by Mateusz Zatonski
Every nation celebrates the biggest dates in its history differently. For instance, Fourth of July gathers Americans at hot-dog eating contests and firework shows. The British Remembrance Day is a rather more solemn affair, with the omnipresent poppy commemorating the victims of the Great War, and parades of war veterans applauded by crowds of tourists and locals. Other countries opt for body paints, historical re-enactments, and countless other ways of celebrating national unity and pride.
In the last years, the Poles seem to mark November 11th, their Independence Day, by an annual free-for-all rampage on the streets of Warsaw.
November 11th first became a Polish national holiday in 1937. It commemorated the re-establishment of the independent Polish state in 1918, after 123 years of partitions and oppressive rule by its imperial neighbours, Prussia, Russia and Austria-Hungary. Soon after WWII broke out, and for the next 50 years honouring Independence Day was strictly forbidden, first by the Nazi occupiers, and after 1945 by the Moscow-controlled Polish government. The Communist authorities saw the anniversary as a remnant of a nationalist legacy that Marxism sought to supersede, and arrested all those who attempted to organise patriotic manifestations.
After the toppling of the country’s Communist regime in 1989 the Independence Day was restored as a national holiday. However, the state commemorations were often poorly organised and viewed as support rallies for whatever political party was in power at the time. The Polish nationalists, denied an opportunity to celebrate their patriotism for decades, did not seem 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, an organisation openly invoking the heritage of a pre-WWII anti-democratic organisation of the same name, it attracted a few hundred people who did not attempt to hide their extreme views, and a similar number who came to oppose them. The media was quick about condemning 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.
However, it soon became clear that the Independence March has become a fixed part of the annual celebrations. The numbers of nationalists from around Poland rallying for the March increased every year, growing from hundreds to thousands of participants. The same was true for the numbers of left-wing activists trying to block the March. Small scale brawls and incidents characteristic of the first editions of the March turned into skirmishes involving hundreds of people. Media interest also ballooned, with conservative press praising the March as a beacon of healthy patriotism in an increasingly post-ideological world, and liberal outlets condemning it as a manifestation of nationalistic and xenophobic views that should not have a place in a state that aspired to be regarded as modern and ‘European’.
This momentum was fed by the polarisation of Polish politics that occurred after the catastrophe in which the plane carrying the Polish President crashed in Russia, resulting in an unprecedented scale of mobilisation on both sides of the ideological divide. This year’s Independence March attracted several thousand participants, among them football hooligans, ultra-Catholic groups, and white supremacists. In a gesture of supra-national solidarity not normally characteristic to those fiercely anti-EU groups, they were joined by emissaries from right-wing movements such as the Hungarian Jobbik, as well as Serbian and Ukrainian nationalists. These groups were mixed into a large number of conservative families with children who, sometimes blissfully unaware of the nature of the organising movements, and sometimes openly supportive of them, provided a kind of ‘fig-leaf’ for the initiative.
On the other side of the police barrier dividing Warsaw’s central Constitution Square were the rather less numerous members of the ‘November 11th Agreement’, an ad-hoc group, defining itself as anti-xenophobic, called to life with the goal of blocking the ‘fascist’ Independence March. Dominated by militant queer groups, left-wing activists, and members of Antifascist Action, this broad coalition excited the media by inviting German anarchist organisations to join them in stopping the marchers. The self proclaimed ‘anti-fascists’ presented themselves as a movement promoting tolerance and a peaceful alternative to the extreme right represented at the Independence March.
The events of the day quickly called into question the clear-cut distinctions between the two factions. As people began congregating in the neighbourhood of the Constitution Square, bottles and bricks promptly began to fly. The police, trying to separate the opposing groups became the main target of violence. Despite professed ideological differences, there was little that could help distinguish masked thugs on either side of the police line. The ‘imported’ German anarchists proved particularly active in their defence of tolerance and multiculturalism, with almost 100 of them arrested early in the day and getting into a fight with the members of one of the historical reconstruction groups (complete with 19th century Napoleonic uniforms) attending the state commemorations in the centre of Warsaw.
The tally of this year’s Polish Independence Day is almost 70 injured, among them 40 policemen, 210 arrests, burning cars and a devastated historic square in the centre of the city. Both sides of the conflict blame each other for inciting the violence, while at the same time cutting themselves off from the acts of violence, effectively leaving no one to answer (or pay) for the riots. The Polish political elite is left without answers for why this happened and how to avoid a similar scenario playing out again in the next years. The Polish President, Bronisław Komorowski, suggested that a March of National Unity could be held to reconcile the different factions, but with the animosity between them this seems little more than wishful thinking.
Just two days after the Polish Independence Day I had the pleasure of participating in the Remembrance Sunday celebrations in London. The sight of crowds of university students, who just a few days earlier marched in a feisty protest against government spending cuts, wearing their red poppies side by side with proud war veterans applauding the military parade, sorely reminded me what a long way Poland still has in learning to celebrate its national pride.