Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
The Europeans are not all alike. The impression we get is that they are self-indulgent, self-loathing freeloaders who won’t pay for their own defense while wanting to impose their religion of global warming on the rest of the world. As Trump’s last visit to France affirmed, the ones on the western coast of Europe, the ones we rescued a couple of times, are ungrateful wretches.
But while we wait for European self-loathing to burn itself out, we should not neglect our true best-friends-forever on the continent, the Poles, who experienced history intensely in the 20th century and do not want a repeat of that in the current one.
We know from the French President’s recent utterances that nationalism is the worst thing ever, a notion echoed by the Canadian Prime Minister and the German Chancellor, another leader doing her best to subvert the national culture of her country. These people do not like the example of Poland, which has justified pride in its history which goes back more than a millennium. The Polish cavalry saved Europe in the siege of Vienna in 1683 and the European elite are afraid that the example of Polish nationalism might do so again.
So how is Polish nationalism going? The best barometer of that is celebration of Poland’s National Independence Day. To the reverberating chants of “God, Honor, Fatherland,” about 250,000 people marched in Warsaw on November 11, 2018, to commemorate Poland’s restoration of sovereignty in 1918.
There were similar parades throughout the nation, albeit on a smaller scale. In a variety of ways, millions of Poles, at home and abroad, were involved in the celebration.
The New York Times and most other Western media outlets naturally saw fascism, or, at the least, the government enabling the fascists. Those celebrating Poles are not “fascist” any more than their American counterparts who attend 4th of July celebrations across the USA. In Poland they also are just regular folks happy with their nation’s independence. Every year, the Polish participants merely avail themselves of the organizational structure of the March of Independence, created over a decade ago at the initiative of grass roots radical nationalist organizers. Why? It is because no one else cared to organize genuine commemorative activities.
First, a bit of history. In the interwar period, November 11 served as an official state holiday which was harmonized with Europe’s Armistice Day and America’s Veterans Day. However, November 11th celebrations were banned by the Communists after 1944. The anti-Communist opposition was able to challenge the red regime only over three decades after the ban. It organized the first open commemoration in 1978. A few hundred intrepid souls attended.
After the transformation of 1989, the November 11th commemorations returned to the official calendar. But the post-Communists and their liberal allies observed the holiday rather perfunctorily and half-heartedly. When the Soviet Union imploded, the post-Communists turned nihilist but as Poland’s rulers they learned how to pretend to be pro-Poland in their politics. Former Prime Minister Donald Tusk is on the record as describing Polish national consciousness as “an abnormality”, a pathological affliction that needed to be contained if not eliminated altogether. Tusk went on to become the president of the European Council in Brussels.
The liberal hypocrisy was too much for many Poles. A vacuum presented an opportunity for the most dynamic patriots to assert themselves. It was chiefly the Christian nationalist radicals among them who decided to organize an alternative to the official observances. These mostly very young people established an ad hoc structure called “The March of Independence”.
The body has endured now for over a decade. It is a voluntary committee that coordinates the event once a year. It does not control the participants in the march; it merely provides for the program and the logistics, including medical help and security. Each participant is responsible for the rest, including banners, slogans, chants, transportation, and so forth.
Until this year all sorts of people showed up at the event. Families with strollers, beauty queens, and WWII veterans marched along with soccer hooligans, girl scouts, and Napoleonic Duchy of Warsaw reenactors from a military cadet school. Violence from fringe elements from the far right and the far left magically stopped when the Law and Justice Party swept into power in an electoral landslide of 2015. The police mellowed out, and a few dozen of scattered far left protesters failed either to block the march effectively or dampen the spirit of the revelers.
Predictably, in 2016 and 2017, without the government opprobrium and police brutality, the numbers of participants dwindled. No more repression meant no need to give witness anymore. Polish patriots tend to be contrarians. Calls went out to discontinue the grass roots initiative altogether and to merge the “March of Independence” with the official patriotic procession.
The youthful Christian nationalist organizers would have none of this. They thrive on spontaneity and bottom up enthusiasm. Any official involvement would taint that, they argue. Thus, the nationalist radicals vow to march on. They continue to sneer at their leftist and liberal detractors as unpatriotic, even traitors.
But they routinely fail to get themselves elected. As a matter of fact, unlike their predecessors, the modern day nationalist radicals are perfectly helpless and inept in democratic politics. They lack a representation in the national parliament. And they hardly register at the local level in town councils and provincial assemblies. Their command of Polish nationalist symbols and skill in pursuing extracurricular activities, including sports and self-improvement activities attracts kids on the fringe.
Thus, to a great extent, they are not a serious political movement; instead, they are enthusiastic reenactors. They can be compared to US Civil War buffs who observe the anniversary of the carnage by dressing in their Union or Confederate uniforms and reenacting marches or battles. In fact, the historical reenactors are a powerful contingent in Poland’s March of Independence. Naturally, the Christian radical nationalists of today like to take credit for the success of the mass commemorations of sovereignty. They brag that all that takes place under their auspices. To a certain extent it is true. But let us stress: They neither control the march nor the participants.
The event attracts mostly regular patriots who will continue to attend as long as they understand the march to be a grass-roots phenomenon. Any attempt at formalizing it will destroy the bottom up civic spirit and will turn the festivities into a soulless exercise of meaningless repetition. America’s spirit of July 4th can remain joyous while it reflects the authenticity of the zeal of the participating citizens. The same applies to Poland’s spirit of November 11. Let us remember about this when the Poles march next year.
As to history repeating itself, French perfidy endures. In 1683 Louis XIV moved some of his troops up to the border of the Hapsburg Empire to threaten it and thus reduce the number of Hapsburg troops that could be sent to the relief of Vienna. A French-Ottoman alliance from the 1530s, essentially against the other Christian countries in Europe, endured up to Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is Professor of History, The Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies, at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC