Jakub Stepaniuk reports from Poland’s independence centenary.
Poland’s independence day, especially the symbolic 100th anniversary thereof, calls for massive celebrations, enormous endeavour and arduous preparations. The current government of the PiS (Law & Justice) has been promising this for three years, since they came to power. Indeed, the festival was supposed to be an unprecedented, breathtaking and magnificent experience. A dreamlike, triumphant and internationally recognised ceremony. Cheerful crowds, united in spite of political differences, listening to great speeches from major world leaders, paying heed to the glory of Poland. That’s what the government says, but none of this actually happened; what really occurred reveals worrying trends about Polish society.
Celebrating Polish independence has been inciting a wide range of emotions in the past decade. Every year the situation is almost the same: a depressing ceremony, portraying Poland as the victim of history, constantly betrayed and excluded. The fog and drizzle of the Polish autumn only deepen the feeling of despair. You might wonder why the atmosphere is so melancholy on the anniversary of what is supposedly one of our greatest historical achievements. Sadly, government-sanctioned celebrations are not the focus of this article, nor are they the focus of the Polish public interest.
Instead, let us try to analyse the most pressing event: the annual Independence March, organised by the two nationalist movements, ONR (National Radical Camp) and MW (All-Polish Youth). These groups tend to dominate the celebrations – not only because they bring controversy but also because they increase turnout.
This year, these groups have reason to celebrate. The images of fierce confrontations with police, destroying the city with paving stones or attacking anarchist squats, have been resigned to the past. Even the white supremacist chants and banners from last year’s march were absent this year. Despite verging on illegality, according to police this year’s march was still considered acceptable behaviour. Public media outlets in Poland claimed that the Independence March was a huge manifestation of positive patriotism: an enormous assembly of well-meaning Polish families, that only the sanguine “West” and those EU scoundrels would dare to call it a radical neo-fascist rally. Why worry about a march like this? Why even write this article? Just look how joyous the demonstration seems from the pictures.
The days preceding the march were different this year. The liberal mayor of Warsaw, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, made one of the last decisions she’d make before the end of her term: banning the organisation of the Independence March. Meanwhile, the PiS started mobilising in preparation. They proposed combining forces with the nationalists and announcing a common march, aiming to overcome ideological divisions. But ONR and MW still wanted to be the stars of the show, and suggested the PiS march in a third row with other nationalists. All this, from the ongoing risks of a court battle to a march split by ideology, made it impossible to predict what was going to happen.
A couple of minutes before the ceremony officially started, I noticed that two marches were beginning on the same route, at the same time. A small parade of PiS supporters decided to physically separate itself from the masses of nationalists using a large column of armoured vehicles – ostensibly exhibiting the strength of the Polish armed forces.
Such a solution could have prevented international scandal, avoiding headlines like Polish authorities support neo-fascist ideology – in case ONR or MW violated their agreement and swapped their Polish flags for something more controversial. In any case, the government was still complicit. The president still gave his speech to a nationalist crowd, public media still claimed that it was a unified march, and government support still helped increase the march’s headcount.
In order to get a better idea of what was going on I decided to head into the hasty heart of the march. Doubtless, the majority of the people I have seen there were waving Polish flags, dressed patriotically, often marching in the company of friends or family. However, this very same group of placid individuals were utterly passive in their reaction to the minority of marchers who chose to ignite flares and chant vulgar and hateful slogans.
Rivers of drunk spirits, suffocating smoke and widespread presence of hooliganism overshadowed any remaining familial dignity. A vocal minority, burning EU flags or and standing shoulder to shoulder with neo-fascists from Italy’s Forza Nuova to Slovakia’s Kotleba. All of this, under the banner of government approval – suggesting an alarming link between authorities and extremists.
Underlying the march I found a discussion of ideology; everyone I asked claimed that nationalism should be identified with contemporary patriotism. Don’t worry, they’d say, nationalism is a very positive idea corrupted by the liberals. Without nationalism, they’d claim, Poland would never get nor sustain its independence. They’d ask, Do you see any real fascists here? On the very same day, Emmanuel Macron gave a speech on nationalism in Paris, but with a slightly different tact. The difference is that in Poland, nationalist organisations have worked with the ruling party to bring nationalism back into the mainstream. I didn’t just find supporters of ONR and MW in the areas close to the march; they were present all over Warsaw, at the airport, even on the plane I was travelling back to London. Nationalism is more present than ever, and the new Polish electorate ends up disillusioned with Western values, the European Union, and even the existence of minorities themselves. A new political movement can absorb all the indifference to extremism, gradually radicalising the harmless family unit, and ultimately influencing the Polish political stage. I can only hope that one day we won’t wake up to a new political reality, where the old authority has become one with its nationalist bedfellows.