When a top court in Poland passed a ruling last October ushering in an almost total ban on abortion, women rose up in fury.
Blaming the influence of the Catholic Church, in part, for the drastic assault on women’s rights, some protesters targeted churches. In cities around the country, members of far-right ultranationalist groups, backed by groups of hardcore football fans, appointed themselves as protectors of the churches, and proceeded to brutally confront the protesters.
At Warsaw’s Church of the Holy Cross, women were hauled down the church steps by burly men, who hurled misogynistic insults as they did so. In the aftermath, Robert Bąkiewicz, the ultranationalist leader in the thick of the confrontation at the church, announced he was forming a vigilante “National Guard” to repel the protesters, who he referred to as “leftist barbarians.”
“We will defend every church, every district, every town, every village,” he said. “I can say that a sword of justice is hanging upon them, and if necessary, we will turn them into dust and destroy this revolution.”
Yet despite a police warning that the far-right vigilantes were inflaming the situation, figures from the country’s conservative ruling Law and Justice party publicly supported them.
Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński, considered Poland’s most powerful politician, called on Catholics to mobilise and defend the churches, while one of his MPs, Tomasz Rzymkowski, commended the “young nationalists” who were defending the church, as well as “the whole of Latin civilisation, against the barbarians.”
While the clashes that rocked Poland in the wake of the abortion ruling were shocking, they weren’t exactly new.
Similar scenes have played out repeatedly across Poland in recent years, with ultranationalist groups violently confronting groups standing up for progressive causes, from LGBTQ to reproductive rights. Emboldened by the aggressively nationalist direction of the conservative government – which has sought to forcefully impose its traditionalist vision on Polish society – these men, drawn from neofascist ultranationalist movements and the football hooligan scene, have consistently acted as willing foot soldiers in their country’s furious culture wars.
Since coming to power in 2015, the right-wing populist Law and Justice government has proven itself unlike any previous Polish administration in the post-Communist era, rapidly remaking the country in its own image, in a way that critics say imperils the country’s democratic order.
It’s stacked courts with loyalists, tightened its grip on the media, and systematically sought to roll back socially liberal values. Adopting a nationalist agenda as central to its populist platform, Law and Justice has demonised minorities, polarised society, and emboldened the far-right, allowing radical right-wing sentiment to creep from the margins into the mainstream.
These moves have attracted widespread criticism, both externally and domestically. State-appointed watchdog Adam Bodnar, Poland’s Commissioner for Human Rights, says Law and Justice’s tactics are jeopardising Poland’s democracy, particularly in its empowering of the far-right.
“This moment when the leader of the country is sharing the monopoly for violence with private organisations like [the] far-right is extremely dangerous to democracy,” he told VICE World News, referring to Law and Justice’s endorsement of the ultranationalist church “defenders” amid the protests over abortion rights.
“It is a little bit like playing with fire … you are opening some possibilities for them. You are giving them some positions in the whole structure of the state.”
Since 2015, Law and Justice has relied on a political M.O. of routinely scapegoating minority groups to whip up waves of support from its conservative base.
It came into government in 2015, at the height of the European migration crisis, on the back of a wave of anti-migrant hysteria that resulted in an outpouring of Islamophobic sentiment – despite Poland being overwhelming homogenous, with a tiny Muslim population, and not being situated on main migration routes through Europe.
Then, seeking a new target, Law and Justice moved on to the LGBTQ community, with leading politicians in recent successive election campaigns painting gay rights as a dangerous, alien ideology that threatens the traditional, Catholic Polish family unit.
The sustained and ugly onslaught came from the highest levels of the party, with Kaczyński describing calls for greater LGBTQ rights as a “great danger” and “essentially an attack on children.” Other Law and Justice politicians tweeted that “Poland is most beautiful without LGBT,” or compared gay marriage to bestiality, while about 100 municipal councils — accounting for about a third of Poland’s territory – adopted resolutions declaring themselves “LGBT-free zones”.
The hate speech from those in power emboldened bigots, and unleashed a wave of public hostility that’s left the LGBTQ community under attack, often physically so. At events like the 2019 Pride march in the city of Bialystok, marchers were set upon by a hostile far-right mob of hooligans, ultranationalists and Catholic hardliners who assaulted them with impunity.
“People got attacked. People got chased on the streets. People got beaten up, people got bricks thrown at them, or bottles with piss,” said Ola Kaczorek, co-president of Love Does Not Exclude, a group that campaigns for marriage equality.
Then in October came the ruling from Poland’s Constitutional Court that abortion in the case of severe foetal defects was unconstitutional. The decision, made by a court stacked with Law and Justice appointees, outlawed the most common of the few existing grounds for legal termination in a country that already had some of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. For critics, it represented the culmination of a systematic wave of attacks on women’s rights by the ruling party.
“You feel like you are in a war with your own government,” Justyna Wydrzyńska, a board member of Abortion Without Borders, an initiative that helps Polish women access abortions, told VICE World News.
Bodnar, Poland’s Commissioner for Human Rights, said that the abortion ban – which came into effect in January – represented the government paying a “political debt” to the Catholic Church. “When the Catholic Church has a strong stance on abortion, then the coin which is paid is a restriction on of access to abortion.”
All of which has made the country’s far-right fringe increasingly brazen, buoyed by the country’s sharp lurch to the right under Law and Justice. One of the clearest illustrations of its growing confidence is the annual Independence March in Warsaw, held every November 11 on the anniversary of the restoration of Polish independence in 1918.
For over a decade now, an association of far-right organisations – currently led by Bąkiewicz – has hijacked Poland’s national day by organising a huge rally through the capital, which draws ordinary patriotic Poles alongside hooligan and neofascist groups from across the country and elsewhere in Europe.
The march, which has grown dramatically in scale in recent years, frequently descends into violence, with flare-wielding hooligans clashing with police. At last year’s march, a flare was fired at an apartment that had women’s rights and LGBTQ banners hanging from it, setting the building on fire.
The hateful messaging on display also underlines the many shared positions between the far-right and the government in various flashpoints in Poland’s culture wars.
Last year’s march – organised under the theme "Our civilisation, our rules” – had a markedly homophobic tone, echoing the government’s anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. The event was advertised with a poster depicting a knight driving his sword into a rainbow star, while marchers carried banners reading “Normal family, strong Poland” – a slogan used by the Polish right in opposition to LGBTQ rights.
Years of facing a conservative Law and Justice juggernaut in power, and an emboldened far-right brutally enforcing its traditionalist vision of society on the streets, has left liberal and progressive Poles fearing that their country may be slipping away. For minorities, in particular, the sustained attacks on their community has taken a toll.
“LGBT+ youth are growing up surrounded by this whole agenda, this whole ideology that says that there is something innately wrong with them,” said Kaczorek of Love Does Not Exclude.
There are routine reminders of the daunting obstacles in seeking to challenge the increasingly authoritarian Law and Justice government. Earlier this month, Bodnar – who acted as one of the few independent watchdogs of the government – was ordered out of his post, by the same Law and Justice-captured court behind the abortion ruling in October. Human Rights Watch described the finding against Bodnar, which prompted street demonstrations and which NGOs say was legally flawed, as being made at the government’s behest; his replacement is almost certain to be a Law and Justice appointee.
But despite the challenges, liberal and progressive Poles say they are determined to keep up the fight.
“This is my place and this is my home,” said Kaczorek. “Even though Poland hates me, I really love this country.”