Can Europe Make It?

Conservative culture and the far right in Poland

Most Poles agree that far right attacks are on the rise in their country, but the government and police are unable, or unwilling, to challenge it.

Claudia Ciobanu
11 November 2013

The November 11 far-right independence march in Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia commons. Some rights reserved.

Legia Warszawa football game nights begin on local trains riding into Warsaw, where fans of the most popular team in the country gather on the way to the stadium from small towns and villages surrounding the Polish capital. The trip is a pre-game ritual: donning Legia T-shirts and green-red scarves, young men, kids as young as 10, and even the odd woman get together in the last wagons of the trains, the bike compartments. Many open cans of beer, some smoke, all talk loudly.

With each station approaching Warsaw, they are more numerous and excited, drunker, louder. Overfilling the bike wagons, they shout old Legia slogans, sing fan songs, chant “White Legia” (the increasingly common slogan is a nod to white supremacy), recite homophobic verses. Going about their business, they pose no apparent threat to anyone, but they undeniably control the space. Sitting in the bike wagon with them means being completely overpowered and can resemble experiencing a form of violence.

No train conductor comes by to check for tickets or to enforce the ban on smoking and drinking alcohol on public transport. Other travelers do not complain about the noise. Some move away, others look down. Yet others enjoy the spectacle and smile approvingly as if to say “we all support Legia, the fans are our boys.”

Some of these fans will be coming to Warsaw this Monday, on November 11, but for a different game than football. Some will take part in the November 11 far-right Independence March (Marsz Niepodległości).

According to Rafal Pankowski, a sociologist at anti-racist group Nigdy Wiecej, far-right groups in Poland, like elsewhere, recruit among football fans but also from other subcultures (skinheads or music subcultures) because these groups have already a collective culture in place and its associated infrastructure. Football fans have their hierarchies and slogans, they have banners and sound-making gear, websites and means of fast intra-group communication, and they notoriously know how to deal with the police.

11 November

On Independence Day, Poland’s national day, Poles celebrate renewed independent statehood achieved in 1918 after the Polish lands had been partitioned for more than a century by Russia, Prussia and Austria.

Every year, two of the most important far-right organisations in Poland, the All-Polish Youth (Młodzież Wszechpolska) and the National-Radical Camp (Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny), organise an Independence March on this day. The demonstration often begins at a rondo named after Roman Dmowski, the so-called "father of Polish nationalism". 

The march has become a true show of strength for the Polish far-right and has an intricate recent history. An Independence March has been organised yearly since 1989, but only in 2010 did it became a major social event: that year, Polish liberals and leftists spoke out strongly against the aggressively nationalist and far-right overtones of the march and planned for a blockade (it was eventually successful, as the far-right did not reach the center of Warsaw); in response, a few thousand people joined the Independence March, as the usual far-right participants were joined by Polish conservatives who – exalted by conservative media rhetoric – felt that their right to express their patriotic feelings was under threat.

As Pankowski notes, many Polish patriots fail to notice the irony of celebrating the independence in a rally organised by an organisation (the National-Radical Camp) which in the 1930s was banned for its fascist activities by the same regime that consolidated the independence of Poland during the inter-war period. The All-Polish Youth, too, has its root in an anti-Semitic student group active in the 1920s.

2011 brought a breakthrough in numbers as reportedly 20,000 people joined the far-right march. Leftist groups succeeded to at least partly blockade the march again. Around 200 people were arrested and tens were injured. A big chunk of Polish media, including main TV stations, have been depicting the violence during the 2010 and 2011 marches as coming from "extremists on both sides", i.e. the far-right and the anti-fascists. Yet direct accounts from the events indicate the vast majority of the aggression came from the side of the Independence March participants.

Last year, with many of the more recognisable liberal and leftist voices refusing to formally endorse any street action on November 11 (Gazeta Wyrbocza, Poland’s main liberal daily, had already distanced itself after 2010; Krytyka Polityczna, a new left grouping, stopped participating after 2011 when they were directly attacked by the far-right), the anti-fascist camp dropped the idea of a blockade and organised a march only. Meanwhile, the Polish presidency put together a separate patriotic march on Nov. 11, with the idea of attracting the non-extremist patriots. Even in that context, the Independence March was impressive, with organisers claiming 20,000 participants.

This year will see an even more modified scenario: the Presidency separate march takes place again on Nov. 11, but the anti-fascists have moved their demonstration to Nov. 9, the anniversary of Kristallnacht. The potential for violence seems to be decreasing, while the strength of the far-right showing remains to be seen.

Racism in Poland

Last year, at the end of the Independence March, leaders of the All-Polish Youth and the National-Radical Camp announced the creation of a political group, the Polish National Movement (Ruch Narodowy). Few observers give it a real shot at political power however. 

The times of political glory of the Polish far-right were 2006-2007, when the Kaczynski bothers’ Peace and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość) governed together with the League of Polish Families, the latter bringing to government and leadership of state institutions various known figures of the far-right.

Since the demise of the League, PiS –now the second strongest party in Poland -- is thought to have incorporated much of the ultra-right discourse (strong nationalism, strong social conservatism, distrust for minorities), though as of late – and particularly since the formation of the Polish National Movement, a potential political rival – they have been trying to put more distance between themselves and the far-right.

Regardless of what happens on a political level though, groups like Nidgy Wiecej raise alarm bells that hate crimes are increasing in Poland. Between 2011 and mid-2013, the group, which is the most reputed racism watchdog in the country, has documented over 600 hate crimes, with numbers on the rise each year.

This November, two as of yet unidentified people have ignited two smoke bombs during an LGBT movie night organised at the headquarters of left-wing group Krytyka Polityczna, causing panic among the 40 participants. Also this month, swastika signs have been drawn on the front walls of a synagogue in the northern city of Gdansk.

Most observers of Polish society share a feeling that far-right attacks are on the rise, accompanied by a sense of impunity for the perpetrators. Over the past years, four people have been killed in hate crimes. Chechens, one of the largest migrant groups in Poland, are being attacked and harrassed. Anti-Semite and anti-migrant crimes happen, yet in a country where there are less than 10,000 Jews left and where around 95 percent of the population declare themselves ethnically Poles, targets of the far-right are more often sexual minorities and political enemies, primarily leftist organisations and individuals. The November attack on Krytyka Polityczna mixed these two targets.

According to Pankowski, Polish authorities underestimate the number of hate crimes in Poland, because they understand racism to mean "racism against black people." Indeed, according to the Polish Ministry of Interior, 126 hate crimes took place in the country between January and September 2013, 89 cases in 2012, and 90 in 2011 – smaller figures than those of Nigdy Wiecej.

The Polish constitution calls for the prosecution of organisations whose programmes or activities sanction racial or national hatred, and the penal code too contains provisions against hate speech.

Yet implementation has been very weak, say observers, as police and prosecutors do not have either the expertise or the will to prosecute hate crimes. The Krytyka Polityka attack will be prosecuted under the hate speech penal code provision, in what is considered a surprisingly brave step by authorities.

Indeed, a certain wind of change has been felt of late, with both Prime Minister Donald Tusk and the new Minister of Interior Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz making statements against racism and xenophobia. Part of Civic Platform’s electorate are, after all, liberals reading Poland’s main daily Gazeta Wyborcza, a publication that has been campaigning against hate crime.

Yet the strategy of action against hate crimes seems much more timid than the rhetoric: asked about their response, the Ministry of Interior lists monitoring of hate crimes, training over 65,000 police officers about how to deal with discrimination cases and hate crimes, and an information campaign targeted at immigrants about hate crimes. A good start, but a far cry from what could be needed.

Sociologist Bilewicz, who has been studying discriminatory attitudes in Poland for years, says that all his research indicates that it is socio-economic factors more than anything that make people turn to racism and xenophobia. Since the 1990s, his research shows that highs of anti-Semitism among the general population were directly correlated with intense economic hardship. The strongest discriminatory attitudes are found in the poorest, most marginal parts of the country. Bilewicz says that he has brought this issue to the attention of the Polish authorities, but to no avail: according to him, addressing inequality, unemployment and poverty as a main source of racism and xenophobia is too far from the agenda of any party in Poland today.

While this root cause fails to be addressed, the political culture of Poland makes it relatively easy for the far-right to breed. The Catholic Church, whose conservatism appears to have increased over the past years, continues to have a staggering grip on public life.

The biggest party in Poland, Tusk’s Civic Platform, is on the right of the political spectrum – earlier this year, it strongly rejected an initiative to legalise civil partnerships for instance, while legalisation of abortion cannot even make it on to the parliament’s agenda (the legislative, as a matter of fact, came close to tightening abortion conditions this term, despite Poland having one of the most restrictive abortion legislations in Europe). The second strongest political force, Kaczynski’s PiS, has a track record of being close to the far-right; the absense of a cordon sanitaire between the far-right and the general conservative rightist electorate of PiS is a diagnosis made by several experts.

Attempts to counteract the domination of Poland’s politics and public space by the right exist, but they do not manage yet to coalesce into a bigger counter-current. The absence of a strong left, in the form of socialist-leaning parties, determined trade unions and social movements, is considered by many to be one of the reasons behind the rise of the far-right: a progressive left could counter conservative attitudes, but it could also, importantly, promote policies that address the socio-economic roots of racism and xenophobia.

Naturally, it is not all hopeless. The Nov. 9 anti-fascist march brought together a sector of Polish society that is determined to stop nationalism, racism and xenophobia from making their mark on this country. Every other day of the year, numerous groups and individuals around the country work to counter discrimination and hate. Warsaw hosts not only Central and Eastern Europe’s nationalist march but also its biggest gay pride. Every day, people say, it is getting just a little bit easier to be different in least in the biggest cities.

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