Amid rising alarm this summer in Poland and the Baltic States over a possible military attack from the east, the Polish Embassy in Lithuania requested an urgent meeting with the head of Germany’s diplomatic mission. Polish embassies in other European countries made similar requests.
What the Polish diplomats wanted to talk about, however, was not the risk of an assault from Belarus or the war in Ukraine, but a less pressing matter: a demand that Germany cough up more than a trillion dollars to cover damage done by the Nazis during World War II.
The issue of reparations, which was settled decades ago, is a personal fixation of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the chairman of the Polish governing party, Law and Justice. Last weekend, rallying supporters ahead of a critical general election next Sunday, he told a party convention that it was not only about the money, but also a “matter of dignity.”
Demands that Germany pay Poland $1.3 trillion — the exact figure keeps changing — first surfaced several years ago, but they have flared with new intensity as Mr. Kaczynski looks for ways to secure his party a third consecutive term. Attacking Germany and its supposed hold on the leader of the opposition has become his main tool for mobilizing voters.
Recent opinion polls put Law and Justice slightly ahead of its main rival, Civic Coalition, which groups center-right forces and progressives upset by the current government’s hard lines against abortion and minority rights. But neither of the front-runners is likely to win enough seats in Parliament to form a government on its own. Which side can do that will depend on the performances of smaller parties, including a far-right outfit opposed to helping Ukraine and a leftist coalition.
Law and Justice’s use of Germany to rile up its nationalist base in a tight race reflects the extraordinary behind-the-scenes influence of Mr. Kaczynski, 74. He dictates Polish policy on most matters of state even though he holds only one government post, deputy prime minister, a position that he assumed in June and that carries little formal power.
“He always had an obsession about Germany,” said Radoslaw Sikorski, who served as defense minister in an earlier government headed by Mr. Kaczynski. “There is no chance of getting any money, but this is a good way to excite voters,” he added.
Mr. Kaczynski “is a virtuoso at playing on fear, on what is worst in us as a nation,” Mr. Sikorski said.
The influence of Mr. Kaczynski is so great that “he is No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 in this country,” said Bartlomiej Rajchert, a political strategist who worked closely with Law and Justice on its successful 2005 presidential election campaign for Mr. Kaczynski’s twin brother, Lech Kaczynski, who died in a plane crash in 2010.
The office of Mr. Rajchert’s consulting company, GDS, is next to Mr. Kaczynski’s on the second floor of a dingy, Communist-era building in the center of Warsaw that also houses Law and Justice headquarters. When Mr. Kaczynski is in town, Mr. Rajchert said, Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, regularly visits him, as do other key government officials, apparently to receive instructions.
“This is where important decisions get taken,” Mr. Rajchert said, pointing to Mr. Kaczynski’s office next door.
Stanislaw Kostrzewski, Law and Justice’s longtime former treasurer, described Mr. Kaczynski as “a highly intelligent person” who “obviously doesn’t believe” the elaborate conspiracy theories featuring Germany that are being pumped out ahead of Election Day by a state broadcasting system controlled by the governing party.
“It is all such nonsense, but it works,” Mr. Kostrzewski said. “I feel bad as a Pole because of the stupidity of my nation.”
Bashing Germans not only stokes grievances left by World War II, when Poland lost around six million people, but also helps turn boring political arguments over taxation rates and the age of retirement, currently 65, into an exciting moral drama.
In that telling, Law and Justice’s main opponent, the Civic Coalition’s leader, Donald Tusk, a former prime minister, figures as a German lap dog who, in Mr. Kaczynski’s description, is the “personification of pure evil” who must be “morally exterminated.”
Mr. Tusk, according to Mr. Kaczynski, is a national traitor intent on selling his country out to German — and also Russian — interests.
Mr. Kaczynski recently starred in an anti-German election ad on television that features him taking a phone call from a Polish-speaking man with a comically thick German accent playing Berlin’s ambassador in Warsaw.
The ambassador, with Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries” blaring in the background, informs Mr. Kaczynski imperiously that the German chancellor wants him to raise Poland’s retirement age back to what it was — 67 — when Mr. Tusk was Poland’s prime minister from 2007 to 2014. Mr. Kaczynski sternly tells the ambassador that Warsaw no longer takes orders from Berlin. “Mr. Tusk is no longer here and these customs are gone,” he says.
Casting Germany as a malevolent force in cahoots with Mr. Tusk helps justify the governing party’s long-running feuds over the rule of law and other issues with the European Union, which Mr. Kaczynski has described as a German-led “Fourth Reich.” Before returning to Polish politics in 2019, Mr. Tusk served as president of the European Council, the European bloc’s principal power center.
Mr. Kostrzewski, the former party treasurer, said that Mr. Kaczynski had never cared about money or luxury — his car is a humble Skoda — and that his only real passion had always been politics, which took on a cold, deeply cynical edge after his brother’s death.
Left alone in command of Law and Justice and free of his brother’s moderating influence, Mr. Kaczynski, Mr. Kostrzewski said, stacked the party and the government it formed after winning a 2015 election with “people who only tell him what he wants to hear” and who serve his “Machiavellian vision of executing power.”
For Wladyslaw Bartoszewski — an opposition member of Parliament and deputy chairman of the legislature’s foreign affairs committee, whose father was an Auschwitz survivor and Poland’s foreign minister after the end of Communist rule — Law and Justice’s crude pre-election antics mean that “we have no foreign policy anymore, only foreign affairs for domestic use.”
Mr. Kaczynski, he said, “thinks that whatever damage he does by being fanatically anti-German does not matter so long as it helps mobilize core voters.”
For weeks now, state television has peppered news broadcasts with a recording of two single words — “für Deutschland” or “for Germany” — uttered by Mr. Tusk during a 2021 speech in German that thanked Germany’s Christian Democratic Union party for its role in healing Europe’s divisions at the end of the Cold War.
The two words — a tiny and misleading fragment of what Mr. Tusk said — have become Exhibit A in Law and Justice’s case against the opposition leader as a German stooge.
Aimed at rallying a party base that is mostly older, rural and often resentful of foreigners, the barrage of anti-German messaging has stunned and appalled Germans invested in postwar reconciliation and Poles who want to see their country as a serious player.
At a security conference this past week in Warsaw — an event that was meant to spotlight Poland as Europe’s “new center of gravity” because of the war in Ukraine — politicians and experts from Poland and Germany bewailed the damage done to Poland’s image and European solidarity by Law and Justice’s pre-election stunts.
In an interview, Knut Abraham, a member of the German Parliament and a former diplomat in Warsaw, described Law and Justice’s demonization of Germany and Mr. Tusk as “not only nonsense, but insane,” accusing the Polish governing party of shredding hard-won postwar reconciliation for electoral gain.
Last year, Mr. Abraham accompanied the leader of Germany’s center-right Christian Democratic Union to Mr. Kaczynski’s office in Warsaw. The Polish party leader, he recalled, was civil, even charming, but peppered the conversation with historical references to slights against Poland. He is a “hard-core Polish nationalist” with a keen eye for political advantage, Mr. Abraham said.
And no issue is easier to exploit at election time than the wounds of World War II, in which Polish suffering, in the view of many Poles, has been often ignored by outsiders focused on the Holocaust, a big part of which took place in Nazi death camps in German-occupied Poland.
Pawel Poncyliusz, who served as Mr. Kaczynski’s press officer before jumping to the opposition, said his former boss had a genuine interest in history but had harnessed the horrors endured by Poland in the past to serve his political ambitions.
A lifelong bachelor who lives alone in the same modest Warsaw house he shared with his mother until her death a decade ago, Mr. Kaczynski, he said, “does not need women, money or holidays in Asia” but desperately needs to win and hold power.
“In his head, he has unified himself with Poland,” Mr. Poncyliusz added. “Everything that is good for him is good for Poland. Everything that is against him is against Poland.”
Anatol Magdziarz contributed reporting from Warsaw, and Tomas Dapkus from Vilnius, Lithuania.