Text size

WARSAW - A few minutes before my planned meeting with, one of Poland's leading intellectuals said angrily: "Would you have gone to an interview with Hitler in 1932?" Even though he found it hard to give reasons for his comparison between Hitler and the Polish leader of the Self-Defense Party (Samoobrona), his shocked reaction reflected the attitude of the Polish intelligentsia toward the phenomenon that is burgeoning in the country's political backyard.

In fact, the expression "in the backyard" no longer suits the reality. With the latest surveys showing about 30 percent support for Andrzej Lepper, this is a phenomenon that is not about to disappear. Lepper is frightening the Poles; more than that, he is embarrassing them. This simple, sometimes crude man, who is meagerly educated and blunt in his speech, is contrary to their self-image, especially now that they have reentered the European family of nations. At first the Poles snickered. They continued to do so even a year ago, when he blocked roads in struggles in which he led farmers in opposition to joining the European Union. They thought he was just a hooligan. Now they have stopped laughing, and those who are not joining his growing coalition of the oppressed are ashamed of him.

In recent weeks it has been impossible to walk down the street in Polish cities without seeing pictures of Lepper, who stars on the front pages of a number of newspapers simultaneously. It is impossible to turn on the radio or the television without encountering one of his debates with his colleagues in the Polish parliament, a government minister or at least with the moderator.

In the best case, with all three. "Mister Moderator is gazing so adoringly at Dr. Rokita, that I really don't want to interrupt the lovers," said Lepper to a respected television host as he listened to Dr. Jan Rokita, who might become the prime minister of Poland on behalf of the Civil Platform Party.

Thus, in the populist style that is also very familiar in Israel, he sandwiched together the hostile media and the intellectuals that are represented by Rokita, a senior jurist by profession. In this familiar, but effective, style he makes a point of dividing society into two - "them," the elites, the professors (a title that he often pronounces with evident scorn) and "us," the people. At one time Lepper boasted of having read Josef Goebbel's book on the subject of propaganda and recommended that every politician do so. "It's right. What's wrong with that?" he said in an interview to Haaretz. "Goebbels himself most probably read Gustav Le Bon [a pioneer in the psychology of the masses - L.G.]," he says. Judging by the results, Lepper is a good student.

At the age of 50, with only a high school education, Lepper is mainly a populist who is building himself up on the sense of deepening frustration among those sectors in Poland whom the economic and social changes have skipped. However, some say he heads a neo-fascist party. It is easy to know what he opposes (everything) and difficult to understand what he proposes. Even though his party has an orderly platform, he mainly speaks in empty slogans like "taking from the rich and distributing to the poor."

Lepper is often equated with Joerg Haider in Austria or Jean Marie le Pen in France. This comparison applies only in part. Haider and Le Pen built up their careers on xenophobia, but in Poland there are no foreigners to hate. The main resemblance between Lepper and Haider is the eternal suntan, acquired from sun lamps. A suntan, it turns out, goes well with nationalism and perhaps with a kind of populist fascism that requires a handsome, healthy appearance.

Waiting for a savior

The comparison to Hitler is a result of great though inappropriate anxiety, but Lepper has earned it honestly. Not too long ago, in an interview with a Warsaw newspaper, he spoke favorably about Hitler's contribution to decreasing unemployment in Germany and to the development of its infrastructures at the outset of his career. Subsequently he said that he did not understand what had later impelled Hitler to commit genocide. The headline was: "Lepper praises Hitler." In Poland, evincing enthusiasm for Hitler is a terrible political mistake. Once he realized this, Lepper demanded a huge apology from the newspaper. Instead, the newspaper published a short explanation. This too has become routine: Lepper says something, arouses the expected stormy response, demands an apology or a clarification and sometimes also turns to the courts. The main thing is to keep up the "action" around him.

As if all this were not enough, and to demonstrate his "weakness" viv-a-vis the hostile media, his party produces video cassettes in which (truly) miserable Poles are seen begging for a savior with the slogan "Give Us a Chance," which also happens to be Lepper's slogan. The savior, Lepper of course, appears to be full of ideas. His bureau chief, Janusz Maksymiuk, relates that they are finding it hard to keep up with the requests for the video cassettes, which people watch in groups around television screens that are set up in stairwells. It is hard to understand what is feeding what: Has Lepper soared from the 9 percent that got him into the Polish parliament to 30 percent despite the media, or because of the media's obsessive concern with the danger he represents? In any case, he is a phenomenon.

Do you know that there are people who are already comparing you to Hitler?

Lepper: "The truth is, I'm already used to that. This is truly a Polish drama, that they don't know how to lose honorably. They've already published a picture of me in the character of Hitler. We sued, and they said it was `minor damage.' This is an interesting process - first they depicted me as Lenin, then as Stalin and Hitler and now mostly as Haider and Le Pen. I'm not a fascist; I am Andrzej Lepper, the man who is proposing a third way after the former Communists and the heirs of Solidarity failed utterly."

Are you anti-Semitic?

"Not at all. I know that they are saying this, too, but as far back as 2001 I threw prominent members who spread anti-Semitism out of the party. I'm really a tolerant person. I'll tell you a story I've never told before, because I don't want to make political capital out of it. During World War II, a Jew who had been saved from burning by the Germans hid out in a bread oven near my parents' home in a small town on the coast of the North Sea. My mother would bring him food every day. In the end she also brought him some clothes that belonged to my father, who was in the army then, and he managed to escape. I was four years old [he was born in 1950 - L.G.] and I remember that.

"Look, I've told you this, and now they will say that Lepper tells stories. But in my party there are all kinds - those who identify themselves as Jews, Ukrainians, Belarussians, and even a doctor from Bangladesh. And then they say I'm a fascist. I am a social leftist and a proud national Pole. Only Poland's interests are important to me. So what? Hasn't Ariel Sharon said that Israel is what is most important to him?"

What is the origin of the name of your party: Self-Defense? Defense from whom?

"Mostly from Belcerowicz [Leszak Belcerowicz, the chairman of the National Bank of Poland - L.G.]. He represents all the evil. It is not true that Poland has no money. There is money in the banks and the reserves are deposited in banks in the West. On behalf of whose interests is he behaving this way? It is untenable that Poland's central bank be a state within a state. Lech Walesa, a Solidarity man, has already been president; now Aleksander Kwasniewki is president. Only Belcerowicz remains. Isn't that strange? Both right and the left kept him on, because they're really one band. I threw the truth in his face back in 1991, in the hunger strike near the Sejm (parliament) when my party was born. I was right. He has sold the country to foreign powers.

"I'm not saying, God forbid, that he has sold it only to the Jews. Also to the Germans, and to the Dutch. Nowadays the saying is popular that the Jews are to blame for everything, that they are controlling the country. And I say: `It's the Poles who are in control and are destroying the country.' I'm already suspected of being a Jew myself. After all, anyone who has a head for numbers like me and a memory like mine can only be a Jew. And really, how am I supposed to know that there's no truth to this? Maybe my great-grandmother had some relationship with a Jew?"

Correct politics

Are you intending to run for the presidency of Poland?

"If God gives me strength and health, yes."

How did God get here? After all, you are an atheist and it seems that now you have simply decided to appeal to the religious voters.

"I'm an atheist? Where did you get that idea? I'm a devout Catholic. As a boy I even wanted to be a priest. But now I have a different missionary purpose: I'm spreading the word about correct politics rather than the word of God."

You're putting up candidates on behalf of your party for the elections to the European parliament, and the word is already out that they're paying good money for their seats.

"I've sued the newspaper that has published this. My aim is to win half of the votes allotted to Poland in the parliament [a total of 54 - L.G.]. Contrary to the image that has stuck to us, our representatives are educated people who speak languages. I have no intention of moving toward taking Poland out of the EU, but I am saying that we will make a strong demand to reopen all the agreements with the EU.

"I want to discuss again the industrial and agricultural quotas and to arrive at a situation that will allow us to fulfill all of Poland's potential. All those people who conducted the negotiations in our name stood there like puppies at the door and waited to be thrown a bone."

What was the alternative?

"To cooperate with everyone. It was a mistake to damage the economic relations with Russia."

They say it is, in fact, Russia that is nurturing you, that you're a big disciple of Vladimir Putin. Is that true?

"They've already said the Israeli Mossad and the CIA are training me. In reply I ask those who say this: `Who trained you, that you're so badly educated?' I've been in Russia only twice and I was impressed by the fact that it is one huge building site. In principle, I support a presidential regime."

There are those who say that you support dictatorship, which we cautiously call "discipline." What does the word mean for you?

"It's simply order. A program is a program, a leader is a leader. I am always explaining this to the people in my party. I will not let happen to us what has happened to the ruling party, which has declined from 44 percent to 5 percent. I tell my people that if they want that kind of democracy, they should form a party of their own. I am strict about rules and structure. For this, discipline is necessary."

You have turned from a joke into a politician people listen to and fear. What is the secret?

"I don't know, but I've got something. When I speak in the Sejm, even the opposition listens to what Lepper has to say. I only partially understand this power of mine. Some of it is taking care to lead a healthy life. Every morning I get up at 4:30, do exercises, ride a bicycle for an hour, practice boxing and lift weights. In the evening I ride the bike again, take a dip in a Jacuzzi with salt and minerals and sit in a massage chair. It is necessary to maintain a healthy organism."