Tens of thousands of nationalists have marched through Warsaw to mark Poland’s independence day, throwing red smoke bombs and carrying banners with such slogans as “white Europe of brotherly nations”.
The march organised by far-right groups was one of many events marking Poland’s rebirth as a nation in 1918, overshadowing official state observances and other patriotic events.
Police estimated 60,000 people took part. Many were young men, some with their faces covered or with beer bottles in hand, but families and older Poles also participated.
Those marching chanted “God, honour, country” and “Glory to our heroes”, while a few people also shouted xenophobic phrases like “pure Poland, white Poland” and “refugees get out”.
Some participants marched under the slogan “We Want God”, words from an old Polish religious song that the US president, Donald Trump, quoted during a visit to Warsaw earlier this year. Speakers spoke of standing against liberals and defending Christian values.
Many carried the national white-and-red flag as others set off flares and firecrackers, filling the air with red smoke. Some also carried banners depicting a falanga, a far-right symbol dating to the 1930s.
The march has become one of the largest such demonstration in Europe and drew far-right leaders from elsewhere in Europe, including Tommy Robinson from Britain and Roberto Fiore from Italy. It also attracted a considerable number of supporters of the governing conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party.
State broadcaster TVP, which reflects the conservative government’s line, called it a “great march of patriots”, and in its broadcasts described the event as one that drew mostly regular Poles expressing their love of Poland, not extremists.
“It was a beautiful sight,” the interior minister, Mariusz Blaszczak, said. “We are proud that so many Poles have decided to take part in a celebration connected to the Independence Day holiday.”
A smaller counter-protest by an anti-fascist movement also took place. Organisers kept the two groups apart to prevent violence. However, there was one incident in which the nationalists pushed and kicked several women who chanted anti-fascism slogans and had a banner saying “Stop Fascism”.
“I’m shocked that they’re allowed to demonstrate on this day. It’s 50 to 100,000 mostly football hooligans hijacking patriotism,” said 50-year-old Briton Andy Eddles, a language teacher who has been living in Poland for 27 years. “For me it’s important to support the anti-fascist coalition and to support fellow democrats, who are under pressure in Poland today.”
But main march participant Kamil Staszalek warned against making generalisations and said he was marching to “honour the memory of those who fought for Poland’s freedom”.
“I’d say some people here do have extreme views, maybe even 30 per cent of those marching, but 70 per cent are simply walking peacefully, without shouting any fascist slogans,” he said.
Earlier in the day, the president, Andrzej Duda, presided over state ceremonies also attended by the European Union president, Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister.
Tusk’s appearance comes at a time when Warsaw has been increasingly at odds with Brussels because of the PiS government’s controversial court reforms, large-scale logging in a primeval forest and refusal to welcome migrants. Relations between PiS and Tusk have been so tense that Poland was the only country to vote against his re-election as EU president in March.