WARSAW — When in doubt, invent an enemy.
That was the strategy the communists who took over Poland after World War II used to stay in power when they scapegoated Jews to keep the Poles from rebelling against their rule. And the conservative Law and Justice party, which has governed Poland since 2015, is tapping the same playbook, experts said.
Led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Law and Justice — also known by its Polish acronym, PiS — has found new enemies to stir up its conservative base while pushing Poland rightward and undermining democratic institutions and the judiciary in a country that was once a beacon of freedom in Eastern Europe, the experts said.
Gay people, migrants, feminists — all have found themselves demonized by this Polish government, according to Sebastian Rejak of the American Jewish Committee and other analysts tracking the government.
“Discrimination may start with Jews, but it never ends with Jews,” he said. “If others are targeted, Jews, sooner or later, will also be targeted. We therefore stand up in defense of other minorities.”
He said Law and Justice is not cut from the same antisemitic cloth as the communist party that purged Poland's Jews in 1968, but it does draw support from the parts of Polish society in which prejudice against Jews persists.
Of late, desperate Muslim migrants trapped on Poland’s border with Belarus have become political pawns in a power play by Law and Justice as it tries to shore up its support. Hundreds of migrants are hiding in forests on the border and contending with freezing conditions. Several have reportedly died.
Poland and the Baltic states, along with the European Commission, contend that Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko created the crisis as payback for criticism of his authoritarian regime by allowing migrants hoping to reach Western Europe to cross through Belarus and then cross its border into E.U. neighbor states.
But critics say Law and Justice has also used the crisis to show its conservative Roman Catholic base that it is a “bulwark of Christianity” defending the country against Muslims.
In an apparent attempt to drum up anti-immigrant sentiment, last month Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski displayed a photo of a man copulating with a cow that he claimed came from a cellphone that was confiscated from a migrant who had tried to get into Poland.
TVP, the state-funded television station that critics say operates as a propaganda outlet for the ruling party, quickly trumpeted his claim with the headline: "He raped a cow and wanted to get into Poland? Details on migrants at the border."
That attempt to smear the migrants imploded when the photo turned out not to be of a migrant but was traced to a zoophilia porn movie widely available on the web — and which involved a horse and not a cow, numerous news outlets reported.
But Kaminski’s move managed to horrify enough of a broad swath of Polish society that it drew a rare rebuke from the powerful Roman Catholic Church, which has largely been marching in lockstep with the ruling party.
"The situation with immigrants is not new," said Sarian Jarosz of Amnesty International, which has been monitoring the humanitarian crisis at the border. "In 2015, there was also a crisis in Europe. But then the migrants were far away, not on our border."
"Even then the PiS government was building an 'enemy' who is outside and wants to get to us and hurt us," he added.
In fact, the issue of Syrians fleeing that country's devastating civil war and flooding into Europe in 2015 helped propel Law and Justice to power — Kaczynski had vowed to defend the border against Muslim migrants, whom he characterized as carrying "all sorts of parasites and protozoa" and who would impose Shariah, or Islamic law, and use Catholic churches as "toilets."
"What they want is power, and fear is a big motivator," said Alexander Storozynski, a Polish American activist and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author.
"If you have an enemy, you’re more willing to fight. They’re making people afraid of 'the other' and they’re using the same tactics as the communists," said Storozynski, who has met with Kaczynski and other top Law and Justice officials over the years.
The Other and the Enemy
Who is "the other"?
"Anybody who isn’t a traditional Polish Catholic," Storozynski said.
NBC News reached out to the Polish government's spokesman for comment. But there was no response.
There are also signs the government’s attempts to demonize the migrants is backfiring. The Gallup polling company, which maintains a Migrant Acceptance Index, reported a big jump last month in public acceptance of the beleaguered migrants, most of whom are from the Middle East.
Also, many ordinary Poles have defied their own government to help and support the migrants.
Kamil Syller, a Polish lawyer who lives close to the border, is urging people who want to help to display green lights so the migrants know it’s safe to approach their homes for food and shelter.
"We, the inhabitants of the borderland, who see human drama and suffering, do not have to calculate," he told the country’s leading newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. "We must remain human."
To rally its base of deeply religious voters, Law and Justice has also demonized women protesting against abortion restrictions and cast the LGBTQ community as spreaders of a foreign "ideology" and has promoted "LGBT-free zones."
To counter criticism from the European Union that it is undermining Poland’s court system and press freedom, the ruling party has tapped the deep vein of Polish patriotism and paranoia by accusing the E.U. of trampling on the country’s independence.
"The PiS government is not only looking for enemies outside, but for years has been consistently building internal enemies: women, gays and lesbians, and during a pandemic even doctors and paramedics," Jarosz said.
Polish gay activist Bartosz Staszewski said Kaczynski and his party have used tactics even the communists didn’t dare use.
"A hate campaign against the LGBT community in Poland has been going on since 2019," he said. "It is unprecedented. It has never happened before, we were not even criticized so openly under the Communists, as we are now."
Unlike the United States and other countries, homosexuality has never been illegal in Poland and recent polls show growing support for gay marriage. But that has not stopped Kaczynski and his allies from using the TVP station to falsely "equate LGBT circles with pedophiles."
"I have the impression that now a new enemy has been found, which are refugees seeking asylum in our country," Staszewski said. "Poland treats them worse than the animals, which means that they die in the forest from hypothermia and starvation."
According to him, the government has managed, thus far, to stay in power by tapping into the deep resentments of the Poles who were left behind when the country’s new capitalist economy took off, or who felt unmoored by the rapid societal changes that came after Poland shook off its Soviet shackles and joined the European Union.
Meanwhile, antisemitism persists in Poland despite the fact most of the country’s more than 3 million Jews were wiped out by German occupiers during the Holocaust. In 1968, the communists harnessed that hatred and used it to drive 13,000 Jews out of Poland and, afterward, continued persecuting the few who stayed.
Since Poland broke out of the Soviet bloc in 1989, there has been a revival of the Jewish community, and Rejak said the current Polish government "is investing a lot in projects aiming at restoring Jewish cultural sites." But it rarely repudiates the bigoted voices on the far right.
"This silence of decision-makers when it comes to demonizing Jews by the radical right may result from fear," he said. "The fear that if government officials were to condemn antisemitism, some voters might ask the difficult question, 'Why are you defending the Jews?'"
Ewa Galica reported from Warsaw; Corky Siemaszko from New York City