Poland’s National Independence Day on November 11 commemorates the day that Poland regained its sovereignty after 123 years of partition by the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian Empires. But in recent years, the historic date has become more prominent as an opportunity for Polish nationalists to share their frustrations with all things left-of-center.
In fact, for prominent Polish film director Konrad Szołajski, whose latest documentary, ‘Make Poland Great Again’ (Dobra Zmiana), explores the current state of politics in the country, “Poland has never been as divided as it is now” (Read his full interview for Kafkadesk here).
For those in the United States wondering about what happens when traditionally far-right extremists begin courting with the mainstream, Poland’s annual holiday provides an interesting case study, and they should take note of what happens at this year’s events in Warsaw.
Meet the targets of Poland’s far-right activism
To be very clear, there is strong liberal opposition in Poland and a coalition of these liberal parties even narrowly won control of the Polish Senate in the country’s recent October parliamentary elections.
As in the United States, isolated pockets of Polish society tend to be far more liberal than the majority, and these pockets are likely to be as appalled by their country trending conservative as many Hillary Clinton supporters were appalled by the election of Donald Trump. In addition to foreign residents, non-white citizens, and non-Roman Catholics, these liberal politicians and voters are the targets of Poland’s far-right ire.
But while Polish liberals and centrists lament the dominance of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) and rising influence of far-right parties in domestic politics, they also have a champion on the European stage in the form of Poland’s own Donald T. – President of the European Council, Donald Tusk.
Despite his name, everything else about Donald Tusk is more reminiscent of former U.S. President Barack Obama than the current U.S. President. Before becoming President of the European Council, Tusk served as Prime Minister of Poland for a decade and, similarly to Obama, his policies and persona are also frequently criticized and attacked by the current administration. Last month, he accepted the Globsec European Award for his work on behalf of the European Union.
The politics of National Independence Day in Poland
The recent influence of the far-right political wings on mainstream politics is something both the U.S. and Poland share to some degree. In Poland, the National Independence Day celebrations are a perfect example.
The transformation of November 11 from a day of patriotic celebration to a day of prominent nationalist protest began in 2008 when select far-right groups started organizing themselves to take part in an annual “March for Independence” in Warsaw.
Since then, far-right hooligans have taken part in acts of violence and vandalism on November 11 year after year. Their targets are anything and everything that is perceived to be contrary to their own vision for Poland. As an example, on November 11, 2013, right-wing hooligans split their time between attacking leftist squatters, symbols of LGBTQ tolerance, and the Russian embassy. Notably, some of the violence and vandalism is also indiscriminate.
Because the capital city tends to be more liberal and open to globalization than rural areas, those who take part in the March of Independence also view Warsaw as a sort of target in itself. Imagine, for a moment, that the “Unite the Right” rally in the United States had taken place in New York City instead of Charlottesville.
During Independence Day protests in Poland, much of the property damage is committed at random. Far-right hooligans are known for their “killing two birds with one stone” approach whereby they rip up city sidewalks to have loose cobblestones to throw at other things. The ironic destruction of their own capital city is, at best, collateral damage for Polish nationalists.
How uniting the “Right” came to mean “Everyone”
Though there were the several usual dust-ups in Warsaw on November 11 in 2018, the controversies surrounding the annual holiday have also taken a strange turn in recent years. President Andrzej Duda of the ruling conservative PiS party came out leading a government-sponsored march last year with the message, “For you, Poland.” Meanwhile, far-right protesters came out to chant their own slogan: “God, Honor, Fatherland.”
It is difficult to avoid the obvious symbolism of government-sanctioned celebrations taking place side-by-side with nationalist and far-right protests but, to be fair, this happened because city officials attempted to ban the event from taking place, citing the hateful rhetoric of years past.
Before the ban was overturned, state officials decided to hold their own procession in its place, and this resulted in both being planned separately once the nationalists got the green light. But though the government and far-right demonstrations were separate, it’s worth noting that there weren’t any members of the opposition joining government supporters and nationalists for the event, which drew a quarter of a million marchers.
No longer part of the opposition, Donald Tusk did attend the government-sanctioned event but stood in the back, unwelcomed by the organizers claiming to be fighting for national unity. He noteably called the current populist government “contemporary Bolsheviks” who threatened the nation’s independence.
What originated as a “protest” has become less of a protest and more of an opportunity for the government to try to seek middle ground between its own policies and those of the far-right.
Rather than holding a parallel march, Poles who were truly in disagreement with the specific brand of nationalism that the marches represent protested by simply staying at home. In contrast to “Unite the Right” in the U.S., this form of opposition protest at least makes it easier to avoid accusations of “blame on both sides”.
The elephant in the room – maybe not “Everyone”
Amid the already-complex dynamics of Poland’s Independence Day, there is one more left to consider. With a government implementing conservative domestic policies and dismantling the ability of the Polish judicial system to challenge it, there doesn’t seem like there should be much for Poland’s right to be upset about anymore. Effectively, the government has all but sanctioned the right to right-wing extremism over its sanction of the right to be a political oppositionist.
When a Warsaw court overturned a ban on nationalists marching last year, a lead organizer was quoted as saying, “We’re victorious”. And indeed, what more could the right-wingers possibly want? What is the difference between white nationalism and mainstream conservatism when policies start aligning? Again, National Independence Day provides some clues.
Both right-wing nationalists and the Polish government claim that they march on behalf of Poland, but there is clearly a difference between the already-extremist chant of “Poland for the Poles!” and some of those used by the more right-wing extremists, such as “pure Poland, white Poland,” and “Refugees, get out!”
Though none of the Polish opposition came out on the streets on National Independence Day last year, and the presence of one of the most objectively prominent Polish politicians in the world was simply ignored, the streets of Warsaw did feature representatives who were curiously not Polish, namely Italian neofascists from the group Forza Nuova.
To put it gently, it seems there is something that unites Polish nationalists with Italian nationalists more-so than Polish political opponents. Likely, it is more relevant to the “pure” and “white” parts of their chants than the “Poland” bits.
What Polish Independence Day says about “Unite the Right” in the U.S.
Despite similar trends on both sides of the Atlantic, the country founded on the principles of western democracy is resisting the rise of far-right extremism more than the country which was founded as a nation-state after 123 years of partition. For instance, unless you live in Washington, D.C., you were probably unaware, or forgot, that there was a second Unite the Right rally that took place in the capital on August 12, 2018. And the reason you may have missed it is because it was a spectacular failure, with less than 30 supporters showing up to face thousands of counter-protesters.
For now, the bridge between right-wing protests and mainstream U.S. politics is still flimsy. Whereas Warsaw serves as a playground for Polish (and sometimes Italian) fascists, those with similar views in the U.S. can still be simply scared away from the U.S. capital by the sheer number of counter-protesters who would oppose them.
But under the surface, the parallels between National Independence Day celebrations in Poland and “Unite the Right” should scare Americans who fear the rise of far-right extremism. The first Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville included activists from Canada who presumably share common cause with their U.S. counterparts in the same way that Polish nationalists see no irony in uniting with Italian fascists on their National Independence Day.
To be blunt, we should be worried about what nationalists and white supremacists are truly after and share regardless of background. The nationalist sentiments implicit in “Make America Great Again” are internationally applicable, and far more sinister, if you simply replace it with other slogans which we already heard in Charlottesville. For instance, the Polish far-right has its own versions of the “Jews will not replace us!” chant.
With an end-date for the Trump presidency approaching sooner or later, maybe Americans should stop worrying about Trump building a physical wall to divide the U.S. Instead, we should all start worrying about the figurative bridge that leaders can build to unite right-wing extremism and white nationalism wherever it may be.