Having suffered at the hands of Russia and Germany during the Second World War, Poland is taking no chances and making sure everyone knows who the country belongs to
As France grieves and the world with them but with demonstrations against terrorism discouraged as Paris deals with ongoing anti-terrorist operations, Poland’s newly elected government, led by the hard-line right-wing, European Union-sceptic Law and Justice Party (PiS), has sought to generate political capital by refusing to take Syrian refugees based on the unconfirmed evidence that one of the attackers held a Syrian passport.
As in certain sections of American society (and among Republican presidential hopefuls), this chimes with parts of the Polish electorate who at the end of October returned to a Parliament with no left-wing party for the first time since 1989. Two days before the atrocities in the French capital, tens of thousands took part in a massive march—the largest since the fall of Communism—through Warsaw, the Polish capital, displaying themes that reject the liberal ethos championed by much of France and the latter’s admirers abroad.
It has often been noted by scholars that Communism with its repression apparatus and internationalist credo kept a lid on nationalism, which tore apart Yugoslavia, separated Czechoslovakia and disintegrated the USSR. Poland is a relatively homogeneous society with some geographically specific clusters of Poles outside the country (e.g., Hungarians in Romania) but since 2005 when PiS won the most votes, there has been a steady upswing in nationalism. The leader of PiS, Jarosław Kaczyński (along with his late twin brother, the former President Lech Kaczyński), became a pariah of Europe in 2007 when he and his brother said publicly at an EU conference that Poland would have a bigger voting bloc inside the EU if Germany had not murdered so many Poles during World War II, imputing ‘sins of the father’ to Angela Merkel and her government and using the Holocaust as a political football. Kaczyński, who nominated the moderate Beata Szydło as Prime Minister, was on record recently stating that Muslim migrants might carry diseases and parasites, perhaps inspired by the surge in conservative support Donald Trump got from ranting against Mexicans in similar terms.
The march on the 11th of November, which marks the moment Poland became independent again after World War One, was separate from the official, state-organised celebration of National Independence Day and has dark overtones. In the unofficial demonstration, placards emblazoned with ‘Poland for the Polish’, ‘Stop Islamisation’, ‘EU macht frei’ (an Auschwitz reference) were wielded. A conservative Christianity element was illustrated with ‘Great Catholic Poland’ banners—PiS itself has forged strong links with the Roman Catholic Church and some pastors are as influential with their own radio shows inside the country as Rush Limbaugh and other right-wing radio hosts are in the USA.
Some on the march seized the photo opportunity to burn an EU flag, but despite that, smoke bombs and numerous firecrackers, the protest passed off peacefully—several thousand riot police ensured that. Unlike English Defence League (EDL) demonstrations in Britain however, which target multicultural areas, it is Poland’s very homogeneity that spawns such a militant nationalism. As many studies in the UK have shown, those most hostile to immigration are those who have had the fewest meaningful contacts with actual immigrants.
Were a member of Parliament in this country to address an EDL rally, they would soon be drummed out of their party. But Tomasz Rzymkowski, elected in last month’s parliamentary ballot, comes from National Movement, a party founded only a year ago—with slogans like ‘European Union is the cancer— Nationalism is the answer’. The surge in support for such a fledgling political outfit is astounding. Also speaking was Adam Andruszkiewicz, head of the All-Polish Youth (with strong connections to National Movement)—an organisation that declares itself opposed to ‘doctrines promoting liberalism, tolerance and relativism’, i.e., opposed to the bedrock of Western civilisation. If anyone was in any doubt as to the far-right credentials of those in the rally, there was a guest speaker from the Hungarian Jobbik Party— frequently labelled as ‘neo-fascist’.
Such a gathering makes PiS look centrist by comparison, giving it a freer hand in policy than would otherwise be the case. In its previous incarnation in government, PiS orchestrated a vicious judicial witch-hunt against anyone who had worked with the Communist Party, 16 years after its fall—having no truck with peace and reconciliation that had previously largely prevailed. With rumours already circulating of Szydlo being replaced by Kaczyński, the ‘moderate’ mask could slip quickly.
Many nationalist movements flourish in tough financial climes, blaming outsiders, and although Poland has experienced prolonged economic growth (including being the only major EU country to grow during the 2008-09 global financial crisis), there are many in Poland who feel they have not benefited—with any extra income from trade being undercut by implementing EU rules aimed at raising manufacturing and agricultural quality and latterly by the counter-sanctions Russia undertook in response to EU sanctions over Ukraine. When there are chants as at the rally of, ‘Yesterday it was Moscow, today it’s Brussels which takes away our freedom’, resonance is achieved with little pushback.