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

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a view of a city with smoke coming out of it: Polish nationalists light flares as they take part in the March of Independence 2017 under the slogan “We want God” as part of Polish Independence Day celebrations in Warsaw Nov. 11. (Photo by RADEK PIETRUSZKA/EPA-EFE) © Provided by WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post Polish nationalists light flares as they take part in the March of Independence 2017 under the slogan “We want God” as part of Polish Independence Day celebrations in Warsaw Nov. 11. (Photo by RADEK PIETRUSZKA/EPA-EFE)

BERLIN — There are few countries that 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 the government isn’t doing anything about it, maintain liberal critics. In fact, the Polish far right feels increasingly emboldened by what it perceives as governmental recognition.

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On Saturday, an estimated 60,000 protesters marched alongside ultranationalists and Nazis to mark the 99th anniversary of Polish independence. As my colleague Avi Selk summarized, the protesters carried banners and held up signs which had a clear far-right extremist message:

“Clean Blood,” as seen by Politico.

“Pray for an Islamic Holocaust,” per CNN.

The march was distinct from other European far-right events

European Nazis and members of the far right have co-opted other landmark memorial days or 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. Those kinds of marches are usually condemned by officials as a misguided and dangerous form of nationalism that crosses the line to white supremacy and Nazi ideology. In Germany, leading politicians frequently join rallies in protest of the marches which have taken place for decades.

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That was not the case for last weekend’s protests in Warsaw, which witnessed little government condemnation.

The origins of Poland’s “independence march” are fairly recent and date back to 2009. Within the next eight years, the annual event has attracted an increasing number of supporters and is now considered one of the world’s biggest. 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.

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, and even voiced public 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 country’s interior minister had previously called the rally “a beautiful sight.”

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Even if he may have been unaware at the time of some of the posters held up at the rally, he likely must have known about who has been behind this annual large-scale protest. Organizers involved in the mass demonstration include anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim radical groups such as the All Polish Youth and the National-Radical Camp, among others, according to AP.

Members of the All Polish Youth movement have had strong ties to the ruling Law and Justice in the past. In 2006, the former chairman of the movement was even named as the country’s vice prime minister.

On social media, critics of the government accused the Law and Justice 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 slogans on live TV. Of the 45 people arrested on Saturday, none were far right extremists. Only anti-fascist protesters 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, the director of the American Jewish Committee's Warsaw office, told AP.

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

The lack of government response fits into a broader pattern that has emerged in Poland over the last two year as it has abruptly shifted to the right. Still considered a post-communism success story and “robust” democracy in 2015, the right-wing and anti-E.U. Law and Justice party swept into power that year after taking a decidedly anti-immigration stance and glorifying the country’s history and ignoring its darker aspects.

To many observers, the far-right surge remains a mystery, given that Poland was doing well economically compared to other post-communist nations and was increasingly being considered a key member of the E.U. 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 or Sweden.

a group of people standing around a fire: (Agencja Gazeta/Adam Stepien via Reuters) © Provided by WP Company LLC d/b/a The Washington Post (Agencja Gazeta/Adam Stepien via Reuters)

Once in office, the Law and Justice party moved swiftly to weaken the opposition and other democratic institutions, like public television stations or 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 retired all Supreme Court justices.

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

The ruling party and the far right share some goals in Poland

Law and Justice has long expressed skepticism or outright hatred of the European Union as an organization that acts hierarchically above nation states. Like other European right-wing parties, it has criticized E.U. ambitions to take more powers from national parliaments.

Unlike most other critics, however, the Law and Justice party has managed to find an E.U. scapegoat well-known enough at home to be used as a target: former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk, who is now the president of the European Council. State media outlets are now linking Tusk with the death seven years ago of the brother of Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski. There is no evidence to support such claims and critics have accused the government of a smear campaign.

Separately, Muslim and Jewish organizations have recently voiced concerns over discrimination and xenophobia by far-right supporters in Poland. The European Jewish Congress worried about the “normalization” of such acts, and an insufficient government response.

In Poland, it appears that Saturday’s exceptional march may in fact be the new normal.

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

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