Page last updated at 17:07 GMT, Monday, 23 November 2009

Digging up the truth about Michal Kaminiski

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By Tim Whewell
BBC Newsnight

UK Conservative leader David Cameron's choice of partners in Europe has excited major controversy in Britain in recent months.

They have been called "a collection of outcasts" by UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband, and "repellent" by the vice-president of the European Parliament, Edward McMillan-Scott, who has now been expelled from the Conservative Party.

The new European Conservatives and Reformists Group includes 55 MEPs from across eight member states.

But it is around the leader of the group, young Polish politician Michal Kaminski, that debate has raged.

Mr Kaminski has been called a homophobe, an anti-Semite and a neo-Nazi - all claims he strongly denies.

So what is the truth about him?

Far-right skinheads

In 1987, in still-Communist Poland, he joined an underground group called the National Revival of Poland (NOP).

In my lapel I wear the Chrobry Sword… I feel myself a Pole and a Catholic, and I'm proud of that
Michal Kaminiski

Today, the NOP is regarded in Poland as an organisation of far-right skinheads. Its own posters proclaim: "Fascists? We're worse!" It appears however, that in the late 1980s, it was little more than a right-wing discussion group.

There is no evidence that Mr Kaminski has ever espoused fascist or Nazi ideology. Nevertheless, the Polish political tradition he embraced, from an early age, was quite different to British Conservatism.

It was National Democracy, a populist right-wing ideology closely linked to elements in the Roman Catholic Church, founded at the end of the 19th Century by the political leader Roman Dmowski.

Mr Dmowski called for a homogenous state that would be ethnically Polish and religiously Catholic. Making no secret of his anti-Semitism, he described Poland's Jews - then numbering three million - as the country's most dangerous enemy and called for them to emigrate en masse.

Polish king's emblem

One of his followers' slogans was "Poland for the Poles".

That slogan - avoided by most politicians for many years - was revived by Mr Kaminski nine years ago.

People gathered at Jedwabne memorial
People gathered at Jedwabne memorial in 2001

Addressing a regional conference of the party he then belonged to, the Christian National Union, in 2000, he said: "I want us to have the courage to say, 'We want Poland for the Poles'".

Recently he said he did not mean it racially, that he was just campaigning against corruption. But at the time he explained it like this:

"I'm not ashamed of National Democracy. It's my tradition. In my lapel I wear the Chrobry Sword… I feel myself a Pole and a Catholic, and I'm proud of that."

The Chrobry Sword was originally a symbol recalling Poland's first king, Boleslaw Chrobry (the Brave).

It was used as a badge by a party called the Camp of Greater Poland, founded by Mr Dmowski in 1926 and banned in 1933 for inciting hatred after outbreaks of violence against Jews.

Leaflet campaign

Recently, the emblem has been used by members of right-wing groups including the Christian National Union and the League of Polish Families, part of the governing coalition in Poland from 2005-2007.

I remember at the meeting he invited older people who remembered those times, those who had been driven out to Siberia, to say that they had not just been driven out because of the Russians, but above all because of their neighbours, the Jews
Maria Mazurczyk, Committee to Defend the Good Name of Jedwabne

Their programmes are not racist - though in his early days with the Christian National Union, in 1993, Mr Kaminski was involved in an incident recorded by the Polish anti-racist monitoring organisation, Nigdy Wiecej.

He was one of a group who distributed leaflets at Warsaw's central railway station, claiming that migrants from the former Soviet Union brought typhus and malaria.

Asked recently about the incident by a Polish newspaper, Mr Kaminski said it was not his idea, but "that was then the policy" of the Catholic election committee his group worked with, Fatherland.

One well-known political scientist, Rafal Pankowski, author of a forthcoming book on the Polish radical right, believes it is fair to call Mr Kaminski an extreme right-winger, but not an anti-Semite.

Apology row

Recently some Jewish figures, including Poland's Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, have also defended Mr Kaminski against charges of anti-Semitism.

The most controversial episode in his career so far was his vehement opposition, eight years ago, to a public apology issued by the-then Polish president, Alexander Kwasniewski, for Polish participation in a massacre of several hundred Jews in the small town of Jedwabne in 1941.

Professor Pawel Machcewicz, one of Poland's leading historians, talks about what he uncovered about Jedwabne massacre

At the time, Mr Kaminski told right-wing newspaper Nasza Polska: "I'm ready to say 'I apologise', but on two conditions. Firstly, I must know what I'm apologising for. I'm apologising for a handful of outcasts.

"Secondly, I can do it if I know that someone from the Jewish side will apologise for what the Jews did during the Soviet occupation from 1939 to 1941 - for the mass collaboration of Jews with the Soviet occupiers, for fighting against Polish partisans. And finally, for murdering Poles."

David Miliband has described that call for a balancing apology "disgraceful", prompting his Conservative shadow, William Hague, to suggest that Mr Miliband has a simplistic view of history.

Newsnight has discovered that when Mr Kaminski attended a public meeting in Jedwabne in 2001 to oppose the idea of an apology, he encouraged local people to blame the Jews for the deportations to Russia between 1939 and 1941.

Atmosphere of hate

Maria Mazurczyk, a member in 2001 of the Committee to Defend the Good Name of Jedwabne, said of Mr Kaminski:

"I remember at the meeting he invited older people who remembered those times, those who had been driven out to Siberia, to say that they had not just been driven out because of the Russians, but above all because of their neighbours, the Jews."

Anna Bikont, a journalist with the leading Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, attended another meeting in the town shortly afterwards where she says "there was such a lot of hate" against Jews.

Anna Bikont, a journalist with the leading Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza
Ms Bikont believes Mr Kaminski helped inspire anti-Semitism in Jedwabne

Mr Kaminski was not there, but she believes he had helped inspire the deeply anti-Semitic atmosphere:

"Kaminski came to the place where an incredible crime was committed," she said, "and he told not about the women, children, old people who died in this horrible manner, but he told about Jews who collaborated with Soviets and who killed Poles".

"It's not important what you have in your soul, but how you act, and he acted at this time like an anti-Semitic person… Maybe he did it only because he wanted to have votes from Jedwabne, but also it's not a good recommendation for a politician to do things only for votes," she added.

Leading Polish historian Prof Pawel Machcewicz, who led an investigation into the Jedwabne events on behalf of Poland's state Institute of National Memory, says that while some Jews, along with some Catholics, collaborated with the Russians, others were themselves victims of the Soviet occupation.

Mr Kaminski told Polish TV last week that he still thinks a collective Polish apology to the Jews is wrong. But he phrases it now slightly differently, saying it would be as absurd to expect all Jews to apologise for the crimes of Communism as it would be to expect all Poles to apologise for what happened at Jedwabne.

That is a formulation Poland's chief rabbi - and some leading British Jews - are prepared to accept.

But many others in the Jewish community, and outside, are still deeply unhappy about Mr Kaminski's record.

Controversy about the Conservatives' choice of allies in Europe is unlikely to go away.

Watch Tim Whewell's report on Michal Kaminski on Newsnight on Monday 23 November 2009 at 10.30pm on BBC Two, then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer and then Newsnight website.

Profile: Michal Kaminski MEP
16 Jul 09 |  Europe

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