Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Ceremony, part of the annual events held on November 11th, the anniversary of Poland's independence (Photo: Patryk Matyjaszczyk, 2012 | CC BY-SA 3.0 | Wikipedia)
WARSAW. On November 11, the 98th anniversary of Poland’s regained independence, the cold streets of central Warsaw were crammed with citizens marching under red-and-white Polish flags. Two rival marches held that day illustrated Poland’s ideological divide.
The principal march, including 65,000 100,000 people, represented Polish patriots determined to defend Polish independence and culture against the European Union and the migrant crisis. The smaller march, estimated at 10,000, was a protest against the first march and demanded changes to Poland’s majority conservative, Catholic society. Both groups voiced criticism of Poland’s current government, dominated at all levels by the centrist Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS, “Law and Justice”) party. There was no violence on either side.
The official Independence Day ceremonies took place in Józef Piłsudski Place by the tomb of Poland’s Unknown Soldier. President Andrzej Duda, Premier Beata Szydlo, the Marshal of the Polish Sentate and the head of the Ministry of the Interior, among other dignitaries of the state and the Church, were present. Acknowledging the divisions in contemporary Polish society, President Duda said, “I deeply believe that today those heroes, the fathers of independence and those who were killed or died in the battle and longing for the Fatherland are watching us from heaven.... They are not among us, but I am deeply convinced that they desire that we all be together in fundamental matters.”
The memory of heroes past flamed brightly among the crowds of the large, nationalist march. In its fifth year, the Independence March was preceded by an official Mass in Saint Barbara’s Church, a block from the March’s starting point near the imposing Stalinist-era Palace of Culture and Science. The church was packed from wall to wall, sanctuary to outer doors, but the congregation represented only a fraction of those attending Independence Day masses all over Poland. The homily at St. Barbara’s included an overview of Poland’s struggles for independence and Poland’s role in saving western Europe from Islamic invasion in the 16th century.
Outside St Barbara’s, scattered crowds lingered or strolled towards the marshaling point, flags in hand. Most of the marchers had donned the red-and-white armbands of the Polish Home Army which fought against the Nazis during the Occupation of 1939-1945. From time to time, loud explosions rent the air. These increased in frequency as the crowdwhich included tens of thousands of young menbegan to surge along Jerozolimskie Avenue, over the Poniatowski Bridge and to the empty grounds beside the new National Stadium. Dozens of youths set off powerful firecrackers and lit red flares despite half-hearted admonishments from parade officials that these were not allowed.
The officials also led the marchers in such chants as “Honor and glory/to the heroes” and “Long live/Great Catholic Poland.” Other rhymes and songs left no doubt of the marchers’ opinions of the current government (“PiS, PO [the left-wing party recently in government], jedno zlo [one evil]”) and of the daily waves of migrants into Europe:
We don’t want here Islam,
Weeping Germans, weeping France
Such is the end [pun intended] of tolerance.
Some marchers wore jackets emblazoned with patriotic slogans like “God, Honor, Fatherland”and “Death to Poland’s Enemies”sentiments which the marchers also lustily voiced.
The rally beside the National Stadium included acknowledgement of a letter from President Duda (“PiS, PO, jedno zlo!”) and speeches from veterans of the Second World War, a representative of Poland’s Pro-Life movement and Roberto Flore of Italy’s Nuova Forza party. Bands of various genres sang contemporary and rocked-up versions of patriotic songs. In protest against Facebook’s refusal to publish Polish nationalist propaganda, the rally’s leaders burned the organization in effigy. Afterwards, a young man brought his sweetheart onto the stage and asked her to marry him. Ewangelina accepted, and tens of thousands burst into congratulatory song. “Long live Great Catholic Poland,” she replied.
Prominent at both the March and the rally were pro-life banners condemning the continued destruction of Polish life by abortion. Less prominent was a tiny cadre of neo-pagan white supremacists. Although photographs of “white power” flags star in anti-March propaganda, I saw only two or three among the thousands of Polish flags. Overtly fringe sentiments may have been limited to one middle-aged, bearded man behind me, who occasionally shouted “White Power!” in English and “Glory to the gods” in Polish.
So many flares and crackers were set alight that by dusk the snowy air was illuminated by red light glowing against billows of white smoke. The eerie impression of a battlefield was reinforced by the flags and the “Home Army” armbands. By 6 pm the crowds had thinned and begun to straggle across the bridge to central Warsaw. The rally had started at 2 pm, and the cold and snow continued throughout.
The Gazeta Polska reported on September 12 that the left-wing counter-march had featured such personalities as ex-premier Ewa Kopacz and ex-president Bronislaw Komorowski, both members of the defeated PO party. In his speech, Mr Komorowksi said he was happy to see the European Union flag in the crowd. Indeed, according to the Gazeta Polska there was a wide variety of flags: the black standard of the pro-abortion movement, the rainbow flags of gay activists, plus EU flags, Polish flags and the flags of other nations.
The pro-EU march ended in a much smaller rally (estimated at 400 by the conservative Gazeta Polska to “almost 1000” by the left-wing Gazeta Wyborcza) at which demonstrators shouted such slogans as “Fascists out of our streets”, “PiS promotes fascists”, “A white Poland only in winter” and “Freedom, equality and antifascism.”
The difference of opinion between the unequal bands of marchers were replicated the next day in the newspapers. The Gazeta Polska exulted in the success of the Independence March and mocked the relatively low turnout at the counter-march. The Gazeta Wyborcza concentrated on the counter-march and deplored the more politically incorrect elements of the Independence March. The principal Catholic daily, Nasz Dziennik (“Our Daily”), mentioned the Independence March (and numbered participants at 100,000) but concentrated on President Duda’s conciliatory speech, which it published in full.
Nasz Dziennik, part of Radio Maryja’s media empire, supported the PiS party in the last elections. It also has Independence March “Home Army” armbands for sale in its Solidarnosc Avenue shop. Given the Mass at St. Barbara’s, the presence of Radio Maryja’s television wing at the March and the priest I saw there, it is clear that Polish nationalism has strong, if unofficial, support from conservatives in the Polish Catholic Church.