The Far-Right Brought Chaos to Warsaw on Poland's Independence Day

There were open displays of white supremacism and anti-LGBTQ hate on a far-right march in Poland's capital.
People light holding flares on a march in Warsaw on Poland's Independence Day. Photo: Czarek Sokolowski / ASSOCIATED PRESS
People holding flares on a march in Warsaw on Poland's Independence Day. Photo: Czarek Sokolowski / AP.

Polish fascist groups and hooligans brandished white power symbols and sang homophobic chants as they paraded through central Warsaw in a state-endorsed event to mark Poland’s Independence Day.

Critics said the naked displays of racist and anti-LGBTQ hate at the annual march, organised by Polish ultranationalist groups, were an indictment on the conservative Polish government, which enabled the event to go ahead despite a ban by Warsaw city authorities, by granting the march official status.

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“It’s not just a private initiative any more – it’s an expression of the Polish state,” said Rafal Pankowski, the head of Poland’s anti-racist Never Again Association.

“That’s what makes it extra problematic and disturbing.”

People march on Poland's National Independence Day in Warsaw. Photo: Adam Chelstowski / AFP

People march on Poland's National Independence Day in Warsaw. Photo: Adam Chelstowski / AFP

Among the sea of red-and-white Polish flags that dominate the march through the country’s capital each year were sightings of the black-on-white Celtic cross flag, an internationally-recognised white power symbol.

The symbol was displayed by a group of ultranationalists who carried a banner reading “It’s okay to stay white” and “We want our country back now!” One of the group wore a “white pride worldwide” face mask.

Elsewhere, far-right hooligans on the march were heard chanting homophobic slogans. One group was heard singing a notorious homophobic chant – sung to the tune of the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West” – which calls for homosexuality to be banned, using a Polish slur for gay people. 

Another group of hooligans, apparently far-right ultra supporters of the Legia Warsaw football club, were filmed holding flares and waving a Polish flag as they chanted: “Fuck the Arabs, fuck the [Blacks], Legia Warsaw is a white team.”

Another video showed a musician on the march singing the lyrics: "We don't want mosques and synagogues.”

The 11th of November is Poland’s Independence Day, commemorating the anniversary of the restoration of the country’s independence in 1918. Over the past decade, ultranationalist groups have organised a massive march to mark the occasion through the capital each year, drawing massive crowds comprised of neofascist and hooligan groups, as well as many ordinary patriotic Poles.

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The event has served as a powerful collective show of strength for the far-right, drawing neofascist groups from elsewhere in Europe, and reliably features xenophobic and anti-LGBTQ slogans, along with outbursts of street violence. Last year, an apartment building was set on fire when marchers hurled a flare at a flat displaying flags in support of LGBTQ and women’s rights.

The hateful tone of this year’s march was no different, said Pankowski, whose organisation has been calling for social media giants Facebook and Twitter to remove posts promoting the march due to the threat of far-right violence, to no avail. 

But what made it even more concerning was the state endorsement of the event, which gave tacit approval of the extremist views on display, critics say. Warsaw’s mayor Rafal Trzaskowski – a leading opposition figure who narrowly lost to pro-government President Andrzej Duda in last year’s presidential election – had successfully appealed in the courts to ban this year’s march.

But that was overridden on Tuesday when the government’s Office for War Veterans and Victims of Oppression announced it had conferred official status on the march, allowing it to proceed.

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Critics, including a protest group of women who had planned a rival demonstration against right-wing extremism along the march route, said the move represented “a spectacular confirmation of the cooperation” between the country’s conservative government and the far-right.

“The alliance between the ruling party and the neo-fascists is a fact,” the group, “14 Women from the Bridge,” said in a statement on Wednesday. Women activists who gathered in mobilised on Thursday to oppose the ultranationalists were filmed being carried away by police.

This year’s march was held under the theme “Independence is not for sale,” and featured repeated references to supposed traitors and internal enemies, said Pankowski.

Most notably, at the start of the march, protesters burned a portrait of Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister and president of the European Council, who many on the Polish right view as the embodiment of liberal Western values and the European Union, both of which are conceptualised as threat to the traditional Polish nation. The EU is currently locked in a feud with Poland over concerns about deteriorating rule of law in the country.

Protesters attend the annual Independence Day march in Warsaw, Poland Photo: AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski

Protesters attend the annual Independence Day march in Warsaw, Poland Photo: AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski

Germany, demonised by Polish nationalists as both a bastion of progressive values and the heart of the EU, was also a target, with protesters burning a German flag, and Robert Bąkiewicz, the ultranationalist organiser of the march, claiming that the Germans “want to take away our identity, even our gender identity.”

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The march took place amid a ongoing culture war between liberal and conservative Poles over issues such as LGBTQ and reproductive rights, and rising tensions on the border over an influx of illegal immigration stoked by neighbouring Belarus.

Hostility towards LGBTQ Poles was captured in one video that showed a rainbow flag burning in a gutter, which one marcher then came and spat on.

The unfolding situation on the border was also referenced by speakers at the march, with Robert Winnicki, a far-right Polish MP, calling for violence against the illegal migrants gathered there if needed.

"If it is necessary to shoot, the Polish army has to shoot,” he told the marchers. “Poland for Poles.”