Today’s Independence March in the Polish capital Warsaw – organised by fascist and ultranationalist groups – was big, nasty and emboldened.
It took more than two hours to pass the starting point. The organisers claimed that 200,000 marched – a number later confirmed by the police. Whatever the precise number, this was the biggest march the far right has led in Europe in decades.
And, shockingly, the Polish president Andrzej Duda spoke at the demonstration. The idea that a leading government official would address a protest led by fascists is unprecedented.
Just as depressing was the fact that the leadership of Solidarność (Solidarity), the independent trade union movement that led the heroic resistance to the Stalinist regime of the Polish Communist state in 1980, supported the protest.
Some of its members joined the march – although socialists and antifascists launched a petition calling on the Solidarność leadership to drop support for the fascist-led event.
Every year on 11 November Poland celebrates its Independence Day – and this year the date is even more significant as it marked the 100th anniversary of independence.
It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of the day in Polish society. It is a massive celebration of the creation of the modern Polish state and its independence from the German, Russian and Austrian empires. The day is marked by huge parades, festivals and church services.
After the collapse of the Stalinist regime in 1989, the parades and rallies were led by mainstream political parties and the Catholic church.
The 2017 march sent shockwaves across Europe. The police estimated that the march attracted around 60,000 people – a huge increase on the 500 that attended the first march organised by the fascist groups in 2009.
Organisations behind the demo
This year – as in previous years – the Independence March was organised under the umbrella of the National Movement (Ruch Narodowy – RN), a fascist organisation formed after the 2012 Independence March by the ONR and MW groups (see below).
The two founding groups are largely paramilitary in nature, but after the formation of RN they were able to gain parliamentary seats, albeit under the cover of the populist Kukiz’15 party.
Much of RN’s propaganda and bile is directed towards Muslims, the left and the LGBT community. It is also deeply antisemitic and targets Roma people.
The National-Radical Camp (Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny – ONR) is the modern successor to a pre-war Polish fascist movement of the same name. On the demo today many of its supporters wore a SA-style uniforms while others wore armbands or carried flags bearing a swastika-like sword symbol, the falanga.
The All-Polish Youth (Młodzież Wszechpolska – MW) is the other key organisation behind the Independence March. This fascist group is deeply homophobic, anti-abortion and has connections with fascist groups across Europe and far right elements of the Polish Catholic Church.
Its green flags, with a long sword wrapped in a red and white ribbon, were also prominently on display – the video below shows the MW flags at the front of the march as it assembled.
Even more hardline white supremacist and nazi groups were on the demo including the National-Socialist Congress, the so-called Szturmowcy (Stormtroopers) and a small group wearing Combat 18 T-shirts.
As in Germany and Britain, Polish football hooligan firms play an important role in mobilising for the right. This time the adherents of different clubs largely wore Polish colours – although there were also team hats and scarves on show. There were big delegations from Legia Warsawa, Lechia Gdańsk and Lech Poznan.
Battle for control
In the run up to this year’s march there was a major attempt to wrestle control of the demo away from the fascist organisations.
On Wednesday Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, Warsaw’s outgoing mayor and a leading figure in the opposition Civic Platform (a liberal conservative party) announced that the march would be banned.
Within hours, Andrzej Duda, Poland’s president from the far right populist PiS, declared that the Polish state would be organising its own march at the same time and along the same route as the banned march.
The organisers’ response was fierce. They declared that the march would go ahead despite the ban – with such large numbers expected to take part, the prospect of the state successfully enforcing a ban looked highly unlikely – and they also launched and won a legal challenge.
After late-night negotiations yesterday between the fascists and Duda, the president agreed to back the demo, and the fascists agreed to march with red and white Polish national flags rather than under their own colours – a move aimed at keeping the fascist symbols, white power signs and other paraphernalia that might embarrass the government out of sight.
In the event, there were plenty of fascist flags, banners and symbols on show and it was quite clear that the fascist organisations were leading the event.
It was poor journalism by the Guardian and others to claim that Duda had “taken control” of the demonstration. In fact the demo saw the fascist tail wagging the far right PiS government dog.
Duda has over the past year courted the groups behind the march, with the latest conciliatory move an announcement of new laws targeting LGBT people, made just a day before the demo.
But Duda was effectively forced into backing the event, with a ban totally unworkable. And his active presence legitimised the fascist-led march.
How the day unfolded
The day began when priests, groups of fascists, football hooligan crews and middle class types gathered at the Monument of the Home Army and the Polish Underground State.
A Catholic mass was held and then the congregants group marched to the assembly point of the demo. A large group of Polish far right motorbikers attended the mass – joined by members of the Hungarian fascist “Goy” bikers, whose name is meant to signal their antisemitism.
From 12 noon the protest gathered in the heart of Warsaw opposite the Palace of Culture and Science, a huge imposing Stalinist era skyscraper.
Dotted around the area were a number of stalls selling religious and national artefacts. But among them were vendors selling nazi badges and books.
One stall sold copies of The Camp of the Saints, the favourite novel of former Donald Trump aide and international far right activist Steve Bannon, along with numerous biographies of Nazi leaders. Another stall sold Holocaust-denial texts including Carlo Mattogna’s The Myth of the Extermination of the Jews.
The protest finally headed off at 3pm, following a speech by Duda, and a rally and music festival was held at a stadium on the east bank of the Vistula.
The demo was a sea of red and white Polish flags and football scarves. The organisers agreed with Duda to tone down the fascist banners and symbols in order to create a “united” patriotic march.
But scattered throughout the demo were fascist flags and emblems. There were “white power” Celtic crosses, falanga symbols and the black sun symbol used by the SS in Nazi Germany.
In a further sop, Duda also rewarded the organisers by allowing a section of the army to march at the front carrying flags – in addition to the soldiers deployed to “keep order”. The sight of the nation’s army marching alongside fascist groups has stirred huge concern among progressive people in Poland.
Duda also hurriedly made a new pay deal with the police on the eve of the protest to ensure their attendance.
The march was well organised, with different organisations and groups in their own clearly defined sections. The fascists held back the main bulk of the demo slightly to create a gap between them and Duda’s group at the front, ensuring their display of strength retained full focus.
It was a well choreographed event. All along the route men wearing masks set off fire crackers and flares, filling the air with acrid red smoke.
Regular chants included “God, honour, fatherland” and “Refugees not welcome here”. Some demonstrators chanted, “Pure Poland, white Poland!” One old priest who was on the march told me they he was marching for “God, Poland and family”.
The key themes of the speeches were Polish nationalism, anti-Communism, opposition to Europe’s elites and hatred of migrants. A number of speakers talked about the need to restore “family traditions” and oppose abortion – already severely limited in Poland. Speakers also talked about the need to oppose the “Amsterdam system”, which is a coded reference to LGBT+ rights.
The Warsaw protest has also become a crucible for fascist and far right parties across Europe.
Once again there was a large delegation of fascists from the Hungarian Jobbik. There was also a smaller delegations from Italy’s Forza Nuova, the Slovakian nazi organisation Kotleba – People’s Party Our Slovakia, and an array of small nazi and ultranationalist groups from across Europe.
Also present this was a group wearing clothing labelled “British Polish youth”, members of a fascist front group.
On the evening before the demo, Ruch Narodowy hosted a dinner in Warsaw for its Polish members and supporters living outside the country.
And Britain-based members of the Polish fascist group Link (Ogniwo) – who disturbingly have gained access to schools in Britain – also travelled to Warsaw for the demo, with a trip to a shooting range to use machine guns and other automatic weapons planned for the day before.
Each year the Independence March has grown in size – and so have the fascists. While most of those who turned out to march are not themselves members of fascist organisations, the fascist groups have shown their capacity to pull huge numbers behind them – and to drag behind them Duda and sections of the ruling PiS. Sunday’s protest takes this to a new and terrifying level.
The fascist groups are relatively weak in electoral terms – although they have substantial paramilitary organisations – but they are growing both in size and confidence. They are aided and legitimised by the increasingly rightward moves of Duda and the PiS.
The PiS is also growing increasingly authoritarian. Since its election victory in 2015 it has undermined Poland’s independent judiciary, attempted to cut the already very limited abortion provision, made it illegal to accuse the “Polish nation” of complicity in the Holocaust and encouraged racism.
The PiS wants to use the fascist groups and ultranationalists for its own ends. But as today shows, that is a very dangerous strategy – one that has given the fascist organisations themselves a huge boost.