In the early afternoon on November 11, 2019, in central Warsaw, tens of thousands of people came together at the Roman Dmowski roundabout, for an event known as one of the biggest right-wing gatherings in the world. The location itself was telling: named for an influential Polish thinker who espoused ethno-nationalistic and openly antisemitic ideas. From 2012 on, this is where the March of Independence has begun. After the national anthem and speeches, the crowd slowly started the roughly two-mile march, which, due to the sheer number of participants, can take up to four hours, as marchers cross the Vistula River and make their way to a large open space behind the Polish national stadium, where a final rally and closing concert take place. The spectacle was a sea of flags and banners in Poland’s national colors—white and red—flown by a wide spectrum of participants, ranging from openly right-wing radicals and masked hooligans, to families with toddlers, to senior citizens, most generally representing the middle or even upper-middle classes.
The demonstration had a notably martial atmosphere, as marchers’ flares cast a red glow across the city; loud firecrackers echoed off building walls; and participants belted classic stadium chants popular with football fans and hooligans: “First with a sickle, then with a hammer, hit the red rabble”; “From trees, instead of leaves, communists will be hanging”; or “Not red, not rainbow, but national Poland.” Other chants were more aggressive yet. The 2019 march landed amid a public campaign in Poland—run by organizers of the march—called STOP 447, aimed at a U.S. law requiring reporting on the restitution of Jewish property that was “wrongfully seized or transferred” during the Holocaust (and sanctioned by the subsequent Communist rule). Consequently, alongside Polish flags and banners, marchers carried promotional material for STOP 447, and many participants chanted the baldly antisemitic slogan, “Here is the real Poland, not Polin [Hebrew for Poland].”
This is what a street event organized by the Far Right but attended mostly by the middle-class looks like in Poland today.
A Brief History of the March
Poland gained its Independence in 1918, after the end of World War I. Collapsing empires and the rise of nation-states enabled a long awaited independence, previously lost in 1795 due to Poland’s partition between Prussia, Russia, and Habsburg. Under Communism, Independence Day was revoked as an official national Polish holiday because it was linked with the pre-World War II government, which the post-war Communist regime derided as “bourgeois.” Democratic opposition activists organized illegal celebrations anyway, most often under the protection of the Catholic Church with commemorative masses. But in 1978, participants of the holy masses took to the streets and joined illegal marches in Warsaw and other Polish cities. In 1981, when the anti-Communist Solidarity movement was briefly legalized, around 100,000 participants were counted across Poland. (Technically, those marches were still illegal but were condoned by the state due to the large numbers participating.) Although Solidarity was again banned by the end of 1981, the marches took place throughout the 1980s, regularly causing fights between the participants and Communist security forces. After the collapse of Communism in 1989, the Third Polish Republic reintroduced Independence Day as a national holiday, with commemorations that usually included a Catholic mass and speeches from officials, and which were observed mainly by the state authorities and the political elite.
At the same time, in cities across Poland, right-wing (often skinhead) groups, such as the now sidelined Polish National Community (Polska Wspólnota Narodowa), began holding their own, competing events, with local-level Marches of Independence that drew modest numbers of participants. These alternate marches focused on ultra-nationalist messages, promoting anti-European Union, antisemitic, or anti-NATO views, at a time when post-Communists controlled the government, and were advocating for Poland to join the EU and NATO. So, while the new government sanctioned official Independence commemorations, the far-right alternative marches suggested that Poland’s sovereignty was threatened by its aspirations to join international organizations. In 1996, Warsaw saw its first such march, organized mainly by the small, far-right organization National Rebirth of Poland (Narodowe Odrodzenie Polski). (In 2013, this group gained international publicity for disturbing a lecture given by one of Europe’s most influential sociologists, Zygmunt Bauman, at the University of Wrocław.)
For years, the marches continued to attract few participants and little media coverage. But this began to change in 2008, when a group of around 150 counter-demonstrators protested the Warsaw march, forcing it to change its route. The controversy stoked passion and interest, leading to a growing number of participants in subsequent years, as well as increasing coverage by mainstream media, which condemned march organizers as radicals and fascists. State authorities began to heavily police march organizers and activists, inadvertently helping the event grow further. As Jan Bodakowski, a right-wing blogger and activist who participated in the 2010 march recalled:
On a grim day on November 11th, nationalists gathered on Castle Square in Warsaw. Those who wanted to take part had to pass through a tight police cordon surrounding the demonstrators. For many days, the left-wing media, mostly Gazeta Wyborcza, were calling for the March to be blocked. The effect was different from that expected. Instead of being another small nationalistic event, ignored by everyone, it has become a widely-discussed matter of state.
Starting in 2010, a single, large march in Warsaw replaced the smaller regional events, and this joint march became the primary issue of debate over Polish Independence Day.
In 2011, the March of Independence Association was formed as the result of a union between two important far-right organizations: the All-Polish Youth [Młodzież Wszechpolska] and the National-Radical Camp [Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny], both of which trace their roots back to the inter-war period and share a nationalistic, anti-Communist, anti-EU agenda.
Other right-wing groups supported the new, unified march, including Solidarni 2010, a grassroots movement fighting for the “truth” about the plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczyński (among other representatives of the Polish state), and Kluby Gazety Polskiej, a group associated with a Polish weekly magazine known for its homophobic, Islamophobic, and anti-EU agenda. Both are closely linked to Law and Justice’s conservative agenda. Other prominent right-wing figures also supported the new march, including Janusz Korwin-Mikke, a former deputy of the European Parliament famous for his sexist and racist statements, and the journalist Rafał Ziemkiewicz, who in 2018 was blocked from speaking in the UK over protests that accused him of hate speech. (For instance, Ziemkiewicz recently stated, “We have to shoot LGBT! Not literally, of course—but we have to fight it.”) With the participation of more moderate right-wing groups and activists, the event grew dramatically and soon began to attract tens of thousands of participants.
As the march grew, so did attempts to block it, sometimes leading to violence. In 2011, fights broke out between march participants on one side and counter-demonstrators and anti-fascist activists (many from Germany) on the other. Marchers set fire to a news van belonging to liberal television station TVN24, and members of both sides attacked the police, leaving 40 police officers injured, 14 police cars damaged, and 210 people arrested.
The violence continued in subsequent years. In 2012, a masked group of marchers again attacked the police. In 2013, violent marchers burned down an art installation in central Warsaw representing LBGTQ-rights, attacked an illegal anarchist squat, and burned a sentry booth in front of the Russian embassy. In 2014, during clashes with marchers, 51 police officers were injured and over 270 people were detained. Yet the number of participants seemed to steadily increase. Although estimates vary depending on who’s doing the counting, between 2013 and 2015, more than 50,000 people were said to have taken part each year.
This impressive mobilization was recognized by far-right organizations and political parties, but also by Jarosław Kaczyński’s ruling right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS). Seeking to capitalize on the demonstration’s popularity, PiS leaders defended the event against accusations that it was a fascist rally (while simultaneously attempting to marginalize the organizers and distance themselves from antisemitic messages), and PiS members regularly joined the march.
In 2015, after PiS won the presidential and parliamentary elections, opportunities for the party to support the march increased. March organizers had long blamed counter-protestors and the police for disturbances in previous years. After PiS took power, the police presence at the march became virtually invisible, as officers concealed themselves on side streets, behind buildings, and under bridges. As a consequence, violence has decreased significantly, even though marginal acts of vandalism still occurred, like the burning of the European Union flag.
Although the media acknowledged the decrease in violence, they also criticized the government’s involvement as a thinly disguised romance between the ruling party and the Far Right, whose support PiS seemed to be courting. At both the 2016 and 2017 marches, for example, President Andrzej Duda addressed participants in an official letter, read aloud on his behalf at the start of the event:
In the mutual respect and dignity of this holiday, we gather under white and red flags and images of the White Eagle. Together and each in their own way, we make use of the most precious good—our freedom. I really want—and I know that this expectation is shared by many Poles—that these good feelings and the message of today’s holiday will accompany us all every day.
With this official welcome, the March of Independence crossed over into the political mainstream, even as some participants still broadcast White nationalist messages, including banners in 2017 that read, “Pure blood, clear mind,” or “White Europe of Brotherly Nations.” This reality prompted Guy Verhofstadt, the liberal former prime minister of Belgium, to condemn the event as “60,000 fascists march[ing] in the streets of Warsaw—neo-Nazis [and] white supremacists.” In response to Verhofstadt’s criticism, Bawer Aondo-Akaa, a Polish anti-abortion activist, sued him. Aondo-Akaa, who had participated in the March, was born to a Nigerian father, and uses a wheelchair—facts he would argue in his lawsuit to “prove” the march was not racist, and therefore couldn’t be described as neonazi. The case remains open as of this writing.
The Centennial March Enters the Polish Mainstream
In 2018, march organizers promoted that year’s event with the slogan “March of the Million on the Centenary,” reflecting their hopes to attract one million marchers on the 100th anniversary of the nation’s independence. However, that year the celebrations came amid a political atmosphere even tenser than usual, due to steps taken by the president, the mayor of Warsaw, the government, and nationalist groups.
President Duda proposed having a joint march, in which he and some government officials would participate along with the far-right organizers. This sparked massive criticism from liberal and Left mainstream media, politicians, and organizations, which accused the government and PiS of making common cause with right-wing radicals.
Efforts to organize this joint march failed after Duda insisted that marchers should only carry Polish flags—a clear effort to ensure that racist and White supremacist banners would not be visible at an event led by the president. On October 29, two weeks before the event, a spokesperson for the President and the Speaker of the Parliament announced separately that neither the President nor any PiS politicians would take part in the March of Independence.
On November 7, four days before the event, Warsaw then-Mayor Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz intervened to try to stop the March, claiming that there was a serious threat of public disorder and violence during the event. The mayor’s decision went before the courts, and Duda invited Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki to discuss the matter to find a way to save the event commemorating Poland’s 100th Independence Day.
The same day, without waiting for the court’s decision, Duda announced that the March of Independence would be replaced by an alternative “White and Red” March, which, as an official state event, was beyond the power of Warsaw’s mayor to prevent. Organizers of the March of Independence interpreted the announcement as an attempt to take over their event and decided to march anyway, regardless of the president’s plans.
This rapid sequence of events, which happened almost overnight, led to heightened public emotions and fears of disorder. In the end, there were two Independence Day marches in Warsaw on November 11: the so-called presidential or White and Red March, which had the status of a state celebration, and the nationalists’ annual event.
The result was the largest event in the history of the march, as approximately 250,000 participants took to the streets of Warsaw, according to the Polish Police. Both marches followed a nearly identical route, and took place at nearly the same time, meaning that even though the presidential march started first, many participants weren’t sure which event they were taking part in. In the end, because the presidential event had heavy security, only around 3,000 people were able to take part in the official, state-organized march. Most people, intentionally or not, participated in the nationalists’ March of Independence.
Developments after the Centennial March of Independence
Despite the confusion surrounding the centennial march, the event was a huge success in terms of mobilization, media coverage, and further mainstreaming. But this triumph came at a price. First, the coalition of organizers—led by two large radical organizations, the All-Polish Youth and the National-Radical Camp—broke apart, with the latter criticizing march organizers for indulging PiS demands, cooperating with security forces to prohibit radicals from entering the march, and generally being too mainstream.
Second, PiS began distancing itself from the march and its organizers, sensing that the potential for mobilizing march supporters into PiS voters was outweighed by the risk that another party might recruit them instead. Indeed, this is exactly what happened shortly after the 2018 march, when two right-wing parties, the National Movement [Ruch Narodowy] and KORWiN (established by the aforementioned Janusz Korwin-Mikke, a politician closely tied to the march), fused into a new radical-right party called Confederation Liberty and Independence [Konfederacja Wolność i Niepodległość]. This new party, called Confederation for short, quickly grew into a serious threat to PiS’s absolute majority. Recently, after Confederation entered the new parliament in October 2019 with 11 deputies (representing 6.81 percent of votes), PiS has started to fight back against its new competitor. And since that competing party is closely tied to the organizers of the march, the marchers whom PiS once welcomed into the mainstream have since become its political enemies.
The outcome at the march in November 2019 included complaints that march organizers and activists were harassed by police intelligence officials, despite the fact that policing of the march has remained low-key and official state media continues to cover the event enthusiastically, highlighting marchers’ patriotism and minimizing allegations of radicalism. On the other hand, the visual appearance of the 2019 March bore a greater resemblance to the mainstreamed centennial march than those that had come earlier: Polish colors dominated, there were fewer visible fascist symbols, and the march was hailed as the least violent to date. (However, its martial atmosphere—of flares, firecrackers, and aggressive chants—remained unchanged.)
Only the future will show whether the March of Independence—now competing both against a more moderate PiS and the farther-right activists of the National-Radical Camp—will continue to be one of Poland’s biggest street events and one of the world’s largest right-wing gatherings.
 For more see eg.: Kossert, Aandreas, “Founding Father of Modern Poland and Nationalistic Antisemite: Roman Dmowski,” in R. Haynes and M. Rady, eds., In the Shadow of Hitler: Personalities of the Right in Central and Eastern Europe, London: I.B Taurus, 2011, pp.89-105.
 Unless otherwise stated, all translations are from the authors.
 Translation from The Guardian. Luxmoore, Matthew, “Poles apart: the bitter conflict over a nation’s communist history,” The Guardian, July 13, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/jul/13/poles-apart-the-bitter-conflict-over-a-nations-history-poland-monuments-communism-soviet-union.
 S.447 - Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today (JUST) Act of 2017, Congress.gov, https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/447.
 By January 2020 this campaign had gathered more than 200,000 signatures and march organizers had already threatened that if Polish MPs don’t act according to their initiative, the Polish people will rebel. Link to the petition: https://donotlink.it/Q9EVY.
 Chrzczonowicz, Magdalena and Sitnicka, Dominika, “Idą biali wojownicy, narodowi katolicy, Za Polskę wolną od aborcji, islamu, Żydów i LGBT!” [“White warriors and national Catholics are coming, for a Poland free from abortion, Islam, Jews and LGBT!”], Oko.press, November 11, 2019, https://oko.press/ida-ida-biali-wojownicy-narodowi-katolicy-za-polske-w….
 Biskupski, M.B.B., “Independence Day: Myth, Symbol, and the Creation of Modern Poland,” Oxford University Press, 2012, pp.122 et seq.
 Siedziako, Michał, “Tak wyglądał 11 listopada w PRL” [“This is how November 11 was celebrated in Polish People’s Republic”], Dzieje.pl, August 11, 2018, https://dzieje.pl/artykuly-historyczne/tak-wygladal-11-listopada-w-prl.
 Szymanik, Grzegorz, „Pierwsze Marsze” [“First Marches”], Gazeta Wyborcza Warszawa, November 11, 2012, https://warszawa.wyborcza.pl/warszawa/56,34862,10624511,pierwsze-marsze….
 “Wrocławski NOP na marszu w Warszawie” [“Wrocław’s NOP at the March of Independence”], Gazeta Wyborcza Warszawa, November 11, 1999, https://warszawa.wyborcza.pl/warszawa/56,34862,10624511,11-11-1999-r-wroclawski-nop-na-marszu-w-warszawie„5.html.
 Right-wing activists accused Zygmunt Bauman, whom they pointedly described as a “Jewish” scholar to invoke antisemitic sentiment, of not only propagating neo-Marxist ideologies they oppose, but also of evading justice for his involvement in the Polish-Stalinist state. See: Chmielewski, Adam J., “Academies of Hatred,” Open Democracy, www.opendemocracy.net/en/can-europe-make-it/academies-of-hatred/. Video from this event: “National Revival of Poland disturb [sic] lecture by Zygmunt Bauman,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UJFyiSf57uQ.
 Szymanik, Grzegorz, “Pierwsza blokada Marszu” [“The first blockade of the March”], Gazeta Wyborcza Warszawa, November 11, 2012, https://warszawa.wyborcza.pl/warszawa/56,34862,10624511,pierwsza-blokad….
 Napiórkowski, Marcin, Turbopatriotyzm [Turbopatriotism], Wołowiec: Wydawnictwo Czarne (2019).
 For a right-wing activist’s perspective on increased policing, see: Gładysz, Daniel, “Działalność Policji podczas Marszów Niepodległości w latach 2010-2014” [“Activity of the Police during Independence Marches in 2010-2014”], Kielce: Stowarzyszenie Współpraca Polska-Wschód, 2019.
 Poland’s largest newspaper, perceived by the Polish Far Right as a chief enemy, in part due to the Jewish background of its editor-in-chief, former dissident Adam Michnik.
 Bodakowski, Jan, “Fotorelacja z pierwszego Marszu Niepodległości. Zobacz jak daleką drogę przeszliśmy od 2010 roku” [“Photos from the First Independence March. See how Far We Have Come since 2010”], November 10, 2018, Prawy.pl, https://prawy.pl/82374-fotorelacja-z-pierwszego-marszu-niepodleglosci-zobacz-jak-daleka-droge-przeszlismy-od-2010-roku/.
 Jajecznik, Konrad, “The Nationalist Movement in Poland: the Third Evolution Phase of Polish Nationalism after 1989?” in K. Cordell and K. Jajecznik, eds., The Transformation of Nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe, Warsaw: University of Warsaw, 2015, pp. 35-62.
 See for example: Vonberg, Judith, “‘Women must earn less than men,’ Polish politician says,” CNN Europe, March 3, 2017, https://edition.cnn.com/2017/03/03/europe/polish-politician-remarks-women/index.html; or Singh, Rajnish, “Polish far-right MEP blasted for use of ‘racist’ language,” The Parliament, July 17, 2014, https://www.theparliamentmagazine.eu/articles/news/polish-far-right-mep….
 Marsh, Sarah, “Polish far-right speaker cancels UK visit amid hate speech concerns,” The Guardian, February 16, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/feb/16/polish-far-right-speaker-rafa-ziemkiewiczc-ancels-uk-visit-hate-speech.
 “Interia zerwała współpracę z Rafałem Ziemkiewiczem i usunęła jego tekst o ‘strzelaniu do LGBT’” [“Interia broke off cooperation with Rafał Ziemkiewicz and removed his text about ‘shooting the LGBT’”], Wirtualne Media, 2019, www.wirtualnemedia.pl/artykul/interia-zerwala-wspolprace-z-rafalem-ziemkiewiczem-i-usunela-jego-tekst-o-strzelaniu-do-lgbt.
 “Wozy TVN podpalone podczas zamieszek” [“TVN’s satellite trucks set on fire amid riots”], TVN24 Warszawa, November 11, 2014, https://tvn24.pl/tvnwarszawa/najnowsze/wozy-tvn-podpalone-podczas-zamieszek-32647.
 Kozlowska, Hanna, “Why Poland’s Right-Wing Thugs Keep Burning Rainbows,” Foreign Policy, November 12, 2013, https://foreignpolicy.com/2013/11/12/why-polands-right-wing-thugs-keep-burning-rainbows/.
 A squat is a word describing an abandoned building, settled without a legal permit. Usually squatting is connected to the anarchist movement, which is contesting the role of private property.
 “Marsz Niepodległości 2014: 276 osób zatrzymano w związku z zamieszkami” [“March of Independence 2014: 276 people were detained in connection with the unrest”], Polska Times, https://polskatimes.pl/marsz-niepodleglosci-2014-276-osob-zatrzymano-w-zwiazku-z-zamieszkami-zdjecia-video-relacja/ar/3634070.
 Gładysz, Daniel, “Działalność Policji podczas Marszów Niepodległości w latach 2010-2014” [“Activity of the Police during Independence Marches in 2010-2014”], Kielce: Stowarzyszenie Współpraca Polska-Wschód, 2015, p. 16.
 Machajski, Piotr, “Marsz Niepodległości 2015. Spokojny po raz pierwszy od pięciu lat” [“March of Independence 2015. Calm for the first time in five years”], Gazeta Wyborcza Warszawa, November 11, 2015, https://warszawa.wyborcza.pl/warszawa/1,34862,19173785,marsz-niepodleglosci-2015-spokojny-po-raz-pierwszy-od-pieciu.html.
 It’s important to note that these actions take place at a time when the ruling Law and Justice party is introducing reforms in the judiciary system that violate the rule of law, alarm EU institutions and result in Poland plummeting in various indexes of democracy. For more see eg.: “Poland might be forced to leave EU by its judicial reforms, top court says,” Euronews, December 18, 2015, https://www.euronews.com/2019/12/18/poland-could-be-forced-to-leave-eu-by-its-judicial-reforms-top-court-says.
 Duda, Andrzej, “List Andrzeja Dudy do uczestników Marszu Niepodległości” [“A letter from Andrzej Duda to the participants of the March of Independence”], Prezydent.pl, official website of the Polish President, November 11, 2016, https://www.prezydent.pl/aktualnosci/wypowiedzi-prezydenta-rp/inne/art,282,list-prezydenta-do-uczestnikow-marszu-niepodleglosci-.html.
 Broniatowski, Michal and Herszenhorn, David M., “White nationalists call for ethnic purity at Polish demonstration,” Politico Europe, November 15, 2017, https://www.politico.eu/article/white-nationalists-call-for-ethnic-purity-at-polish-independence-day-march/. Quote translations by the authors.
 “Warsaw slams EU official for calling Polish marchers ‘neo-Nazi,’” Times of Israel, November 17, 2017, https://www.timesofisrael.com/warsaw-slams-eu-official-for-calling-polish-marchers-neo-nazi/.
 Polski sąd chce uchylenia immunitetu Guyowi Verhofstadtowi. To efekt prywatnego aktu oskarżenia [“The Polish court wants to waive the immunity of Guy Verhofstadt. This is the result of a private indictment”], Gazeta Wyborzca, October 22, 2019, https://wiadomosci.gazeta.pl/wiadomosci/7,114884,25332842,polski-sad-ch….
 “Duda zrobi sobie zarąbiste selfie z faszystą”. Frasyniuk krytykuje negocjacje z nacjonalistami” [“Duda will take a great selfie with the fascist.” Frasyniuk criticizes negotiations with nationalists”], Gazeta Wyborcza, https://wiadomosci.gazeta.pl/wiadomosci/7,114884,24150084,duda-zrobi-sobie-zarabiste-selfie-z-faszysta-frasyniuk-krytykuje.html ; Grochal, Renata, “Przejmując marsz narodowców Duda i Morawiecki biorą na siebie ogromne ryzyko” [”By taking the nationalists’ march, Duda and Morawiecki take huge risks”], Newsweek, https://www.newsweek.pl/opinie/przejmujac-marsz-narodowcow-duda-i-morawiecki-biora-na-siebie-ogromne-ryzyko/c91rteg; Szczęśniak, Agata, “Wrogie przejęcie Marszu Niepodległości nie pomoże. Narodowcy nie ustępują” [“Hostile takeover of the Independence March will not help. Nationalists do not give way”], Oko.press, November 7, 2018, https://oko.press/wrogie-przejecie-marszu-niepodleglosci-nie-pomoze-narodowcy-nie-ustepuja/.
 “President will ‘not participate’ in independence march,” TVP.pl, October 29, 2018, https://www.tvp.pl/polandinenglishinfo/news/politics-economy/president-will-not-participate-in-independence-march/39694666; “Prezydent Andrzej Duda i politycy PiS nie pójdą w warszawskim Marszu Niepodległości” [“President Andrzej Duda and Law and Justice Politicians will not participate in Warsaw’s March of Independence”], TVP.Info, October 30, 2018, https://www.tvp.info/39718574/prezydent-andrzej-duda-i-politycy-pis-nie….
 “Warsaw bans nationalist march marking 100 years of Polish independence,” Politico, November 7, 2018, https://www.politico.eu/article/warsaw-independence-poland-bans-nationa….
 “Poland’s president addresses far right at independence march,” The Guardian, November 11, 2018, www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/11/poland-far-right-independence-cen….
 250,000 is the official estimate of the Polish Police, see: https://twitter.com/PolskaPolicja/status/1061677005702422528.
 This estimation is based on fieldwork conducted by a team of scholars led by the authors.
 Witkowski, Przemysław, “Co z tym Marszem?” [“What about the March?”], Krytyka Polityczna, November 11, 2019, https://krytykapolityczna.pl/kraj/witkowski-marsz-niepodleglosci-2019/.
 Witkowski, Przemysław, “Wojna domowa w Marszu Niepodległości” [“Civil War in the March of Independence”], Oko.press, https://oko.press/wojna-domowa-w-marszu-niepodleglosci/.