WARSAW, Poland -- Every year, on the 1st of August at 5 p.m., people on the streets of Warsaw stop for a minute to commemorate the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising. This year wasn’t different - but alongside official commemorations, for the fifth time the Warsaw Uprising March was organised by National-Radical Camp (ONR), far-right nationalist movement.
It wasn’t only members of the far-right organisations that walked in the march, although they were definitely the most visible, with their green armbands, organisation’s flags in hands, neat uniforms, unanimously shouting slogans about national pride. Behind them marched a diverse crowd - families, older people, teenagers, all of them unknowing or undisturbed by the fact that contemporary ONR considers itself an ideological descendant of the interwar organisation of the same name, banned only after three months of existence because of its violent, outspoken anti-Semitism.
It’s hard not to notice the growing popularity for nationalist, right-wing ideas among young Poles. The so-called “patriotic fashion,” especially popularised by the Red is Bad clothing company, filled the streets of Polish cities with youth dressed in clothing decorated with symbols somehow referring to Polish history or culture - from fairly innocent jumpers with the images of Polish hussars, to more disturbing t-shirts with phrases like “Death to Homeland’s Enemies.”
It can be hard to pinpoint, though, who exactly these ‘homeland’s enemies’ are. For Marta Niemczyk, a 21 year-old journalist who used to belong to the ONR, it could be people that somehow negate the value of nation-states, but definitions vary from person to person. The definition of the word ‘patriotism’, which recently became more and more present in the public discourse, is vague, too. “Patriotism nowadays can mean anything, depending on the person’s political views,” says Daniel, 24, who used to cooperate with the Nationalist Movement, but now focuses more on right-wing journalism and would prefer not to give his last name.
According to 2015 Polish Public Opinion Research Centre’s (CBOS) poll, one third of Poles aged 18-24 describe their political views as right-wing, a ten percent increase since 2013, and the biggest number since 1990 - that is, the first year that this kind of opinion poll was conducted by CBOS. At the same time, young Poles are less radical in their political views - around eight percent of them declare far-right political views, as compared to 12 percent of the general population.
The heightened presence of far-right movements in public debate after the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) victory in 2015 Parliamentary elections sparked a reaction from the left-wing community, notably the Razem party, which launched the Zero Tolerance campaign, which aim is to document and intervene in the instances of cooperation between public institutions, such as ministries, schools, museums, with far-right movements.
“It’s hard to pinpoint the exact cause of the spike of right-wing atmosphere in Poland,” says Grzegorz Radomski, PhD, who conducts seminars on European nationalism at the Faculty of Political Science and International Studies at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun. He underlines that the growing popularity of right-wing movements is a European trend and points to the combination of several possible causes, including the loss of the sense of security caused by the instability of the European Union, Brexit and war in Ukraine. Moreover, right-wing organisations usually rely on the feeling of community as opposed to individualism and understood as a cultural community, ethnic community, or, in some cases even a biological one. “The voters are drawn to organisations that appeal to the sense of a very broad community, a national one,” he adds.
The 2015 Parliamentary elections showed that despite not declaring radical political views young Poles are not only getting more conservative, but that also they are more and more often turning “against the system.” The recent financial crisis fuelled distrust of old political elites, pushing many young people to vote for Kukiz’15 party, the leader of which - ex-rockman Paweł Kukiz - not only prided himself for being against the elites, but also cooperated with the Nationalist Movement (RN), winning five seats for the members of the movement in the latest parliamentary elections.
However, it’s mostly the radicals or the leaders of right-wing movements that are presented by the Polish media. Who are the young people - the one-third of all Poles aged 18-24 - who consider themselves right-wing, support these movements but not necessarily have an active role in them?
“I do call myself a nationalist, but I do not belong to any right-wing organisation simply because there isn’t one for me,” says Grzesiek, an energetic 25 year-old entrepreneur who recently started his own company. He would prefer not to give his last name, to protect his privacy. What does patriotism mean for him? “I follow the traditional values that I was brought up with, I try to defend them,” he says. He occasionally helps his friends from various organisations to collect signatures for things that are important to him, he votes in the elections, goes to marches. He didn’t take part in the recent Warsaw Uprising March, but for a couple of years he attended the annual Independence March, organised by the National Movement.
Poland for Poles
The climate around the Independence March has changed together with the change of the government. Up until 2014, it was condemned by the ruling Civic Platform and usually ended with riots and clashes with the police. However, in 2015, President Andrzej Duda issued an official letter to the organisers and participants of the Independence March, praising them for commemorating the national heroes. “I would like to thank all, that contribute towards the building of a Polish identity and heartfelt connections uniting the whole Polish community,” he wrote in the letter. However, the 2015 Independence March main slogan was “Poland for Poles, Poles for Poland”, and the march was often described by left-wing activists as xenophobic and creating divides in the society.
But for many young Poles attending the marches organised by far-right organisations the slogans are just part of that culture and shouldn’t be taken literally. For Marta, the combative atmosphere is typical for these marches, but being part of them, she doesn’t feel threatened. In her experience, the media tend to demonize the members of nationalist movements - she describes herself as someone who doesn’t look like a ‘stereotypical nationalist’. Indeed, it is hard to imagine the soft-spoken, petite blonde girl in line with football fans and uniformed members of ONR.
Despite not being affiliated with any political organisation anymore, Marta plans to attend the Independence March this year - as she did for the last couple of years. “I used to shout the slogans, too, when I was active in ONR,” she admits. “But they were mostly a way for showing where you belong, how you identify politically. Of course there are some people who come to these marches just to vent. But for us, the Independence March is also a demand for being seen, communicating our opinion, showing that we aren’t happy with the current state of affairs - and we’re part of the nation, too, so our opinion should be valued.”
Although Grzesiek doesn’t support the current government and thinks it’s policies create deeper divides within the Polish community, he also thinks that left-wing activist aren’t open to the opinion of those that are have different political views. He recounts a fight with members of the Antifa right before the Independence March a few years ago. “They attacked us just because we were holding Polish flags and we were going to join the march,” he says. “Every situation like that just confirms my beliefs – just by carrying a Polish flag I am regarded as a Nazi.”
Daniel also regards the marches organised by the right-wing organisations such as RN or ONR as a demonstrations of people against the system – a system that makes it hard for them to live well. “Our generation doesn’t have a good start on the job market, we usually work on zero-hour contracts,” he says. “My methods of opposing the system are different – I write rather than go out on the streets, I don’t support some controversial statements – but I admire the commitment of the people that organize and attend those marches,” he says thoughtfully, as if weighing his words. He doesn’t think that the slogans that appear on these marches are too aggressive, too. “If someone’s political views are unpopular, everything they say may be regarded as hate speech.”
Not everyone can feel welcome in the right-wing communities, though. “If someone cannot adapt to the values of certain country, why they should live here?” Grzesiek asks. “I don’t have anything against people different than me,” he adds, “until they work hard and don’t show off how different they are. For example, I have gay friends, but for me Pride Parade is just too much.”
Similarly, the supporters of right-wing organisations worry about the foreigners coming to Poland. Marta is sceptical of what she calls the multi-cultural policy imposed by the European Union. “I am not prejudiced, I can talk to the people that I absolutely don’t agree with and respect their opinions. But there is this fashion of accepting every difference and I think anyone can disagree with that,” she says. She recalls going to the Human Library meetings twice and talking to different people – a Muslim, a vegan, a queer person – and the atmosphere being welcoming and open. “But I’m sceptical if, for example, the people from the Human Library would be so sympathetic towards me if I said up front that I read Dmowski and agree with some things he said,” she adds.
However, many activists point to the acceptance for hate speech and hate-motivated violence among the right-wing elites as being dangerous. According to the Police statistics, in the number of prejudice-motivated crimes has grown in recent years – from 698 legal proceedings on hate-motivated deeds in 2014 to 962 in 2015, reports Gazeta Wyborcza. And it can be seen in media reports, as well – a Chilean man was beaten up in Warsaw because he “looked like an Arab,” Polish professor was attacked because he spoke German with his friend.
Aleksandra Belina, an activist involved in the No Hate Speech Movement campaign, conducting anti-hate speech and anti-discriminatory workshops, points to the fact that the awareness of hate speech may also have caused it to become more visible – and similarly, caused more educational projects and research upon the subject. “On one hand I see the worrying signs, but they are also more visible in the media, whereas the educational activities are just there, are not talked about,” she said. “But it’s hard to do a large-scale research on the long-term effects of anti-discriminatory projects.”
Belina addresses her workshops mostly to young people, and recalls examples of shifts in people’s opinions because of various challenges posed during the workshops. Growing up in not very tolerant environment, she experienced the change herself. “Of course, it’s not a matter of one or two meetings, it’s a lifetime process,” she says, “but I strongly believe that a small change can have a snowball effect, of people spreading the competences and knowledge to others.” How does she approach people that challenge her views? She invokes the principle of non-violent communication. “I try to be as factual as possible, reach a compromise even if it isn’t a win-win situation, while also respecting their opinion to have a different view – even if I feel personally offended by it,” she says.
“It’s also important to question the person – maybe they simply don’t realise the hatefulness of their speech. Maybe for them it’s just a slogan?” However, she agrees that slogans are far from being innocent. “On the one hand, it doesn’t do any good to demonize people because it may so happen that someone who is a ‘radical patriot’ wouldn’t really harm anyone, but on the other hand – there is a very thin line between a word, a thought, a stereotype, and an act.”
The 7th annual Independence March will take place on the 11th of November in Warsaw.