Independence Day in Warsaw

A controversial celebration of freedom

On November 11th, Poland celebrated their National Independence Day. Known in Polish as Święto Niepodległości, this day commemorates the return of Polish sovereignty in 1918 after 123 years.

In cities across the country, one can see – and participate in! – demonstrations in support of Polish independence.

independence-day-warsaw-poland-1

In Warsaw, the Polish military puts on an official show at Piłsudski Square, where Pope John Paul II gave his famous 1979 speech, galvanizing Poland to overthrow the shackles of Soviet rule.

I was not at this event.

Instead, I joined the sea of white and red flags that flapped along Aleje Jerozolimskie in the city’s largest demonstration. Every year, a crowd approximately 50,000 strong marches from the Palace of Culture and Science in the city center toward the National Stadium.

Independence Day Poland

The scene was inspiring yet frightening. Despite the sense of pride I felt at seeing sovereignty valued and celebrated so fiercely, I was concerned by the prominent presence of xenophobic slogans and chants. Led by megaphone wielding instigators atop trucks, the crowd shouted anti-immigrant, anti-Islamic, and anti-Russian sentiments.

Independence Day Poland
“Poland for the Poles. Poles for Poland.”

The event also featured a large amount of alcohol, flares, and miniature explosions as loud as fireworks in the streets. Luckily, there was no sign of violence, making this year’s event tamer than the previous four years’, when the demonstrations had dissolved into rioting which required police intervention.

Independence Day Parade in Poland
They say it was relatively calm this year…no really!

This particular parade has been criticized for creating a negative impression of Poland among the immigrant and international communities.

However, it’s important to remember that the views of those participating in the parade are not the views of the whole of Poland. As one Pole I spoke with put it, they are the views of extremists, not patriots. Furthermore, rather than uniting Polish people on Independence Day, events like these split them apart.

The officially organized events on this day in Warsaw, the Independence Day Run and the military demonstration at Piłsudski Square mentioned earlier, are completely absent of the controversy which plagues this parade.

Click on a picture to view a large version.

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