PLAYING WITH FIRE: The 2018 March of Independence in Warsaw as a ritual of national identity building.
By Lisa J Walters, on 23 January 2019
On 11 November 2018 Poland was to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its independence. The holiday attracted a lot of attention, both inside and outside the country, not only because it was a commemoration of a major milestone in the nation’s history, but also because in previous years, particularly in 2017, it was dominated by the massive March of Independence organized by a coalition of far right groups. In some years, particularly during the PO’s (Platforma Obywatelska – Civic Platform) term in office, aggressive football hooligans, often expressing radical nationalism, vandalised the streets and attacked their opponents or journalists.
The question many were asking in 2018 was how the day was going to turn out, bearing in mind the significance of the centenary. Would it be a joyful celebration of national pride dominated by stately parades and leisurely outings in a festively decorated city? Or – again – a day to be remembered for threatening columns of young ultranationalists parading in unison, occasionally under neo-fascist banners, and propounding a menacing, narrow vision of Polishness?
We have just published an article in which we describe and analyse the history of Polish Independence Day, particularly since the fall of communism. The holiday, established in 1937, was banned by the Nazis and Communists and reinstated in 1989. In the post-1989 period it has come to be regarded as the most important day in the national ceremonial calendar. While following the gradual change in the event’s organization, décor, performative style, and ideology, we have become intrigued by what we have eventually conceptualized as the “symbolic hijacking” of the day by several extreme right-wing organizations.
Context of the 2018 Event
Initially, right after 1989, the celebrations were organized mostly by the state, with the expected mélange of military parades, historical re-enactments, scientific symposia, visits by foreign dignitaries, and gala concerts. But gradually the structure of the proceedings and their tone changed under the impact of increasingly assertive extreme right wing groups and football hooligans, whose celebrations evolved from a relatively small gathering in 2006 into a massive march of about 200 thousand people in 2018. In some years groups of aggressive young males terrorized bystanders, vandalized property, and clashed with the police. In 2010, two far right groups, National-Radical Camp (Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny – ONR) and All-Polish Youth (Młodzież Wszechpolska – MW), joined forces to organize the March of Independence that in the following years was gradually to overshadow other festivities. A year later they set up the March of Independence Association in order better to coordinate the event’s organisation and legally collect donations from their supporters.
On 11 November 2017, Warsaw was treated to a gigantic son et lumière spectacle, the images of which electrified media outlets. Hundreds of red flares lit in unison created an eerie and menacing fiery glow (Picture 1) that illuminated a massive crowd, marching through the streets of the Polish capital that in 1944 had been almost completely erased from the face of the earth by the Nazis. From a closer distance the crowd seemed dominated by organized groups of young males, some of them with their faces concealed, brandishing national colours together with neo-fascist insignia and white-supremacist banners (Picture 2) and chanting nationalist or racist slogans.
After examining dozens of photographs and videos, we concluded that the groups organizing the March and dominating its symbolic production projected a well crafted definition of Polish national identity that they wanted their countrymen, particularly a new, rising generation, to adopt and champion. They see themselves as true patriots and heirs to a heroic and victorious military tradition (“Death to the Fatherland’s enemies!”). They intend to create Poland for Poles, who are to be militantly Catholic, inspired by the Crusades (“Deus Vult”), preferably white (“Europe will be white or uninhabited”), heteronormative and socially conservative (“A boy and a girl – a normal family”; “Abortion kills children”), and adamantly anti-communist (“Use a sickle, use a hammer, smash the red rabble”). They are increasingly committed to defending Christian Europe from serious internal and external threats, these days coming particularly from Islam (“Europe wake up” – an inscription on a massive installation depicting Islam as a Trojan Horse).
Some if not all elements of this proposed collective identity have been captured by the media all over the world and attracted widespread criticism both in Poland and abroad. As a result, the 2018 edition of the March was eagerly anticipated, as many people wanted to see if the propagation of exclusionary nationalism was going to continue or intensify. Nobody was sure how the municipal and central governments were going to react this time, given that in 2017 merely a few official voices of condemnation were heard, and up to this day nobody has been convicted of propagating racism in spite of plentiful evidence in the easily available photo and video footage.
As we were preparing to depart for Warsaw we learned that the 2018 March had become the object of even more intense political controversy. For months, several liberal and anti-fascist groups had been protesting and calling for the March to be banned, which in the meantime thanks to the new law on public gatherings introduced by PiS had acquired the protected status of a cyclical event. On 7 November the outgoing Warsaw Mayor, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz (PO), banned the March arguing that the city was unable to provide sufficient security (at least partly due to a widespread strike in the police force, which thanks to the government’s efforts got called off a day later). She also saw her action as a preventive measure against another occasion to demonstrate “aggressive nationalism.” On 8 November, the organisers appealed this decision in the Warsaw District Court and won. The verdict to invalidate the Mayor’s decision was upheld by the Warsaw Appeals Court on 10 November.
Meanwhile, the Polish President, Andrzej Duda, and other state officials from PiS made several contradictory gestures. A few weeks before the holiday, the President had proposed one large public event open to everyone regardless of their political affiliation, and soon afterwards engaged in negotiations with the March of Independence Association to co-organize the celebrations. This idea had been heavily criticised by the opposition and in late October Duda withdrew from the talks about a joint event. Following the March cancellation by the Mayor, he announced he would lead a ‘White-and-Red March’ organised by the state instead. However, an official representing the Prime Minister and two high-ranking government ministers restarted negotiations with the far right groups and within 48 hours as a result of this convoluted bargaining the President-led White-and-Red March was merged with the far-right March of Independence. The state thus formed an alliance with ONR and MW, opening itself to criticism of condoning extreme, racist and exclusionary ideology.
Account of Participant Observation in Two Voices
We arrived in Warsaw on 10 November to join a group of researchers associated with the Graduate School for Social Research (Polish Academy of Sciences), Institute for European Studies (Technische Universität Chemnitz), and Center for Research on Prejudice (University of Warsaw). In the morning of November 11 the group gathered to discuss the methodology of surveying rallies and marches. We presented fragments of our earlier work on the celebrations. After the workshop the whole group went to observe and study the March. While the others were distributing questionnaires designed to gauge the motivations of participants, we engaged in participant observation. What follows is our preliminary report.
The atmosphere in the group was a mixture of excitement and nervousness, and even though the two of us knew our role was not going to entail any close encounters with the March participants, it was hard not to give in to this mood. Most members of the team involved in the survey were quite young and they all wore bright yellow vests and id tags identifying them as members of the research team (Picture 3).
This were one of many safety measures introduced by the organisers. We assumed that the event was going to be peaceful bearing in mind the extra security forces mobilised due to the presence of high-ranking state officials. But, at the risk of sounding sensationalist, I have to admit we were not quite sure what to expect. On the previous evening, I had witnessed a large group of men in front of a restaurant in Marszałkowska, engaged in what might have been a rehearsal before the Sunday’s March – they were shouting expletives directed at a private TV station, TVN, amongst the noise of breaking glass and occasional loud firecrackers.
When we walked out of the Staszic Palace, housing the Academy, the square dominated by the famous Copernicus statue was just being turned into a stage for a merry troupe of performers on high stilts, sporting national colours and waving huge national banners (Picture 4). Soon we were surrounded by another group of accomplished performers who were exquisitely clad in traditional Polish costumes, moving gracefully to the tune of national dances, most prominently the Polonaise (Picture 5). These two groups of performers did not join the March; they seemed to be taking part in separate celebrations organized by the municipal government. We started walking towards the Dmowski Circle, the central intersection of the city, that had been earlier announced as the starting point of the March. The streets, closed to vehicular traffic, were densely crowded, people trying to get to the starting location. Some seemed to be frantic, others just strolled leisurely. The situation was chaotic, with no wardens in sight, but we did not feel threatened at all. Eventually we managed to get to the Marszałkowska Street, close to its intersection with Chmielna and there we got stuck for a long while in a huge crowd extending as far as the eye could see.
The absence of visible police or March stewards was astonishing. En route to Marszałkowska the crowds were funnelled into particular streets by means of metal barriers or parked police cars, but very few officers were to be seen around them. It was obvious that anyone could bring to the March anything they wanted. And indeed many participants brought bottles of alcohol, to be emptied on site. Even though we did not see many heavily intoxicated people, the whiff of vodka was very apparent is some parts of the – still stationary – crowd. There was also no shortage of the red torches – an illegal but seemingly ever more popular visual marker of right-wing events. Since the March has the status of a state event, nobody expected the event to be dissolved by the municipal authorities due to the use of the forbidden pyrotechnics, even though the Warsaw City Council had made such suggestions in the past.
November in Warsaw tends to be grim and the sun sets early. These are not warm, sunny days of spring or summer when any at gathering, regardless of its organizers’ intentions, it is easy to enjoy being together with others, sharing the common sociality of a demonstration. Eleven days after All Souls Day when everybody pays homage to their dead, under grey skies and in cold weather, 11 November makes it hard if not impossible to celebrate in a joyful and light-hearted manner. The calendar leaves little choice but to feel somewhat subdued and melancholic.
The crowd, dominated by small groups rather than single individuals, was diverse. Participants ranged from younger and older couples, families with children, mixed-gender clusters of friends, to packs of young males (Picture 6). The latter, some of whom were apparently more or less drunk, cursed frequently, but were not physically aggressive. I overheard several of them sharing rather unflattering comments about the current PiS government, but merciless mockery of the liberal-cosmopolitan opposition and its political philosophy was more common. If there were people sympathetic to this political option, they kept silent.
The vibe within the crowd was peculiar. People have been waiting for the start of the March long enough to start complaining, and problems with the cellular signal caused further frustration. Regular March attendees were fairly easy to spot and later on proved to dominate the visual (flares) and acoustic (chants) dimensions of the event. These male-dominated small groups of people, aged anywhere between early 20s and late 50s, were mostly entertaining themselves taking photos and trying to communicate on the phone with fellow participants situated in other parts of the March. Some of them must have been from outside of the capital – I witnessed a few exchanges between people seemingly confused with Warsaw’s straightforward topography. In most of their conversations personal topics were heavily interspersed with aggressive, derogatory or sarcastic comments about the city Mayor, the opposition or the liberal-democratic activists (“Hey, mate, how about we start shouting ‘Constitution!’?” [laughter] “Yeah, how about ‘Consternation’?” [louder laughter]). Their language was full of vulgarisms, but no verbal aggression was directed towards fellow participants. Quite the opposite, in interactions with passers-by you could hear a lot of exaggerated, perhaps forced, politeness, and people were generally friendly and helpful to strangers. Occasional conversations between fellow participants were mostly focused on the causes of the delay, the route of the March or the location of the President’s sector. At that point nobody around us had realised that that part of the March was heavily fenced off by the military police and the secret service, and was located a few hundred meters away from where we were standing.
While the people in the diverse crowd chatted among themselves or silently looked around, waiting for the March to begin, occasional rhythmic chanting came only from groups of young males. To my surprise, by far the most frequent chant was “Use a sickle, use a hammer, smash the red rabble.” As there are very few communists left in Poland, the slogan that rhymes in Polish (“Raz sierpem, raz młotem czerwoną hołotę!”) seems to be used to criticize both the reality of the Polish People’s Republic (that the chanting people had little opportunity to experience) and the politics or policies that can be seen as coming from the “left.” But what is it? For them, it seems, all political options that are to the “left” of their own views deserve this derogatory label. A stark juxtaposition of “right thinking people” and “the red rabble = communists” makes coming together to find solutions for the common problems of the country or cultivate a common national identity hard if not impossible. There were a few other chants that were attempted rather infrequently. Later, while I was watching a long video report from the March produced by a fringe right-wing broadcaster eMisjaTv, I noted that closer to the front of the March chanting and singing was more frequent, varied, and clearly organized. Two slogans aptly summarize the right wing ideology of the organizers and the columns of mostly young people they led: “Youth, Faith, Nationalism” and “Nationalism – our road.”
As we learned later from various media accounts, around 3:00 pm President Andrzej Duda opened the government-organized segment of the March, whose slogan was “For You, Poland,” with a short speech, calling for national unity and condemning the communist rule. Then, he led a relatively small group of officials and their supporters, separated by a considerable gap from the general public marching in a much bigger section of the March organized by the Association. At the front of this column, which we eventually joined, was a huge banner featuring the main slogan of the 2018 event: “God, Honour, Fatherland.” The crowd was immense, its size later assessed by some observers to be close to a quarter of a million participants.
When we started marching, first slowly then a bit faster, it was already getting dark, providing a spectacular background for the intensifying glow of the red flares. An ocean of Polish flags floated above our heads, interspaced with sporadic green flags adorned with an arm holding a sword (Picture 7), emblems of the fascist Falanga, and red and black banners of Forza Nuova, an Italian neo-fascist group. Most people marched in silence, but the chanting escalated, dominated by organized male voices. The stream of humanity was immense, occupying not only the street but also both sidewalks of the rather wide Aleje Jerozolimskie.
We walked far away from the usual leaders of the March – members of ONR and MW and their staunchest supporters – who marched together with their foreign guests and collaborators from organisations such as, among others, Forza Nuova and Lotta Studentesca from Italy, Jobbik and Mi Hazánk from Hungary (Picture 8), Eesti Konservatiivne Rahvaerakond from Estonia, Ľudová strana „Naše Slovensko” from Slovakia. We later found out about a few incidents in which these participants were involved – an EU flag was set on fire, a female reported was attacked, counter-protesters were verbally abused, and some racist, anti-immigrant chants were directed at the Prime Minister. However, we did not have a chance to witness any of the above. A handful of Pegida activists we saw, including its founder Lutz Bachmann (Picture 9), seemed to have attended informally, since they did not join the front nationalist sector.
It seems that the number of neo-fascist, radical slogans was smaller than in 2017, although – as we learned later from the press and social media accounts – there were more far-right symbols at the front of the March than elsewhere. The vast majority of people had banners, armbands and scarves displaying only Polish national colours, white and red – the fact that can be interpreted as a result of the government’s (at least partially) successful attempt to control the symbolic layer of the event. We do not know if this was the result of a deliberate decision or the sheer size of the crowd in which the more radical symbols simply disappeared. We do not know to what extent this aspect was a matter of negotiations between the authorities and the Association, but some tensions and contradictory recommendations regarding the acceptable use of symbols had occurred before the event (for example, one came from the President and another from a prominent far right activist). The absence of aggressive symbols and messages might have been caused by pre-emptive arrests made by the police and the Internal Security Agency (ABW). In 2018, religious symbols also appeared to be employed more scarcely than in 2017 (Picture 10).
Banal nationalism was enacted also by means of small-size accessories, visible only from close up. By far the most popular ‘patriotic gadget’ was the white-and-red armband (Picture 11), obviously modelled on the armbands worn in combat by Polish underground army soldiers in World War II, in particular the Warsaw Uprising insurgents. Many participants also wore ‘patriotic clothing’ with symbols and slogans referring to the idea of the ‘great Catholic Poland’ and its heroic history. As far as I could see, what was not worn by the March attendees – as opposed to many people attending commemorative events in other parts of Warsaw on that day – was the white and red cockade. Traceable to the XIX-century uprisings and popularised by the former President, Bronisław Komorowski, it seems to appeal predominantly to middle-class, cosmopolitan Poles. For example, it was widely used at the Freedom Games, a liberal festival and political event organised in Łódź on the anniversary weekend, which I had a chance to attend before arriving in Warsaw. It appears that the tribal polarisation of Polish society can be conveyed through the language of accessories, as divisive and as clearly associated with different understandings of Polishness as other, more prominent symbolic vehicles used by ideological competitors.
After returning to London I watched MW’s video footage of the event and I realised that for many people there must be something really empowering in participating in the March. Most likely, many of them are not used to any kind of civil activism, and here they are presented with an opportunity to take part in a massive civic ritual that is constituted by their mere presence. Something simple. A cultural savvy necessary to understand a transgressive performance of an art group is not needed; tolerance of “exotic” non-heteronormative and non-cis identities flaunted at a Pride parade is not expected; legal competence required to understand why a certain bill constitutes a breach of the separation of powers rule is irrelevant; even the knowledge of all stanzas of patriotic songs may be forgone. They just have to “be” – turn up, maybe bring a flag, and walk. And suddenly they can feel they are citizens who cannot be ignored. And if their presence pains those who despise them – well, that’s even better.
Throughout the whole experience I never felt threatened and did not see any acts of aggression, though several were reported both by the media and our researchers. Writing many weeks after the event, I still feel intensely uneasy while trying to capture in words and analyse my experience. Why? Most likely, because it is hard to find a balanced assessment of what we witnessed. What kind of national identity was on display? Was it only the extreme, hateful, and exclusionary nationalism usually zeroed in on by the Western media in their reports? If I say it was not, am I not providing excuses for the behaviour of hard-core nationalists who were – no doubt – most visible and very loud? Or was it a more complex, multivocal celebration whose meaning cannot be reduced to a single interpretive idea? I am struggling, to a large degree because we simply do not know what motivated most of the people who showed up.
Participating in a public event and not relying exclusively on media accounts, no matter how accurate, is an eye opening experience. One can “touch” emotions, inspect up close the actual composition of the crowd, assess the level of discipline, and verify assumptions about cultural/ideological congruence of the event. Portraying it as an “extreme right wing march,” a common practice of many journalists, particularly those working for the Western media, helps to evoke images of tightly organized fascist parades from the mid-1930s. We participated in a very different type of crowd, much more unruly and, as Agnieszka Pasieka puts it, heterogeneous (Picture 12).
Massive marches and rallies are rituals in which collective identities are proposed, asserted, or defended in bold strokes. There is rarely room for reflection on nuances, deliberation on possible “versions,” or search for a compromise between various viewpoints. In “Memorandum on Legitimacy,” Lyotard applies to narratives Kant’s distinction between despotic and republican forms of power. The republican narrative is emancipatory; it is built through a deliberative process of discursive negotiation between historically given, dispersed identities. The mythic narration forecloses deliberation and asserts a singular identity in a totalitarian fashion, usually postulating a return to some essential identity imagined as primordial.
We do not know how many different images of Polishness this heterogeneous crowd carried in their heads and whether the extreme ones were dominant. We do not know what vision of Poland they wanted to celebrate and show to the world. They did not project a message of their own. While marching along in silence, under a sea of national colours and occasionally joining in chanting nationalist slogans, they endorsed willy-nilly the extreme right-wing vision of Polishness, promoted by the organizers. Many or even most participants might have had in mind a different vision of Polish identity, but collective identity un- or under-performed is unpersuasive.
We do know also that the massive march-cum-ritual was symbolically dominated by far right groups who were the loudest and most visible performers, easily setting the tone for the whole celebration. They put on a spectacular symbolic display, illuminated by hundreds of red flares that belong to the repertoire of aggressive and menacing football fans, occasionally featuring neo-fascist insignia, and heavily relying on nationalist chants. In their 2018 performance, they again narrated a non-negotiable and seemingly “primordial” vision of Polishness in a despotic and mythic style, even if it was less pronounced than the year before. The President’s invitation “to all” to show that “Poland is one, joyful and belongs to everybody” may be interpreted as an expression of his willingness to include alternative visions of Polishness in a spirit of republican openness. A survey shows that 59 per cent of Poles supported the President’s decision to join the March, but it is hard to think of any organized group which interpreted this invitation to mean that various understandings of Polishness could be paraded side by side. Several organizations supporting open, cosmopolitan “constitutional patriotism” (in Habermasian terminology) staged counter-demonstrations, clearly assuming that the only way to demonstrate their Polishness was to create a sharp contradistinction to the March. A number of LGBT organizations appealed to their members and supporters who might consider demonstrating their patriotism not to take part in the event because of what they saw as inevitable threat to their safety in a march co-organized by the associations known for their aggressive homophobia. Displaying diversity in performing Polish identity and pride inside the March, despite the President’s invitation, was practically impossible, given the organizers’ extreme ideology.
The only mode of attendance possible for groups and individuals had to be a display of conformity. Regardless of their degree of acceptance of extreme right-wing ideology, the March attendees showed tolerance of its champions’ presence in the public sphere, but also signalled that they did not mind expressing their patriotism under the banners and slogans signifying a vision of collective identity that in quite a few cases might have been far more radical than their own. Perhaps an opportunity to attend and thus co-constitute the meaning of the most important national holiday overrode their ideological concerns.
We do know that the state officials who joined the March could have insisted on asserting a republican narrative of national identity, but there are no indications that they attempted to influence the March’s symbolic message beyond a rather bland slogan “For You Poland.” In their chaotic and last-minute efforts aimed at preventing the March, no doubt the pivotal element of the 100th independence anniversary celebrations, from becoming a PR catastrophe reminiscent of its 2017 edition, they showed their lack of appreciation for the mobilising potential of the March. Organising an alternative event in a similar format, an option they considered, would have ended badly – it is hard to imagine that any state-led event would have attracted greater crowds than the March of Independence, whose popularity has been growing since 2010. However, the final decision of the President and the government to join the nationalists was a legitimising gesture, which can be read as an element of PiS’s more far-reaching plan to out-flank their more radical right-wing political competitors before the European and parliamentary elections in 2019.
The authors would like to thank Frances Pine for her incisive comments and editorial assistance; and Piotr Kocyba, Yevhen Prykhodko, and Jakub Stepaniuk for sharing with us the photographs used in this blog post. Our research trip to Warsaw was possible thanks to Piotr Kocyba from Philosophische Fakultät, Institut für Europäische Studien, Technische Universität Chemnitz, and was supported by the grant of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) for his project “Zivilgesellschaftlicher Aufruhr in Polen” (“Restlessness of Civil Society in Poland”). We are grateful for his generosity and intellectual partnership.