Remembering the images from the last year’s Polish Day of Independence, our university teachers strongly recommended that we, foreign students, should avoid the centre of Warsaw on 11 November. Meanwhile, our Polish colleagues on Facebook were intensely arguing, which course of action would be the best: to stay or to go?
Should I stay or should I go?
11 November provides a wide range of events in Warsaw, including a run, a historic march and the famous “Marsz Niepodległości” (Independence March), attended by a wide range of people: patriots and nationalists but also neo-Nazis and hooligans. Countless videos on YouTube about the street riots in recent years – and especially the attack on the Russian Embassy last year – left me with a queasy feeling. Nevertheless, I wanted to see what is going in Warsaw during this day. I wanted to see the march, in the hope to see a little spectacle.
Roza Zieglinska wrote on Facebook:
“Tomorrow is the day that idiots from all around Poland come to Warsaw to f* s* up, I heartily advise you to stay in places far away from the whole thing, Especially if you’re in the centrum / Powisle area. Even though it seems tempting to watch them from a close range, I would advise you not to do that, Especially those people [who] look visibly foreign”.
Alexander Jess and others argued against it:
“What I hear about the Independence Day here is simply exaggeration. First of all, yes there are some ultranationalists having Their march. They are the only people You Should Avoid. Just as always. Just as we would. Second of all, Independence Day is the day of every Pole. There are some marches organized by patriots. The Ones That are normal. There are many people gathering there. Not everybody is a freaking nationalist in this country. To end with [it], there’s police everywhere. Self-explanatory. In the end it’s everybody’s [own] decision what to DO. Just do not make a decision based on paranoia”.
A united front
On my way to the event at a metro station I spotted a young man in a bomber jacket, whose eye was apparently completely swollen after a punch. At the exit of the Centrum station, the start of this year’s rally, I saw two Latinos on the escalator out of the station – after reaching the top, they just looked around and fled back underground.
When I left the station, I understood why: the entire center, usually a crowded place, was only occupied by young Poles carrying flags and shouting battle songs. Red flares and smoke grenades provided a shimmery light even in the daytime, and the constant explosions of firecrackers created an atmosphere of a front line. This united front of people that obviously exclude you from their group gave me a shaky feeling. How would they react if they knew you were a foreigner, if you would speak English or another language? You don’t know
A lost Asian couple drove to the completely empty parking lot in front of the PKIN. The demonstrators looked at them as if the saw Martians. And vice versa.
Luckily, I met my Polish acquaintances who quickly boosted my confidence and together we joined the march. Suddenly I was in the middle of a sea of flags. Most of the participants were young and a striking mix between skinheads in combat boots and perfectly normal-looking people, some of them wearing dreads, others looking like students in fancy jackets and horn-rimmed glasses. I saw many women marching as well, which is rather unusual for right wing demonstrations in Germany.
The atmosphere was rather quiet despite the aggressive chants. The whole situation reminded more a New Year’s Eve: drunk people everywhere and exploding firecrackers .
The content of the chants were: an independent Poland (evil EU!), traditional model of a family (evil homosexuals!), Christian values (bad Muslims!), conservative policy (evil, evil communists!) and bringing back Poles working abroad (evil… who exactly? Polish state?). A leader demanded to repolonise Lviv and Vilnius (Ukrainian and Lithiuanian cities which were within Polish borders before the Second World War), though it was apparently not taken seriously by anyone in the March .
One time people shouted: “Immigrants out!”, but in contrary to the right scene in Germany, this did not seem to be the core of the event, despite the slogan: “Poland for Poles”.
Several time I glimpsed neo-Nazis in Lonsdale-jackets (neo-Nazis like the brand Lonsdale, because only a P is needed to form NSDAP – the National Socialist German Workers’ Party) among casually dressed people. Flags of the ONR – a nationalistic movement promoting anit-Semitic slogans – were also visible. Facing these guys I was glad not to stand out from the crowd and to be able to talk to my companions in Polish.
Throughout the march two police helicopters circled over our heads. This was the only police presence that I could see through the whole walk. A reason for that might be also that the demonstration had to cross a long but easily controllable bridge . My companion told me later: Those who are looking for a fight are in front of the rally where they can clash with the police. In the rear it is quiet.
This was the greatest act of vandalism that I could see during the march.
At the end of the march the police surrounded people near the national stadium, but anyone could just slip through the encirclement. Next to it was a long queue in front of a liquor store. We bought a beer too and, already tired, went home.
My conclusion: should you have been scared? No. Should you have been cautious? Yes. If this shall be the most extreme yearly riots in Poland, it’s pretty soft.
One open question remained from my side: after reading and watching hate comments in social networks and statements expressed by Polish politicians, why the level of violence and anger in the streets, fired up by the (anti)immigration debate, was so low.
However what will remain with me after this day is how a number of Poles put their effort into protecting me and other foreigners from possible dangers, which also says something about the real level of xenophobia in Poland behind the flashy pictures in the news.