Not all of the estimated 60,000 people who took to the streets on Saturday were sympathizers of the far right, or even of PiS. But the old-school extreme right, unapologetic fascists among them, was on full display, emboldened by the impressive electoral showings of Europe’s national populist parties, most recently in Germany, the Czech Republic, and Austria. The radicals turned what could have been a civil celebration of Poland’s return to statehood in 1918 into a fierce exhibition of hatred and intolerance.
In contrast to the professional politicos who crave respectability and votes, the figures who marched on Saturday wore masks, flashed white-power insignia, and screamed “Pure Poland, white Poland!” and “Refugees get out!” One banner on display read Pure blood, Clear mind; another read Europe will be white or uninhabited. Marchers waved giant Polish flags and set off smoke bombs and flares that blanketed the procession in clouds of red smoke. The rightist parties—distinct from the mob—need the energies and numbers of the extremists to keep their base alive and engaged. But that comes with enormous risks, ones that Europe knows well.
Poland, led by the arch-conservative nationalist PiS party, is on the front lines of Europe’s shifting political landscape. The government’s refusal to condemn the march—the interior minister even called it “a beautiful sight”—is emblematic of the new zeitgeist in parts of Europe. Obviously the radicals knew they were safe in Poland. Two days after the march, Polish president Andrzej Duda, not a PiS member, condemned the xenophobia and racism, saying there’s no place in Poland for “sick nationalism.” But, incredibly, the PiS government wouldn’t budge.
“The groups on the streets in Warsaw espouse the most extreme ideology in Europe today,” Peter Kreko, director of the think tank Political Capital Institute in Budapest and an expert on Central Europe’s far right, told me. “They see Christian Europe and their own nations in apocalyptic terms, as being overrun by Muslims and other immigrants, and ruined by the EU.”
While the rightist parties and the radical streets movements are not one and the same, their paths overlap as do their strategies. The government’s official slogan for the event was “We Want God,” lyrics from a Polish song that President Donald Trump quoted this summer while in Poland. (Trump lauded Poland for defending Western civilization, presumably a reference to its role in helping oust the Ottoman Empire from Europe in the 17th century and defying the Soviet Union during the Cold War.) In Warsaw and elsewhere, marchers—militants as well as ordinary burghers—chanted "God, honor, country," reflecting Poland’s own brand of Roman-Catholic-inflected nationalism.
Pro-government media outlets like the website wPolityce.pl defended the event. “Of course, if someone is bent on doing so they can depict the independence march as a gathering of fascists,” one of its bloggers wrote. “Crowds chanting patriotic slogans, national flags, the odd firework—this is a dreadful spectacle for the left-liberals who advocate multiculti values. [But] a positive message was discernible. The participants want a Catholic Poland that respects its own traditions and culture.” TVP, a government-friendly station, described it a “great march of patriots.”