November 11th marked the 101th anniversary of the restoration of Polish sovereignty from the German, Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires. The most famous event of the day is the Independence March in Warsaw. An event initially created by the far-right organization “Independence March Organization”, it is an event that is attended by thousands of people every year. In this photo essay Krzysztof Lechowski writes about his impressions of the march, accompanied with photographs by Petronella Dahl, who documented the event.
This year for the first time I went to see and experience Poland’s Independence Day March in Warsaw. I went there with a close friend of mine from France, who was visiting Warsaw. It was our first time celebrating Poland’s independence. We both felt that there is something magical about these kinds of events. Together, we had previously attended the Parade on France’s Independence Day on the Champs-Élysées. Being a part of a joyful crowd brings out the best feelings – even in the most detached person. So we went out in Warsaw to join the celebration, to feel part of something bigger. However, we also went there because of curiosity. Poland’s Independence March has divided people, you love it or you hate it. I needed to see it with my own eyes.
The march has been very controversial since it started in 2010 . It was launched by nationalistic, far-right organizations calling themselves the “Independence March Association”. As the march has become increasingly popular mainly among right-wing voters, anti-facist and leftist organizations have been opposing the event and trying to block it, which has often resulted in violent clashes between opposing groups and the police forces.
In 2011 Robert Biedroń, today, a European MP and the leader of the left party Wiosna, was accused of using violence against a police officer while protesting the march (In 2015, a court ruled him innocent). For the next four years it only became more violent as police clashed with marchers and parts of the city were damaged. The victory of the Law and Justice party in 2015 changed the situation.
We started at Piłsudski Square, where the official celebration took place, and followed the stream of people to the Palace of Culture. Normally a 20 minute walk, our slow pace gave us plenty of time to tune in the atmosphere on the main avenues of Warsaw. Along the way, we saw the crowd changing.
Fewer families with kids, and as we got to the Palace area, we saw more men in their late twenties and thirties, well-built, and with hostile looking faces, I felt like I didn’t belong there. Many of the men were dressed in white and red, wearing Polish themed scarves, and holding Polish flags.
“I am impressed by the amount of flags people brought here” my friend said “I have never seen such a thing in France, not even during Bastille Day.”
Indeed, every person had a white-red flag, gently waving in the wind, almost creating the illusion of a red and white sea.
This year 50 000 people attended the march. Though well-built bald men appeared to be in majority in front of the Palace, the crowd was still mixed. In the end, it was an event that brought out different kinds of people.
Throughout the years, it seems like Poles feel like they don’t have an appropriate place or venue for expressing patriotism and celebrating the country’s independence. The far-right has found a niche and created a grassroots event, somehow formulated against the government and the people in power.
As the years have gone by, the parade has gone mainstream, attracting people who don’t seem to mind who is organizing it, or who think that they are just marching but not supporting the far-right.
From the Palace of Culture people started moving towards the National Stadium. Some shouted slogans like “Roman Dmowski Poland’s liberator!”, “Our home, Great Poland!” or “God, honour and homeland!” But soon everyone was chanting “Poland! Poland!”. A group of religious people started praying with their rosary as the evening descended.
The whole sky turned red from the light of the torches. People started to shoot off fireworks. The atmosphere got dense and I felt lost in the crowd, like I didn’t belong here. Loud noises, air soaked with smoke from the torches and fireworks, it felt hostile. People were everywhere, there was no escape, we had no choice but to follow along with the crowd. Even though I didn’t feel like a part of it, I knew that I had become one of them. I looked at my friend and saw that just like me, he was anxious, that he too didn’t want to be in the crowd.
As we turned around we realised that we were the only ones going back. We passed many drunk people, screaming something or running somewhere. At the end of the parade we met families with kids, people on bikes and teenagers on their skateboards. They were there just like us, they were curious, wanted to feel the excitement, not because they shared the ideas of the far-right. We all kept a safe distance, again feeling the friendly atmosphere; the shouting sounded far away and the dark night-sky was nicely illuminated by the light-torches. I couldn’t smell the smoke anymore. Just the November breeze.
Krzysztof Lechowski holds a BA in International Relations and is currently finishing his MA in International Security and Law at University of Southern Denmark. Krzysztof feels passionate about transitional justice in post-communist countries, democracy and sovereignty. He loves to discover new cuisines and meet new people.
Petronella Dahl is pursuing the impossible task of mastering the Polish language while studying creative photography in Kraków. She dreams of a future where she can combine her art and documentary photography, making into something more than a lifelong hobby.