As we inched, with more than two hundred thousand Poles, from Rondo Dmowskiego to the national stadium, my companions checked their phones to see what lies the Western media were telling. “Two hundred thousand Nazis,” one of them chuckled, “That is what they’ll say.”
Well, there was no Nazism that I saw. The most extreme signs and slogans that caused international outrage last year were from a tiny group of neopagan Aryan supremacists who are as representative of the Polish right, never mind Poland, as a peace-loving pacifist was representative of the Mongols.
Still, for a celebration of the hundredth anniversary of national independence, the atmosphere was charged with confrontation. To be sure, most of the marchers were smiling men, women and children, kitted out in white and red shirts, scarfs, hats and jumpers. One father, with his son scurrying about his feet, struck up a conversation after hearing us speaking English. “You’re doing a good job with that flag,” one of my companions noted, nodding at the giant white and red banner he was wielding. “We’re trying to do a good job,” he grinned, “For our country.”
Nonetheless, some attendees were not so celebratory. Gangs of young men scaled the bus shelters that lined the route and bellowed slogans. Foreign journalists might have been baffled by their targets – which included the liberal TV channel TVN and the murderous Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera – but their sheer ferocity did seem out of place. “Young men and their testosterone,” a Polish companion shrugged.
“Wake up Poland and return to God,” one banner read. Another bore a hammer and sickle with a strike through it. To be clear, these sentiments are by no means obnoxious, let alone “extremist”, in themselves. What was obvious, though, was that cultural decay and political oppression were perceived by many marchers not as forces that had been defeated but as powerful enemies to be overthrown. Some marchers were celebrating. Some marchers were demonstrating.
The organisation of the march had been chaotic. The Mayor of Warsaw had banned the nationalist coalition Ruch Narodowy (the National Movement) from marching but a court had overturned her decision. The government had decided to cooperate with the nationalists in organising two slightly separate marches: an official march leading a larger nationalist march.
The nationalist coalition has been lazily described (including by this author) as “fascist”. This is neither true nor wholly untrue. Members of Ruch Narodowy who emerged from the all but defunct League of Polish Families can be more comparable, in ideology, to Salazar than Mussolini, and are too Catholic and conservative for fascism. Other elements, as illustrated by the presence of the explicitly neofascist Italian Forza Nuova party, are more liable to think fascism would have been tolerable if not admirable had it not been for Hitler’s anti-Slavic tendencies. It is morbidly ironic that Polish troops were honouring their forefathers as the ideological descendants of the people they did so much to defeat in the Italian Campaign lurked nearby.
The nationalists have never had electoral success. What they have is organisational prowess. They boast a vanguard of largely young and male supporters who respond to clear, antagonistic, anti-establishment rhetoric, and, due to national pride and testosterone-fuelled machismo, can be counted on to turn out for major demonstrations. Appealing to a wider audience demands a more substantive and inclusive ideology, and more sophisticated campaigning, and it demands that these goals be achieved without the coalition splintering. This is not impossible, but it is difficult.
If anything can make the movement more popular it is the government itself. Law and Justice, the ruling party, are firmly on the right wing of Polish politics in terms of public opinion. By accident or design, however, there can be a gap between its rhetoric and its results. Rhetorically hostile to mass migration, the government has allowed two million Ukrainians to settle in Poland. Rhetorically belligerent towards the European Union, it has, of course, no plans to leave. These policies have not been unpopular enough to harm Law and Justice but its politicians cannot grow complacent. In cooperating with Ruch Narodowa the government might have been hoping to appeal to its supporters, but if it allows too big a gap between its rhetoric and its reults to grow, its own voters might look for politicians whose platforms and policies are more consistent. It is now much easier to find them.
It was moving to watch the sea of white and red flags ripple down the street. Less than a lifetime ago, the city would have been in ruins. The Nazis demolished Warsaw after its brave yet doomed uprising, leaving 85% of its buildings destroyed and hundreds of thousands of its citizens dead. Stalin sat back and watched with complacent indifference before installing a communist government in Poland. The city rose again, like a phoenix out of flames, but was only freed from communism in 1989. Walking past a sign to Mokotów – a pleasant housing district – I grimaced inwardly on being reminded of Mokotów Prison, where Polish war heroes and dissidents were interned, tortured and executed. The Poles have reclaimed the city now. The sign “1918-2018” had been projected onto the former Communist Party headquarters along with a Polish flag. Now, ironically, it is the headquarters of banks.
Across the West, citizens of Britain, and the USA, and Italy and others resent their national dependence on other governments and institutions. There is some extent to which we have to learn to live with it. No sane person would accept the impoverishment and vulnerability that would come from abandoning the military alliances, trade agreements and international regulations that make peace and prosperity attainable. On the other hand, no patriotic person would leap into the arms of foreign investors, governments and institutions without thought for their long-term national interests.
Poland is navigating the boundaries of globalisation and nationalism. Its economy has gone from strength and strength, offering Poles unprecedented opportunities in terms of improving their livelihoods and lifestyles, but divides have been expanding over questions of the political and cultural costs of this progress, as well as the unequal distribution of its blessings. Conflicts over tradition and modernity, and oikophilia and cosmopolitanism, will mark Polish politics for the foreseeable future. Balance must be reached, and a balance that will last.
Still, this it is independence for you. When your country has been occupied it is easier to unite against a common foe. When there is no obvious oppressor, on the other hand, it is much easier to disagree on what should be done. Strolling through Warsaw, the morning after the march, I walked down the streets that had been battlegrounds but now bore tributes to the men and women who had brought them peace: kings, soldiers, scientists, poets and boy scouts. Few nations have struggled as hard to free. Few nations have had as much potential in their freedom.