By Stanley Bill
Last Saturday, the annual March of Independence (Marsz Niepodległości) exploded onto the streets of Warsaw in a storm of controversy and scandal. International reporters and commentators described a “white supremacist march” and “60 000 Nazis” marching on the capital. The Polish state media, conservative columnists and the government dismissed the criticism as exaggerated slander, calling the event a “great march of patriots.” A deputy-minister even suggested – without evidence – that racist banners referring to “white Europe” and “pure blood” may have been an intentional provocation to compromise the march. Media reports of another banner calling for an “Islamic Holocaust” turned out to be false (though such a banner had appeared on a bridge in Poznań in 2015). The controversy gathered further steam in a furious confrontation in the European Parliament, after which a Polish conservative MEP described Western criticism of his country as “an anti-Polish orgy.”
The March of Independence has been a key front in Poland’s ongoing cultural and political wars since 2010. Before 2015, the event was an annual expression of anger at the culturally and economically liberal course followed by the centrist government of Donald Tusk and the Civic Platform (PO) party. Initiated and organised by two nationalist groups with an interwar history – the National Radical Camp (ONR) and All-Polish Youth (MW) – the march united nationalists, football hooligans, other conservatives and assorted opponents of the government. Violence and vandalism often occurred, sometimes exacerbated by anti-fascist and anarchist protesters. From 2015, with the election of the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, the march has been larger, generally non-violent, and more diverse in its participants. Some families attend the event – as the organisers and state television are at pains to emphasise – but many of the marchers appear to be young men. The atmosphere evokes an edgy football crowd, with aggressive chants in male voices, regular explosions, and the red glow of flares. But how fair are the most serious accusations?
A nationalist march
The March of Independence is clearly a nationalist march. It is attended by a strong core of self-identifying radical nationalists, a large number of people who probably do not self-identify as nationalists, and a fringe of neo-Nazis and white supremacists who created most of the controversy this year (they seem to have marched in a single column, separately promoted as the “Black Bloc”, boasting as many as 400 participants). Though many of the “ordinary” marchers may see themselves simply as “patriots”, the event must be defined as “nationalist” for the simple reason that it has been conceived, shaped, organised and led by two unabashedly radical nationalist groups.
Both the National Radical Camp and All-Polish Youth are reactivated versions of interwar radical nationalist organisations. The National Radical Camp, in particular, was influenced by fascist ideas, styles and imagery in the 1930s, so one might coherently argue that the present-day group is a neo-fascist organisation by association. Nevertheless, the group emphatically denies fascist links, even as it sometimes continues to draw on fascist-style imagery. Indeed, both organisations have made efforts to sanitise their public images in recent years in order to broaden their appeal to a Polish public generally repulsed by overtly fascist symbolism. This caution makes their updated ideological declarations unclear and sometimes contradictory.
The ONR declaration is both inclusive and exclusive:
“A member of the Polish Nation is whoever feels himself to be a Pole, whoever feels attachment to Polish tradition and history, and whoever is acknowledged as a compatriot by the national community. While condemning biological racism, we postulate the preservation of a state of ethnic homogeneity, which fosters the maintenance of social peace and the stability of the state.”
The declaration ostensibly rejects “totalitarianism,” while also expressing a commitment to organic “hierarchy” and condemning current forms of parliamentary democracy:
“The role of political parties will be limited, as harmful institutions placing the interests of groups above the common interest of the Nation, leading to artificial divisions and conflicts within the community. We reject every form of totalitarianism, including liberal democracy, as political regimes that are extremely damaging to the national community.”
The symbol of the present-day National Radical Camp is that of the more radical wing of the interwar movement – the “Falanga.” The image depicts a stylised arm wielding a sword, ostensibly derived from a Polish navy insignia. However, the design of the symbol clearly references the Nazi swastika of the time, and the symbol was worn on armbands by activists dressed in unmistakably National Socialist style. More recently, the present government removed the symbol from a list of those identified by police as explicitly connected with xenophobia and racism.
At the March of Independence in Warsaw, the “Falanga” symbol is everywhere. The National Radical Camp leads the march, and its green flags flutter across the mass of people. Irrespective of their private motivations, all those making the journey from Rondo Dmowskiego to the National Stadium across the Poniatowski Bridge are marching behind and beneath this symbol of Polish radical nationalism. If the symbolism were not enough, most of the key speeches made before and after the march have featured representatives of radical nationalist groups, including far-right activists from Slovakia, Hungary and Italy. Roberto Fiore from the Italian Forza Nuova – who spoke at this year’s march – refers to himself openly as a “fascist.” Though neo-Nazis, white supremacists and overt fascists appear to be in a small minority, the March of Independence is clearly a radical nationalist event.
Who is a nationalist?
So why do so many people attend a radical nationalist march if some of them are not nationalists? First of all, a 2016 study from the Public Opinion Research Centre (CBOS), entitled “Between Patriotism and Nationalism,” shows that Poles do not readily self-identify as “nationalists,” even when they openly espouse views that would normally be characterised as “nationalist”. Indeed, only 7% of those surveyed in the study described themselves as “nationalists.” On the other hand, 17% declared “support for the activities of such movements [. . .] as the National Radical Camp and All-Polish Youth.” Most interestingly, only 16% of those who declared support for these organisations self-identified as “nationalists.” Conversely, only 42% of those who did identify as “nationalists” declared support for the National Radical Camp and All-Polish Youth. In short, the majority of both self-identifying nationalists and non-nationalists considered the National Radical Camp and All-Polish Youth not to be nationalist organisations.
How can we explain these anomalies? First of all, the CBOS study suggests that the very word “nacjonalista” (“nationalist”) has such negative connotations in Polish that people are reluctant to self-define under this category. Indeed, one might argue that “nacjonalista” has a more negative resonance than “nationalist” in English. Even the National Radical Camp and All-Polish Youth tend to describe themselves as “narodowcy,” a term with the same basic meaning, but a different connotation. It is difficult to render the distinction in English, but “narodowiec” (in the singular) might be slightly closer to expressions like “national activist.” Members of the National Radical Camp and All-Polish Youth still use the term “nacjonalista” frequently in less formal communications, but they tend to avoid it in official declarations. The more extreme groups – for instance, those who carried the racist banners – use the term “nacjonalista” with consistent pride.
The CBOS study goes some way to explaining the outraged reactions of the state media and some of the march’s participants to external accusations of radical “nationalism.” While attending a march organised by groups that most political scientists would define without hesitation as “nationalist,” they themselves may consider the event to be an expression of patriotism or – at most – of “national activism.” The linguistic distinction is important here, but a type of cognitive dissonance might also come into play. Perhaps most importantly, the failure to recognise the National Radical Camp and All-Polish Youth as radical “nationalist” organisations shows the successful efforts of these groups to mainstream themselves, most recently with the tacit support of the PiS government.
Mainstreaming radical nationalism
The development of the March of Independence over the last eight years reflects a process of the mainstreaming of nationalist discourse, in which Poland’s political polarisation has been partly to blame. From 2010, the march grew from the initiative of two fringe nationalist organisations into a well-attended event of much broader appeal in large part because official condemnation turned it into a gesture of resistance against the liberal, centrist government of the time (the motto of the 2012 march was “Let’s win back Poland”). This anti-government message led to violence, but it also made the march very appealing to the more radical “patriotic” circles loyal to PiS – for instance, the Smolensk conspiracy theory group Solidarni 2010. Indeed, the post-2010 date is far from coincidental, as the march formed part of the escalating polarisation of Polish politics in the wake of the Smolensk catastrophe.
Since the election of PiS in 2015, the March of Independence has no longer been an anti-government event, though admittedly the fringe elements responsible for the racist banners have made their contempt for the current government clear. According to these groups, President Andrzej Duda’s condemnation of the xenophobic incidents in the march shows that he and his party are part of a “Jewish” plot against Poland. Nevertheless, the main organisers of the march generally refrain from criticising the government, and they no longer tolerate the destruction of public property. In return, government representatives and the state media have given significant support to the march, while playing down any evidence of nationalist extremism and racism.
The mainstream of the PiS party is not in close ideological accord with the National Radical Camp or the All-Polish Youth. Party leader Jarosław Kaczyński has developed a concept of nation that is more open and tolerant, while also condemning the interwar anti-Semitism of the nationalist predecessor organisations. Nevertheless, there are undoubtedly PiS voters and politicians with more nationalist views. More importantly, Kaczyński’s political failures in the 1990s and mid-2000s taught him that internal division is the greatest enemy of success for the right in Poland. Therefore, he sees it as crucial for PiS to construct the broadest possible church, from relative liberals like Minister for Science and Higher Education Jarosław Gowin to the more extreme camp of Defense Minister Antoni Macierewicz. The nationalist groups at the March of Independence do not formally belong to the PiS coalition. However, the party is keen to keep at least some of its participants in the broader fold, and – above all – to cordon off any political ground further to the right, so that no new force can arise there to challenge its supremacy.
Motivations for marching
So why do people march and what kinds of views do they hold? According to a survey of participants in the 2015 march from the Centre for Research on Prejudices, participants were overwhelmingly conservative in their views, strongly anti-Muslim, somewhat in favour of ethnic homogeneity, but not unusually attracted to right-wing authoritarianism. 75% of the randomly surveyed participants in the march described themselves as “conservative” in their views (32% were “very conservative”). 84% thought that the march would “increase solidarity among Poles.” 71% thought that the march would “contribute to building broad social opposition to the bringing of Muslim refugees to Poland.” 55% thought that “thanks to the march Poland will remain an ethnically homogeneous country.” Participants in the march were significantly less likely than other Poles (using comparative data from 2014) to accept Jews, Roma, Muslims and homosexuals. Acceptance of Muslims was the lowest among all these minority groups.
This information from 2015 supports general impressions that the most recent March of Independence has been strongly anti-Muslim, while broader xenophobic sentiment has been present but not as prevalent. Of course, the suspicion of Muslim refugees reflects much wider fears among the Polish population. At the same time, a sense of “solidarity” remained the most popular reason for participation, and participants were not especially attracted to authoritarian political solutions of the type proposed by the National Radical Camp. On the fringes of the march, neo-Nazis and white supremacists directly conveyed much more extreme messages of racial hatred. The organisers did not seem to challenge them directly during the march, though various online discussions reveal frustration that these groups and other controversies had attracted negative attention to the event.
This concern is directly connected to the mainstreaming campaign, so it is difficult to say where the organisers really stand in relation to these messages. A spokesman for the All-Polish Youth made a similarly undesirable departure from the public script when he said after the 2017 march that he and his group were “racial separatists” who believed that it was best “not to mix ethnicities.” He later resigned from the Board of the organisation. Shortly afterwards, he retweeted an interesting accusation of hypocrisy against President Duda: If the President was really against “xenophobia, nationalism and anti-Semitism,” then why had he published a photo of himself under the statue of nationalist symbol Roman Dmowski with the hashtag “#Nacjonalizm”?
The shift to the right
And here is the rub: President Duda and PiS have steadily been bringing nationalists into the mainstream. They have done it through tacit and open support for the March of Independence, through an often immoderate anti-immigrant rhetoric, through strange interventions from the justice minister in the sentencing of convicted anti-Semites, through state media platforming of spokespeople from nationalist organisations, through a sometimes crudely patriotic politics of history, through a relentless anti-German campaign on state television, and through the uncritical blanket celebration of the diverse and often controversial group of “Cursed Soldiers.”
More broadly, Poland has seen an undeniable shift to the right. PiS was lucky to win a majority in the last election, thanks to almost 2.5 million votes going to waste on parties that failed to cross the parliamentary threshold. Yet PiS also increased its own vote by one-third, while the right-wing populist Kukiz’15 came from nowhere to capture 9% of the electorate. Most strikingly, liberal and leftist parties bled voters to the right-wing parties. Civic Platform lost 20% of its voters to the right. The Polish People’s Party (PSL) lost 28% of its voters to the right. Even the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) lost 15% of its voters to the right. The Palikot Movement, a left-liberal party that had won 10% of the vote in the previous election, lost almost 50% of its largely younger voters to right-wing parties. Of people who had not previously voted, 67% chose right-wing parties. Overall, 65% of younger voters opted for the right.
Admittedly, all of these shifts mean that the Polish electorate is now roughly evenly divided between right-wing and liberal or leftist options. So the right is very far from total domination. Nevertheless, this equilibrium represents a very significant change from the situation in 2011, when right-wing parties won only 34% of the vote. Moreover, the scales may continue to swing, especially given the increasingly conservative and even radical preferences of younger voters. Poland’s whole political scene has moved, and the transformation has created opportunities for Polish radical nationalists. So far their impact on the parliament has been limited to the presence of a few MPs in the Kukiz’15 group and some loose allies in the government. But once a year in November they flex their muscles and bask in the resounding success of their move into the acceptable mainstream.
PiS’s strategy to block off the political ground to their right has already brought significant costs for Poland.
Main image credit: Marsz Niepodległośći, Flickr/Piotr Drabik (under CC BY 2.0)
Stanley Bill is the founder and editor-at-large of ‘Notes from Poland’. He is also Senior Lecturer in Polish Studies and Director of the Polish Studies Programme at the University of Cambridge, where he works on Polish culture, politics and history. Stanley has spent more than ten years living in Poland, mostly based in Kraków and Bielsko-Biała. He founded Notes from Poland in 2014 as a blog dedicated to cultural analysis and political commentary. He is committed to the promotion of deeper knowledge and understanding of Poland.
He is the Chair of the Board of the Notes from Poland Foundation.