by Volha Charnysh
On November 11, some 60,000 people marched through Warsaw to mark Poland’s Independence Day. The theme was religious: the official slogan of the march was “We want God,” and a church service preceded the event. But this was no simple family outing. Next to parents and children, ultranationalists and fascists carried banners that read “Death to the enemies of the homeland,” “Clean blood,” and “White Europe.” Foreign guests included Roberto Fiore, a self-identified fascist who leads Italy’s New Force party, the Slovak neo-Nazi MP Milan Mazurek, best known for his Holocaust denial, and several members of Hungary’s xenophobic Jobbik party.
The march’s organizers, the All-Polish Youth and the National-Radical Camp, espouse a Catholic fundamentalist ideology and believe that only white Christians belong in Europe. They claim to continue the traditions of eponymous organizations in interwar Poland known for attacking Jews, Germans, and socialists. Today, they target atheists, gays, Jews, Muslims, and liberals.
The overt demonstration of xenophobia and fascism at the Independence Day march sparked shock and condemnation in the West. Four days later, in part driven by the disrespect for European values at the march, the European Parliament voted to launch a process suspending Poland’s voting rights in the EU.
Within Poland, the governing nationalist Law and Justice party (known as PiS) at first hailed the march as patriotic. Interior Minister Mariusz Blaszczak, a close ally of PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, called the event “a beautiful sight” and claimed he did not see any fascist banners. PiS deputy Dominik Tarczynski tweeted a promise of legal support for participants who had been “defamed” as fascists.
It took two days for PiS to adopt even a modestly critical stance. On November 13, a party spokeswoman said that it was “impossible to control banners of some 60,000 people in a democratic state.” Only President Andrzej Duda, who ran as a PiS candidate in the 2015 election but has since shown increasing independence from the party, directly criticized the marchers’ “xenophobia, nationalism, and anti-Semitism.”
PiS’ reluctance to denounce the marchers reflects an uncomfortable fact about the party. To outside observers, the fascist elements on display at the march reflected only an extreme minority in Polish society, one that has had little electoral success. But the reality is more worrying: over the last decade, PiS has co-opted the radical right and brought many of its ideas into the ideological mainstream.
THE ROOTS OF POLISH POPULISM
Why did one of Europe’s largest far-right gatherings since World War II take place in Warsaw? The two factors linked to the resurgence of the radical right in western Europe—economic discontent and the influx of refugees—certainly played a role. Although Poland’s economy has consistently ranked among the fastest-growing in Europe, the benefits of growth have been unevenly distributed and wages in Poland still lag behind those in western Europe. Many low-income Poles now feel like second-class citizens, not only in the EU but also in their own country. In a poll conducted last April, only 22 percent of respondents agreed that everyone in Poland had equal opportunities, regardless of material circumstances, and 86 percent complained that the gap between the rich and the poor in Poland was too large.
And although no Muslim refugees have entered Poland, Poles have been anxiously watching the news about the influx of refugees into Europe. Against the background of terrorism and without personal contact with refugees, Poles appear to have little empathy for non-Christian migrants. In an April 2017 national survey, 74 percent of respondents opposed accepting refugees from the Middle East and Africa; just 40 percent balked at accepting refugees from neighboring Ukraine.
Yet economic discontent and the refugee influx are only part of the explanation for the far right’s strength in Poland. Xenophobic and fundamentalist sentiments have deep historical roots in the country. The idea that only Catholics make good Poles goes back to Roman Dmowski, a right-wing politician who wielded vast influence in the interwar period, although he held government office only briefly, as Minister of Foreign Affairs for seven weeks in 1923. Today, admiration for Dmowski, who championed Polish independence but also admired Italian fascism and was a committed anti-Semite, unites Poles across the political spectrum. The link between Catholicism and Polishness was further solidified in the 1980s thanks to the central role played by the Catholic Church in Solidarity, the anticommunist labor movement that fought for workers’ rights and democratic reforms.
The resulting fusion of religious conservatism and Polish nationalism has been exploited by far-right movements. Proposals to ban abortion and euthanasia unite racist skinheads and pious grandmothers. The Catholic Church condemns xenophobia, and Pope Francis has called for solidarity with the refugees. But some Catholic elites in Poland are openly critical of the Pope’s reformist agenda and reluctant to accept Muslim migrants. Fellow travellers, such as the hard-line religious radio station Radio Maryja, are sending an openly defiant message, combining Christian fundamentalism with Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.
Poland’s fraught history of nation building, repeatedly interrupted by wars and occupation, provides right-wing activists with a rich supply of martyrdom and betrayal tropes to support the vision of Poland as surrounded by internal and external enemies. Contemporary radical movements have adopted names and traditions from the interwar period and rallied behind specific historical events. Take the glorification of the so-called Cursed Soldiers, an underground anticommunist resistance movement active after World War II. According one of the National Movement leaders, the cursed soldiers fought for “the great, independent, and Catholic Poland, not for a secular state, social progress, or European solidarity.” Such references serve to link the modern radical right to historical opposition to communism and resonate with voters who feel left behind and mistrust mainstream politicians.
Extremist organizations have even gone beyond exploiting existing popular sentiments and attempted to inculcate new forms of nationalism, especially in schoolchildren. The All-Polish Youth has sought to create a new generation of Polish “patriots” through outwardly innocuous programs for high school and university students that include sports competitions, lectures on historical and sociopolitical issues, and pilgrimages. Such activities enable the group to spread ethnonationalist thinking and plant specific historical and cultural references in the minds of impressionable future voters. The group’s manifesto emphasizes the “principles of the One, True, Holy Catholic Faith” and “declares war on arbitrariness, liberalism, tolerance and relativism.”
HOW THE PiS BENEFITS FROM RESURGENT XENOPHOBIA
The rise of extremist movements is alarming, but, so far, they have had little electoral success. In the 2015 parliamentary election, the National Movement, an extremist party formed in 2012 by the All-Polish Youth and the National-Radical Camp, won just five seats. It was able to overcome the five percent threshold for representation in parliament through cooperation with Kukiz-15, an ideologically diverse populist group. Today, the National Movement is a one-man-show, as four of its five MPs defected to Kukiz-15. Robert Winnicki, its lone member of parliament, issues one provocative statement after another but has little influence.
Far more worrying than such fringe parties is the growing radicalization of the governing PiS. Some PiS elites clearly share the convictions of the far right, although the party’s official line is far gentler than those of extremist groups. Rather than call for the overthrow of the democratic system, PiS promises to defend the interests of ordinary people by reforming the judiciary. Rather than introduce open censorship, it wants to take control of public television and radio stations in order to make them more “impartial, objective, and reliable.” When the party is less guarded, however, its pronouncements resemble those of the All-Polish Youth and the National-Radical Camp. In 2015, PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski warned that migrants carried “very dangerous diseases long absent from Europe” and would use Christian churches as “toilets.” This August, PiS MP Bogdan Rzonca wondered on Twitter why there were “so many Jews among the abortionists, despite the Holocaust.”
The rise and fall of the far-right League of Polish Families (LPR) illustrates the shrinking distance between PiS and extremist parties. In 2001, the LPR won 7.9 percent of the vote, just below PiS’ 9.5 percent. But the LPR’s electoral fortunes suffered when PiS, which had started out by promising to tackle crime and corruption, moved to the right and declared itself on a mission to combat the erosion of patriotic and Christian values in Poland.
Then in 2006, the PiS, which had spent a year as a minority government after winning a plurality of seats in the 2005 elections, invited the LPR to form a coalition, breaking the taboo on the presence of extremists in government. That enabled some extremist politicians to directly influence public policy. Roman Giertych, then the All-Polish Youth chairman and an LPR MP known for open anti-Semitism and homophobia, headed the Ministry of Education. Piotr Farfal, a former skinhead with fascist sympathies, ran Polish state TV. When in the 2007 elections, the LPR failed to meet the five percent threshold for representation in parliament, some took this as a sign of the weakening of the extremist vote. In fact, it merely reflected the reality that the PiS had absorbed many of the LPR’s politicians and voters.
In that election, the PiS lost to the more liberal Civic Platform (PO) party, after just two years in power. Young voters had rushed to the polls to defeat the Kaczynski twins, Jaroslaw and his brother, Lech, then the president, who were viewed as an embarrassment to Poland. But in 2015, PiS won 37.6 percent of the vote and a majority in parliament. The party benefited from growing popular disillusionment with the status quo, the endorsement of the Catholic Church, and the high proportion (15 percent) of votes that were cast for parties that failed to exceed the five percent electoral threshold. Jaroslaw Kaczynski avoided controversy by coordinating the campaign from behind the scenes and fielding politicians for the posts of prime minister and president who were less divisive than he was. He recast Lech, who died in a plane crash in Russia, in April 2010, as a martyr for Poland and accused the governing PO of covering up foul play by the Kremlin in his brother’s death. To many Poles, the PiS’ vision of a Poland surrounded by enemies no longer seemed outlandish. Surveys showed that nearly a third of the population believed that Lech had been assassinated by Russia.
Today PiS is more popular than ever and few seem embarrassed by its extremist views. The website for the 2018 Independence Day March is already up. It lists historical and contemporary figures whom the organizers see as the most important for the advancement of Polish independence. Right after Pope John Paul II comes Lech Kaczynski.
The efforts of the All-Polish Youth, the National-Radical Camp, and similar organizations to educate and rally the new generation of so-called patriots seem to have paid off. Young Poles are increasingly conservative and populist in their electoral choices. PiS is no longer just the party of the elderly, the rural, and the uneducated. In the 2015 parliamentary election, a majority of young people voted for either PiS or Kukiz-15, a coalition that included the National Movement. The electoral tide may yet turn, but the legitimation of intolerance and xenophobia that the far right has achieved will be hard to undo.
This article was originally published on ForeignAffairs.com.