The official celebration of Poland’s 99th independence day went innocuously, with the usual ceremonies in the capital. There was even a visit from the European Council’s internationalist president, who insisted to Politico that Saturday’s festivities would proceed “with a smile on our face and with joy in our hearts.”
But for blocks and blocks and blocks beyond the central towers of Warsaw, a much larger crowd swelled beneath a cloud of red smoke.
Tens of thousands of people had come from across Poland and beyond, and reporters documented their signs:
“Clean Blood,” as seen by Politico.
“White Europe” streaked across another banner, the Associated Press reported — as about 60,000 people chanted and marched through Warsaw in an annual gathering of Europe’s far-right movements, which have grown to dwarf the official version of Poland's independence day celebration.
By the end of the weekend, the AP reported, the official and unofficial events even seemed to be merging.
Police had arrested 45 counterprotesters — but not one of the marchers seen carrying white supremacist symbols or heard chanting “Sieg Heil” in a country where Nazis carried out some of the Holocaust's worst atrocities.
Rather, Poland's Foreign Ministry said Monday that the day had been “a great celebration of Poles, differing in their views, but united around the common values of freedom and loyalty to an independent homeland.”
Nov. 11 marks Poland's celebration of its freedom from imperial rule in 1918. That freedom was interrupted over the following century by brutal occupations, first by Nazis, then communists.
In the 21st century, a group called All-Polish Youth, which the AP reported is named after a radical anti-Semitic group from the 1930s, began hosting a competing Nov. 11 celebration in Warsaw.
It began as a small thing, Politico reported. No more than a few hundred people showed up to the march in 2010, although the numbers soon grew into the thousands.
In some years, the spectacle turned bloody — as when masked marchers threw rocks, flares and paving slabs at police in 2014, according to the BBC.
But in 2015, the conservative Law and Justice Party took power in Poland, fueled in part by anti-immigration politics that helped put other right-wing parties in power throughout Europe.
By all accounts, the Nov. 11 rallies since then have been fairly peaceful and very large.
Some who marched under the flares and red smoke on Saturday were families and children, the AP reported. But more noticeable were droves of young men, some masked — and some chanting, “Death to enemies of the homeland.”
There was some violence Saturday, the AP reported, when nationalists pushed and kicked a group of women holding a banner that said “Stop Fascism.”
But that was the only such report. A heavy police force kept the small assembly of counterprotesters separated from the far-right march.
Far-right leaders from Britain and Italy were welcomed by the crowd, according to the AP. (The U.S. alt-right leader Richard Spencer had been deemed too extreme by the Polish government, and he canceled his plans to attend.)
An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman called the march dangerous, per the AP.
“History teaches us that expressions of racist hate must be dealt with swiftly and decisively,” he said — perhaps referring to the Nazi-era Warsaw ghetto, where hundreds of thousands of imprisoned Jews were deported to extermination camps if they were not killed before.
But the Polish Foreign Ministry waved off the worst reports about the crowd as “incidental,” the AP reported.
After the rally ended Saturday evening, a reporter asked Poland’s interior minister — a member of the right-wing government — what he thought of the banners and chants of “white Europe” and “pure blood.”
“It’s only your opinion, because you behave like a political activist,” he replied, Politico reported. According to the AP, the same minister called that swollen, crimson-fogged march across Warsaw “a beautiful sight.”