After ultra-nationalist independence day march, German religious leaders look to Poland with anxiety

Saturday, 11 November, marked the 99th anniversary of Polish independence. After successive partitions had awarded ever greater chunks of Polish territory to Russia, Austria, and Prussia; Poland ceased to exist as a political entity in 1795, to re-emerge as an independent state only in 1918.

Independence day parade calls for white Europe

To commemorate the anniversary of Poland’s rebirth, 60,000 marchers gathered in Warsaw. The celebrations were organised in part by two neo-fascist groups with a strong history of not only extreme nationalism but also virulent anti-Semitism.

Under the official slogan “We want God”, the demonstration sought to reaffirm the nationalist conception of Poland as the crucial bulwark of a Christian Europe. For many of the marchers, this implied fierce resistance against the potential arrival of Muslims or refugees in the country: Chants included “We don’t want Muslims here”, as well as “No to Islam” and “Refugees get out”.

Aside from ubiquitous white and red Polish flags, marchers held up burning flares that wrapped central Warsaw in thick smoke. Brandishing symbols of “white power”, marchers held banners reading “Death to enemies of the homeland”. Occasional screams of “Ku Klux Klan!” and “Sieg Heil!” could be heard – the latter being a particularly ironic slogan to use on an event celebrating Polish independence, roughly 75 years after the German Wehrmacht’s brutal conquest of Poland.1

Polish self-perception as the embattled bulwark of a Christian Europe

For many Poles, Polish independence is threatened anew today – most notably by a liberal EU-elite in Brussels seen as seeking to curtail and subvert Polish sovereignty and identity.2

Muslim refugees are a key pawn in this story. The compulsory refugee relocation scheme, though still dysfunctional, was agreed upon at EU level against Polish resistance. It is seen in many quarters in Warsaw as a threat to the very essence of a white Christian Polish sense of self.3

To buttress this Christian identity, tens of thousands of Poles congregated at the country’s coasts and land borders in early October in order to pray the rosary. The event was widely perceived as a ritual supposed to seal Poland’s borders to ‘subversive’ influences from the outside – Brussels liberals as much as Muslim refugees.4

Equivocal position of the Catholic Church in Poland

The Catholic Church, enormously influential in Polish politics and society, has taken a somewhat equivocal stance vis-à-vis this resurgence of an ethnonationalist agitation and its omnipresent Christian symbolism.

The rosary prayers were co-organised by more than 300 church communities and 22 dioceses. At the same time, arch-bishop Jedraszewski warned Poles of building walls at the country’s borders.5 And in the aftermath of the independence march in Warsaw, bishop Stanislaw Gadecki condemned the racist slogans used.6

Overall, however, it seems that at least for now the hard-right Law and Justice (PiS) Party, in government since 2015, and the Catholic Church will continue to be allies in their quest for a morally and ethnically pure Poland.

Rift between Polish and German bishops

This pits Polish religious leaders against their German counterparts. A recent conference in the Vatican, at which Catholic religious figures debated how to reinvigorate the project of European unity through distinctly Christian contributions, could barely disguise “fundamental disagreements” between German and Polish bishops (and Western and Eastern-European participants more broadly).7

Refugees and Islam figure prominently among the bones of contention; yet these debates also touch upon larger battles over the orientation of the Catholic Church. A German observer noted after the conference that

Within the Catholic Church we are apparently not yet in a position to deal with this constructively. There are mutual recriminations; there are prejudices; there are feelings that others are trying to impose their views.”8

German Catholic leaders have consequently expressed fears that Polish-German episcopal and ecclesiastical relations, laboriously rebuilt over the preceding decades, might suffer significant damage.

Jews and Muslims view Polish developments with concern

Other German religious figures have been less forthcoming with comments on events in Poland. German Jewish leaders, however, have long worried about developments in their eastern neighbour. Already in 2004, Dieter Graumann (who became Chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany later on), noted what he saw as the unbroken prevalence of anti-Semitism in Poland:

By now, Poland is showing us time and again that one doesn’t even need a Jewish population for the purposes of anti-Semitism anymore. The Catholic Church has all too often played a reprehensible and infamous role in this respect and continues to do so.”9

Muslim figures did not explicitly comment on the independence day march beyond retweeting images and articles describing the ethnonationalist hatred on Warsaw’s streets. That the revival of extreme Polish nationalism is as Islamophobic as it is anti-Semitic is something that German Muslims have experienced first-hand, however: when a German secondary school class visited Poland on a Holocaust memorial trip, Muslim group members were harassed and threatened.


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