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Polish Campaign Dredges Up the Past

DW staff/AFP (jb)
October 17, 2005

The hotly-contested Polish presidential election campaign has taken an unexpected twist with frontrunner Donald Tusk facing accusations that his grandfather collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.

Kaczynski, left, says Tusk's family had Nazi connectionsImage: AP

Campaigning in Poland's presidential election heated up last week as conservative Lech Kaczynski's Law and Justice (PiS) party attacked liberal front-runner Donald Tusk with charges that his grandfather had briefly fought in Hitler's army.

Kaczynski's campaign chief Jacek Kurski was quoted by the weekly newspaper Angora as saying "serious sources in the Pomerania region (where Tusk hails from) say that Tusk's grandfather volunteered for the Wehrmacht." World War II began when Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939.

The allegations caused a storm but were firmly denied by
Tusk, a member of an ethnic Kashubian group inhabiting Poland's north. Tusk said the dredging up of the past "overstepped the bounds of decency."

During Hitler's occupation many Kashubians, who for
centuries nurtured German and Polish influence, were forcibly enlisted into the German Army.

"Blows below the belt"

Tusk has now called for a public apology.

"All those who raise a hand to smite the dead are not worthy of respect or power," Tusk told reporters. Although his feelings had been badly hurt, he did not intend to return such "blows below the belt."

But he did add that someone who "couldn't control his own staff" should not be president of Poland.

Polish TV reported that documents in Berlin archives show that Tusk's grandfather Joseph did indeed serve in the Wehrmacht for a few months at the end of the war before joining the Polish army that fought Germans with Allied troops. Tusk and others countered that many Poles were forced to join the German army.

Wählen in der Steinzeit
A voting station, which is decorated like a cave, near PoznanImage: AP

Kaczynski sought to distance himself from the accusations attributed by the weekly to his campaign manager and fired him before apologizing to Tusk.

"I am not responsible for this type of campaigning, and I will pay the consequences of what was said," he told reporters.

Tusk said both his grandfathers had fought in the Polish resistance during the war, and had spent part of the conflict in German concentration camps on Polish soil.

Tusk front runner

Last week, Kaczynski finished a close second to Tusk in the first round of the presidential election with 36 percent of the vote followed by Kaczynski with 33 percent. The run-off is set for October 23.

Kopf-an-Kopf-Wahlausgang in Polen erwartet
Donald Tusk is the front runner for the presidencyImage: AP

A poll published Saturday showed that Tusk, a free-market liberal, has built significantly on his lead over Kaczynski since the first round, and would reap 44 percent of the vote in the run-off, due to be held on October 23, against 39 percent for his conservative rival.

As Tusk and Kaczynski fight it out for the presidency, their parties are in talks to form a coalition to govern Poland. Kaczynski's conservative and populist Roman Catholic PiS finished first in legislative elections held last month, with Tusk's pro-market Civic Platform (PO) just a few points behind.

Sensitive issue

PiS has previously resorted to nationalist rhetoric during the campaigns for the legislature and presidency, playing on lingering Polish fears of Germany and Russia.

Any hints of collaboration with Nazi Germany are highly
damaging in Poland. Historians estimate that six million Poles died during the six-year occupation by the Nazis.