Warsaw – About 200,000 Poles participated in a march by representatives from the Polish government of President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and far-right groups on Sunday to celebrate the centenary of the restoration of Poland’s independence.
Joachim Brudzinski, minister of internal affairs, tweeted the attendance figure, a far higher number than last year’s 60,000 people.
The procession marks the first time Polish officials took part in the “Independence March” – an event that tends to feature racist, anti-immigrant, homophobic and white supremacist slogans.
Organised annually since 2010 by the far-right National Radical Camp, All-Polish Youth and the National Movement, chants at previous events have included: “The whole Poland sings with us: F*** off with the refugees”, “Not red, not rainbow but national Poland”, “One nation across the borders”, and “F*** Antifa”.
Most participants at this year’s event were peaceful, raising the Polish flag and chanting patriotic slogans.
“We are here because we are patriots,” said Elzbieta, 57, from Warsaw. “This is a beautiful day.”
However, this reporter saw a man waving a flag with the Celtic Cross, which is used as a hate symbol by neo-Nazis, as police stood by.
Some others were also heard chanting: “All Poland sings with us, f*** off refugees.”
President Duda inaugurated the march, saying: “Let us pay tribute to those who fought for Poland … Let this be a march where everyone feels well.”
A group of opposition protesters also gathered, holding banners saying “Constitution”, referring to anti-constitutional laws enacted by the ruling Law and Justice party.
‘Warsaw has suffered enough due to nationalism’
Sunday’s event, which was announced late on Friday had followed days of legal-wrangling.
On Wednesday, Warsaw’s mayor, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, had banned the Independence March due to security concerns, stating “Warsaw has already suffered enough due to aggressive nationalism.”
In response, President Duda said an official state march would take place and follow the same route as the planned Independence March.
The Independence March association later appealed the mayor’s decision and on Thursday, the district court revoked the ban.
This meant that the Independence Day commemoration would see two concurring marches organised along the same route and time, which pushed the government to the negotiating table with the far right.
And on Saturday, two conferences which were set to feature speeches by nationalists from across Europe were cancelled after Poland’s domestic counterintelligence agency, the Internal Security Agency, arrested more than 100 people, according to the nationalists. Al Jazeera was unable to independently verify the number detained.
A closed concert of far-right bands, including Legion Twierdzy Wroclaw and the Swedish Code 291, both known for hateful lyrics and fascination with fascism, was also cancelled.
Some participants, in response to the mayor’s initial ban, chanted slogans against her.
‘Crisis of democracy’
Damian Kita, spokesman for the march, told Al Jazeera last week that this year’s event would be peaceful.
“Because of this special anniversary, the 100th anniversary of regaining independence by Poland, we wanted to close this passing century under the slogan ‘God, honour, homeland’,” he said.
“We decided that no other slogan would better summarise the Polish fight for freedom.”
Kita also said that radical nationalist groups which formed the Black Block at last year’s Independence March, would not be accepted during the march.
However, members of the Black Block arrived at Sunday’s event soon after it started, and later chanted: “I don’t apologise for the Jedwabne”, referring to a World War II massacre.
They also called for “freedom of speech for nationalists”.
The Block’s groups, including Szturmowcy (Stormtroopers), a neo-pagan Niklot movement and Autonomous Nationalists, had said they would march despite the conflict with the organisers.
Rafal Pankowski, a sociologist from Collegium Civitas and a cofounder of the anti-racist Never Again association, said the cooperation between the government and far-right groups was concerning.
He added that arrests did not guarantee that the march would pass without racist slogans.
“The cooperation between state institutions and extremists from the National Radical Camp is a legitimisation of a dangerous, extreme nationalist ideology and a reflection of a crisis of democracy,” he said.