WARSAW — Tens of thousands of people marched in Warsaw Saturday at a Polish Independence Day celebration led by three radical-nationalist groups, with banners calling for “White Europe” and “Clean Blood.”
Police estimated the crowd at 60,000, and photos of the throngs in the Polish capital, including neo-fascists in balaclavas, marching in a haze of red smoke from firecrackers, provided dramatic images from a country where millions of people died in concentration camps in World War II.
Many people in the crowd told local and international media they were not part of the radical-nationalist groups, but were attending in celebration of Independence Day.
The three main sponsors of the march were All Poland Youth, National Movement and National Radical Camp, which is known by its acronym ONR.
All Poland Youth has organized demonstrations on Polish Independence Day at least since 2010, but in its early years only a few hundred people attended. The event has grown to attract right-wing nationalists from across Europe, and on Saturday it overshadowed other festivities.
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The rally appears to have gained the tacit approval of the governing Law and Justice Party, but officials told local and international media that the event met all legal requirements. Authorities have granted the march a status of a “regular event,” meaning in future nobody will be able to march on streets reserved f0r the “Independence March.”
In previous years, there were violent clashes between the marchers and anti-fascist demonstrators but this year thousands of police sealed off the streets, as well as the central Warsaw Poniatowski Bridge, and there was no contact with any protesters against the march.
At a 6 p.m. news conference, after the march ended, Interior Minister Mariusz Błaszczak said: “There were no incidents.” But he refused to acknowledge that there were racist slogans at the march “It’s only your opinion, because you behave like a political activist,” he told a reporter who asked about the widely-documented banners and chants.
Among those slogans were: “White Europe of Brotherly Nations,” “Europe will be white or uninhabited,” “Clear blood, sober mind,” and “No to Islam.”
The mass display of xenophobia, including anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and anti-gay slogans, was not immediately condemned by senior government officials. and it was certain to heighten concerns in Brussels over the continuing rightward shift of Poland’s politics. For months, Warsaw and the EU have been in a tense standoff over changes to Poland’s court system that the European Commission says are undermining the rule of law.
At a separate Independence Day event in Kraków, the leader of the governing Law and Justice Party, Jarosław Kaczyński, also struck a nationalist chord. “Our demands will be met only if there is power behind them,” Kaczyński said. “We must aim at the national consolidation and try to convince those who don’t accept us and maybe even hate us.”
European Council President Donald Tusk, who is a former Polish prime minister and a political opponent of the current Warsaw government, was in Poland for Independence Day celebrations.
“I am convinced that the Independence Day can be celebrated with a smile on our faces and with joy in our hearts because there really is much to celebrate and much be proud of — without hostile chants and without clenched fists,” he told journalists on Saturday morning. “This is what I have come here to tell all my positively-thinking compatriots: you are not alone, we are very many, and the personal independence of each and every one of you is the best guarantee of Poland’s independence.”