November 11 is an important date for Poland. It is on this day in 1918 that the country declared its independence. Particularly after the end of the communist regime, the anniversary has been honoured each year in different ways all over Poland, as well as by the huge Polish diaspora around the world.
In the events of the day, the entire leadership of the country participates.
But the March of 11 November in Warsaw is another kind of event having little to do with the anniversary. It’s more about hatred. In fact, the March – organised by Polish nationalists since 2009 – attracts thousands of neo-fascist and neo-Nazi groups from across Europe.
Last year in the streets of the Polish capital flooded with hate symbols and flags being carried by as many as 60,000 people. The gathering is considered as the biggest ‘ultra’ meeting in the world.
What is more, last year together with the anti-Semitic and racist slogans being shouted by the participants, there was disorder and incidents that affected the security of the city and its residents.
That’s why, even though right at the last moment, the Mayor of Warsaw Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz has announced a decision to ban the March. She said the city had suffered enough from “aggressive nationalism”.
Mayor Gronkiewicz-Waltz, a member of the opposition Civic Platform party, said that security reasons forced her to issue the ban. She also said her previous appeals to the government to face together the problem failed.
The mayor also complained that no charges had been brought against anyone responsible for last year’s disorders during and after the March.
After the ban, the Polish President Andrzej Duda said he would organise another, an official, March.
According to the Guardian, the president had already decided to stay away from the event, a bid to distance himself from the far-right organisers.
However, a rather sudden decision by the Polish court has overturned the ban. The organisers have declared victory.
Who are the organisers?
Although the organisers of the 11 November March are not all controlled by the neo-fascist groups, they allow them, mainly the National Radical Camp (ONR), to have a major role within it and to emerge as the representatives of the entire event.
ONR became notorious these days since its leaders became the de facto spokesmen of the organisers of the March after the ban issued by the Mayor of Warsaw.
The movement is a result of the ideological chaos that marked the end of the communist regime in 1989 and that liberated suppressed nationalist feelings. It was organised probably in 1993 and it claims to be the inheritor of an illegal anti-Semitic movement of 1930s.
ONR became known after the organisation of unauthorised marches in 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2009 in commemoration of the anti-Jewish pogrom in the city of Myślenice in 1936.
Myślenice is the Polish correspondent of the German Kristallnacht. On 23 June 1936, Adam Doboszyński, a member of the Polish National Party, leading a group of 100 armed men, entered the town at night. The intruders cut the phone lines, took control of the police station and destroyed Jewish shops. They set fires, they also tried to burn the synagogue and beat Jews. After two hours of terror they retreated and hid themselves in the forests.
In 2009, the group found another opportunity of intervention: the March for the 11 November, whose organising committee counts many of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) supporters.
ONR joint the efforts of many nationalists and applied a decisive ‘entryism’ that gave its fruits. The event helped the group to emerge as the leading force behind the organisation of the event.
Last year, the march was marked by unprecedented events. Among the 60,000 people that marched they were some chanting “fatherland”. The presence of neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups from many European countries was conspicuous.
ONR’s members wear uniforms as many neo-Nazis in Europe and are also active in attacking events organised by minority groups (as it happened in the city of Lublin last month where members of the group attacked a peaceful LGBT march).
Despite his declaration that he will not participate in the March and that he will call for an official one, the Polish President changed position and marched. It is true that the authorities created a ‘cordon sanitaire’ around the neo-Nazi and neo-Fascist marchers, but this didn’t stop them by shouting their slogans of hate during the March.
What happened? Why has the president’s determined refusal vaporised?
Have the strong nationalist elements inside the PiS party prevailed and forced the government to put pressure on the president?
Or, did the government discover that the official march proclaimed by President Duda wouldn’t be as successful as the one organised by the nationalists and neo-fascists?
Whatever the reason, the fact remains that the neo-Nazi and neo-fascist groups won over the official state and imposed their rules.
In addition, while other European capitals resist these kinds of events that offer the possibility for mass gatherings of neo-Nazis by banning them or isolating them using the police force, in Poland the entire procedure is advertised by state media and the ruling party as an expression of pure Polish patriotism.
What is more, while in other similar cases in EU cities, when neo-Nazis appear with their insignia and slogans, there are immediately organised mass anti-rallies by democratic citizens. In Warsaw, such reactions are weak.
It is not easy to attempt a deep explanation of the phenomenon of the rise of ultra-nationalist sentiments in a country that proudly considers itself to be at the ‘heart of Europe’.
But it is certain that the PiS is partly responsible for this. After all, it played for years with nationalist and far-right elements. It also adopted part of the far-right rhetoric. It has associated its voice with the most extreme voices in Europe against the countries of the South during the early 2010s, against the refugees, Muslims, LGBT community. It paved the way for the rise of extremist groups. And it has not isolated or punished all these extremists.
Now, according to some estimations, the followers of the neo-Nazis can count several thousand and this is a considerable pool of voters.
There is still time to stop it before the far-right rhetoric becomes so strong that will infect the entire party and together with it the entire Polish society.
It is true that Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told media last week: “There is a clear red line between patriotic behaviour and nationalistic or chauvinistic (behaviour) [and] neo-Nazis.”
But the declarations of Polish officials are not enough. Action is needed not words.
P.S. We shouldn’t underestimate the fact that a Polish court has overturned the Warsaw mayor’s ban on the march. The mayor is an opponent of the government. Poland is defying the EU over judicial appointments, but it seems that judges are not always against PiS interests.
P.S 2. It is also time to reflect on the rise of the neo-Nazi groups and violence alongside the rise of the ultra-conservative and far-right political forces in Europe.