Four months ahead of parliamentary elections in Poland, the conservative government is showing signs of nerves. The leader of the opposition Civic Platform party Donald Tusk has called for a protest against the government on Sunday, which is expected to be the biggest political rally the capital Warsaw has seen since the end of communist rule in 1989.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski's governing nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party is worried that the march could mark an unfavorable turning point in the election campaign. In an attempt to dissuade people from attending the demonstration, the PiS posted a video on Twitter earlier this week that has caused uproar in Poland and abroad.
Instrumentalization of Auschwitz-Birkenau
The short video features images of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp, which showed the notorious gate with the words "Arbeit macht frei" ("work sets you free"), as well as the gatehouse known as the "Gate of Death." The images are accompanied by the information that over a million people were murdered in the camp and that 6 million Poles died in World War II. On top of this, the video showed a tweet by the prominent journalist and government critic Tomasz Lis, a particular figure of hate for the PiS party.
Lis tweeted last week that there was surely a "chamber" for PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Polish President Andrzej Duda, who is close to the ruling party. The word is usually understood in Poland to mean "gas chamber," but Lis insisted that he had meant "prison cell" after apologizing and deleting the tweet.
The ruling party decided to use the incident to lash out at the opposition and its planned demonstration. The video goes on to ask the question: "Do you really want to march under this slogan?"
Videos have helped PiS in the past
Videos of this kind have proven to be successful in the past. One video that implied that Tusk's grandfather had volunteered to serve in the German Wehrmacht helped Lech Kaczynski (Jaroslaw's brother) to win the presidential election of 2005. Other videos alleging that liberal policies had impoverished the population have also helped the PiS secure victories in parliamentary elections.
But this latest video could prove to be counterproductive. The Auschwitz Museum has condemned it, as well as the original tweet: "The instrumentalization of the tragedy of people who suffered and died in the German Nazi Auschwitz camp, on either side of the political dispute, is an insult to the memory of the victims," the museum posted on Twitter.
"It is a sad, painful and unacceptable manifestation of the moral and intellectual corruption of the public debate," it continued.
A broken taboo
Even President Duda, who almost always stands by the PiS, also expressed criticism: "The memory of the victims of German crimes in Auschwitz is sacred and inviolable. The tragedy of the millions of victims cannot be used in political struggle. This is an unworthy activity and there is no excuse for it," he wrote on social media.
The liberal mayor of Warsaw Rafal Trzaskowski said that the video had broken a "taboo," while Jewish organizations in Poland spoke out against the instrumentalization of the Holocaust in the political campaign.
Political commentators think the PiS move could hurt the government's chances. In the daily newspaper Rzeczpospolita, Michal Plocinski wrote that the PiS was "squandering all the 'soft power capital' that Poland gained by supporting Ukraine in the world."
"This controversial video testifies to the desperation in the government camp," argued political scientist Wojciech Rafalowski from the University of Warsaw, on the private television channel TVN. "The PiS is under pressure and has made a mistake with this manipulation."
He went on to say that the PiS' recent decisions, especially one to establish a special commission to investigate whether public officials had acted under "Russian influence," had only served to unify the opposition movement in Poland. Duda has since backpedalled on the law, saying he would introduce amendments.
When Tusk first called for a protest march several weeks ago, other opposition parties reacted with reserve. The leaders of the centrist Polska 2050 and the center-right agrarian PSL did not want Tusk's Civic Platform to dominate, but they have now called on supporters to take part.
Meanwhile, the PiS has defended its video. "We showed up the hypocrisy (of the opposition), Michal Moskal, the Kaczynski spokesperson thought to be behind the video, told the internet platform Interia.
"We only responded to the language of hate," argued PiS lawmaker Marek Ast. When Polish MEP Anna Zalewska shared the tweet with the video she also included the words "For Germany."
For some in the PiS, Tusk represents German interests in Poland, and they have not shied away from drawing their own Nazi parallels: Some politicians have even called him a "collaborator."
This article was translated from German.