A nationalist Independence Day march in Warsaw that took place on November 11th gathered again tens of thousands of participants. Similar to 2018, the Polish government decided to support the demonstration to make it happen. As the court rulings had banned the event, thanks to the Polish government, and more precisely, the government’s Office for Veterans and Victims of Oppression, the march became an official state event.
A short history of march
The November 11 national holiday commemorates the day Poland gained its independence after World War I. However, since 2011, the nationalist Independence Day march – organized by radical nationalist groups in Warsaw – is the biggest event that day. The demonstration has turned out to be a success and a flagship project for the radical nationalist movement in Poland. Firstly, the event – regardless of its evaluation – is recognizable, and constitutes a strategy of movement mobilization and collective identity formation. It also strengthens transnational nationalist cooperation as it is usually attended by radical-right groups from other countries, such as Italy, Bulgaria, and Hungary, and others. Secondly, a political party, the National Movement, was founded as a result of the March. Now the party co-creates the Confederation Liberty and Independence coalition that has its place in the parliament. Thirdly, the organizers have now managed to become a politically important actor – this is evidenced, for example, by the fact that the March was combined with the official presidential march in 2018, on the 100th anniversary of Poland’s independence. This year, as the march faced problems with the court decision banning the event, the government decided to support it and transform it into an official state event.
The 2021 March: complications and governmental rescue
The problems of this year’s event started when it turned out that anti-fascist initiative “14 women from the bridge” registered a public demonstration which was planned to take place on the usual march route. Moreover, the mayor of Warsaw, Rafał Trzaskowski wanted the Independence Day march to be banned. He referred to previous years’ experiences with the march and the messages spread by some of the participants:
“I believe that the streets of Warsaw… are not the place for the spreading of slogans that have the hallmarks of fascism. There is no room for such symbols and behaviour…”
Contrary to previous years, Warsaw’s district court decided to rule in favor of the capitol’s authorities and – despite the appeals of the organizers and Minister of Justice, General Prosecutor, Zbigniew Ziobro – upheld a ban on the rally. However, then the government’s Office for Veterans and Victims of Oppression announced that the march became an official state event, the type of event that is reserved for important anniversaries and holidays celebrations with the participation of top government authorities. On the one hand, it is a continuation of informal cooperation between nationalist groups and the governing party. The main leader of the march, Robert Bąkiewicz was previously connected with the National Radical Camp (ONR). Since leaving, he has been involved in several other nationalist organizations that have received state funds, and thus, his initiatives are well-equipped for the event organizations. On the other hand, it could be the governments’ strategy to attract new supporters and diminish the significance of its political opponent, Confederation Liberty and Independence. However, the main leaders of the government did not show up in the march, whereas the representatives of the Confederation had the opportunity to speak up.
The governments’ decision met with various controversies. Moreover, the organizers, including Bąkiewicz, had discursively created the figure of ‘provocateurs’ responsible for potential riots even before the march started. Thus, they wanted to prepare the defensive line in case some incidents happened. To avoid any dangerous situation, construction materials, garbage bins, and even bicycle racks were removed from the route of the march.
A new Faustian bargain?
The march is rather heterogenous event gathering both radical-right supporters, right-wing politicians, historical re-enactment groups, black block radicals, football fans, or families with children. Similar to previous years, anti-LGBT, anti-German, anti-migrant, or anti-EU rhetoric was expressed on the slogans and during the official speeches. While one of the main reference point was situation on the Polish-Belarussian border, Bąkiewicz talked about the threats from both the East and the West:
“Poland is attacked from the east by Moscow, which is using Belarus…[but] also from the west. We are attacked by Germany, which uses EU institutions to take over our sovereignty. They want to take away our national, cultural and even gender identity.”
Apart from the rhetoric, there were also some smaller incidents, like setting on fire the German flag and Donald Tusk’s picture. However, compared to the previous marches, this year’s was defined by the commentators as calm and relatively peaceful. Interestingly, the evaluation of the event started to be measured with the number and scale of the violent incidents, and the organizers seemed to put a lot of effort to avoid any spectacular riots. The question is: what will be next? Does the ‘calmness’ of the march result from the agreement between the organizers and the government? Is a governmental brand of the march acceptable for the ‘anti-system’ movement? In his speech, Bąkiewicz openly supported the politics of the Law and Justice, but at the same time, some anti-governmental statements appeared among the event participants as well. Surely, Bąkiewicz’s influences and resources are much bigger now, and his position lets the nationalists expand their political and discursive opportunities even more. Simultaneously, it seems that the main march slogan “Independence not for sale” can have a double meaning here: will the march organizers regain their independence next year, or contrary, will the march be ‘sold’ and become a regular governmental event? If so, what will happen with the radical-right groups that do not want to go hand in hand with the authorities? Only time will tell.
Dr Justyna Kajta is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a Post-doc at the SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Warsaw. See full profile here.
© Justyna Kajta. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).