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Marching with Dabrowski – what the centenary of Polish Independence can tell us about the radical right?

“I could not think of a better way to grasp what is behind the nationalist frenzy than to take part in their public events. On November 11, Poland celebrated National Independence Day.”

lead November 11, 2018, Warsaw - celebrants of National Independence Day centenary marching with a banner of Polish national symbol. Attila Husejnow/ Press Association. All rights reserved.

Some weeks ago, an articleby Aleksandar Hemon instigated an interesting debate about the merit of ceasing all ties with those who consider themselves nationalists, equating them with fascists. However, the hostility of certain radical right and nationalist groups towards national-socialism (for example, in Poland)complicates matters. 

While I cannot chastise Hemon for his strong opinion based on personal experience, the fact that his piece was shared by many of my friends in academia – some of whom occupy positions at renowned universities in the west – felt counterproductive. Using the label ‘fascist’ cantankerously and a little too often, in order to avoid contact with such actors, at least for researchers of the phenomena, cannot greatly enhance their understanding of what it is that the radical right offers many resentful individuals.

Having this in mind, I could not think of a better way to grasp what is behind the nationalist frenzy than to take part in their public events. On November 11, Poland celebrated National Independence Day, this year marking a centenary of (re)established freedom following the First World War. I joined The March of Independence held that day, often depicted as an annual uproar of nationalist, far-right, and extremist actors. This year, Warsaw’s outgoing mayor, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, banned the march, citing security concerns. However, the ban was overruled by the court only two days before the march took place. 

Meanwhile, Polish President, Andrzej Duda, took the opportunity to invite nationalists to join his official march at the venue Rondo Dmowskiego (named after a leading figure of Polish Catholic nationalism in the 1900s), thus hoping to incorporate the nationalist march into the ‘Presidential’ one. 

The main organizers of the march were two movements, The All Polish Youth (MW) and National Radical Camp (ONR), and one political party, The National Movement (RN). It was also supported by a vast number of other radical right groups. Interestingly enough, the march also had an international aspect, as it gathered nationalist parties and groups from all over Europe, including Hungary, Italy, Slovakia, Belgium, Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Serbia, and Croatia. 

An alien among the nationalists: imagining a symbolic community

Although seeing groups of skinheads and football hooligans chanting around the venue portended trouble, there were no major incidents. In fact, Rondo Dmowskiego on 11 November was an apt example of what Czeslaw Milosz, Polish writer and Nobel Prize Laureate, once called ‘the gratification of collective warmth’ – a sea of Polish flags, and the endless repetition of the national anthem (Dabrowski’s Mazurka, written during the Napoleon wars). 

Peculiarly, armbands commemorating The Home Army of 1944 (the Polish resistance movement), were worn by both skinheads and small children brought to the march by their parents. What remains remarkable are the organizational capacities; the official rules of the march forbade the use of alcohol, as well as antisemitic or xenophobic messages. Seldom violated, the Polish radical right showed noteworthy command of the situation if they were, excluding those intoxicated from the main marching groups. 

Memorabilia of the ghastly interwar fascist movements could be purchased by interested supporters at the ‘Patriotic Stands’, which also invited an opportunity for researchers and journalists to approach the organizers. Taking part in the march as an ‘outsider’ allowed me to capture some of the almost tribal moments within the groups. Specific handshakes, sharing food, money, but perhaps most importantly, companionship in the feeling of a generalised distrust, was of utmost importance if we wish to understand the gratification and affection one obtains as someone belonging to these groups. Seeing the tired, yet steadfast youngsters in Falanga hoodies or ‘Defend Europe’ t-shirts saying goodbye to one another after the march, reminded me of the insights of Arendt and Bauman into just how banal and mundane such potentially dangerous encounters may look. Deliberately ignoring these more nuanced observations and stories, even in the name of a greater good, means painting a picture that looks quite different. 

There are at least two important implications arising from the picture I saw. The first is quantitative: the event gathered more than 200,000 attendees, which is the absolute record. The second points to a more substantial concern: seeing Polish families and small children side by side with extremists signalled the mainstreaming of the radical right. Right-wing President Duda’s move to ‘unite the Nation’ by merging the marches only underscored the fact that the two sides, if not of the same coin, certainly belong to the same currency. The leading populist Law and Justice (PiS) party, as the mainstream manifestation of the radical right, is proving successful in absorbing most of these voters. 

Is there a lesson to be learned?

Nevertheless, it is important not to overstate the influence of the radical right in Poland. Albeit its record numbers, the march should be seen rather as an annual spark than confirmation of the overall popularity of the radical right. Nationalists, particularly those who can be considered extreme, are not very likely to gain electoral support in the country; for example, RN has only one representative in the Polish Lower House, or Sejm (out of 460). The Polish far-right lacks well-developed political strategies for the upcoming EU Parliament elections. 

Despite their redoubtable organizational capabilities, radical right parties remain hesitant to cooperate. 

Nonetheless, this does not mean that such actors are not worth talking to, especially in a country which is considered a stronghold of Catholic nationalism (more than 85% of Poles are Roman Catholics). While the line is always to be drawn, the radical right plays, even if on the fringe, on those empty spaces that our liberal democracies have left behind. Through grassroots activism and contact with the ‘ordinary’ people, they create space to embellish the national memory with references to the pride of the imagined community. After all, when MW or ONR organize a charity event in a village far away from the eyes of decision-makers, the content of their propaganda remains secondary to those who received their help. 

Lifting the ban on the march has only gone to prove that, despite the intention to keep radical right ideas away from contemporary politics, being aware of the historical and political context means that forbidding such messages ultimately proves counter-productive. 

Moreover, it gives leeway to the ruling party to voice such views in a slightly qualified manner, effectively normalizing these messages. The radical right in Poland or elsewhere, has not much to contribute to policy nuances, but remains an important ‘pressure group’ for its ability to sway the public debate in a certain direction. 

Therefore, inviting such actors to the decision-making processes must be done with caution, but remains instrumental in exposing the shallow ground on which exclusionary, identitarian thought is based. If nothing else, direct encounters with both those who loudly voice and timidly support such arguments is not, as Hemon subtly argues, to endorse them, but a move that merits understanding when our own visions and practices of democracy fail.

About the author

Balsa Lubarda is a doctoral student at the Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy, of the Central European University. His research focuses on the convergence of right-wing politics, particularly its radical strands, and environmental topics (climate change, biodiversity, energy security, environmentally-friendly forms of agriculture) in post-socialist countries. 

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