“The only service a friend can really render is to keep up your courage by holding up to you a mirror in which you can see a noble image of yourself.” The words of George Bernard Shaw which, albeit the mirror has been replaced by the camera lens or television screen, have caused Poland’s president some consternation when those pictures from the 11th November Independence Day celebrations that attracted the most media attention presented a less than noble image of Poland.
According to President Duda, in an interview for Dziennik Gazeta Prawna, a small group of marchers waving controversial banners during a 60,000 strong march have harmed Poland’s image abroad. He said that those waving the banners represented a “marginal” proportion of all those taking part in the march in Warsaw. Groups with such radical views “can be found in every country”.
Other political figures also distanced themselves from what Polish public broadcaster had described as a small group of extreme nationalists which was responsible for the fascist and racist banners that spoilt the march and drew criticism from abroad. Duda said last Monday that “there is no room … in our country for xenophobia, for pathological nationalism, for anti-Semitism,” and the PiS party leader Jarosław Kaczyński, said his party referred to traditions that “have nothing to do with anti-Semitism or racism.” When asked about the march in an interview Kaczyński said that “there were some extremely unfortunate” and “completely unacceptable” incidents during the event, but added that these occurrences were the “fringe of the fringe” and that they were “very likely a provocation.” “Those who want to harm Poland know perfectly well how to do that,” he told public broadcaster TVP on Monday evening. “These kinds of slogans, this kind of nonsense, shameful nonsense, is very damaging to us,” he added.
Meanwhile, at the EU summit in Brussels on Friday, the Polish prime minister was protesting against her country being “vilified and insulted” in the European parliament. After the summit in Gothenburg, Sweden, Beata Szydło said she had told EU leaders that “there cannot be a situation such as… during a debate in the European Parliament when one of the nations of our great European family is vilified and insulted.”
On Wednesday the parliament had debated the rule of law and democracy and it was said that the situation in the country posed a “clear risk of a serious breach” of EU values. MEPs also voted to trigger the first stage of the “Article Seven” procedure. Poland must respect the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary, and fundamental rights, failing which the country’s right to vote in the EU Council might be suspended, the European Parliament warned. Liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt said that 60,000 “fascists” had taken part in a march in Warsaw on Poland’s Independence Day.
This was too much for Szydło who told reporters on Friday: “The 60,000 people who came out in Warsaw for a beautiful… march to celebrate Independence Day cannot be called fascists by anyone.” While insisting that the government “very clearly condemns all extremism”, she said, “I will never agree to my country, which was the victim of two totalitarian regimes… being vilified and slandered in such a way.” And speaker of the Polish senate, Stanisław Karczewski, described as a “brazen lie” a tweet by Jesse Lehrich, a former foreign policy spokesman for Hillary Clinton, that “60,000 Nazis marched on Warsaw” on November 11, adding that PiS condemned and distanced themselves from any “extreme behaviour” that occurred during the march.
Which is all very well, and as it should be. The difficulty is that the march was organised by two nationalist groups with an interwar history – the National Radical Camp (ONR) and All-Polish Youth (MW). Although both groups have made efforts to sanitize their public images in recent years in order to broaden their appeal, and although the mainstream of PiS is not in close ideological accord with either, PiS’s strategy of preventing splits to what might be broadly referred to as the right, so as to remain unchallenged in that area, and the bringing in of nationalists to the main stream, has lead, one might think, to some sailing pretty close to the wind. Of course, one must take Duda, Kaczyński, et al at their word, and believe their condemnation of the extremists as sincere. At the same time if one is really concerned about image, one needs to be rather more circumspect about allowing folk with a tendency to wearing National Socialist style armbands and uniforms to organize marches you support. It didn’t end well last time.