Poland’s troubled Independence Day – a stumbling block to democratisation?

by Mateusz Zatoński

Polish Independence Day celebrations
(photo by Patryk Matyjaszczyk)


Each nation celebrates key dates in history its own way. On the Fourth of July, Americans gather at hot-dog eating contests and firework displays. Britain’s Remembrance Day is a more solemn affair, with the omnipresent poppy, and parades of war veterans applauded by crowds of tourists. Other countries opt for body paint, historical re-enactments, and countless other ways of celebrating national unity and pride.

Meanwhile, the Poles seem to have developed a habit of celebrating November 11th, their Independence Day, with a free-for-all rampage on the streets of Warsaw. Over the last three years images of burned cars, riot police in full gear, and pervasive neo-fascist symbols dominate the media coverage of the proceedings. This article lays out the history of the commemorations of the Polish Independence Day, and suggests a number of explanations for why in the last years they have become increasingly appropriated by the radical right.

The Polish Independence Day commemorates the re-establishment of independent Poland in 1918, after 123 years of oppressive rule by Prussia, Russia and Austria-Hungary. For 50 years following World War II, honouring Polish Independence Day was forbidden by the Polish governments steered from Moscow. Communist authorities saw the anniversary as a nationalist legacy that Marxism sought to supersede. After the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989 the Independence Day was restored as a national holiday. However, the state’s commemorations were often poorly organised and widely viewed as support rallies for whichever political party was in power at the time. The Polish nationalists, for decades denied an opportunity to celebrate their ideology, were not satisfied with what the successive governments offered.

And then came the Independence March.

The March first attracted public attention in 2008. Organised by the National Radical Camp (ONR), an organisation openly invoking the heritage of a pre-WWII anti-Semitic political organisation, it attracted a few hundred people who did not attempt to hide their extreme views, and a similar number who came to oppose them. Most mainstream media were quick to condemn the marchers, but treated the event as a minor episode, a desperate attempt of the dying breed of Polish right-wing extremists to draw the public’s attention.

The journalists were wrong. In the next years it became clear that the Independence March has become a fixed part of the political calendar of the country. The numbers of nationalists from around Poland rallying for the March increased every year, from hundreds to tens of thousands. The small-scale brawls characterising the first editions of the March turned into skirmishes involving hundreds of people. In 2011, the nationalists were opposed by an ad hoc collective of left-wing organisations who attempted to block the marchers. The tally of the day was nearly 70 injured, 210 arrests, burning cars, and a devastated historic square in the city centre . In 2012, in a gesture of supra-national solidarity not normally characteristic to those fiercely anti-EU groups, the marchers were joined by nationalists from Hungary, Italy, Serbia, and Ukraine. The outnumbered left-wingers avoided confrontation and this time it was the policemen securing the march who bore the brunt of the violence.

This year the police decided to step back as well, leaving the organisers to field their own security personnel. This did not prevent violent outbreaks. First, several hundred hooligans engaged in a pitched battle with the residents of a squat located nearby to the route of the demonstration. Later, a giant rainbow-coloured flower display in the centre of Warsaw, accused by right-wing politicians of promoting homosexuality, was burnt down. Finally, some of the marchers launched flares at the Russian embassy, attempted to climb its fence, and burnt a guard booth outside its gates. This promptly sparked a brief diplomatic crisis with Russia, and culminated a few days later when Russian nationalists reciprocated and launched flares against the Polish embassy in Moscow.

What surprises Western commentators is that those recurring, blatant manifestations of radicalism are occurring in a country that is widely viewed as one of Europe’s success stories. Poland weathered the economic crisis better than most EU member-states. Euro-enthusiasm still remains the norm rather than the exception among Poles. Most importantly, the country enjoys a stable government and a Parliament that, while significantly slanted to the right, has been free of extremist and populist political parties since the 2007 election. Where do the Marches fit in this picture?

First, while the sea of right-wing symbolism makes for spectacular TV coverage, it is important to understand that in societal terms the March is little more than a side-effect of the democratisation process of a post-Communist state. The March provides a once-a-year opportunity for fringe nationalist youth leaders and politicians whose star has faded to show their faces in the media. One characteristic that unites the March’s organisers, a motley crew ranging from monarchists, through republicans, to neo-fascists, is that they have been unable to obtain any meaningful electoral results in any of the country’s recent elections. The movements they lead have a minuscule membership base, but their highly ideological and organised nature allowed them to be noticed by the media.

The stellar rise of the March could be seen as a political miscalculation of the Polish conservative opposition, the Law and Justice (PiS) party. After the lost elections in 2007 PiS attempted to hijack the March from the extremists and turn it into a vehicle of protest against the ruling liberals of the Civic Platform (PO). The conservative press chose to overlook the radical legacy of its organisers and praised the March as a beacon of healthy patriotism in an increasingly post-ideological world. This was above all an attempt to spite the mainstream liberal media outlets that condemned the March. It quickly became clear that the radicals do not want anything in common with PiS, who they saw as part of the system they were trying to dismantle. Nonetheless, the damage was done. The March became associated with PiS and, even though the party was never involved in its organisation, the subsequent events were bloated by its supporters. Thousands of conservative families with children, often blissfully unaware of the extremist nature of the March’s organisers, helped build its legitimacy. Despite the attempt of PiS leadership to distance themselves from the March after the violent incidents, much of the conservative grassroots has already become emotionally bound to the initiative. Every year they accuse the media of overstating the levels of violence that accompany the March and blame the government for employing the police forces in a way that provokes incidents.

While the participation of conservative families provides a social license for the initiative, and the radical right constitute its brains, the core of the participants is comprised of football hooligans from across Poland. These are simply ‘adventure-seekers’ for whom the March provides the group anonymity needed to cause trouble with impunity. With its football chants and club banners the March could be confused with a rowdy crowd heading for a game. The hooligans have a bone to pick with the ruling Civic Platform who in the run-up to last year’s European Football Championship co-organised by Poland cracked down on organised hooligan groups and introduced a series of security restrictions on football fans. While undoubtedly xenophobic and anti-systemic, there is little evidence that this group could be attributed with a conscious understanding of, not to mention an engagement with, the complex, and often contradictory extremist ideologies of the political movements organising the March.

Many other variables helped facilitate the growth of tension accompanying the March. One is the proliferation of conspiracy theories and intensification of Russo-phobia after the crash of the Polish Presidential airplane in Russia in 2010. Another is the cultural liberalisation that followed Poland’s EU accession in 2004. In traditionally Catholic Poland large groups are vehemently opposing any change that could bring about same-sex marriage, or the marginalisation of the Church, polarising society over those issues. Finally, the growing gap between the country’s wealthy and poor is also of growing concern, especially that it is occurring in a post-Communist country in which modern capitalism is a brand-new phenomenon.

The lack of viable solutions to the annual bouts of violence in the Polish capital lies in the political tensions between the country’s two dominating parties, the Civic Platform and PiS. Both sides of the conflict blame each other for inciting the aggression, while at the same time distancing themselves from the acts of violence, leaving no one to answer (or pay) for the riots. The Polish political elite effectively leaves the country without answers for why this phenomenon is recurring every year, and how to avoid a similar scenario playing out again in the future. As the events in neighbouring Ukraine have so poignantly demonstrated, such by-products of party politics are a small price to pay for Poland’s successful democratisation and integration with Europe.



Mateusz Zatoński is a postgraduate student of Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and a Research Assistant in Polish History at King’s College London. His interests range from ethn0-nationalism in the inter-war period, to health policy in modern Europe. He is currently researching the role of Communist regimes in covering up evidence of tobacco harm in Eastern Europe.

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