Over the past year, the international community has watched Poland with alarm, as its ruling party, the arch conservative Law and Justice party (PiS), edges the nation closer and closer to an authoritarian model, incompatible with EU values. The Law and Justice party, led by former Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński, has made clear its opposition to immigration, admitted a naked distrust of Islam and showed an aggressive determination to maintain traditional Polish-Catholic values regarding marriage and family, homosexuality and purity of Polish identity, in terms that are toxically intolerant, even reminiscent of some of the worst nationalist discourse of the 20th century. In recent months the government has become increasingly determined to make its vision of Poland more than just a matter of rhetoric, taking control of state apparatus to ensure that it has the means to influence all bodies of the state and make its vision law. Those who oppose its views, be they in the judiciary or in the media, are not to have a means of expressing contrary ideas. This has been particularly evident in its plans to reform the justice system, which has seen the European Commission open an investigation into its practices. It is however by no means limited to that sphere: it also hopes to push foreign media out of the country, take back control of NGOs and interfere with the reproductive rights of women. The March of Independence which took place on November 11 to mark 99 years of Polish independence was the culmination of this renewed right wing momentum: the event did not so much celebrate Polish culture, as provide ultranationalist extremists with an opportunity to attack other cultures and other values. With 60,000 people attending, it has been suggested it might be the largest right wing march to have taken place in recent years.

To begin with this manifestation of mass intolerance - those present at the march included the following organizations: the National-Radical Camp (ONR), which is the heir to a pre-war Polish fascist movement, the All-Polish Youth which has a unashamedly racist media campaign, the National Movement, the National-Socialist Congress and the so-called Szturmowcy (Stormtroopers) group. Whilst the Polish National Foundation, a body designed to “promote Poland abroad” (seeking infamy perhaps rather than fame), asserted that the march was populated mainly by families and children, veterans and innocent patriots, it was somewhat hard to deny the extreme right wing presence, given that placards that on display read slogans like “white Europe," "clean blood,” “Get Jews out of power,” and “Islamic holocaust”. Experts examining the resurgence of the right wing in Europe have noted the extremity of views. Peter Kreko, director of the think-tank Political Capital Institute in Budapest, said, “The groups on the streets in Warsaw espouse the most extreme ideology in Europe today […] They see Christian Europe and their own nations in apocalyptic terms, as being overrun by Muslims and other immigrants, and ruined by the EU.” The fact that so many people who identify with more mainstream views were to be found alongside those espousing hate is particularly alarming. The boundary between mainstream conservatism and the extreme right wing remains clear in say countries like France or the UK, where Les Republicains or the Conservative party are generally very hostile to the resurgent far right in the form of the Front National or British National Party. In Poland however, under the PiS, this boundary has become porous. Rafał Pankowski, a professor at Collegium Civitas in Warsaw and the director of the Never Again association, which works against racism, noted: “They may not all identify as nationalists, but they are being united by the language of nationalism”. 

The mainstream has become contaminated with elements that were previously seen as marginal, as overly extreme. Poland has now the unenviable title of being a safe haven for far right elements who are shunned in Western democracies, which consider them to be members of a detestable fringe movement. Change in the demographic make-up of the far right is evident: the movement is widening. In a Guardian article dedicated to this phenomenon, a Polish ultranationalist noted: “A decade ago if you saw us in a bar you would know we were from the far right, but if you saw us now you would have no idea.” In Poland, the fact that the ruling party espouses politics not dissimilar to those on display at the March of Independence, means those elements can be incorporated into the mainstream. Indeed, as previously mentioned, the march was backed by the government-funded Polish National Foundation. Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Blaszczak called the events "a beautiful sight" and the pro-government TV news called it “a great march of patriots”. When confronted with criticism abroad for the racist sentiments on display, the Polish National Foundation retorted that the press was “slandering the good name of Poland” and it was “an insult to the Polish people.” The march’s defenders often rebuff suggestions of racism by insisting that the movements are not an attack on other values but rather a celebration of and protection of the Catholic values which are so dear to Poland’s national identity (embodied best in the figure of Pope Jean Paul II whose influence as Pope had an insurmountable impact upon Poland’s national spirit and the Solidarity movement, in the period of the early 1980s.) 

The PiS has organizations dedicated to promoting Poland's culture, but it also hopes to co-opt media outlets in order to transmit its message. In the past year, it has been in the process of changing media regulations so as to push foreign owners out. There are currently a large number of foreign conglomerates which own Polish media: among them Germany’s Ringier Axel Springer (which owns Poland’s best-selling tabloid Fakt) and US-based Scripps Network Interactive, both of which provide government critical content. Another German company, Bauer Media, controls Poland’s biggest independent radio broadcaster and the website Interia.pl. Alongside this, a unit of Verlagsgruppe Passau controls about 20 regional newspapers. One of the architects of the bill, Poland’s Deputy Culture Minister Pawel Lewandowski, has denied that the law will “re-polonize” the media but he does affirm that the bill hopes to restrict ownership of groups who are seen to have a dominant market share. Freedom House is not so sure, commenting, “public television in Poland is not only used to promote the government’s policies, it is also a tool in the hands of the governing party that spews increasingly vile propaganda and accuses the opposition of hurting Poland’s interests and essentially being anti-Polish,” says Zselyke Csaky, a senior researcher for its Nations in Transit project. “These attacks are in line with PiS’s general ideology, which besides increasing existing divisions in society, targets pluralism and is deeply antidemocratic.” An additional factor is that that the PiS is keen to purchase local news outlets prior to the upcoming regional elections in order to assure a positive media campaign.

An interesting development to note on the media landscape which does indicate something of the climate, is the fact that despite the tightening of control on the Polish media, Hungarian media-mogul Zoltan Varga has very publicly and surprisingly announced his plans to entering the Polish media market. However, the political complicity between Hungary (Hungary under President Viktor Orban too is considered an example of creeping authoritarianism) and Poland, seems to explain this anomaly. Central Mediacsoport, run by Zoltan Varga, acquired the Hungarian assets of Finnish media group Sanoma Oyj in 2014 as Orban initiated plans to increase his influence over the media. His government also successfully pushed out foreign owners by introducing a tax of as much as 50% of revenue. Since this point, Orban’s ruling Fidesz party have managed to take control of print, digital and broadcast outlets and suppressed the biggest opposition-leaning newspaper. It seems that the PiS may be keen to emulate this model. Forging links with other similar EU-bashing, immigration-opposing regimes, such as Hungary, is a way of legitimising Poland’s position within the EU. As for Poland’s foreign ownership bill, it has not yet been passed, as it has been widely contested in the EU and the government is fighting battles with them on multiple fronts. That does not mean to say, however, that it will not be passed before Christmas as it may be hastily pushed through.

On the subject of the EU, relations have more than soured since the PiS came back to power in 2015. Members of the EU were among the first to criticize the March of Independence. Frans Timmermans, the vice president of the European Commission, said that some of "most terrible parts of European history" were "seen on the streets of Warsaw." It comes at a point when the EU and the Polish government are effectively at loggerheads, largely over Poland’s plans to reform the judiciary in such a way as to remove all non-PiS friendly judges and to reconfigure the Supreme Court. Since 2015, President Andrzej Duda has refused to swear in three Constitutional Court justices who had been legally selected by the previous parliament, where his political opponents had a majority. This outright flaunting of the rule of law has of course dismayed advocates of democracy in Poland. Adam Bodnar, the country’s human rights commissioner, described them as “the last fuses […] If the planned overhaul is implemented, it will dismantle the safety valves protecting human rights.” The EU has not taken kindly to the plans for reform either. Back in July it threatened Poland with Article 7 over the project, and President Duda ended up vetoing two of the reforms, thus averting a major crisis. Nonetheless, the EU's executive, the European Commission, has launched a procedure to investigate the Polish government’s interference with the rule of law. Now, the European Union has also begun action against Poland. Following a terse and vitriolic debate in the European Parliament on November 14, in a resolution adopted by 438 to 152, with 71 abstentions, European lawmakers have triggered the first stage of a so-called rule-of-law procedure against the Polish government. This procedure could ultimately result in the suspension of Poland's EU voting rights. The next step is that the assembly's Civil Liberties Committee has to formulate a legal proposal to formally request that the mechanism — known as Article 7 — be activated due to a "clear risk of a serious breach" of EU values. Prime Minister Beata Szydlo has described the action as "scandalous,” whilst the Foreign Ministry called it a "political instrument of pressure on Poland," describing the document as "one-sided”. Ryszard Legutko, a member of Poland's ruling party, accused the EU of waging an illegal "crusade against Poland” and also accused the German media, which has shown itself to be critical of the current sway of Polish politics, of holding an "anti-Polish orgy." 

Polish officials claim that the EU has no right to intervene in matters which pertain to the sovereign affairs of an individual country, whilst the EU is horrified by Poland’s veering off into a direction that evidently proves incompatible, with the values enshrined by the EU. A July 2017 poll that has proved quite revelatory in terms of popular views in Poland, found that 51.2% said that Poland should refuse to accept Muslim migrants even if the result was that the state would have to leave the European Union. This reflect the extent of anti-immigration feeling, as Poles tend generally to be pro-EU, with 88% supporting Poland’s membership in the bloc. The economic benefits of EU membership have been entirely evident for Poland, which is a major recipient of EU funding, and its citizens have taken many opportunities to work abroad. It is worth noting that this may also account to some extent for the resurgence in nationalism and intolerance of other values. Aleks Szczerbiak, a professor of politics at the University of Sussex, noted of Polish workers coming to Western Europe: “It was long assumed that young Poles would come to the west and become more secular, multicultural and liberal, and that they would re-export those things back to Poland. But instead, their experience of the west seems to have reinforced their social conservatism and traditionalism in many ways.” This is one of the problems and paradoxes of the EU and Poland’s position within it - it is by definition an organism that seeks to overcome boundaries and borders in order to promote peaceful coexistence, but the removal of boundaries and borders has given people an insight into another form of co-existence, multiculturalism, which many of them have taken against. 

Nonetheless, there are signs of protest against this incipient movement of hatred and xenophobia. Not everyone in the political elite celebrated the March of Independence: two days after the march, Polish president Andrzej Duda, (who is not a PiS member) condemned the racism witnessed at the event, saying there was no place in Poland for “sick nationalism.” The opposition Civic Platform maintains a condemnatory stance on the PiS. Janusz Lewandowski, a member of the aforementioned party, lambasted its position, saying it was "committing abuse of power" and tolerating "racism, xenophobia and neo-fascism on Poland's streets." The opposition newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza said the event reflected the “fascistic” changes in public life in Poland under the PiS leadership. On a grassroots level there has been movement as well; at the March of Independence there was a 2,000 strong rally held in opposition to the values on display. Most poignantly however, was the self-immolation on October 19, of Piotr Szczęsny, outside of the Palace of Culture in Warsaw, in an act of protest against the attacks on democracy under the PiS. Prior to his self-immolation, he distributed copies of a text in which he defined his criticisms of the government and their attacks on democracy. The tract denounces the PiS for its discrimination against immigrants, women, LGBT people, Muslims, and others, and for attacking the environment, by supporting coal-based energy, hunting, and logging in Białowieża Forest. 

Additionally, the letter condemns “the people holding the country’s highest offices” for allowing PiS Chairman Jarosław Kaczyński, who holds no public office, to make decisions (he is widely seen as pulling the strings of the PiS) and for turning public television and radio stations into PiS “propaganda organs.” 

A chemist, with two grown up children, the self-martyred Szczęsny described himself as “an ordinary, gray man” who simply wished to assert that his death meant the ruling party had blood on its hands. A march held in his honour several days later attracted hundreds of people. Although many in the mainstream media were quick to suggest that his self-immolation was the result of mental illness, as he had avowed suffering from depression, other renowned public figures were quick to decry this as an attempt to invalidate his protest. Polish director Agnieszka Holland was among them, saying “it is an “act of extreme moral laziness” to attribute “such extreme civic despair and self-sacrifice as a result of depression, mental illness, and a related desire to end one’s own life.” 

This protest act has a certain resonance in Eastern Europe, recalling the action of Jan Palach, a Czech student who set himself alight in protest at the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968. 

The subject of history is where the PiS has in many ways been most effective. For despite these signs of opposition, the party itself remains extremely popular. It is more popular now than it was for the two prior years. Polls have suggested that if an election were to be held today, the party would win 41% of support, while its closest rival, Civic Platform, would win 18% of voters. In an important way, its appeal is economic, as it has pledged to increase welfare spending. In 2016, for example, it created a system of unconditional cash payments amounting to $140 per month for parents with more than one child, towards the upkeep of each subsequent child until the age of 18. Its other appeal, is emotional, and patriotic. At its election in 2015, the leader of Law and Justice, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, said, "Polish life can be different. We can be proud of it. [..] We will never have to be ashamed of ourselves”. Poland’s past, as a country frequently and brutally occupied has created a kind of national martyrdom complex, not without reason, but which is easily exploited and metamorphosed into hate. 

Some of the right wing groups at the March of Independence carried anti-Semitic placards, which may seem extraordinary, given that so many Polish Jews were massacred in World War Two. The reality is however, that there has always been an undercurrent of anti-Semitism in Poland, and the ruling party has been active in trying to suppress knowledge of the extent of Jewish suffering in World War Two in Poland, instead saking to emphasize the degree of Polish suffering. The ruling party and national institutions are married to a certain kind of historical revisionism in which Polish sacrifice and heroism is unimpeachable. 

This is evidently not to say that Poland did not suffer greatly during its history and in particular during World War Two, nor to deny the unquestioned heroism of its armies, but there have been disturbing attempts to cover up or even deny historical incidences of Polish anti-Semitism. The issue of the Jedwabne and Kielce pogroms in 1941 and 1946 - a fact uncovered by Polish historian Jan Gross in his book “Neighbours”, has been not only ignored by Poland, but is now subject to official censure. In July 2016, Education Minister Anna Zalewska denied Polish responsibility for both Jedwabne and Kielce, leading to condemnations from Jewish organizations across the world. Zalewska’s statements came days before the controversial appointment of journalist and historian Jaroslaw Szarek, another open denier of Polish complicity at Jedwabne, to the Presidency of the Institute of National Remembrance, a government-affiliated research organization. The results of this revisionism are clear in public opinion polls. According to a 2005 public opinion poll, 51% of respondents believed that the majority of the victims of Auschwitz were Jewish; yet another from January 2015 revealed that only 33% of Poles currently associate Auschwitz with Jewish deaths - with 47% believing it to be principally a site of Polish suffering. 

Additionally, last year Poland passed a resolution that asserted that the killing of tens of thousands of Poles by units of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) during World War Two constituted "genocide". Poland’s Foreign Minister, Witold Waszczykowski, has said he plans to bar Ukrainians with "anti-Polish views" from entering Poland, after a commemorative World War Two ceremony in Lviv (during the war part of Poland, now part of Ukraine), failed to show sufficient respect to Poles and the city’s Polish history. 

All of these attempts to identify ‘Polishness’ with suffering and suppression, as well as being emotionally powerful, feed into fears about Poland now being overrun by immigrants, or having to ‘kow-tow’ to Brussels and Berlin. 

In another final paradox, Poland is not alone in entertaining a resurgent extreme right wing. One of the shocking aspects of ‘the March of Independence’ was the fact that, for a movement that is so wedded to the notion of Polish values, the march was remarkably trans-national. In attendance were extremists from the Italian far-right group ‘Forza Nuova’, alongside the deputy chairman of Hungary’s notorious ‘Jobbik’ party, representatives from the ‘Alternative for Germany’, and ‘the Austrian Freedom Party’, along with representatives of far right movements in Sweden, Slovakia and the UK. Perhaps one of the aspects that alarmed the international community the most about the march, was not its retrograde traditional ultra-Polishness, but the fact that it provided an umbrella for all the extreme groups in Europe. It is also alarming that 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 visiting Poland. The perhaps frightening reality, is that if Poland is looking for backers in its disreputable fight to preserve it’s concept of “Western civilization”, they will not find them in short supply.

Sara Bielecki