An Independence Day parade might sound uncontroversial, but in Poland it has proven anything but. The parade in question is a nationalist march in Warsaw organized by far-right groups that was scheduled to take place on Sunday to mark 100 years of Polish independence. That was before it became a political football surrounded by confusion and uncertainty—and a useful window deep into the Polish psyche.
On Wednesday, Warsaw Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz of the center-right Civic Platform party announced she would be canceling the march, citing as justification a history of previous Independence Day marches marred by xenophobia and violence. “This is not how the celebrations should look on the 100th anniversary of regaining our independence,” she said. “Warsaw has suffered enough because of aggressive nationalism.”
Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, a member of the ruling Law and Justice party, quickly declared he would now be organizing a state-sanctioned march along the same route the far-right groups had planned to take. “Everyone is invited, come only with red-and-white flags,” he wrote on Twitter, an allusion to the Polish national flag, and an indirect reference to the white-supremacist banners and slogans from last year’s Independence Day march.
But that was before a court overturned Gronkiewicz-Waltz’s ban. Sunday’s centennial events, which should ordinarily herald a day of national celebration, are now being awaited with dread—not least because many Poles believe their country’s president and prime minister, have done little or nothing in the past to discourage marchers calling for a “white Europe” and spouting anti-Semitic chants. In his announcement this week, Duda did not mention the reasons that Poles might doubt his sincerity—above all, Law and Justice’s long-running flirtation with Polish far-right groups.
The question is why, in Europe’s most economically successful post-communist country, has a ruling party ended up struggling to separate itself from openly extremist nationalists? In answering that question, and deciding what to do about it, it’s not enough to examine Law and Justice’s rise to power—one must also understand the peculiar culture of Polish nationalism that the party appeals to. In Poland, perhaps more than anywhere else in Europe, there is no necessary contradiction between a commitment to democracy and to the most extreme forms of nationalism.
123 years of subjugation
After enjoying the status of major European power in the 16th and 17th centuries, poor leadership and internal strife led to Poland being partitioned by the Austrian, Prussian, and Russian empires in 1795. The country that had produced Europe’s first written constitution and at its height spanned a territory three times the size of today’s Germany disappeared from the map for 123 years.
During this period, the Polish nation, bereft a sovereign state, immersed itself in the arts. The cultural soon became political as poets and writers strove not just to preserve Polish culture, but also to propagate the dream of an independent Poland, ultimately inspiring several unsuccessful insurrections in the 19th century. The Catholic Church also played a key role in preserving Polish culture and the dream of an independent state during this period. This marriage between culture, politics, and religion eventually birthed a new interpretation of “Polishness,” one that constitutes the core of that propagated by Poland’s present-day nationalists.
This new identity was summed up by Adam Mickiewicz, Poland’s foremost poet, who described Poland as the “Christ of nations.” The parareligious Messianic assertion of Polish exceptionalism portrayed Poles as a morally superior collective suffering iniquity at the hands of immoral others yet destined to ultimately triumph and save Europe from its sinful self.
By the time Poland finally regained independence in 1918, this interpretation of Polishness had firmly entrenched itself in wider societal consciousness, symbolized by a slogan always present at the Independence Day marches organized by Poland’s far-right groups: “God, Honor, Fatherland.”
A freedom too brief
The much fought-for independence of 1918, however, was to prove cruelly brief, cut short by Adolf Hitler’s 1939 invasion of Poland. That was followed by Soviet occupation and the post-World War II transformation of the country into a Soviet satellite state. While Poles will officially mark their 100-year independence anniversary this Sunday, few consider Poland to have been genuinely independent during the communist era of 1945 to 1989. The communist era is important to understanding contemporary events in Poland, as that period familiarized Poles with the idea that a country could be formally independent without being truly autonomous.
But even totalitarian communism failed to reorient Poles toward an understanding of Polishness different from that popularized in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As Brian Porter-Szucs, a history professor at the University of Michigan, has observed, faced with the stubborn refusal of Poles to forgo the ideals of “God, Honor, Fatherland” in favor of an atheist internationalist communist identity, by 1956, Poland’s communist party had given up “any serious ambition to fundamentally transform Polish culture and society.”
Wladyslaw Gomulka, the communist party leader from 1956 to 1970, thus promised communism would be implemented the “Polish way.” In practice, this entailed blending nationalism with communism, the former aimed at reassuring Poles the national identity forged in the 19th century would be preserved in the new order. From the late 1950s, the red-and-white Polish flag thus “became much more prominent than the red communist flag,” while “state propaganda intensified the use of the adjective ‘Polish’ before standard communist slogans,” Porter-Szucs wrote.
The fact that Poland’s communists concluded that to sell communism to Poles, they needed to incorporate the vocabulary of Polish nationalism developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries shows how deeply it had permeated popular consciousness. It is also no coincidence that the Solidarity trade-union movement of the 1980s, which eventually triggered the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, was led by a figure like Lech Walesa. Walesa’s defiant victory salutes, ever-present Virgin Mary lapel pin, and repeated declarations of love for Poland captured the essence of Polish patriotism understood as loyalty to God, honor, and the Fatherland. When Solidarity eventually prevailed and communism collapsed in 1989, Poles roundly heralded their regaining of independence, just like in 1918.
Yet another false dawn?
The West welcomed Poland back into the league of independent nations, a process cemented by its acceptance into NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004. However, by the early 1990s, some on Poland’s right—which has always considered itself the custodian of true Polish patriotism—had started questioning if independence was real this time as well.
The peaceful evolution from communism to free-market democracy via negotiations between Solidarity’s leaders and ruling communists was increasingly portrayed by right-wingers such as Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the current leader of Law and Justice, as a national betrayal. How could the Soviet-backed Polish apparatchiks who had worked against Polish independence during communism not only go scot-free for their treason, but even get to participate in governing post-communist Poland? Unless, of course, Poland was still not really independent, but still controlled by external forces pulling the strings from elsewhere.
This conspiratorial view is exemplified in the writings of Rafal Ziemkiewicz, a prominent nationalist author and participant in previous far-right Independence Day marches, who described post-1989 Poland as a “post-colonial state” built not to serve Poles, but to exploit its resources for foreign overlords (Western capital) and their “local collaborators.” In a society with abundant experience of living under state structures serving foreign interests, much psychological fertile ground exists for such conspiratorial beliefs to germinate, and germinate they have in the past three decades, egged on by no less than Poland’s current ruling party.
Chickens coming home to roost
After a brief spell in power from 2005 to 2007, Law and Justice spent the next eight years in opposition, regularly defeated in elections by the center-right—significantly more liberal Civic Platform, then led by the current president of the European Council, Donald Tusk. During this period, Law and Justice, hitherto more of a mainstream conservative than nationalist party, started actively courting far-right voters. This was a strategic decision. As Kaczynski put it in 2008, “to the right of us, there is to be nothing but a wall.” The party started praising far-right initiatives, such as hailing Independence Day marches as “patriotic” while simultaneously questioning whether Poland was truly independent or merely a “Russian-German condominium” as Kaczynski suggested in 2010.
Such rhetoric was aimed at tapping into Poles’ deepest fears and resentments. Few scars etch themselves as powerfully into a national psyche as those left by the experience of collective subjugation. Poland has a particularly long experience of collective subjugation: counting the period of communism and World War II-occupation, it has been effectively subjected to overt or covert foreign domination for 173 of the past 223 years.
When the 2015 migrant crisis erupted (right in the middle of Poland’s parliamentary election campaign), Kaczynski justified his party’s stance of refusing to accept any relocated migrants by, among other things, insisting Poland had a right to defend its sovereignty against European politicians and foreign refugees.
This argument resonated with many Poles, and after eventually winning power that year, Law and Justice continued its romance with the far-right. After last year’s Independence Day march organized by nationalists, when a journalist asked Interior Minister Mariusz Blaszczak whether he thought the anti-Semitic and Islamophobic slogans chanted along with banners calling for a “White Europe” were acceptable, he dismissed the question, saying he “personally didn’t see” such banners and accusing the journalist of leftist bias.
It appears, however, that due to the symbolism of this year’s centennial anniversary, Law and Justice sought to avoid a similar international media outcry to what followed last year’s Independence Day march. Hence, the party’s earlier attempts to negotiate with far-right groups and persuade them to refrain from displaying outright racist banners this time around. The refusal of these groups to acquiesce to this request shows just how emboldened they have become. Poland’s ruling party is now likely to find itself engaged in a battle for the soul of right-wing Poland with the very same extremists it has tacitly or explicitly supported in recent years.
Nationalists versus nationalists
As in many other European countries, Polish society has become increasingly polarized in recent years. The main divide is strongly linked to feelings about national autonomy and identity. It is, broadly speaking, between those who want a Poland ever more closely integrated with Western Europe politically, culturally, and economically, and those who believe deeper integration, especially political and cultural, poses a threat to Polish autonomy and the Polish way of life.
Law and Justice, along with the most extreme far-right groups, firmly belongs to the latter camp, which rejects deeper integration with Western Europe, whose dominant ideologies it considers to be feminism, multiculturalism, secularism, and LGBTQ equality, all values somewhat irreconcilable with the view of Polishness that cherishes God, honor, and Fatherland above all.
This camp believes that the only pathway to preventing these hated lefty ideologies from permeating Poland is via a robust defense of the country’s “independence.” Whatever the result of the current face-off over Sunday’s independence march, it represents the opening salvo in an inevitable civil war on Poland’s right between Law and Justice, which wants a controlled nationalism, and those who crave it unleashed in its rawest and crudest form. The battle for who best represents the ideals of God, honor, and Fatherland has just begun.