Independence Day March in Warsaw, 11 November 2017. Jaap Arriens/PA Images. All rights reserved.Piotr Szczęsny was an ordinary Polish citizen who set himself on fire outside the Warsaw Palace of Culture and Science on the 19th October 2017. His action wasn’t an accident; it was a protest against the current Polish government. Just before Szczęsny set himself ablaze, he read passages of a personal manifesto that read: "I, an ordinary human being like you, call on you all – don't wait any longer!". His death went largely unreported internationally.
Yet Szczęsny’s call to action did move some people in Poland. Since his death, there have been daily recitals by a woman standing alone in the middle of a town square in Cieszyn, in Southern Poland – she continuously reads Szczęsny’s manifesto aloud. Among other things, Szczęsny protested against: “the hate speech and xenophobia, which this government has pushed into public debate”; “the hostile attitude to immigrants” and “discrimination against minorities”.
In Poland, we rarely talk about racism.
On November 11th, the same woman who had taken it upon herself to spread Szczęsny’s words, Gabriela Lazarek, entered a Catholic Church where the far-right Independence March organisers held their pre-demonstration mass. She held a sign that quoted the late Polish Pope John Paul II: ‘Racism is a sin that constitutes a serious offence against God’. She was pushed out of the church while the priest lectured about the importance of nationalism and Polishness. The congregation later joined 60 000 people in the Independence March.
In Poland, we rarely talk about racism – it is wrongly understood as something that Poland has little historical encounter with. Racism has a long, if not often talked about, history in Poland. Racism in Poland is expressed through ways in which racialised people have been treated in the country, including Jews, Roma and Muslims. We can’t ignore the connection between race and Polish homogeneity, where whiteness and racial politics have become key to a nationalist project promoted by the current Polish government that perceives heterogeneity as a threat.
The Polish Independence March
On the 11th of November each year, Poles commemorate their country regaining independence in 1918 and reappearing on the map of Europe after 123 years of disappearance.
Poles have celebrated Independence Day in various ways over the years, but not primarily through participating in the Independence March. Until 2010, the march attracted mainly nationalists and football fans – both groups are known for their xenophobic and at times violent behaviour. From then on, the Independence March started pulling in crowds, and in 2011 there were suddenly 20,000 people participating.
Conversations about nationalism in Poland are inseparable from those about racism.
In the past six years, these numbers have continued to grow, culminating in a sea of 60,000 people this year, uniting under the slogan: “We Want God”. While not all march-goers were far-right extremists – and this is what some international media ignored – there are important questions to ask about the willingness of regular citizens to join a march organised by members of two far-right groups, the All-Polish Youth and the ONR, that take their names and ideas from the fascist groups of the 1930s.
Nationalism expressed through racist sentiments has become mainstream in Poland. In Poland, like other parts of Europe, racist views are on the rise and becoming more commonplace acceptable with the shift to the right following the election of the Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS) party. As Rafał Pankowski of the Nigdy Więcej [Never Again Association] emphasised, there is a climate of acceptance for extreme nationalist ideology. In 2016, the organisation recorded the ‘biggest wave of hatred’ in the country’s recent history, reporting several incidents taking place every day. While the mainstreaming of racist discourse and corresponding violence has to be partially attributed to the current ruling party, the phenomenon of racism in Poland is not new, even if it is rarely discussed.
Polishness and whiteness
Recent migration from the Middle East and Africa – while most of the people arriving are not attempting to reach Poland – was used divisively by the political and media class to exacerbate the flourishing of racism in Poland in the past couple of years; yet this migration didn’t create race and racism in Poland. The conditions for this intensification are embedded in long-standing representations of people seen as non-white: Jews; Roma, Tatars and black people. A crude distinction between ‘whites’ and ‘blacks’ is entrenched in Polish culture, where those in the second category have always been excluded from ideas of Polishness, as was surfaced explicitly at the recent Independence March.
During the Independence March, some attendants called for ‘White Europe’ and asserted the need for ‘Clean Blood’. The purity of race as proclaimed by the organisers – who identified as race-separatists – is a key mechanism in promoting hierarchy among people. In this racist logic, while st blacks are placed just above the apes, whites are placed closer to God through the angels, implying the higher status and purity of the white race. As such, the main slogan of the Independence March – ‘We want God’ – can be analysed as a desire to purify the nation of all sorts of impure ‘Others’ and return to a past that in fact never actually existed.
When refugees started appearing on European shores, Polish politicians and media warned of the diseases that newcomers might bring. This debate resurfaced over recent months when right-wing Polish media quoted an Islamophobic think-tank, the Gatestone Institute, claiming that infectious diseases are spreading as migrants settle in.
Seen in this way, mobilising around ideas about racial purity and whiteness becomes central to the reimagining of Polishness, as was observed in the recent interview given by the All-Polish Youth’s spokesman Mateusz Pławski during Poland’s Independence March, where he said that his organisation believes in ‘race separatism’.
The spokesperson has since resigned due to the media storm he caused. He argued that his words were ‘over-interpreted’ and reminded the public of his saying that “no race is better than another” which he considered proof of the far-right organisation’s non-racism. During the now-infamous interview, he said that “ethnicities should not mix” and that “a black person is not a Pole”. While these ideas about race separatism are not coherent with Poland’s multicultural history and the presence of Jewish, Muslim and Black people in the country, they have been accepted as norms due to a strong desire to maintain racial purity
Polishness, as it is conceptualised today, relies on a notion of sameness that is sustained by the power of whiteness: a group of people linked by a common ‘blood’, common culture and common religion.. Of course, Poles have the right to remember their history of victimisation, and to point out the injustices that continue to afflict the country. Regardless of the reasons and motivations for people to participate in Poland’s Independence March, using whiteness as a right to exclude those that are deemed not-quite-European, as Mateusz Pławski did in his interview, unveils the intimate relationship between Polishness and whiteness that has become explicit in the Polish response to the refugee crisis.
In online discussions about refugees, people have referred to Auschwitz – located in Poland – as an ‘ideal hotel’ for refugees.
In 2015, the right-wing PiS won the Polish elections, replacing the more centre-liberal Platforma Obywatelska (PO). PiS’s coming into power has coincided with escalations of the ‘refugee crisis’. The party used the growing numbers of people arriving on European shores to mobilise against immigration and strengthen their political agenda of increasingly closed borders. Several anti-refugee demonstrations were organised across Poland, exhibiting anti-Muslim as well as anti-Semitic and anti-Roma sentiments. The new government refused to accept any refugees into Poland, unless they were Christians.
During an anti-Muslim demonstration organised by the far-right National Radical Camp (ONR), a group which is also one of the organisers of the Independence March, one participant set fire to an effigy of an Orthodox Jew who was holding an EU flag. At another anti-refugee demonstration, a member of the same far-right group, ONR, was investigated for hate speech when she warned about white Europe becoming extinct, equating Muslims with rapists and Jews with imperialists.
When the ONR organised a march in 2016 in the city of Białystok, international students were informed of the racist nature of the groups and urged on Facebook to stay inside “to avoid any unpleasant incidents”. During one anti-refugee demonstration in Warsaw, demonstrators shouted “Poland for Poles”, “Islam – death of white Europe” and “The whole of Poland shouts with us, kill Islam with machetes”.
In online discussions about refugees, people have referred to Auschwitz – located in Poland – as an ‘ideal hotel’ for refugees. If they ever make it to court, these cases are often dropped or at least not treated seriously by the authorities. Political decisions such as these have had a direct impact, empowering the far-right.
The Polish Law and Justice (PiS) government needs to take concrete actions against the culture of hate that is growing, and going unpunished, in Poland. It is time for Poles to recognise that Poland has a problem with racism, that the nationalism currently promoted by its government and right-wing groups is intimately tied to a long history of dangerous racial exclusion. It is time that the call to action of Piotr Szczęsny be answered by all sections of the Polish society: “We, ordinary human beings, like you, hear your call – and we won’t wait any longer!”.