Every year, November 11 commemorates National Independence Day in Poland, celebrating the anniversary of the country’s reestablishment as an independent republic at the conclusion of the First World War. Akin to Veterans’ Day here in the US, this holiday serves as a day of remembrance for those who fell fighting for the republic.
Since 2009, several far-right groups, including the nationalist movement National Radical Camp, have begun organizing marches that feature slogans, banners, and chants that many have criticized for explicitly promoting anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and white supremacy, e.g. “Europe Will Be White” or “Clean Blood, Clear Minds.” Such chants are accompanied by iconography like the Celtic Cross that are often associated with white nationalist movements, especially in countries where the public display of swastikas and other openly Nazi symbols is illegal.
A small counter-protest was organized by coalitions of anti-fascist groups that displayed banners such as “Stop Fascism” and “For our freedom and yours.” Police reports indicate that 45 counter-protesters were arrested for blocking the march, but no charges were filed. None of the reports cited arrests of the marchers themselves.
During a speech at the march, Tomasz Dorosz of the National Radical Camp warned, “Europe and the world is in decay: culturally, politically, economically.” Dorosz continued, “We Poles have to be the alternative.” However, not all of the marchers in attendance were Poles. Reports indicate some visited from neighboring countries, such as Germany, to attend the annual march. Regardless, many nationalist Poles see Poland as the last bastion of conservatism and Christianity in Europe, exemplified in the slogan “We Want God.”
Another slogan is particularly revealing of the marchers’ sentiments: “Deus Vult” or “God Wills It” in Latin, referring to a cry of the 12th-century Crusaders who invaded the lands of various Muslim dynasties. Others, like “Islam = Terror,” further clarify some marchers’ animosity toward the recent influx of refugees fleeing civil wars and IS jihadist activity into Europe. These messages have led some commentators to suggest that the far-right march is far more sinister than a simple celebration of Polish values.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Lidia Domanska of Antifascist Warsaw said, “The media is filled with right-wing propaganda,” adding that “only a few years back” the march “would have been unequivocally labelled as fascist and racist.” Others call for action by the Polish government. Emmanuel Nahshon, a spokesperson for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, called the demonstration “a dangerous march of extreme and racist elements” and expressed hope “that Polish authorities will act against the organizers.”
Agnieszka Markiewicz, the director of the American Jewish Committee’s Central Europe office in Warsaw, was blunter in her condemnation. “The apparent tolerance shown for these purveyors of hate — and, let’s be clear, that’s exactly what they are — by some Polish government officials is particularly troubling,” Markiewicz said in an interview with the Associated Press. She refers to statements made by officials at the Polish Foreign Ministry that had called the march “a great celebration of Poles … united around the common values of freedom and loyalty to an independent homeland.” Polish state media lauded the marchers as “patriots.”
Some Polish officials, however, have condemned the march on account of its racist elements. “There is no place or permission in our country for xenophobia, there is no permission for sick nationalism, there is no place for anti-Semitism,” Polish President Andrzej Duda said in a press conference on November 13. But this condemnation comes amidst Poland’s continued reluctance in welcoming refugees.
Poland joins Hungary and the Czech Republic as the three European Union nations that have publicly refused to accept refugees in accordance with a 2015 deal made by the European Commission in Brussels. The program aims to designate a quota of relocated refugees to every member state in order to alleviate the burden on first-receiving countries like Greece and Italy.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of the Law and Justice Party, has cited security concerns related to jihadist activity in the Middle East and Europe to justify Poland’s inaction. On December 14 last year, EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos responded to such resistance at a press conference in Brussels. “We should be clear that member states have to show solidarity now, because it is now that some member states need help,” he said. The EU Commission has threatened to fine the three countries and possibly take them to the European Court of Justice over their noncompliance.
According to a 2016 survey from Pew, 0.1% of Poles identify as Muslim, one of the lowest percentages in all of Europe. In comparison, 5.0% of Germany and 5.4% of the United Kingdom identifies as Muslim. A 2016 survey by the Polish Public Opinion Research Center shows that only 25.0% of Poles express favorable views about accepting refugees from the Middle East and Africa, despite Muslims being an extremely small minority in the country.
The survey corroborates a trend towards the resurgence of right-wing politics in Poland, with the conservative Law and Justice Party only recently taking power in 2015. In fact, Poland joins Hungary and the Czech Republic as the largest Central European states that have recently adopted more xenophobic and Eurosceptic policies that reject extensive political integration with the European Union, such as participating in the aforementioned relocation deal. Yet expert opinion suggests the refugee crisis has only been another catalyst for a long-term political shift in the postcommunist bloc of Europe.
In a 2016 paper published in the journal EuVisions, Igor Guardiancich suggested that the revival of the radical Central European right stems partially from these countries’ communist past. He wrote, “At the core of [these parties’] concerns lie … postcommunist issues with ethnic minorities … and the stance towards further European integration,” as demonstrated in several of these parties’ platforms.
For example, the Hungarian far-right minority party Jobbik purveys an anti-Roma (anti-Gypsy) platform, writing on their website that “the issue of Gypsy-Hungarian co-habitation remains in the forefront of the public discourse as a problem that still needs a solution,” and that “being a member of a minority group can never justify anybody’s leading a life incompatible with the law.” The current fight between the Polish, Hungarian, and Czech governments and Brussels over the issue of relocating refugees bears witness to Guardiancich’s observations about these parties’ antagonistic stance toward the European Union.
This development points to a greater theme of these countries attempting to reassert themselves after political and economic isolation as Soviet satellite states. At the very least, the surge of nationalistic politics in Central Europe seems to draw on sources beyond the current immigration crisis.
Some in the MCPS community have also begun taking notice of the rise of the far-right in Europe. Asked to share her perspective on the events in Poland, Rockville biology teacher Fariha Khan said, “I saw the headline about the white nationalist march in Poland, … and I just skimmed over it, I didn’t read it.” Khan explained, “It’s almost as if I’ve just got so accustomed to these, it’s almost like every other week there’s something like this.”
“It’s been such a bad year for non-white people around the world. Europe has a major racism issue there, because their immigrant populations have very different challenges from what we have here in America.” Khan mentioned migrants’ lack of access to schooling and medical care that many Muslims in the US, including herself, take for granted.
“I know that this is part of history,” Khan said, alluding to Europe’s mostly historical struggles with anti-Semitism and discrimination against the Roma. “I guess we’re just not learning from our mistakes.”
In reaction to the march, legislators in the European Parliament voted 438 to 152 on November 15 to invoke Article 7 of the Treaty on the European Union, which initiates the process for stripping Poland of its voting rights in the European Union.
According to the treaty, Article 7 may be invoked if “there is a clear risk of a serious breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2”, which include “human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities.” If these conditions are met, the text continues that “the [European] Council … may decide to suspend certain of the rights [of] the Member State in question, including the voting rights of … that Member State in the Council.”
The Article has never been invoked since the founding of the European Union, but the vote was not surprising given the numerous threats by European Commissioners to invoke the Article if Poland’s government continued to refuse to relocate refugees and reform its asylum program. The EU Commission is also investigating whether Hungary has committed similar violations that might subject it to punishment as well.
The march has come and passed, but the turmoil in Central Europe continues. The cultural tension brought by the refugee crisis and Poland’s battle with the European Commission remains unresolved. Countries like Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic continue swinging away from the European centrism touted by Brussels in favor of new, far-right perspectives that reject refugees. Much is uncertain about the Poles’ future.
Article by MoCo Student staff writer Alex Rankine of Rockville High School