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Polish Independence March and the culture of hate

28th Dec 2017
Polish Independence March and the culture of hate

Warsaw, March of Independence 2011 (Photo: Adam Kliczek)

Kasia Narkowicz

The Polish Independence March has always been a far-right event that very few joined, but this year it attracted masses. Contrary to international media reports, most of the 60,000 participants were not members of the far-right. This begs the question: why did so many regular citizens join a march organised by the far-right?

Polish Independence March

On November 11 each year, Poles commemorate their country regaining independence in 1918 and re-appearing on the map of Europe after 123 years of non-existence. Poles have celebrated Independence Day in various ways throughout the years, but not primarily through participating in the Independence March.

The march has always been a fringe event organised by far-right nationalists. This started changing around 2010, at a time when Islamophobia in Poland first became an issue. That year the Independence March attracted around 20,000 people, mainly nationalists and football fans – both groups known for their xenophobic and at times violent behaviour. Since then, the march has grown in numbers and significance, culminating in a spectacular event that this year reportedly attracted 60,000 people. Marching through the streets of Warsaw, many held red and white flags and united behind the slogan ‘We want God’. Some of the participants held banners with racist and specifically anti-Muslim slogans calling for a ‘White Europe’.

The Guardian and other international media outlets reported that 60,000 nationalists marched on Poland’s Independence Day and with that, they upset many conservatives in the country that wish to disassociate themselves from the racist far-right. Yet while it is true that the march goers were not necessarily far-right extremists, the willingness of regular citizens to join a march organised by members of the far-right says something important about the normalisation of hate. For a growing number of people, being anti-Muslim, anti-refugee and anti-immigrant has become synonymous with Polishness and Catholicism.

Promoting a culture of hate

Nationalism expressed through racism has become mainstream in Poland. It is not only a Polish or Central European issue as it bears striking resemblance to Britain’s Brexit and reflects a growing populism in Europe that is expressed through hostility to immigrants and minorities. In Poland, it is no longer unacceptable to have anti-Muslim views because racism has become so mainstream. This shift to the right is partially attributed to the current ruling party and partially to the failure to confront Poland’s past, where hostility towards minorities was strong within the majority population.

In the 2015 elections, the right-wing party Prawo i Sprawiedliwość PiS won the Polish elections and with that, they replaced the more liberal Platforma Obywatelska. The rise of PiS to power coincided with the escalation of the refugee crisis. The party used the growing numbers of people at the shores of Europe to mobilise against immigration and strengthen their political agenda of increasingly closed borders. This, in turn, contributed to a normalisation of xenophobic views.

The numbers of hate crimes increased dramatically in 2015 with anti-racist organisation Never Again reporting daily incidents of violence. Several anti-refugee demonstrations were organised across Poland at that time, exhibiting anti-Muslim as well as anti-Semitic and anti-Roma sentiments. During one such demonstration organised by the far-right National Radical Camp, who is also one of the organisers of the Independence March, one participant set fire to an effigy of an Orthodox Jew who was holding an EU flag. The organisers Argentinaued that the effigy was of George Soros who is responsible for the Islamisation of Poland.

At another anti-refugee demonstration in Poland, a member of the same far-right group warned about white Europe becoming extinct, equating Muslims with rapists and Jews with imperialists. During an anti-refugee demonstration in Warsaw, participants shouted ‘Poland for Poles’ and ‘Islam – death of white Europe’. In online discussions about refugees, people referred to Auschwitz – the concentration camp located in Poland – as an ‘ideal hotel’ for refugees.

The Government has done little to tackle, and more to encourage, this culture of hate. People are rarely persecuted for acts of hate speech that influence the public. The ruling party have resolved the only government body dealing with xenophobia and racism and also refused to accept any refugees into Poland unless they were Christians. These acts have empowered the far-right and allowed them to enter the mainstream political arena of which the Independence March is a striking example.

This year the resistance to growing racism in Poland has also taken drastic measures, suggesting that the situation in the country has reached desperate levels that call for desperate action.

The main resistance to growing racism in Poland is fought from the grassroots. This year, too, involved some remarkable, and immensely tragic, individual acts of resistance. On November 11 in the very middle of the thousand-strong Independence March, 14 women sat down and rolled out a banner with the slogan ‘Stop Fascism’. They were cursed, spat on and kicked by drunken men.

A month earlier, a man set himself on fire in protest against the current right-wing Government and its hostile attitudes towards minorities. Before his self-immolation he shared these words | ‘I, an ordinary human being, like you, call on you all – don’t wait any longer!’

Dr Kasia Narkowicz, Sociology Department, University of York

 

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