When I finally interview Michal Kaminski he is looking extremely flustered, not to say hounded, by the attention he has received during his flying visit to Conservative Party conference. The controversial leader of David Cameron’s new allies in the European Parliament has been chased into a fringe meeting by a woman from Channel 4 and to the doors of a lunch hosted by Conservative Friends of Israel. Allegations about his far-right past have quite literally pursued him to a suite at Manchester’s Midland Hotel.
Here it is that the 37-year-old head of the new European Conservatives and Reformists grouping has chosen to explain his controversial past statements, which range from the Holocaust and the role of Jewish partisans in the Soviet occupation, to General Pinochet and homosexuality.
In his only interview with a British newspaper, he says he welcomes the opportunity to reassure readers of the JC that he is no antisemite.“If you grew up in Poland, if you saw the traces of the Holocaust in my country, the accusation of being an antisemite is, I think, really hard,” he says. “Being an antisemite is something which is contradictory to all my beliefs, starting with my religious beliefs as a Christian and ending with my political conservative views.” He adds that he considers that western civilisation is essentially Judeo-Christian and therefore “created to a big extent by Jews”.
Mr Kaminski says that he understands the concerns raised by some of the allegations against him. His colourful CV has already caused acute embarrassment to the Conservative Party and provided ammunition to those who say Cameron has rejected the mainstream centre-right in Europe in favour of a rag-tag bunch of apologists for fascism. At the same time, his robust support for Israel provides Anglo-Jews with a dilemma. His status as guest of honour at the CFI lunch demonstrates the level of trust he commands among leading Jewish Tories. His visit to Israel last month saw him welcomed by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon.
But how does this square with Mr Kaminski’s political beginnings with the far-right National Revival of Poland party (NOP)? The party he joined as a teenager is said to have pledged that “Jews will be removed from Poland and their possessions confiscated”. His response is that he was just 15 when he joined the NOP in 1987 when it was still an underground movement. Two years later it merged into the mainstream Conservative Christian National Union. “It was for me the first available option to join the anti-Communist movement and when I was 17 I left this group,” he says, adding that there was no evidence of a neo-fascist tendency at the time. “When I was a member of them, I don’t remember. Maybe you will find that someone will… but as far as I know it was a party which was Catholic and nationalist-orientated.”
Mr Kaminski himself raises the issue of Jedwabne, a town in the north-east of Poland which was the site of a massacre of hundreds of its Jewish inhabitants in July 1941 by a mob of Poles. Sixty years later, the then Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski issued an apology for the atrocity, but the issue was hugely divisive. As the deputy in the Polish parliament responsible for the area, Mr Kaminski expressed his opposition to a generalised apology, a decision he stands by.“
From the very beginning I was saying as a human being, as a Pole, that Jedwabne was a terrible crime, unfortunately committed by the Polish people. My point was from the very start: we are ashamed of these people, we have to condemn them, we have to judge them if they are still alive. But I don’t want to take the whole responsibility for this crime for the whole Polish nation.”
He adds that he doesn’t believe the Jedwabne massacre should be classified on the same level as the Holocaust. “I think that it’s unfair comparing it with a Nazi crime and putting it with the same level as the Nazi policy.”
More difficult for Mr Kaminski (and potentially Mr Cameron) is the suggestion that the Polish politician claimed no apology should be made until Jews apologised for alleged Jewish crimes of collaboration with the Soviet Union. His answer is ingenious. He says that asking the Poles as a whole to apologise for Jedwabne would make as much sense as asking the Jews to apologise for alleged Jewish involvement in Communist crimes.It is a theme to which he returns later in the interview: “My position is that there were acts of collaboration of the Jewish people with the Soviet army when the Soviet army came to Poland. It’s a fact. It’s a historical fact… If you are asking the Polish nation to apologise for the crime made in Jedwabne, you would require from the whole Jewish nation to apologise for what some Jewish Communists did in Eastern Poland.”
I ask him about an interview he gave to the ultra-nationalist Polish newspaper Nacza Polska at the time of the apology, when he is alleged to have said he would only apologise for Jedwabne when “someone from the Jewish side will apologise for what the Jews did during the Soviet occupation between 1939 and 1941, for the mass collaboration of the Jewish people with the Soviet occupier.” He claims he does not remember giving the interview. Does he recognise the words as his? “I absolutely do not recognise them. It was nine years ago.” He adds that official statements at the time made his position on the matter clear. I ask him about his use of the slogan “Poland is for the Poles”, which is said to have associations with pre-war Polish ultra-nationalism. He says he had been referring to Poland’s corruption scandals of 2000 when the new democracy was seriously under threat. “We have to give Poland to Poles but….not in a racial or nationalistic sense but in terms of democracy. We want to give back Polish democracy to the Poles, to the citizens.”
I ask him to clarify claims that he expressed pride in wearing the Chrobry sword, the symbol of the National Radical Camp Falanga, a Catholic totalitarian group formed in 1935. He issues a categorical denial: “No, I never wear it. I don’t even know which symbol you are referring to. [Mr Kaminski later clarified his position, claiming he had in fact worn the symbol]
”There is no doubt there has been a concerted attempt by David Cameron’s political enemies to discredit Mr Kaminski. But there are areas of his own political biography where he admits he made serious errors of judgment. In 1999, he visited the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in London, an event he described as “the most important moment of my whole life”. He later made a statement to the Polish parliament saying he regretted his actions. He says: “I think I made a mistake visiting Pinochet. A decent politician should have the courage to admit the mistake”.
I wonder if he thinks it was also a mistake to have described homosexuals as “pedaly”, a derogatory term akin to “shirt-lifters”. Again he admits an error of judgement. “I said I would never use these words again. But please remember it was a word used commonly by Polish politicians about homosexuals. “Since I discovered that this word was offensive in the eyes of homosexuals, I never used it again.”As we end the interview he talks of his pride at heading up the new conservative grouping in the European parliament and his great respect for British Conservatism. But Mr Kaminski cannot have imagined that he would end up as such a controversial figure for the party that has inspired his politics for so long.
The creation of the ECR has been a huge risk for David Cameron, brought about because he needed to provide some “red meat” to the Eurosceptics in his party. In the final irony, though, it turns out that Mr Kaminski is himself an enthusiastic Europhile who has embraced the Lisbon Treaty so hated by the right-wing of the British Conservative Party. “I was on the side of those who were in favour of the Lisbon Treaty. It is well known in Poland. It is not a secret,” he says. I apologise that so much of the interview has been taken up by allegations from Mr Kaminski’s political enemies. To his credit he says that it has been important to answer his critics.
UPDATE: Mr Kaminski made the following statement to the JC on Friday:
"I did wear the sword, which was used around a millennia ago to crown Polish Kings, on my lapel on occasions. After 1989 it was used as one of the symbols of the Christian National Union and many Conservative politicians would wear it, including politicians now in the Civic Platform. In recent years it has been taken as a symbol by the Far Right. Although it is not the same, there are similarities with how the BNP in Britainhas taken the Union Jack as their symbol. When I felt the symbol started having this meaning I stopped wearing it and I asked the rest of my party to stop too."