Old Poland, New Nationalism

On Nov. 11, they burned a rainbow-themed art project, attacked a squat to clear out the “scum,” and finally hurled firecrackers at the Russian Embassy here. Just a typical celebration of Independence Day in Warsaw? Hardly. Something worrying is gaining strength in Poland.

We have grown accustomed to neo-fascists at soccer stadiums, yelling abuse at black players and chanting their anti-Semitic tribal refrain. But now the phenomenon seems less marginal then we liked to think.

This present surge in extreme nationalism began three years ago, on Independence Day 2010, fueled by supporters of Lech Kaczynski, the president of Poland, who died in an air crash earlier that year. On April 10, the president and nearly 100 senior officials were on their way to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre, when Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD, murdered thousands of Polish officers. But as the delegation constituting the entire Polish establishment neared the Russian city of Smolensk, their plane crashed on approach, killing all on board.

Katyn is a deep wound in the Polish memory. It has festered for decades partly because, in the Communist era, it could not be spoken of in public. In the official Soviet version, the Nazis were blamed for the massacre.

For the dead president’s supporters, the coincidence of the air crash with what was to have been a historic joint commemoration by Polish and Russian leaders of the Katyn massacre made it a potent symbol. Some of Mr. Kaczynski’s supporters — inflamed by right-wing politicians and Mr. Kaczynski’s identical twin brother, Jaroslaw — began to talk of a “second Katyn.” The country was riven in two: Some called the crash an accident; others believed it was an assassination.

In July 2011, a government inquiry found that the causes of the crash were complex but mundane: organizational negligence, poor pilot training, bad weather and the shoddy state of the airport at Smolensk. In short, the presidential plane should never have taken off that day.

Yet wild theories abounded: The Russians had produced the fog; a “vacuum bomb” had been set off; the plane had been dragged to the ground by magnets; several passengers had survived the crash but been finished off on the ground.

Poland’s liberal intelligentsia coined a phrase for this overheated paranoia: the “Smolensk religion.” Its doctrine was a singular, explosive mixture of Polish messianism and religious fundamentalism, xenophobia and a love of martyrdom. For followers of the faith, any rational argument about the crash was instantly transubstantiated into further proof of the assassins’ cunning.

For its critics, the “Smolensk religion” became shorthand for the part of Poland that has trouble accepting modernity and liberal democracy. This fevered thinking is not locked away in the catacombs but animates the main opposition party, Law and Justice. A measure of its politicians’ hysteria was their rendition on the anniversary of the crash of the hymn “Return, Oh Lord, Our Free Fatherland” — as though they were stuck in the 19th century, when Poland did not exist as a state, its territory having been divided among neighboring powers.

The assassination theory has collapsed like a house of cards, as its pseudo-experts have been exposed as frauds or fools. And rational, liberal Poland despises “Smolensk folk.” If life went on only in the realm of ideas, you might say rightly so. But neither “Smolensk folk” nor Poland’s hard-line nationalists can so easily be wished away.

You find these new nationalists in busy cities and impoverished backwaters alike. They number among them university math students, graduate engineers and technicians, as well as unskilled workers. These people lack jobs and prospects: One-third of young Poles are jobless. What unites them is anger. They hate the establishment, and they channel their rage through attacks on others: immigrants, gays or Russians.

The prevalence of the “Smolensk religion” has emboldened the ultranationalists. For successive years since 2011, mobs have set fire to immigrant apartment blocks in Bialystok, eastern Poland. In June, at a conference in Wroclaw, a lecture by the veteran leftist intellectual Zygmunt Bauman was disrupted by hecklers shouting anti-communist slogans. At the Independence Day marches, the extreme right is not just permitted but encouraged: Counterdemonstrations have been suppressed and the “patriotism” of the new fanatics is praised.

The great dilemma facing Poland, with an election coming in 2015, is how to halt the rise of the ultranationalists without resorting to illiberal, authoritarian measures like preventive detention, and restrictions on free speech. Fortunately, a movement to counter the far right is stirring: Four days after the Independence Day trouble, the streets of Warsaw witnessed a protest against xenophobia, in defense of diversity — to show that a rainbow Poland does exist.

There is hope of another kind, too. In the play “The Wedding,” the 1901 popular classic by Stanislaw Wyspianski, a pro-independence uprising fails to materialize because a canny farmhand loses the horn he is supposed to sound as the signal to fight. The song that ends the play, “You had the golden horn, you rogue,” suggests a metaphor about lost opportunities, a stern critique of Poland’s partition-era impotence. But reading the play perversely, you might say that our historic shortcomings sometimes turn out well for us.

In Poland, nothing ever really happens to completion. Often, this is our curse, but in the situation that produced the “Smolensk religion” and the new-old nationalists, it might prove salutary.

Artur Domoslawski writes for the weekly magazine Polityka and is the author of Ryszard Kapuscinski: A Life. This essay was translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones from the Polish.

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