Nationalists Converge on Warsaw as Poland Marks Its Centenary

(Bloomberg) -- Poland’s bitter divisions were laid bare on Sunday as tens of thousands of people gathered in Warsaw to mark a century of the country’s independence with police and the military forming a barrier between far-right groups and anti-government protesters.

After an official commemoration by the president and prime minister, central boulevards in the capital were blocked and lined with security forces. People with red-and-white Polish flags and armbands, many from far-right groups, followed an official march. Smoke from the near-constant pop of red firecrackers at one point covered the city center. Police vans and vehicles with water cannons occupied some side streets.

Nationalists Converge on Warsaw as Poland Marks Its Centenary

Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said he expected as many as 200,000 in Warsaw for the outpouring of patriotism, though the line between that and extremism has become blurred in Poland of late and opponents say the government is giving the far right a louder voice.

Indeed, the country has been at the vanguard of the rise of nationalism, becoming a microcosm of the two political worlds that have collided in recent years: the nativism and protectionism led by Donald Trump’s America on one side and the European Union’s vision of globalism on the other.

Nationalists Converge on Warsaw as Poland Marks Its Centenary

The populist Law & Justice government has been eager to avoid a repetition of last year’s scenes when Independence Day was hijacked by fascists. This year, it coincided with global leaders marking 100 years since the end of World War I in Paris, where French President Emmanuel Macron condemned the rise of nationalist forces that have taken hold in Europe.

“Let’s focus on building a Poland that is just, secure and sovereign, with a capable army and well-functioning alliances, but most of all with the right type of politicians,” President Andrzej Duda told a gathering at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Poles should live in a country “where honesty wins over cynicism and villainy,” he said.

Nationalists Converge on Warsaw as Poland Marks Its Centenary

Tense Atmosphere

There was an edge to the events in Warsaw and foreign embassies had warned their citizens to be vigilant. While come families milled around, some groups evoked Poland’s resistance during World War II and against the communists. The far-right marchers held one large banner declaring “Death to the Enemies of the Fatherland.”

The commemoration attracted nationalists from Hungary, Italy and the U.K. There was also at least one Serbian flag. One man from Budapest said his country stood side by side with Poland when it comes to challenging the EU.

Indeed, Poland’s Law & Justice leadership has clashed with Brussels over issues such as the rule of law, media freedom and a new defamation law tied to the country’s role in the Holocaust.

EU President Donald Tusk, a former Polish prime minister, called on Poles to follow in the footsteps of historic leaders who confronted the Russian army and toppled communism so they can defeat the “modern Bolsheviks” currently ruling the country. At an event with supporters to lay a wreath on Sunday morning, he struck a more conciliatory tone.

“I know that on a daily basis we’re arguing about the future of our state and I know sometimes we’re too harsh, so forgive us Poland,” he said at the monument to 1920s leader Jozef Pilsudski as loud music blared out from the government headquarters next door at 9 a.m. “But I also know, especially today, that what’s linking us is much stronger and much more important, because it’s you Poland.”

Nationalists Converge on Warsaw as Poland Marks Its Centenary

Near the Palace of Culture, the tower that dominates downtown Warsaw, a few dozen anti-fascist demonstrators held a banner with a photograph of the Auschwitz death camp and the caption “This Is How Nationalism Ends.” Groups of far-right Poles shouted insults and racist slurs at the small gathering as they walked past.

The U.S. Embassy in Warsaw issued a security alert, telling Americans to avoid crowds and “keep a low profile” as similar events in the past were marred by incidents and slogans “aimed at racial, sexual, and religious minorities.”

The Ukrainian embassy said it has information that “certain Polish radical groups” plan provocations on Sunday, including acts that they want to be blamed on Ukrainian nationalists, calling on “Polish friends” to counter efforts to “stir hatred” against Ukrainians.

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