In what mutated into perhaps the ugliest international congregation of the extreme right seen in modern day Europe, Poland’s annual independence celebration took a dark turn last November. Polish militant nationalists, white supremacists, and radical Islamophobes marched down the streets of Warsaw waving flags, burning flares and disrupting the celebrations as civilians commemorated the restoration of their sovereignty from German, Austrian and Russian Empires.
In recent years, Poland’s experienced a wave of economic, political, and social success, becoming somewhat of a poster child for prosperity in the post-communist region. Poland, whose GDP growth is among the highest in Europe, has experienced minimal inflation, single-digit unemployment rates, declining inequality and a budget deficit below 3%.
So why is there backlash from the extreme right? It’s unclear but some point to the eurozone crisis combined with the spate of terrorist attacks and reports of problems assimilating minorities. The momentum of this political revolution, mixed with the frustration of poorer regions having not seen their share of Poland’s relative prosperity, caused the agrarian ruling coalition in power to suffer a resounding defeat.
One of the leading organizations involved in the march, the National Radical Camp, protests against Muslim immigration, gay rights, the EU and anything it believes undermines Polish Catholic values. While support for the group remains small, Poland’s recent election of the populist Law and Justice party (PiS) gaining a majority in parliament has emboldened the organization. As the PiS fosters an atmosphere of intolerance and xenophobia, populist Polish groups alike are employing nationalistic tones, and making derogatory claims about immigrants that people are slowly beginning to believe.
This group, alongside others whose ideas originate back to anti-Semitic, sometimes-fascist movements popular before World War II, won’t rule out violence as they challenge standing European governments and the status quo. November’s Independence march cast a disturbing light on the militant and radical ideologies flowing through Europe’s successful nationalist parties.
These groups know exactly what they’re doing. With their polished images and relatively temperate language, they’ve figured out how to rattle liberal Europe by enforcing policies in sensitive areas overlapping with the views of extremists: immigration, Islam, and the EU.
Though the range of ideas, both in politics and economics, has radically expanded, politicians have made progress in understanding the nature of populism. Nonetheless, the fate of a liberal democracy hinge on whether we are able to formulate a more appealing reformist vision: one that unites citizens in pursuit of a more tolerant and prosperous future.