Polish Independence Day Celebrations Send Mixed Messages

WARSAW ((Hamodia/AP)) -
Thousands walk in the annual March of Independence organized by far right activists to celebrate 100 years of Poland’s independence. (AP Photo/Alik Keplicz)

Poland’s president, prime minister and other top political figures led an Independence Day march Sunday as part of a day of centenary celebrations, trailed by a huge crowd led by ultra-nationalist groups.

Last year, the march — which was then led by a coalition of extremist groups — garnered much media coverage for the prominence of anti-Semitic and xenophobic rhetoric there. Several last-minute attempts were made to ban or marginalize ultra-nationalist participation, but the result was a muddled mix of those very groups with high ranking government officials.

Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich told Hamodia that, while milder than in past years, the mix of mainstream and extremist elements sends a dangerous message.

“The president clearly did not want to be seen marching with fascist banners and tried to prevent it, but the result was a murky mix that allows everybody to interpret the situation to their liking,” he said.

The celebration took place as Western leaders gathered in France to mark 100 years since the conclusion of the First World War. That date, November 11, is commemorated in Poland as the anniversary of its rebirth as an independent state.

The march attracted more than 250,000 people, by far the largest turnout at what was previously mainly a gathering of ultra-nationalist elements.

President Andrzej Duda, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and the leader of the ruling Law and Justice party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, walked in a crowd led by soldiers carrying a huge flag bearing the slogan, “For You Poland.”

Walking a short distance behind them was a crowd of nationalists and their supporters, many of them burning firecrackers and flares that produced flashes of red light and smoke.

Most in that contingent carried Poland’s national white-and-red flags, but some held banners of the National Radical Camp, an ultra-nationalist group and one of the main organizers of the march.

There were also a few flags of Forza Nuova, an Italian group whose leader, Roberto Fiore, describes himself as fascist.

“The government’s hesitancy to criticize and sufficiently separate itself from the extreme right is troublesome for obvious reasons, one of which is that, purposefully or not, it invites extremists back into national politics,” said Rabbi Schudrich. “The march itself was certainly milder than last year — we didn’t see any overt anti-Semitism or violence — but it still tolerated some very undesirable elements.”

This year, in honor of the centennial, state officials sought to hold one big government-led march for Sunday’s ceremonies. President Duda tried to stipulate that all marchers should only carry Polish flags, a means of keeping fascist and other extreme symbols away, but negotiations with ultra-nationalist groups eventually broke down.

Outgoing Warsaw Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz attempted to nix the march entirely, citing security concerns, but courts overturned the ban.

On Friday, two days before the march was planned to take place, an agreement was reached between nationalist groups and government leaders to hold a joint march.

“Let this be our joint march, let it be a march for everyone, a march where everyone wants to be and feels good, marching for Poland,” President Duda said at the start of the event. Yet, members of opposition parties did not attend.

After some individuals showed up with extremist emblems, the state officials — surrounded by security — appeared to try to keep some distance from the nationalists, marching ahead of them on the same route.

At an event held earlier at the Presidential Palace, President Duda posthumously bestowed the nation’s highest medal on 25 individuals, three of them Jewish.

A ceremony held at Poland’s tomb of the unknown soldier, opposition leaders, were in attendance, but not greeted by members of the ruling party.

“The official intention was to make an inclusive celebration of 100 years of modern Poland, which makes it all the more regrettable that the opposition party was not included nor attended the march,” said Rabbi Schudrich. “Unfortunately, it seems to reflect a wider trend in democratic countries that one side just tries to beat the other rather than trying to work with them. It’s a breakdown of the political culture that makes democracy possible. That’s something dangerous for all of us.”

With reporting by Associated Press.