March

“The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you’re someone. You hear them shouting “Heil, Spode!” and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: “Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?” The words of Bertie Wooster in P. G. Wodehouses’s The Code of the Woosters, written in 1938 when this sort of thing was last all the rage. Surprisingly, it appears to be making a limited (hopefully) comeback in Poland.

In the book Spode is reduced to adopting black shorts because all the best shirt colours are taken; Hitler’s brown shirts, Mussolini’s black shirts, Irish blue shirts, etc. For Poland’s National Radical Camp (ONR), a lack of competition means that they have wasted no time in adopting the brown shirt, albeit with long trousers.

The ONR was established in 1934 but was considered so extreme by the then Polish authorities – no mean feat – that it was banned after only three months, following a wave of anti-semitic activity. It was revived in 1993, and officially registered as an association in 2012. The immigration crisis in Europe and the PiS government’s more nationalistic tone appear to have created a climate which the ONR feels to be more sympathetic to its brand of marching and flag waving. It is among the groups that organise an annual march in Warsaw on Polish Independence Day, the last such march being held under the slogan “Poland for the Poles, Poles for Poland”.

On Saturday members of the ONR gathered in Białystok to mark the 82nd anniversary of its foundation. This prompted the Białystok University of Technology’s international relations office to send a message in English to all foreign students, noting that the march would take place in and strongly recommending students not leave their dormitories from 11:00 am on Saturday and 3:00 am on Sunday. “In order to avoid any unpleasant incidents please do not go out to town and do not walk on the campus.”

While it remains a truism that if one doesn’t look for trouble one seldom finds it, you might reasonably ask whether the university has security and whether Białystok has a police force able to protect folk going about their lawful business, since confining students to their quarters while the malcontents roam at will does appear to be the tail wagging the dog.

Be that as it may, and this being Poland, there is a twist in the tail. On Monday evening the Rector of the university, Professor Lech Dzienis, admitted that he had known that the ONR had rented a nightclub on the campus for a concert on Saturday night. He claimed that he had not known the true identity of the concert organisers until the day before the concert, thinking it was simply a normal birthday party. He considered that cancelling the concert the day before could have led to a direct threat to the safety of foreign and Polish students. Instead, in consultation with the police, the concert went ahead with the university focusing on strengthening the protection of the campus.

“I want to stress emphatically that the slogans and ideals preached by these [far-right] circles are completely alien to our academic community,” the rector said. Which is no doubt reassuring as his campus echoed to the sound of songs from a Polish rock band with titles apparently including ‘Biały honor, biała duma’ (‘White honour, white pride).

In the P.G. Wodehouse books, Spode is rendered harmless to Wooster when Jeeves informs him that Spode had made a living as the founder and proprietor of the emporium in Bond Street known as Eulalie Soeurs, a famed designer of lingerie. As Bertie says, “You can’t be a successful Dictator and design women’s underclothing. One or the other. Not both.”

It seems unlikely that life will imitate art in this case, but if ever something in a bud needed nipping, this would be a good place to start. It is perfectly possible to defend Poland and Polish culture, and to honour Polish history without filling the streets with neo-brown shirts. The irony, of course, is that had the brown shirts whom they are so keen to emulate been successful, Poland would not exist and they would not be here.

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