In the Blog
Guest post: Right here, right now: Nationalism in Poland
by Dorota Jędrzejewska
Their voices are being heard more clearly. They are not afraid to come out and fight on the streets: with the state, with the police, with anyone. They shout “OUT OF MY COUNTRY,” “NO QUEERS” and “YES FOR NATIONALISM.” Who are they? Why does nationalist ideology attract young people in Poland these days?
Nationalism, according to Wikipedia , is a “belief, creed or political ideology that involves an individual identifying with, or becoming attached to, one’s nation.” Nationalism is the belief that your country is superior to others. In some cases, nationalism can inspire people to break free of an oppressor, but nationalism can also lead a country to cut itself off from the rest of the world, or to believe that people from other countries do not have the right to live in it.
Painful history Poland is a relatively big country in the heart of geographic Europe, now inhabited by over 38 million citizens. Its location has been troublesome in the unsettled history of this country. First partitioned between Prussia, Russia and Austria-Hungary back in the late 18th century, Poland literally disappeared from the map for over a hundred years until independence was regained on 11 November 1918 after World War I. That day was later pronounced as Independence Day in Poland.
World War II was catastrophic for Poland; it was invaded by neighbouring Nazi Germany on 1 September 1939, followed by a Russian invasion on 17 September. It was occupied by Nazis, who built a number of concentration camps, including Auschwitz, on Polish territory, where millions of European Jews, Slavs and others lost their lives. After the war, as a result of settlements of the decision-makers of that time, Poland was included in the Eastern Bloc and became a communist country, highly influenced by the USSR. The Solidarity movement (unions’ association), with its leader Lech Walesa, started off a chain reaction of changes for the whole of the Eastern Bloc countries in the 1980s that, amongst other events, led to the collapse of the communist system in 1989 when Poland became, again, after a long and burdensome battle, an independent country.
Poland aims to be a tolerant, modern European country, open to other cultures. Many things have indeed changed in the past 20 years and economic progress is overwhelming.
Against everything However, why does this currently rapidly growing country, historically so badly affected by totalitarianism, still face anti-Semitism, racism and homophobia?
Over 90% of Poles declare themselves to be Catholics. It is a seemingly homogeneous nation, but Poles, like others, are not all alike and it sometimes stating this out loud may provoke accusations of being “anti-Polish,” “Communist” or “Jew.” Those throwing such epithets reserve the exclusiveness to call themselves “true Poles” and “true Catholics” (and consider “Communist” and “Jew” to be insults).
During the last few years, thousands of such people have gathered in major Polish cities for the annual celebrations of Independence Day. Extreme right-wing organizations, which model themselves on similar organizations from the 1930s, now march together with football rioters with their faces covered with masks, raising banners stating “Poland for Poles,” “Away with EU,” “God, Honour, Fatherland,” and “No for queers.”
ONR (National Radical Camp), MW (All-Polish Youth) and NOP (National Revival of Poland), together with supporters of PPN (Polish National Party) - who, by the way, publish a list of “Jews, homos and lesbians’ on their website - burned The Rainbow, an artistic construction built in the centre of the city, symbolizing tolerance and unity. Firefighters who arrived at the scene to extinguish the fire were blocked by stone-throwing participants. The Russian Embassy also came under attack; the watch booth situated in the front of the building was set on fire.
Growing scale These are not stand-alone incidents that have been brought to the public attention in recent years. The escalation of Neo-Nazism has occurred all over the country. In early 2013, a group of 50 men with their faces covered invaded a lecture titled “Morality in Public Life” by Professor Magdalena Sroda, a well-known feminist, at Warsaw University. The attackers called her “the embodiment of moral downfall.”
The head of the University cancelled the discussion panel relating to partnership relationships at Gdansk University later in 2013 for fear of a similar occurrence. MW’s pressure was strong enough to influence University officials. On their website, MW strongly object to actions promoting homosexuality, abortion and cosmopolitism. Their Facebook profile has gathered 22,500 “likes.”
Back in the 1930s, students associated with OWP (Camp of Great Poland) demanded a “bench ghetto” in Polish universities where Jewish students would sit in a separate area during lectures. Extreme right-wing organizations encouraged the boycotting of Jewish shops. Today, members of NOP, wearing brown shirts, black ties and military shoes, wave flags depicting fists and swords, and march through major Polish cities. Where does it come from?
Where the seed lies Economic and social factors influence extreme political views. Some youth, deprived of hope and in fear of the future, are influenced to blame certain groups for the economic situation. Their leaders explain that the essence of the nation is endangered and encourage fighting against anyone who dares not to share their opinion and who demonstrates their individualism. Targeting becomes easy; justification is fairly straightforward with no room for questioning any of the assumptions.
Give me a solution Those with tolerant and progressive attitudes clash with the new and reborn xenophobic and homophobic groups of nationalists. How can we facilitate a dialogue? How can there be meaningful engagement with people who intentionally fight equality and are not tolerant?
The government is struggling to enforce its powers, even when it comes to publicly-voiced racism and anti-Semitism. How is this likely to change if members of parliament and academics are also some of the people who comment disparagingly on people’s faith, skin colour or sexual orientation?
The courts are still reluctant to sentence offenders of hate crimes and delegalize the organisations which are clearly based on fascism and racism. Without resistance from those in power, these groups gain more influence and become stronger and louder.
History likes to repeat itself and we need to learn the lessons from it…
Dorota Jędrzejewska is an immigrant, living in Coventry, central England. Born in Poland in 1983, graduated from Lodz University with Law Masters in 2008, she left her homeland to accompany her husband, who was completing a design course at Coventry University. Her articles were published in Polish magazines in the UK (Coolltura, My Coventry), where she focused on social and economic problems concerning the new wave of immigration after Poland became part of European Union in 2004. Dorota is currently studying law at Coventry University College.