On the 99th anniversary of Poland regaining its independence at the end of World War I last Saturday, 60,000 people participated in what was likely the largest far-right protest in Europe yet, with some participants touting white nationalist banners and slogans and equating Islam with terrorism.
Organized by a variety of far-right groups in Poland, the march was met by several thousand anti-fascist demonstrators, who claim their counterprotest is the largest of its kind since 2011.
Ever since 2015 when the right-wing Law and Justice Party gained control of several branches of government in elections that year, far-right Independence Day demonstrations like the one last weekend have steadily grown in size, and have by many accounts been tacitly endorsed by the ruling government.
Here’s a rundown of the events surrounding the largest right-wing gathering in Europe since World War II:
Right-wing groups have demonstrated on Poland’s annual November 11 Independence Day celebration since 2010, but while the marches were initially only limited to several hundred people, they have quickly grown in popularity.
- Agencja Gazeta/Reuters
Source: The Washington Post
Although in previous years the marches have been met with stiff resistance from police, they have been largely peaceful since 2015 when the Law and Justice Party took power.
Although the marches are unconnected to official celebrations of Poland’s independence, recent demonstrations have overshadowed all other festivities.
- Agencja Gazeta/Reuters
Numerous banners at the demonstrations in Warsaw featured anti-Islamic, anti-gay rights, and anti-EU slogans. Others proclaimed support for “clean blood” and a “white Europe,” according to Politico.
The march was organized by the All Poland Youth, National Movement and National Radical Camp, which invited several hundred foreign participants to join the demonstration.
Adrian Bartoś, a spokesperson for the All Poland Youth, told Business Insider that around 500 foreigners were also present at the march, including some from Spain, Germany, and Hungary. He said Poland has become a magnet for right-wing nationalists throughout Europe.
“They are overjoyed by it, and they don’t see the kind of mobilization we see in Poland in other European countries,” Bartoś said. “I think this is happening in Poland because there is strong national identity among the inhabitants, the citizens, of our country, and basically the majority see what is happening in the West.”
Bartoś cited an alleged rise in rapes and crimes in countries where Middle Eastern refugees have been resettled, like Germany and Sweden.
“It is apparent that Poles don’t want this,” he said, “and this is why this understanding in our country and its citizens has caused us to see ourselves as sort of a bastion for the defense of Europe, as I would call it.”
However, although there have been several high profile cases of refugees committing such crimes in western European countries, overall, the rate of rape and crime has remained largely the same in Sweden, and even saw a slight dip in Germany.
Nationalism has been strong in Poland for centuries, and especially since the fall of communism in the country in 1989. Catholicism has played a large part in Polish nationalism throughout the last few decades.
Source: The Daily Sabah
Poland’s suffering in World War II and during the period of communist rule afterward have inspired patriotic sentiment among Poles, who have always touted their resistance and resilience in the face of threats to its culture and national character.
For centuries, Poland had a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, but it became almost universally Polish and Catholic following World War II as a result of the Holocaust, border changes, and population migrations.
This homogeneity is something Saturday’s marchers said they were working to preserve.
The Polish far-right has found itself emboldened by the rightward shift in Poland’s government since 2015.
In the aftermath of the demonstrations, the Polish Minister of the Interior Mariusz Blaszczak denied there were any xenophobic slogans at the rally to a reporter, and said he approved of it.
“It was a beautiful sight,” Blaszczak said. “We are proud that so many Poles have decided to take part in a celebration connected to the Independence Day holiday.”
Although party leader Jarosław Kaczynski denounced the racial overtones of the rally, he too endorsed the rally as a whole as an important display of patriotism.
Polish President Andrzej Duda, who was part of the Law and Justice Party until 2015 but is now an independent, denounced the “toxic nationalism” of the rally as well.
However, despite such statements, Barosś of the All Polish Youth said he believes Duda’s statements are limited in scope.
“Overall, I think Duda was not interested in discrediting the march as a whole,” he said. “When it comes to the entire government, I don’t think after this event on November 11 that their approach to our organization has changed in any way.”
Baroś said the statement was direct at the fascist elements in the rally whom he said the All Polish Youth condemn. Nevertheless, fascist iconography and chants of “Sieg Heil” were heard throughout the march.
The Law and Justice Party has since 2015 pursued a nationalistic agenda, and has at times sparred with European Union officials in Brussels over controversial policies. On Wednesday, the EU intensified its criticism of the party’s judicial reforms, voicing “serious concerns” over them, Reuters reports.
Despite the strong showing in the far-right camp, leftist protestors also showed up in Warsaw for a counterprotest that was reportedly the largest anti-fascist demonstration in the country since 2011, with several thousand members turning out.
Among the groups present were LGBTQ groups, anarchist organizations, and other groups with anti-fascist views.
The BBC reports that around 2,000 people were present at the counter protest, but Lidia Domańska, a member of the Antifascist Collective Warsaw and a press spokesperson and organizer for the November 11 counterprotest, told Business Insider the number was closer to 5,000.
“It was a peaceful demonstration, involving many older people, women, children, foreigners and LGBTQ people,” Domańska said.
An organizer with the counterprotest says the organizers of the far-right protest have access to resources that far outnumber theirs.
- Agencja Gazeta/Reuters
Domańska told said that the far-right Independence Day protest has powerful backers that make it difficult to confront.
“The Independence March Association, which has huge sums of money from businessmen and right-wing politicians, has the resources to invite fascists and neo-Nazis from all over Europe,” Domańska said, listing several prominent far-right figures who were present at Saturday’s march.
In the aftermath of the November 11 march, national leaders, as well as the police, were criticized by counterprotesters for their response.
Domańska said 45 people picketted peacefully along the protest route in opposition to the nationalist rally, however were forcibly removed and arrested.
“After a few minutes they were arrested by the police and taken to headquarters on charges of disrupting the course of the legal gathering, the March of Independence,” Domańska said, noting that the right-wing march had been given a permit to protest, while the anti-fascist demonstration had not.
“Another initiative,” Domańska continued, “this time women from the All-Polish Women’s Strike, was to enter the nationalist march route with the banner ‘Fascism Stop.’ They were attacked and beaten by demonstrators.”
No one on the right-wing side was arrested by authorities, according to CNN.
Domańska said Duda’s denunciation of “toxic nationalism” was merely a hollow political move.
“Andrzej Duda has been trying for some time to build his position in the delicate opposition to the Law and Justice,” she said. “To me, this is a tactic for convincing the centrist electorate, not a real support for anti-fascism.”
Prior to the day’s marches, Polish politicians gathered for official Independence Day celebrations that were separate from the far-right protest.
Following Saturday’s events, former Prime Minister of Poland and current President of the European Council of the EU Donald Tusk offered a veiled criticism of the far-right protest’s version of Polish nationalism.
“I am convinced that the Independence Day can be celebrated with a smile on our faces and with joy in our hearts because there really is much to celebrate and much be proud of – without hostile chants and without clenched fists,” Tusk said on Saturday, according to Politico. “This is what I have come here to tell all my positively-thinking compatriots: You are not alone, we are very many, and the personal independence of each and every one of you is the best guarantee of Poland’s independence.”
Domańska voiced a similar sentiment.
“I hope that Poland and Poles will mobilize to fight against fascism,” she said. “The fight against fascism must begin with each other, get rid of prejudices and start respecting other people.”