By Christine Deng
One of the largest far-right nationalist gathering ever seen in Europe took to streets of Warsaw on 11 November 2017, coinciding with Poland’s annual Independence Day celebration. Organised by far-right groups such All-Polish Youth and National-Radical Camp, the demonstration saw 60,000 nationalists repeating various chants such as: “Great national Poland, religion is the basis of the Polish nation, Great Catholic Poland, one nation across the borders, We Want God, Clean Blood, and White Europe.”  It is important to note that not all the people who took to the streets were far-right nationalists. Many who marched with the group were just celebrating Polish independence. Additionally, a counter-protest by an anti-fascist group, Antifa Warsaw, which drew around 5000 participants also took place. However, the illuminating point that should be made is the popularity of the rally which reflects deepening divisions within Polish society and the increasing traction of anti-Islam, anti-refugee, anti-EU, anti-liberal sentiments among the Polish people.
Two years ago, the right-wing, nationalist, Christian democratic Law and Justice party (PiS) came to power in the 2015 parliamentary elections. It secured a narrow majority of seats in Parliament despite receiving only 38% of the popular vote. PiS won an absolute majority in Poland’s lower house (Sejm) and enjoys control of the upper house (Senate) and the presidency (held by party candidate Andrzej Duda). Since its victory, the government has been accused of creeping authoritarianism, failing to respect the separation of powers, and undermining democracy and the rule of law. A Polish constitutional crisis ensued when the new government decided to annul the appointment of five judges, by the previous ruling party, to the constitutional tribunal. PiS has since forced in a judicial reform bill through parliament, which reforms the Supreme Court and the National Council of the Judiciary –effectively allowing the PiS to choose whomever to sit in these bodies as a judge. The European Commission has launched a ‘rule of law’ action under Article 7 of the European treaties, threatening the Polish government with sanctions and possible suspension of the country’s voting rights in the European Council, if it doesn’t reverse the bill. In terms of its foreign policy, PiS has reneged on its previous commitment for taking in up to 10,000 migrants to alleviate the burden from Italy and Greece. Of the 6,200 refugees assigned to Poland, none have been admitted. Poland’s Prime Minister has claimed the country “cannot accept refugees” and that people of Muslim background are a threat to security. Thousands of Poles have also taken to the streets in a series of anti-government protests. However, support for the party remains at record-high levels.
The question is: why did Poland vote for a party with such strong anti-refugee, anti-Semitic, populist, anti-EU values despite its unique national experience? Perhaps it is that very national experience that has caused this movement today. To answer this question, we need to travel back in time.
The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, established in 1569, was marked by high levels of ethnic diversity and religious tolerance. However, its prosperity was cut short by a series of partitions that ended its existence in 1795. Under the occupation of the Russian Empire, Kingdom of Prussia and the Austria Habsburg Empire, Poland saw the materialisation of the first threads of nationalism. ‘The Poles acquired its modern sense of nationality in active opposition to the policies of the states in which they lived.’ Whilst they acknowledged that they were subjects of the occupying states, they steadfastly refused to identify themselves as ‘Russians’, ‘Prussians’ or ‘Austrians.’ Hence, Polish nationality took on stronger ethnic and cultural undertones, excluding groups such as, inter alia, Polish Jews, Polish Germans, Polish Lithuanians, Polish Ukrainians. The aggressive assimilation policies of the occupying powers against the indigenous population, such as banning the use of Polish language in schools and forced conversion to Orthodoxy, further fractured the various ethnic groups in Poland who rallied to their own national causes. This is all in stark contrast to the determination of nationality under the Commonwealth, which was defined in terms of loyalty to the state, irrespective of religion, ethnic heritage or spoken language. Nationality, defined by one’s political association, increasingly gave way to one’s ethnic heritage and religious association. Additionally, the Catholic Church often became the only place where Polish could be spoken and sung. This started what would become the incorporation of the Roman Catholic Religion into the modern Polish identity.
With the outbreak of WW2, Poland suffered heavily. The death of over 20% of the population, the destruction of some 75% of the country’s infrastructure and cultural heritage, the loss of 1/3 of its territory, and foreign domination until 1989, caused irreparable harm to the Polish people and the Polish identity. Understandably, the Polish felt deep grievance and anger at the seeming indifference of the world to their plight. The Polish People’s Republic, as a satellite state of the USSR, tried to rewrite history: laying all the blame on Germany as the eternal aggressor, aggravating the sense of being let down by Western allies, and deflecting resentment from the Soviet Union. Such sentiments can still be detected in the behaviour of some Polish politicians today. The public, on the other hand, was less convinced about the country’s friendship with the USSR. The painful memory of Katyn in 1940, when thousands of Polish people were murdered by the Soviet secret police, still resounds many today. After Poland achieved independence in 1989, the ruling elite party were unwilling to prosecute the slew of Soviet crimes for fear of angering the larger neighbour. However, many could not and would not forget the sense that Poland was wronged. A deep rift in Polish society is still evident today. Indeed, the two main political parties (The Civic Platform party & The Law and Justice Party) are different, not necessarily in their economic and social policies, but rather in their interpretation of Polish nationhood. The Civic Platform party are made of people aiming to integrate into the European system and to be “good Europeans.” PiS, on the other hand, gathers its following from people who views Poland as subject to lengthy abuse by Russia and Germany, and neglect by Western ‘allies’. It is more convenient for these people to wrap themselves into a sort of provincial, religiously and ethnically homogenous cultural. Indeed, the PiS party have exploited and magnified this sentiment.
Demographically, Poland has become one of the most ethnically homogenous countries in Europe today with 97% of the entire population identifying as ethnically polish (accurate as of 2018). This situation largely owes itself to ethnic cleansing and mass deportations of millions of people along the lines of race and ethnicity under the Nazi regime, and the continuance of mass deportation under Soviet dominance. Polish nationalist concepts started to mature during this period, influenced heavily by Roman Stanislav Dmowski thought. As one of the most influential Polish ideologues of his time, Dmowski believed that only a Polish-speaking and Roman Catholic could be a good pole. His thinking marginalised other minorities and he was vocally anti-semitic. The Polish People’s Republic adopted the ideology of Dmowski and believed in an ethnically homogeneous state. Manifestations of this ideology include the anti-Semitic campaign waged by the minister of internal affairs, General Mieczysław Moczar, in 1967 which expelled over 13,000 individuals of Jewish ancestry from Poland in the period of 1968-1972. This anti-Semitic, anti-foreign sentiment has found itself conveniently compatible with the national sense of grievance and wrongdoing, one that is exploited today by entities such as Radio Maryja. Radio Maryja, a Catholic Radio Station closely affiliated with the PiS has promoted conspiracy theories such as the concept of Judeo-communism (which blames Jews for imposing communism on Poland). With heavy publicity of terror attacks and criminality of refugees, it is convenient for people to blame to blame liberal European elites, Muslims, immigrants and refugees for state problems.
Disclaimer: This article analyses the rise of certain sentiments in Poland from a broadly historical perspective, highlighting in particular the country’s unique historical experience. There are many other reasons that can be attributed to PiS’ rise in power such as, inter alia, European migrant crisis, terrorist attacks, blame shifting, the failure of party competition, eroding formal institutions, media influence, mass emigration of educated young people weakening domestic opposition to nationalist-popularist authority. These factors, among others, should be a prompt for further research, but are not addressed in this article.
Christine Deng is a junior at the London School of Economics where she studies International Business.
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