After days of legal and political wrangling, white supremacists were allowed to march through Warsaw Sunday alongside families and politicians in a rally marking the 100th anniversary of the restoration of Poland's independence.
The controversial presence of far-right groups among the roughly 200,000 people at the government event alarmed anti-racism organizations, who said their involvement helped legitimize their extremist ideology.
“It is truly depressing to see mainstream leaders and Polish officials negotiating, collaborating with extremists and legitimising them,” Rafal Pankowski, co-founder of the anti-racist Never Again association, told VICE News.
Ultranationalist groups were allowed to march in Sunday’s rally following days of political and legal arguments over the issue.
Since 2010, ultranationalist groups including the far-right National Radical Camp (ONR) have organized an annual “Independence March” through the Polish capital every November 11 to observe the country’s independence day. The rallies draw ordinary, patriotic Poles, but attract far-right hooligan and extremist groups from across Europe, and have featured xenophobic, anti-immigrant slogans that have caused embarrassment for the government and prompted warnings from embassies for their nationals to keep away.
With Sunday’s rally commemorating the centenary of the restoration of Poland’s independence from the Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian empires in 1918, this year’s march was subject to much greater scrutiny. On Wednesday, Warsaw mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz banned the march, saying the city had “already suffered enough due to aggressive nationalism.”
President Andrzej Duda then said an official government march would take place along the same route, which he intended to be a positive celebration, free of offensive slogans or chants. The following day, a court revoked the mayor’s ban, meaning the far-right event was effectively subsumed into the government march.
According to Poland’s Minister of Internal Affairs, Joachim Brudzinski, 200,000 people attended Sunday’s rally — more than three times the number that attended the national rally last year.
While most attendees appeared to be ordinary, peaceful Poles, carrying the national flag or wearing armbands in red and white, the national colors, there was reportedly a noticeable far-right element as well. Alongside Polish ultranationalists, far-right groups from Hungary, Slovakia and Italy were reportedly present. The president’s calls for a ban on offensive messaging was not heeded by all; according to reports, white supremacist symbols including the Celtic cross and black sun were seen alongside anti-Islam banners at the event, and anti-refugee chants were heard.
Poland’s nationalist government has been previously accused of accommodating the country’s ultranationalist fringe, and to many observers this was another example. Pankowski said it was concerning to see the cooperation between government officials and the ONR, who he described as “a fascist-type anti-Semitic group with their roots firmly in the 1930s.”
“It was actually banned by the Polish authorities back in 1934 for inciting violence and racial hatred,” he said. “Didn't we learn the lessons of the 20th century?”