Why 60,000 people joined a nationalist march in Poland

Warsaw, Poland – After some 60,000 people, including nationalists and fascists, gathered in the Polish capital for an “Independence March” on Saturday, the country’s deep divisions have risen to the fore.

This year’s event ran under the slogan: “We want God”.

Typical chants included: “The whole Poland sings with us: f*** off with the refugees”, “God, honour, homeland”, “Not red, not rainbow but national Poland”, “One nation across the borders” and “F*** Antifa”.

Some reports said that amid the sea of banners, messages included: “Clean Blood”, “Europe Will Be White” and “Pray for Islamic Holocaust”.

Poland has refused to take in refugees, with officials claiming that people of Muslim background are a threat to security. Fewer than one percent of the Polish population is Muslim.

The event, also attended by citizens of neighbouring countries, sent the world a clear anti-European Union, anti-liberal and anti-Islam message, although many participants – including organisers – claimed that the march was peaceful and patriotic.

A member of the far right carries a banner at the march [Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska/Al Jazeera]

“Cheers to Great Poland!” a man chanted from the stage to crowds waving white and red flags. “The world is changing. We are fighting a culture war.

“This war is not somewhere far away. It is in your home even though you may not realise it. It’s a war against God, against the homeland and honour, which they want to take away from us.”

Crowds applauded in agreement, cheering, “Great Catholic Poland, Great national Poland”.

Some fired off red flares.

‘Europe and the world is in decay’

The mood was celebratory which together with the red gleam and dark blue sky gave the moment an ominous atmosphere.

When the emcee announced the national anthem, families with children, elderly, women, and above all young men, stood at attention and sang along.

Each year, the November 11 Warsaw Independence March gathers thousands of participants commemorating the memory of 1918, when Poland regained statehood after 123 years of partitions.

But it has also become an occasion for right-wing groups to promote their ideology.

“Europe and the world is in decay: culturally, politically, economically. We Poles have to be the alternative,” said Tomasz Dorosz of the National-Radical Camp, speaking on stage. “There will be a national Poland or none.”

“Today, we are reclaiming the revolution from our enemies. Today, we are the revolution. We will carry this banner,” said Dorosz’s associate. “When we march together with God we are undefeatable.”

Anti-fascist counterprotests

Parallel to the march, the Anti-Fascist Coalition, an umbrella alliance of the Warsaw Women Strike, Citizens RP and other progressive groups organised a demonstration under the slogan: “To your freedom and ours”.

Lidia Domanska from Antifascist Warsaw said around 5,000 people joined the counterprotest.

While both events passed without major incident, tension is not far from Poland’s polarised society.

With public discourse shifting right, divisive language and nationalist slogans could cause further turmoil.

The media is filled with right-wing propaganda; the discourse has shifted towards views which only a few years back would have been unequivocally labelled as fascist and racist

Lidia Domasska, Antifascist Warsaw

Recent international and domestic developments have deepened divisions.

Domanska told Al Jazeera that following the 2015 parliamentary elections, which brought to power the right-wing Law and Justice party, “fascists have put on suits and entered the [the lower chamber of the parliament]”.

“The media is filled with right-wing propaganda; the discourse has shifted towards views which only a few years back would have been unequivocally labelled as fascist and racist,” she said.

“People who are fed with this narrative begin to see hate speech as something acceptable.”

Right-wing social media users rejected claims the march was a far-right event, saying it was simply an expression of patriotism [Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska/Al Jazeera]

The year 2015, which saw the refugee crisis further unravel as attacks took place in Paris, was a turning point for the European far right and brought several traditionally nationalist and right-wing messages to Eastern Europe’s mainstream politics.

It is now commonplace to juxtapose Christian values, sovereignty of the nation-state and the right to protect the national character of societies against what the far right views as Brussels seeking to erase nation states and “Islamisize” Eastern Europe’s homogenous societies.

“Poland is the role model for Europe,” said a representative of the Slovakian far right on stage on Saturday. “It’s time for the European nationalists to unite in the fight against neo-Marxists and Islamists.”

Meanwhile, the right-wing Polish government’s reluctance to accept refugees and its opposition to the EU’s refugee resettlement programme has seen its popularity rise among the far right.

“The threat comes from Brussels, which aims to create the United States of Europe. We will not let them do that,” said Laszlo Toroczka from Hungary’s Jobbik party, who spoke at Saturday’s event. “Poles and Hungarians are capable of changing Europe. I believe that with God’s help we will win”.

‘Religion is a tool the far right uses’

Despite the explicitly nationalist character of rhetoric that seeped through the march, right-wing social media users warned against labelling it as fascist and nationalist.

The event, they say, was an expression of Polish patriotism attended by families with children, rather than angry mobs of young white men.

According to a study by the Public Opinion Research Centre (CBOS) published in November 2016, while 17 percent of Poles express support for movements such as National Radical Camp (ONR) and All-Polish Youth (Mlodziez Wszechpolska), only seven percent identify as nationalists.

‘The whole Poland sings with us: f*** off with the refugees’ was one of the chants that echoed during the march [Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska/Al Jazeera]

At the same time, 88 percent of Poles consider themselves patriots, even though for 52 percent, the difference between nationalism and patriotism is unclear.

At the same time, sentiments of nationalist movements resonate most with people younger than 25, 38 percent of whom support those groups.

In August 2017, CBOS found that in 2015, 32 percent of young people identified with right-wing views – above the record-high of 1998.

However, that trend was temporary and in the first seven months of 2017, 26 percent of young people between the ages of 18 and 24 expressed such views.

The support for the far right has not corresponded with the rise of religiosity among Poles, which, according to CBOS is decreasing.

The reference to religion in this year’s Independence March slogan – We Want God – may, therefore, come as a surprise.

“Religion is, above all, a rhetorical tool that the far right uses to present itself as the defender of traditional values against liberal progressives and other ‘sinners’,” Andrea Pirro, research fellow at Scuola Normale Superiore, told Al Jazeera.

“Such a narrative is intended to reinforce the contraposition between a Christian ‘us’ (the native population) and a non-Christian ‘them’ (by exclusion, the non-native ‘aliens’).

“Religion can be thus interpreted as a political expedient to be used against migrant populations, ethnic minorities, and ‘liberal agents’ supposedly acting on their behalf.”

Professor Anna Grzymala-Busse of Stanford University said Poland’s use of religious nationalism and the fusion of religious and national identities is nothing new.

“We see similar versions in other countries in central and Eastern Europe [such as] the Serbian government during the wars of Yugoslav Succession [and] Jobbik’s references to the crown of St. Stephen in Hungary,” she said. “All of these are instrumental uses of religion for the sake of political ends, and rarely reflect genuine religious sentiment.”

Follow Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska on Twitter: @Aga_Pik

The sky bled as people set off flares [Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska/Al Jazeera]