party, stirring up anti-German sentiment serves to activate its own people and try to attract those on the extreme right, away from the Confederation party. But the fact that the PiS has attacked Germany and, incidentally, Tusk is not new. In the campaign for the 2005 elections, when the political formation was beginning its journey, they sought to discredit the leader of Civic Platform, by stating that his grandfather was a soldier in the German Wehrmacht (the army of the Third Reich), and fought against Poland, when in fact he was forced to enlist and then deserted.
The German government has watched the constant accusations against Berlin almost unperturbed. One of the latest is that the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz intends to interfere in the campaign. Scholz limited himself to asking for explanations about the scandal involving the issuance of visas in exchange for bribes in African and Asian consulates in Poland. Such visas allow legal residence throughout the Schengen area. The opposition has questioned the legality of visas issued in a corrupt system that granted 250,000 work permits between 2021 and the beginning of this year. The government has reduced it to a few hundred cases. German criticism coincided with the announcement of greater controls on the country’s eastern border, with Poland and the Czech Republic, where irregular entries have increased exponentially. Warsaw considered Scholz’s statement extremely offensive.
From Berlin, Lang asserts that those who follow Polish news are accustomed “to PiS playing hard, especially in the campaign.” But for many not so familiar with Polish internal affairs, “the onslaught against Germany is disconcerting and surprising.” “In times of war, countries that are NATO allies and partners in the EU should, at least, be careful not to put up more barriers.” The expert points out that Germany, for now, has responded with caution and has tried to ignore the provocations. The country has continued with offers of cooperation, such as the Weimar Triangle (an initiative created in 1991 by Germany, France, and Poland to address issues of cooperation).
This recent wave of attacks on Germany, which have been more furious than ever, gained momentum at the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. For years, Poland had been warning the West about Russia’s ambitions, which then turned out to be true. With growing moral and political capital in the international sphere, Warsaw was able to point the finger at Berlin for working with Moscow and thus endangering Ukraine, and Poland indirectly. A deeply polarized electoral campaign has done the rest. Germany has become an adversary, according to the ruling party, and Tusk, its puppet. The opposition leader is accused of being a traitor and of having sold the country to Berlin, for cooperating with Angela Merkel during his time as prime minister and at the head of the European Council. And it does not seem that the situation is going to improve, analyst Rafael Loss warns from the Berlin office of the ECFR: “A series of campaigns are coming: European Parliament, local, and presidential elections that will continue to stir up anti-German sentiment and populism,” he laments.
Kaczyński, the de facto leader of the Polish government, has stated during the campaign that Civic Platform “is a German party; it is not a Polish party” and that “Germany wants to place Tusk in government to privatize Poland and sell the country’s assets,” including forests, which, in his words, will prevent Poles from picking mushrooms. He also blames Germany for imposing the EU migration pact. Kaczyński has gone so far as to say, even before the murky electoral climate of recent months, that Berlin wants to turn the EU into a federal “Fourth Reich.”
In the executive, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who studied and worked in the neighboring country, agrees with his boss’s political preferences. The leader has even used the social network X (formerly Twitter) to publicly accuse Scholz of trying to interfere in Polish internal affairs. This Monday, Morawiecki went from tweets and indirect messages at electoral events to facing Tusk and other candidates directly. In the electoral debate on Polish public television once again the specter of Germany was raised.
Before the intensification of anti-German rhetoric that has heated up the campaign, the PiS Minister of Education decided to cut the budget that pays for German classes for the German community living in Poland by two thirds last year. There were some protests against this decision, but the Poles generally receive anti-German outbursts uncritically. “This campaign is so strong, that it is difficult to find a counter narrative. Nobody sees any use in defending Germany,” says Buras, who considers the “level of anti-German propaganda” “scandalous” and says that the majority of Poles do not share it. Like his German colleague, Traczyk believes that moderation toward the western neighbor will not be shown in the near future. “We are in a permanent campaign,” he says, and points out that even if the opposition wins next Sunday, “I wouldn’t expect a major advance.”
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition