A massive march organized for the 99th anniversary of Polish independence this weekend has been spun into two very different narratives. The mainstream Polish media, as well as multiple international outlets, saw a menacing display of xenophobia and bigotry, with references to fascism and white power. The Polish right-wing government, as well as its allies, saw a peaceful, heartwarming celebration of patriotism, with some unwanted incidents on the margins.
The main march, held Nov. 11 on the streets of Warsaw, attracted 60,000 people, including families with children, under the slogan “We Want God.” The nationalist groups that organized the march also invited other members of Europe’s far right, such as representatives of Italy’s Forza Nuova and Hungary’s Jobbik. Alongside nationalist Polish slogans such as “God, honor, fatherland” and “Poland Catholic, not secular,” many observers spotted outwardly racist signs and banners, such as “Europe will be white or deserted,” “White Europe of brotherly nations,” as well as images of the celtic cross, a known symbol of white power.
The march has been held annually since 2009, but has grown immensely, from several hundred participants to tens of thousands. With the election of the right-wing Law and Justice party in 2015, the far-right has become emboldened in recent years.
Inciting racial and ethnic hatred is illegal in Poland, like in many other European countries. Criticism of the march by opposition politicians, and international and Polish media has the populist, right-wing government on the defensive:
- The ministry of foreign affairs put out a statement on the march, which it said “was attended by thousands of people who wanted to peacefully manifest their patriotic feelings.” The ministry “believes that imputing that the march was dominated by elements whose nature was purely incidental is unwarranted.” It also emphasized that Polish authorities condemn racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic views, which is why it objected to US far-right activist Richard Spencer attending the march.
- Mariusz Błaszczak, the interior minister, called the march “a beautiful sight.” Pressed by journalists at a press conference on whether banners that read “White-only Europe” were acceptable, Błaszczak said he “personally hadn’t seen them,” and told a reporter asking about anti-Semitic slogans that, because the reporter worked for a left-leaning mainstream publication, he already had a “thesis” about the march and was just looking for confirmation.
- Attacks on the press from the government went even further. Piotr Stasiński, the deputy editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, a major Polish daily, cited on a morning TV show rallying cries from the march, which included obscenities in reference to refugees, and a group of counter-protesting women, who were physically attacked by the marchers. A high-ranking senator from the ruling party (PiS), Stanisław Karczewski, said he would file a complaint with Polish prosecutors against Stasiński for “obscenities in the public debate.” He was outraged because he heard the comments while playing chess with his grandson. (link in Polish, as are all the following)
- “There is overall an attempt to show that November 11th has these fascist qualities. This was the message from the left, and this is sad,” said Andrzej Dera, an MP from PiS.
- Piotr Gliński, the minister of culture, tried to take a more nuanced approach. He said Sunday that the Polish government did not support racist ideologies, and that “there is no room in the public debate for supporting the idea of a nation in the ethnic sense; we support nation-centered thinking in terms of a cultural nation.”
- The government’s ideological allies had their explanations as well. A journalist for Radio TOKFM brought up in an interview with Marek Jakubiak, an MP from another right-wing party, that Roberto Fiore, a self-proclaimed Italian fascist, was invited to the march. Jakubiak said that “fascism is a sort of secular tradition” in Italy, and that it is “more of an economic than political ideology.” He also said that Jesse Lehrich, a former Hillary Clinton spokesperson who tweeted that “60,000 Nazis marched in Warsaw,” should be sued.
The reaction of Polish president Andrzej Duda, who hails from PiS as well, was different, although somewhat late. On Monday (Nov. 13), he unequivocally condemned the xenophobic elements of the march. “You can’t put an equal sign between patriotism and nationalism,” he said. “There is no room in our country for xenophobia, for pathological nationalism, for anti-Semitism.” He did, however, also criticize foreign observers for making all of the march’s participants into “Nazis.”
Correction: This story initially included a reference to a banner that said “Pray for an Islamic Holocaust.” This banner was hung from a bridge in another Polish city in 2015, and the mistake was a result of misreporting in several foreign media outlets.