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Transatlantic Blog

Poland’s March of Independence was not like it’s being portrayed

Poland celebrates its National Independence Day on November 11, the anniversary of the armistice ending War War I. That day commemorates the restoration of sovereignty to the Polish people after 123 years of German, Austrian, and Russian political domination.  Together with the day’s traditional patriotic and religious ceremonies are new events like the “Independence Run” and now, famously, the March of Independence.

The march, which takes place in Warsaw, has grown over the last decade from hundreds of participants to more than 70,000 in 2016. This year nearly 60,000 mostly young people and families participated. It has also grown into an ever-larger symbol of resistance by the younger generation to the ideologies of socialism, atheism, gender fluidity, multiculturalism, and new models to replace the traditional family. It is true that the march was originally organized by the National Radical Camp and All-Polish Youth, two nationalist associations, and some of the marchers held indefensible views. Nevertheless, since 2010 the March of Independence has attracted generally patriotic Poles who do not share those organizations’ agendas. It has instead become the marchers' expression of their belief in the traditional values of faith, family, and patriotism (not nationalism). It grew into a protest against leftist culture during the most recent administration of the left-wing Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, or PO) from 2007 to 2015. This year’s march slogan was “We Want God” – the opening words of a famous Catholic hymn quoted by President Donald Trump during his speech in Warsaw earlier this year.  

The march has been portrayed by the mainstream media, both Polish and foreign, as a mass exercise in hatred and bigotry. This criticism was often based more on oversimplifications and stereotypes than a true accounting of all the facts. Indeed, some of the articles are not based on facts at all. The British newspaper The Independent (which is owned by former KGB member Alexander Lebedev) called the march “fascist.” The supposed rebirth of fascism in Poland appeared in The Daily Mail, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and other outlets. CNN and The Washington Post published articles suggesting that the march’s motto was “Pray for Islamic Holocaust,” something later shared on social media by former Hillary Clinton spokesman Jesse Lenrich. In fact, this phrase was taken from a banner hung at an entirely different rally, in the city of Poznań, in 2015.

This week’s wave of dubious news about Poland is regarded as a national image crisis. President Andrzej Duda said:

The injustice against us inhabitants of Poland, that many foreign media are calling the 40,000 or 60,000 participants in the March of Independence "Nazis," saddens me deeply and raises my internal protest. People in Poland know very well what Nazism means. … In this part of Europe, we all know it perfectly. Some people in the West might not understand it. They should study this issue and try to understand it.

He said, “There is no room for xenophobia, pathological nationalism, or anti-Semitism in our country.” The Polish Embassy in the United States tweeted, “We have been monitoring and when necessary reacting to media coverage of Poland’s Independence Day commemorations.”

Supporting the market distances voters from any historic form of fascism.

Those worried about creeping fascism in Poland should be heartened by actual views of Poles, especially young people such as those who marched over the weekend. A series of polls conducted between 1989 and 2017 by the Centre for Public Opinion Research (the Fundacja Centrum Badania Opinii Społecznej, or CBOS) asked young Poles aged 18-to-24 if their identify themselves with the political Right or Left. Between 1989 and 2015, the percentage identifying with the Right grew rapidly, reaching 33 percent in 2015. Only roughly 15 percent of all young people said they sympathized with the Left. Those describing themselves as on the Right were also more than twice as likely to show an “interest in politics” than those on the Left (48 percent to 20 percent). However, in the following year the percentage of young people who identified with the Right slightly decreased, to 27 percent (although still considerably higher than those who self-identify with the Left). This seems to be a constant characteristic of Polish society since 2002. A small increase of votes for the Left was observed last year, but most shifted to “undecided.” Nearly one-third (32 percent) of the respondents were undecided in 2016.

This change is significant, if viewed through contemporary Polish politics. Young people in Poland shifting from “Right” to “undecided” is, by some observers, associated with the fact that the major party that is identified with the Right, Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość), is de facto in favor of state intervention in economics. Young people who support the free market reject the party on these grounds. Another poll published by the Institute of Public Affairs (ISP) and Kantar Public in March confirmed that a vast majority of young Poles are more likely to vote for the Right or center-Right. However, they were far more likely to vote for new, smaller, anti-socialist and pro-free market parties like Kukiz’15 or the party led by controversial Member of European Parliament Janusz Korwin-Mikke, Wolność (Liberty), than for the governing Law and Justice Party, which had one of the highest negative ratings.  

Michael Novak in the preface to Polish edition of his book The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism included an anecdote about one of his Polish friends. In 1978, after a six-month-long stay on an American university campus, his friend said, “You have here more Marxists than we have in Poland.” A smaller presence of Marxist ideas in Polish school and universities might be the key to understand why Polish Millennials are less attracted to leftist philosophical currents. International observers concerned about the Law and Justice Party should be pleased that young people support free markets and, on that basis, other political options. Supporting the market distances voters from any historic form of fascism. Without that viewpoint, events may indeed push them one day to embrace the very political and cultural options that observers fear.


Marcin Rzegocki is a Ph.D. student at the Warsaw School of Economics.