Agnieszka Pasieka: Who is afraid of fascists? The Polish independence march and the rise of the (far?) right

“Polish leaders marched with the far right” was perhaps the most common description of the massive demonstration that took place in Warsaw on National Independence Day, 11 November. Press worldwide expressed astonishment and indignation over the fact that the Polish president, accompanied by politicians from the right-wing populist Law and Justice (PiS) party, decided to partake in a highly controversial, and explicitly nationalist, event.

Organized since 2010 by two far-right nationalist associations, the All-Polish Youth and the National Radical Camp, the march has transformed from a small-scale demonstration into a massive annual gathering and has attracted far-right groups from abroad. In expanding its scale, it also strove to change its character, gradually and successfully targeting a much wider audience. A nearly emblematic figure of the recent marches was that of the “family with kids,” rhetorically used by both opponents and supporters to either lament the fact that “decent citizens” become prone to nationalist propaganda or to note a general support for the march’s idea and its peaceful atmosphere. This year’s edition had a particular status because 11 November marked the one hundredth anniversary of the Polish Republic’s (re)establishment. This led to political debates on the “appropriation” of National Independence Day by fringe groups and the state authorities’ obligation to “do something about it,” with “something” being the main point of controversy. A short overview of the debates around the march and some reflections on its final shape may shed light not only on the situation in Poland but on the rise of the (far) right more broadly.

The march and its (dis)contents
Attended by folks from all walks of life, from war combatants to football fans to nuns, the independence march is at present a quite heterogeneous gathering: I note this explicitly because this observation stands in stark contrast with widespread images of the march featuring angry white men holding a flare and surrounded by red smoke. The march’s organizers are undoubtedly aware of its growing appeal, and playing with the notions of patriotism, homeland and Christian heritage, they transform the marches into a commentary on the immediate—real or imagined—problems: the “refugee crisis,” migration (to and out of Poland), secularization. While some demonstrators respond to these issues with banners depicting Catholic iconography or by proudly waving flags, numerous others delight in shouts against “communists,” “Jews,” and “Brussels” as Poland’s supposed enemies and malefactors. And whereas the examples of verbal violence are abundant, those of physical violence are today less common. A March Guard, set up by activists, became responsible for removing aggressive participants and separating them from peaceful marchers.

Aware of all these circumstances, the mayor of Warsaw announced on 6 November that the 2018 march would be banned for safety reasons. Having talked about the insufficient number of police, she argued that Warsaw has already suffered too much from nationalism and mentioned that in previous years “racist, xenophobic, and fascist” incidents had taken place. Her decision met massive criticism. Many commentators from the left and the right defended the march in the name of freedom of speech and danger of preventive censorship. Politicians and opinion makers quickly pointed out the political background of the decision, namely the mayor’s wish to put the PiS government into a difficult situation by forcing them to defend a “fascist” march, and noted that the march was legally organized when her party (Civic Platform—PO) was in power.

If the mayor’s decision was unexpected, what followed was even more so. Only a few hours after the mayor’s decision, the president of Poland announced he would organize a state march, in place of the banned one, on the very same three-kilometer-long route leading from the city center to the National Stadium. On the following day, the court overruled the mayor’s decision and said the march was legal. Consequently, three days before the planned event, it appeared that Warsaw would see two marches, the state one and the nationalist one, both supposedly open to everyone. Eventually, an agreement on how to make the two marches coexist was reached: the president’s “part” would go first, and the rest would follow. Still, despite the president’s call for unity and attendance of the one “red-and-white march,” it seemed rather unrealistic that the nationalist organizers, as well as their guests, would substitute their own banners and flags for more neutral symbols—just as it was illusory to think that, had their march been banned, the hundreds of nationalists planning on coming to Warsaw would have simply accepted the decision and gone for a beer instead.

The march and the surroundings
What kind of march (or marches?) eventually took place on 11 November? The astonishing similarity of the accounts in major respectable press titles may suggest the march was uniform, unambiguous, and shameful (I leave aside the accounts by the Polish state mass media controlled by the government). Journalists emphasized that the president appeared in close proximity to xenophobic and discriminatory banners, that he was conveniently separated from the unpredictable crowd by a sort of sanitary cordon, and that fascists (the Italian Forza Nuova) were present. Such commentaries were accompanied by the usual, visually powerful pictures of crowded smoky streets and angry youngsters. The way in which march concluded—concerts and speeches organized at the stadium, long after the president had exited from the march’s front—was left out. All in all, press reports suggested that, with the blessing of the current government, the nationalist far right is growing stronger and “taking over.”

It is not clear who takes over what, though. Despite the accusations of permissiveness toward far-right groups and despite examples of “far-right-friendly” statements by the government, the PiS authorities have been rather proactive in pursuing “hard” far-right activists. On the Saturday before the march, the police paid visits to more than one hundred militants all over Poland. Many activists from Poland and abroad were not allowed to come to Warsaw and/or enter the country. Also on Saturday, organizers of an international conference on the “Third Way” first had to change the venue and then were forced to disperse the audience under the pressure of security agents. Accounts on police and secret service acts were quickly exaggerated and led to rumors about undercover agents controlling the weekend’s events.

Because I have been researching networks of Polish and Italian activists for more than two years, I could attend some of their informal meetings. On Saturday evening, during a gathering organized for the international guests, the atmosphere was far from triumphant. One Polish leader kept apologizing to his Italian counterparty for the fact that Italians would not be talking on the stage next to the stadium, which he blamed on “political circumstances.” He kept repeating, as if trying to believe it himself, that “given the conditions” nothing better could have been achieved. “Nothing better” meant living with the fact that the “president’s march” was taking precedence over the nationalist one. “They keep dragging me to the prosecutor and pointing at that pile of documents they have on us and saying, ‘We are still debating whether to delegalize you or not,’” he said to explain why there was a little room for maneuver. More crucially, when I asked if the organizers blamed the mayor for the outcome, he and his comrades gave me a look that suggested how naive I was: “It was all planned. The mayor and the president made a deal to take over our march.”

On the following day, the “taking over” of the march seemed a fact, and the main culprit was PiS. My interlocutors, most of them nationalist activists responsible for the march in the past, were not satisfied about the result of the negotiations with the state, and claimed the joint march was hardly a success. They all agreed that nationalist movements had been allowed to function without major obstacles under the former government and that “real problems” began only under the PiS rule. Therefore, any attempts from right-wing parties to cooperate with radical nationalist organizations—as in the case of the march—were seen with suspicion, as was best captured in the comment of a former leader: “I have always repeated: better to die from a Marxist bullet than from a right-wing patting on the back!”

The only thing that made my interlocutors content was the fact it was the most attended march to date. All around us, people were holding flags and banners, waiting for hours to start marching. My interlocutors and I decided to walk through the side streets and attempt to join the march farther ahead. On our way, we met police officers who complained that the situation was out of control and that it was unclear who the organizer was; we saw some people playing songs from World War I; we saw small groups praying with rosaries; and we also saw three rows made of soldiers, police, and the March Guard who worked on separating the crowd from far-right protesters. The latter were holding the banner “Constitution” and “Shame,” an expression of the critique toward the PiS government attack on the courts and violation of the constitution. Some marchers threw firecrackers in their direction, and many others called them “communists,” thereby demonstrating the acceptance of the government’s main claim, that of the need to clean the courts (and, more generally, Poland) of the people who benefitted from the former regime. As such, it was a blatant display of the deep divisions cutting through contemporary Polish society.

Unable to reach the stadium by foot, we eventually got there by subway. We found ourselves next to the stage the very moment when one of the nationalist leaders was thanking the people for the participation and talking angrily about the state trying to take over the march. A committed nationalist, he actually accused the president of attempting to “nationalize” (!) the march—to make it a state event—and promised that, despite those attempts, the march would remain a grassroots initiative, and a social one. The speakers who followed encouraged joining nationalist organizations, and, what was an absolute novelty to me, they talked a lot about the need for societal unity. As one of them said: “I think Poland is suffering from a sin known since the times of Adam and Eve, the sin of pride and haughtiness. It is because of it that people in Poland are no longer able to communicate and cooperate . . . It is the cause of the Polish-Polish war we’re facing nowadays. We, standing here, should go home and say: enough with this war! Enough with letting politicians play us.” Then, a Catholic priest blessed the crowds and the music performances began. Some people stayed, while others got on the subway or on one of the buses that had brought the march’s enthusiasts from all over Poland to Warsaw.

The march as a social fact
From an anthropological perspective, the very existence of certain popular narratives or explanations is an important social fact, whether or not they are true. It is easy to refute the theory of the plot between the PO and the PiS and their joint attempt to take over the march. But if this theory exists, it is because both parties have an interest in taking over—and changing and adapting for their needs—a popular public event. Polish citizens rarely go to the streets to celebrate, protest, or fight for their rights. The independence march is one of the few public, social, indeed “horizontal” events, whether we like its content or not.

Second, PO and PiS have recently become the biggest political opponents, leading to profound and unprecedented societal divisions, what was rightly (even if cynically) referred to by the nationalist speaker. But this current state of affair, and first and foremost the populist and antidemocratic turn of PiS, makes us easily forget they are both parties of the right. As far-right movements reject both of them, the two parties have a common interest in fighting the far right in order to capture the energy and sentiments that the far right successfully mobilizes. At the moment, this interest is much more pronounced within PiS. This is the party most capable of attracting far-right voters and unwilling to have any competition on the right—a scenario well known from Hungary and Fidesz-Jobbik relations. This reflection ought not to be read, however, as a simple reassertion of the “center” moving right and the “right” moving even more right, often evoked in debates on the European political scene. I believe it rather shows a strategic use of the far right, by all political forces, and the multidirectional shifts this may cause.

Third, what certainly does not facilitate understanding of the march’s appeal is its description as “fascist.” In the accounts on Italian fascists marching through Warsaw, the most important question was not only not answered but not even asked. For apart from asking why 50 members of Forza Nuova came to Warsaw, it seems imperative to ask in the first place why the other 250,000 people partook in the march. Were they there because of “fascists”? Or, perhaps, because of the “right-wing patting on the back” and “playing” the far right claims to fear—not only enacted by the current government but representing a long-standing attitude of various centrist and liberal parties? At any rate, there seems to be an urgent need to rethink the ways in which we use labels, assign agency, and establish sides of political conflicts.

Agnieszka Pasieka is a research fellow at the University of Vienna. She is conducting a research project on transnational networks of far-right youth movements.

Cite as: Pasieka, Agnieszka. 2018. “Who is afraid of fascists? The Polish independence march and the rise of the (far?) right.” FocaalBlog, 12 December.