By Raymundo Juarez
My professors warned us against it. They said the potential for violence was too great. A moral panic ensued through our classroom. Some of my fellow classmates in Syracuse University’s Exploring Central Europe program and even a professor said they were shifting camp elsewhere for the weekend in order to distance themselves from it all. Understandably so. We live in the era of Donald Trump where racism is once again within the bounds of acceptable mainstream discourse. Among Americans, the death of a peaceful counter-protestor in Charlottesville is still fresh in our memory; and this semester we are in Poland, a country that has gained a reputation in recent years as a crucible for the wave of right-wing populism and illiberal democracy sweeping Europe. At the 2017 independence march in Warsaw, there were incidents of violence from the nationalist protestors. Moreover, these nationalist protestors openly espouse white supremacism, anti-Semitism, and other xenophobic beliefs. One of the main organizers of this year’s march, Piotr Rybak, burned an effigy of a Hassidic Jew during a protest in the Wroclaw main square in 2015. Law & Justice, the right-wing party currently in command of the Polish government has openly flirted with these groups: Poland’s President Andrzej Duda marched with nationalist groups in Warsaw on Independence Day among other expressions of solidarity.
I knew it was a great personal risk to be near this march at all, but I felt that it was my duty to document and to observe. Besides, I have been around enough politically-charged situations involving large groups to know where I should be. For all the talk on the news, I wanted an inside look at the dynamics and objective reality of far-right culture in Poland — I wanted to gain insight into what draws people to the far-right. I arrived at the rally at around 16:30, thirty minutes before the march was to begin and I followed it until it reached the city center. This was my experience:
The rally was structured similarly to a Mass. In the beginning, the leaders delivered political sermons and conducted collective hymns from an elevated platform. The music played included partisan electronic and rock which accelerated a core group of protesters, yet the piece that brought widespread participation was “Żeby Polska była Polską,” (Let Poland be Poland” in English), a patriotic protest song written for the Solidarity labor movement in the 1980s aimed at the USSR. Now it wasn’t just the core group of skinheads and militant youth singing in unison closer to the center, but a broader demographic of families, “ordinary people,” vagrants, etc. It was as if the central message of the song had survived through changing political circumstances and was contorted into something contrary to the original spirit. As if the discursive current conveying “Polish defiance” crossed space-time into a new geo-culture and reconfigured itself to speak to a new “oppressor,” and a new “oppressed.” My understanding is that the collective memory of oppression in Poland since the Partitions in the 18th century has never been effectively dealt with, and for the near future, we should expect Law and Justice supporters to continue seeing their country as the “Christ of Nations.
And it must be made very clear to those of us passing judgment that these people genuinely believe their traditional values and ethnic conception of the nation are under attack by Western liberalism; if we hope to neutralize the resurgence of quasi-fascist political movements we must understand where these people are coming from and connect the dots to the past. As happened in interwar Germany, right-wing movements are being led by vanguards of die-hard ideologues that spread fear-based divisive politics speaking to those who view themselves as having disenfranchised. It is an “opiate for the masses” if you will, that acts as a salve for people’s spiritual and economic alienation. It gives them a sense of agency and higher purpose. Indeed, one of the signs carried at the front read, “Life and death for the nation” as if clearly positioning the marchers to be the subjects of a historical struggle for survival.
Being at the march, I certainly felt the electricity in the air when these people were singing in unison, and the sights and sounds and smells all created a very distinct memory. It almost felt joyous. Such an event for a supporter would be a life-defining experience and cement their identity as part of the quasi-evangelical far-right. This Dionysian effect in political tribalism creates an immunity to reasonable argument. No matter how perfectly you explain to the average Law & Justice, or Trump supporter why their beliefs are wrong, the deeper, primitive, tribal aspect of the mind will override them. And to be fair, the same is true for most people: we create our beliefs, and then we justify them.
Was it scary going to that march? Absolutely. My stomach churned seeing people on the tram with nationalist armbands; I felt queasy seeing the number of families at this event; as I waded through a sea of these people, my adrenaline screamed through my body upon seeing the smirks and the grins of young skinheads who recognized me as an outsider. Ultimately, I went to that march because I knew it was necessary to see the ugly side of humanity: to gaze into the abyss. Before that, I had to overcome fear. Those of us privileged enough to do so safely must do the same if we are to effectively deal with issues that will not simply melt into air.
Conclusions? The far-right is not to be underestimated because it is tapping into something deeper and more powerful than liberal democratic values. Fear is the name of the game in 2018, and our righteous-minded generation must look in the mirror and face the issues of our day with sober senses. If we let the current political situation get out of hand, the violence will continue to escalate. In a post-Nazi world, who knows exactly where the path will lead us?