PRAGUE (Jun. 29)
Known at home as the farmer’s fanatical friend and known abroad for praising Hitler’s economic policies, Andrzej Lepper says he has been misquoted, misunderstood and misused. Yes, Poland’s deputy prime minister is a permanently tanned populist, former pig farmer and agricultural union chief who blockaded roads in 1990s protests, poured manure on local officials and accused the central bank of committing economic genocide against Poles.
No, he claims, he never said, “The most dangerous nation for the Poles is the Jewish nation… They are plotting intrigues everywhere.” The quote was attributed to him by the periodical Nowiny in 1995.
Asked if he is an anti-Semite, Lepper says, “I am a Pole, I am tolerant of various minority groups.”
He characterizes his party, Self-Defense, as “left-wing patriots” who “support tolerance.”
Agriculture Minister Lepper, 52, is not Poland’s only demonized politician: Another is Roman Giertych, 35, a right-wing advocate of a Catholic-oriented Poland.
Giertych is loathed by liberals, intellectuals and, particularly, gays, whom members of his party accuse of trying to spread their “disease.”
Giertych and Lepper frequently are paired together in media articles describing Poland’s alleged turn for the worse, meaning the decision in April to welcome two parties with extreme anti-E.U. stances into the government coalition.
Giertych, now education minister, wants to increase patriotic and religious education in schools, which essentially means Catholic lessons. He also is honorary chairman of the xenophobic All Polish Youth, whose skinhead adherents have been photographed giving the Nazi salute.
But what of Lepper, whose party in the early 1990s included neo-Nazis and skinheads?
A former communist, Lepper is more popular than Giertych. Self-Defense consistently polls at 10 percent, twice the rate of support for Giertych’s League of Polish Families. Lepper came in third in the 2005 presidential election with 15 percent of the vote, up from 1.3 percent in 1995.
Observers agree that Lepper has spruced up his and his party’s image at a remarkable rate. He admits that some of his party’s earlier adherents held anti-Semitic views, but insists they’re no longer welcome.
“I want to let Jews know that they can be sure that in our party we throw out anybody who shows anti-Semitic attitudes,” he said during an interview last month at his office. “We threw out those who were distributing such leaflets, and they shouldn’t be welcome anywhere.”
But Piotr Kadlcik, chairman of the Union of Religious Jews in Poland, says there’s no doubt that some of Lepper’s supporters come from a nationalist, anti-Semitic base.
“Lepper, he is the kind of person who if it fits his purpose to use anti-Semitism, he would use it. I don’t think he has a personal opinion on this issue. He is extremely pragmatic,” Kadlcik said. “He is a very interesting person, he went a long way in a short time. He could cause more trouble than Giertych.”
Lepper says police should combat ant-Semitism when they see it, “just as they should protect me from debasement when cartoons appear portraying me as an SS man.”
Some of these portrayals stem from his past contacts and cooperation with controversial figures like U.S. political activist Lyndon LaRouche; Jan Kobylanski, a Uruguay-based millionaire who reportedly collaborated with the Nazis; and Leszek Bubel, Poland’s best-known publisher of anti-Semitic books and leaflets, including “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.”
In a more current controversy, Lepper accepted an award from MAUP University in Ukraine in April. He says he had no idea the school is one of the biggest sources of anti-Semitic literature in Ukraine.
“Why should I be sorry for this?” he asked. “I did not receive this degree for promoting anti-Semitic slogans. I got the degree for promoting and developing economic cooperation with Ukraine.”
When told that some Jewish leaders want him to return his award, Lepper called them “Jewish extremist” groups.
Lepper’s firebrand style contrasts with that of the soft-spoken and erudite Giertych, a lawyer with two master’s degrees. Lepper never went to college.
Lepper, who says his mother told him stories about how she helped Jews during World War II, says his anti-Semitic reputation is a result of media distortion.
“I gave an interview with Focus magazine and I was asked if the German economy was doing well under Hitler. I said yes, but of course Hitler was a fascist, bandit and criminal,” Lepper recollected. “The headline in the article said I praised Hilter.”
Lepper’s spokesman, Marcin Domagala, says journalists should focus on Lepper’s sympathy with the many Poles who have trouble paying for healthcare, rent and other necessities.
“We have the highest unemployment rate in the E.U., officially at 17 percent, but it is really about 30 percent,” he said. “We have famine. There are a million hungry children and 30 percent of Polish society lives below the poverty line.”
Lepper blames many of these problems on Western companies that he says bankrupted the country by stealing its assets after the fall of Communism. The populist rhetoric plays well among the disenfranchised — some of whom, critics say, are the same people who fault Jews for low wages and high prices.
Domagala says Self-Defense would never cast aspersions on Jews to advance its agenda.