Poland Celebrates 100 Years: A Hug for Nationalists and a Viral Video for the West

President Andrzej Duda called on Poles to join him, carrying the country’s red and white flag, implicitly suggesting the avoidance of the white-only flag, one of the ultra-nationalist symbols

Demonstrators burn flares and wave Polish flags during the annual march to commemorate Poland's  Independence Day in Warsaw, 2017.
Czarek Sokolowski/AP

Many eyes around the world will turn on Sunday at 2 P.M. to the streets of Poland’s major cities, including Warsaw.

Tensions will reach boiling point around the question of whether ultra-nationalists and xenophobes (some of whom are anti-Semites) succeed in spoiling the centenary celebrations of Poland’s independence and harm the country’s reputation.

The irony is that the far-right in Poland, who fret so much about the country’s reputation with regard to controversial parts of its past (as surfaced this year around Poland’s “Holocaust law”), may be the ones who do the most serious damage to the country’s image.

>> Opinion: Poland and Israel’s false declaration on the Holocaust ■ The princess, the Nazi and the prostitute: Unlikely Righteous Among the Nations revealed

This could happen if unacceptable scenes from last year’s large parade repeat themselves, including the touting of the slogan “White Europe” and other anti-Semitic expressions, as well as the eruption of violent incidents caused by scary-looking thugs, who have come to Poland from benighted areas of Europe to join their fellow travelers.

Marches by Polish ultra-nationalists pose a difficult dilemma for the country’s right-wing government, led by the Law and Justice party. On the one hand, the government can’t clash directly with the marchers, who are still part and parcel of this party, having helped it gain power in 2015.

To really understand Israel and the Jewish world - subscribe to Haaretz

On the other hand, the damage to Poland’s image in the wake of these marches may be severe, conflicting with its public relations efforts and the huge investment the government has made on the international front in recent days, in order to market this centenary as a joyous and festive occasion, while trying to neutralize any land mine which might cast a cloud over the festivities.

Protesters light flares and carry Polish flags during a rally, organized by far-right, nationalist groups, to mark 99th anniversary of Polish independence in Warsaw.
AGENCJA GAZETA/REUTERS

The Warsaw municipality’s attempt to ban the ultra-nationalists’ march failed due to court intervention. President Andrzej Duda, a statesman-like figure who tries to bridge gaps and moderate fissures in Poland’s society, joined the fray, saying he would lead a march of his own. He called on Poles to join him, carrying the country’s red and white flag (implicitly suggesting the avoidance of the white-only flag, one of the ultra-nationalist symbols). Ultra-nationalist organizations have agreed to combine their marches with the one Duda has sponsored.

We’ll know the results of this decision on Sunday. It will be interesting to see if Poland can keep a state-sanctioned march festive and dignified, or whether it gives voice to ultra-nationalists, who earlier this year called on the president to “sign the law and take off his kippah,” in reference to the Polish legislation criminalizing the statement that the “Polish nation” was implicated in Nazi crimes during the Holocaust.

>> With Holocaust declaration, Netanyahu and Polish PM use history for political needs | Analysis ■ Yad Vashem rebukes Netanyahu: Holocaust declaration contains 'grave errors and deceptions' ■ Israel's stupid, ignorant and amoral betrayal of truth on Polish involvement in the Holocaust | Opinion  

At the same time, the government is promoting other less-controversial initiatives, in association with the centenary. These include the lighting up of famous structures around the world in the colors of Poland’s flag.

These include Egypt’s pyramids, the leaning tower of Pisa and Tel Aviv’s city hall. They are also disseminating a nice viral video starring Poland’s new ambassador to Israel, Marek Magierowski.

The viral video starring Poland’s new ambassador to Israel, Marek Magierowski.

The video is in the style of “unimportant facts you didn’t know about Poland” and is characterized, as appropriate to the genre, by its lightness and self-directed humor.

Among other facts, it tells viewers that Poles invented the paper clip (although there are other claimants, besides the Polish-American pianist Josef Hofmann, to whom the video refers), as well as the most extravagant men’s hairstyles (the video shows those of soccer player Jan Tomaszewski, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, who signed the Versailles Treaty, and Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion, who was also from Poland).

The disparity between concerns about a violent xenophobic march on Sunday and the production of the amusing clip demonstrates well the fissures in contemporary Poland. Anyone visiting Warsaw, Krakow, Wroclaw and Gdansk will find modern and pleasant cities, which are safe, bustling and full of all good things – food, shopping and entertainment – as is appropriate for a post-Communist European country with the most successful economy.

The tourists, including many Israelis, who fill city squares throughout the year, are living testament to the great success in branding Poland as a “regular” tourist destination, offering more than visits to death camps. This was summarized by an Israeli tourist on an El Al flight from Krakow this month: “Auschwitz? What, am I crazy? We went shopping.”

Poland can also be pleased with the latest report by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, which pointed to a drop in anti-Semitic incidents since 2015, the year the present government assumed power.

However, under the surface there is another Poland, one the tourists don’t discern, but which brings hundreds of thousands of locals to the streets, and which causes the left-leaning media to attack the government. This is the Poland which opponents of the government claim, sometimes exaggeratedly, is heading toward a dictatorship, due to government attempts to gain control of the media and the courts. This is a Poland in which the dominant camp opposes the values of the EU such as multiculturalism and equal rights for the LGBT community, and which will not consider any possibility of absorbing Muslim migrants. 

The government explains that the reforms it is introducing are meant to improve the functioning of a distorted and top-heavy system, a remnant of the hated Communist regime, which was replaced only 30 years ago. It dismisses charges of dictatorship as “fake news,” stoked by left-leaning media, led by the most important newspaper in Poland, Gazeta Wyborcza. 

With respect to migrant influx there is a two-pronged policy. Very quietly, the doors have opened in recent years to massive immigration from Ukraine. There are no official figures yet but there are estimates of more than one million immigrants. Walking the streets of the larger cities, one can hear a mixture of Ukrainian and Polish language on every corner, divulging the origins of the neighborhood’s newcomers.

In addition, in recent years the government has handed out work visas to many Asians, who have quickly dominated the food delivery market. One can’t miss them these days, on their scooters making deliveries for the online food ordering company, Uber Eats, in large Polish cities.

This would have been inconceivable in the past. In other words, Poland is no longer “white” but is also far from being a desired destination for migrants, in contrast to its neighbor Germany. Poland, which for most of its history was not independent, have been repeatedly conquered by other nations, including two totalitarian and murderous ones, bears many scars and skeletons as it celebrates its birthday. 

Despite this, it has managed in recent years to shake off its stereotypic image as an old-fashioned country stuck in the past, and has made impressive strides toward a new path. 

The obstacles are still there, obviously. This was seen in Israel following the clumsy Polish contortions around the handling of the so-called Holocaust Law, which maneuvered between a wish to protect “national honor” (while placating the nationalist right wing), and the need to maintain friendly relations with Israel and the U.S. The compromise that was reached – the removal of criminal prosecution of anyone arguing the Polish people were involved in the Holocaust – but the maintaining of the right to pursue civil legal action, with unclear significance, enabled all sides, at least for now, to return to normal.

The 100th anniversary will allow Poland to show the world its good sides, of which it has many, but will also demonstrate how it proposes to contend with the unpleasant aspects of the past and present.