By Anthony Tokarz
On November 11, Poland celebrated the 99th anniversary of its independence in the aftermath of World War I, when its wartime leaders secured historically Polish territories from the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Prussian Empires, reversing 123 years of partition. Each year, in addition to local celebrations throughout Poland’s cities and villages, celebrants and patriots, along with protesters and international observers, come to the capital for the official, government-sponsored Warsaw Independence March. Afterwards, many remain in Warsaw for an unofficial march organized each year by the National Radical Camp (ONR) and the All Polish Youth (MW).
The rhetoric propounded by these groups sheds light on the attitudes that drew participants to the march. According to its own website, the ONR is a social movement that embraces young Poles devoted to the values of “God, honor, the homeland, family, tradition, and friendship.” It rejects being called a political party, though, explaining it is “uninterested in participating in the oligarchy’s parliamentary games.” On the other hand, the MW’s official site describes its organization as “an interesting alternative to inactivity” that “combines traditional values with modern patriotism” without regard for political gain. Though critics might want to link these two groups to Poland’s governing conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS), their rhetoric makes clear that they owe allegiance to no party, and even dismiss the political process itself as a ruse. Regardless of how these groups see themselves, Polish President Andrzej Duda condemned what many saw as displays of xenophobia, racism, and violence as “sick nationalism” according to the Atlantic.
International observers, many of whom did not attend either march, hastened to lambaste more than the two organizing groups and decry Poland itself as a “breeding ground for fascists” on the grounds that some marchers carried banners with nationalistic slogans. Most publicized, though erroneous, journalists pointed to a banner that read “Pray for an Islamic Holocaust” as evidence that the march epitomized fascism, blaming the prominence of Polish patriotism for the banner. Just days later, however, some critics quickly apologized for propagating false information about the march and banner. The Washington Post’s Avi Selk, for example, penned an article titled “Why I Wrote Fake News for the Washington Post.,” where he noted that the notorious “Pray for an Islamic Holocaust” banner had hung for just a few hours from a bridge in the Polish city of Poznań in 2015, and thus had no connection to Polish Independence day or this year’s festivities. According to CNN, its original reporting contained claims, since removed, that asserted the existence of the “Pray for Islamic Holocaust” and “White Europe, Europe must be White” banners. Both the Washington Post and CNN’s original articles feature paragraph-length corrections regarding the banners.
Factual coverage of the event, as well as historical scrutiny, reveal a narrative subtly but crucially different from claims of neo-fascists hijacking the Warsaw Independence March to further their nativist aims. Al Jazeera reports that the chanting celebrated Poland’s national sovereignty, as well as its Roman Catholicism: “God, honor, homeland,” “Not red, not rainbow, but national Poland,” and “Great Catholic Poland, Great National Poland.” These slogans reveal something of a siege mentality, one reinforced by cultural remembrance of the three partitions of Poland, the later Napoleonic Wars, the Nazi invasion on September 1, the Soviet invasion of September 17, and 45 years of Communist subjugation. Poles maintain a sensitivity to threats to their sovereignty, such as the recent efforts by France’s Emmanuel Macron and the European Commission to liberalize its stance on coal, migrants, and the euro. The international response to the Warsaw Independence March, similar to that of Poland’s “Rosary to the Borders” event in October, has stoked the fires of nationalism and likely pushed more Poles into the ONR and MW’s embrace.