To properly watch the march in Warsaw on Sunday marking the 100th anniversary of Polish independence, you needed split screen. On the one hand, there were the official festivities on Polish state television. This was a dignified yet festive event led by the Polish president and prime minister, who were joined by hundreds of thousands of fellow Poles including parents and children proudly waving the red and white national flag.
But the scenes on the country’s private television stations, in the print media and on social media were less congenial. Behind the procession were thousands of extreme nationalists. Some were carrying frightening flags and symbols, and one marcher even burned the flag of the European Union.
They were joined by Italian and German fascists — it's hard to understand how they were welcomed in Poland given that their ancestors tried so hard to wipe Poland off the map. There were also marchers from Poland’s own far-right movements, who in their previous iteration called the Jews parasites, perpetrated pogroms against the Jews, and took part in the murder of Jews even after World War II.
How were they allowed to march in a celebratory procession in Warsaw, a magnet for foreign tourists and in recent years a place of pilgrimage for tens of thousands of Israelis? The event came together against the backdrop of the Polish government's decision to embrace the nationalists and thereby wrest control of the march from them. The goal was to head off scenes like those from a year before, with its slogans of racism and hatred of foreigners.
As measured by the overall results, the government was successful. This year’s Independence Day attracted a quarter of a million people, the vast majority of them ordinary citizens who came to celebrate the fragile independence of a country that has experienced countless occupations and foreign rule.
The march, which became the largest public event in the country since the fall of communism in 1989, wasn’t marred by major incidents, and the extremists were in the minority. But the cooperation that the government extended to the extremists wasn't just a tactic designed to ensure that the event went off peacefully. It came against the backdrop of shared enmity for a present/absent enemy: communism. Anyone who thinks Poland's communist regime belongs to the history only books apparently doesn’t speak Polish.
The spirit of the past continues to haunt the country and is part of daily policy debate. Take, for example, the changes that the government is making to the judicial system, which opponents of the move say is destroying the judiciary’s independence. The government is making the changes on the claim that it's addressing corruption that's a remnant of the communist regime. Then there's the interference in public broadcasting that the government's opponents portray as dictatorial propaganda using the hated communists' methods.
As the march was taking place, a statue was dedicated to the late Polish President Lech Kaczynski, the twin brother of a former prime minister, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who now pulls the strings behind the scenes even though he has no official position. The statue is a lot more than a gesture in the late president's honor.
It sends a resounding message, because to this day, the nationalist camp in Poland accuses Russia of assassinating Kaczynski, who died with many members of the Polish cabinet in a 2010 plane crash in Smolensk, Russia. The delegation was en route to a ceremony commemorating the 1941 massacre by Russians of tens of thousands of Poles in Katyn Forest.
So when the centennial celebrations were linked to such hatred and fear, one would hope that the government would provide the right-wing tone, not the nationalist and violent segment of its supporters.