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How Poland became a breeding ground for Europe’s far right

Polish nationalists light flares during a march under the slogan “We want God” as part of Polish independence day celebrations in Warsaw on Nov. 11. (Radek Pietruszka/EPA-EFE)

BERLIN — Few countries suffered as much under the Nazis as Poland did during World War II.

And yet, more than 70 years later, it has become a center on the continent for the far right — and liberal critics say the government isn’t doing anything about it. In fact, they say, the Polish far right feels increasingly emboldened by what it perceives as governmental recognition.

On Saturday, an estimated 60,000 people marched alongside ultranationalists and Nazis to mark the 99th anniversary of Polish independence. As my colleague Avi Selk summarized, some of the protesters carried banners and held up signs that had a clear far-right extremist message, including “Clean Blood,” as seen by Politico and “White Europe,” described by AP.

The march was distinct from other European far-right events

European Nazis and members of the far right have co-opted other commemorations and celebrations around Europe in the past, as well. In the eastern German city of Dresden, for example, Nazis march every February to mark the destruction of the city by Allied forces during World War II. Officials usually condemn such marches as a misguided and dangerous form of nationalism that crosses the line into white supremacy and Nazi ideology. In Germany, leading politicians frequently join rallies in protest of the marches, which have taken place for decades.

That was not the case during this weekend’s rallies in Warsaw, which initially elicited little government condemnation.

The origins of Poland’s “independence march” are fairly recent and date to 2009. The annual event has attracted an increasing number of supporters over the years and is now considered one of the world’s biggest far right marches. It not only draws visitors from other Eastern European countries — where ultranationalist tendencies have become particularly pronounced since the 2015 refugee crisis — but also from Western Europe and the United States.

Thousands gathered in central Warsaw on Nov. 11 for a march organized by radical far-right groups. The march coincided with Poland’s independence day. (Video: Młodzież Wszechpolska)

Liberals allege government support for ultranationalists

Saturday’s march was not organized or officially promoted by the governing right-wing Law and Justice party. Yet, despite the extremist slogans and posters, officials refrained from condemning the march for days, and even publicly voiced support: In a statement on Monday, Poland’s Foreign Ministry defended the march as a largely patriotic event and “a great celebration of Poles,” although the ministry condemned racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic remarks. The interior minister had previously called the rally “a beautiful sight.”

Even if he may have been unaware at the time of some of the posters held up at the rally, he probably must have known who was behind this annual protest. The organizers include anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim radical groups such as the All-Polish Youth and the National-Radical Camp, according to the Associated Press.

Members of the All-Polish Youth movement have had strong ties to the Law and Justice party in the past. In 2006, the former chairman of the movement was named as Poland's vice prime minister.

On social media, critics of the government accused the ruling party of trying to silence people opposed to ultranationalism, pointing to the arrests of counterprotesters on Saturday and the possible prosecution of a journalist who read out some of the extremist slogans on live TV. Of the 45 people arrested Saturday, none were far-right extremists. Only anti-fascist demonstrators were detained.

“The apparent tolerance shown for these purveyors of hate — and, let’s be clear, that’s exactly what they are — by some Polish government officials is particularly troubling,” Agnieszka Markiewicz, director of the American Jewish Committee's Warsaw office, told the AP.

The European Jewish Congress worried about the “normalization” of such protests and what it deemed an insufficient government response.

Polish President Andrzej Duda — who has opposed Law and Justice proposals in the past and is not a member of the party — joined the chorus of critics on Monday, saying that there was no place in Poland for “sick nationalism,” xenophobia, and antisemitism. On Monday evening, the leader of the ruling Law and Justice party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, for the first time also acknowledged that some “unfortunate incidents” had taken place during the Saturday march, although he still described the issue as a “marginal problem.”

The rally is only the most public indication of Poland’s turn to the right

The government's stance fits into a broader pattern that has emerged in Poland over the past two years as it has abruptly shifted to the right. The country was still considered a post-communism success story and a “robust” democracy in 2015 when the Law and Justice party swept into power after taking a decidedly anti-immigration stance and glorifying the country’s history, while ignoring its darker aspects.

To many observers, the far-right surge remains a mystery, given that Poland was doing well economically compared with other post-communist nations and was increasingly being considered a key member of the European Union and of NATO. Law and Justice may have won on a mandate to stop mass migration — but the refugee influx had affected Poland only marginally and put a much bigger burden on neighboring Germany and Sweden.

Once in office, the Law and Justice party moved swiftly to weaken the opposition and other democratic institutions, such as public television stations and the justice apparatus. Not all of those efforts have succeeded, and the biggest blow to the party came this summer when the Polish president, who is independent of the party, refused to sign a law that would have theoretically allowed the dismissal of all Supreme Court justices.

The party has still managed to consolidate its power. More than 100 public TV employees resigned after the channel TVP Info was essentially turned into a government mouthpiece, and the country’s ranking in the Freedom of the Press Index subsequently dropped to “partly free” this year.”

A common enemy: The E.U.

The Law and Justice party has long expressed skepticism or outright hatred for the E.U. as an organization that acts hierarchically above nation states. Like other European right-wing parties, which view the E.U. as a liberal invention designed to weaken nation states and national pride, it has criticized the E.U. as seeking to rob national parliaments of sovereignty.

Unlike most other right-wing parties in Europe, however, the more established and mainstream Law and Justice holds government powers. And it has found an E.U. scapegoat well known enough at home to be used as a target: former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk, who is the president of the European Council. State media outlets are linking Tusk with the death seven years ago of the brother of Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski. There is no evidence to support the claims, and critics have accused the government of a smear campaign.

An earlier version of this story noted anti-Muslim language on a banner during a neo-Nazi march in Poland, citing a CNN report. CNN later retracted its reporting on the banner’s wording. This version reflects the change.

Read more: 

Polish far-right march goes global, drawing people from afar

‘Pray for an Islamic Holocaust’: Tens of thousands from Europe’s far right march in Poland