Poland celebrated its 100th Anniversary of independence this Sunday. A frightening picture is depicted. One of a divided Polish society in an unhappy country, with claims that many citizens have rejected liberalism and democracy in light of a growing nationalist sentiment. A conveniently worrying image for those discrediting a democratically elected government running their country. I should know, I was one of those so-called ‘fascists’, ‘neo-nazis’, ‘white supremacists’ marching through the streets of Warsaw.
Let me rephrase. I was one of the 200,000 patriots celebrating my country. My Polish ancestors fought the Nazis for a free Poland, and now incredulously – I’m branded a Nazi for celebrating my country’s independence. I did not hold racist banners, nor I did I shout anything inappropriate. And being only partly Polish, I can assure you that my other British South African half did not feel discriminated against.
Nazi totalitarianism is loathed in Poland. The trauma left by the German Nazi occupation is still palpable; they killed almost 20% of the population, targeted our elites, flattened our capital city and destroyed our infrastructure. Those thousands of ‘fascists’ breaking international headlines are Polish citizens including families, children, and war veterans. Those same war veterans that fought fascism first – hand.
Together we proudly walked through the streets of our capital brandishing Polish flags, signing patriotic songs. We celebrated home, a home that our nation has long fought for. One hundred years ago, Poland was reinstated on the world map after 123 years of geo-political oblivion. But our happiness was short-lived. Soon followed fascism and communism both under which celebrating our country’s independence was prohibited. To openly celebrate the 11th of November is thus a relatively new freedom.
It is said that we have traded liberalism and democracy for nationalism. Not so, for they perfectly coincide. The Law and Justice Party has a majority in parliament and after three years in office is still the most popular political party in the country. The government is carrying out reforms in line with its electoral platform. Those reforms, including the heavily criticised judicial reforms aimed at overhauling Poland’s deeply flawed judiciary were overwhelmingly supported at the ballot box. Such healthy criticism by the political opposition and some Polish media outlets, wouldn’t be possible were the country in the state which many Western commentators describe.
Our country stands accused of pushing the EU into a crisis. A crisis that ultimately begs the question: do democratically elected governments have the right to make decisions in their own countries? Poland’s defiance in the face of EU interference concerns domestic affairs of member state competence, including forced immigration quotas and pressure to change domestic law.
I find it outrageous that a government enjoying strong popular support, stronger than many other European countries can boast, with an undisputed majority in parliament and senate, is attacked by the EU on the grounds of alleged threats to the rule of law. Not only is the issue of member state competence, but all the reforms undertaken introduce mechanisms that have long been present in other European legal systems. Regardless of whether Brussels or anyone else for that matter approves of the current platform, it is a platform that was democratically elected, and that currently represents the interests of the Polish people.
Accusations abound that the democratic tradition was never very deeply embedded in Polish society. Actually, our democratic tradition stretches back to the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, which was the first democracy in modern Europe. And Europe’s first Constitution was the Polish Constitution, adopted on the 3rd of May 1791. The second Constitution in the world, after the American Constitution of 1787.
Yes, we were stripped of our independence, and of our democracy until 1989. For centuries sovereignty was only a dream; squeezed between empires, occupied in turns by fascism and communism, our greatest goal was always freedom and cultural self-realisation. Our democratic spirit was always deeply entrenched in our society and tradition. Suffice to think of the London Polish government in Exile, formed in opposition to the Nazi regime in power in occupied Poland, the Home Army considered the largest underground resistance unit in wartime Europe, or Solidarnosc, an organisation that paved the way for the dismantling of the communist regime. 9 million Polish citizens declared membership to Solidarnosc.
Now that we have enjoyed independence for just under 30 years, we intend to remain sovereign. The Law and Justice party won the elections promising to ‘put Poland first’, isn’t that the role of any government to put its citizens first? A nation is strongest when its cultural values and sovereign decision making capacity are upheld. While in favour of EU membership, the Law and Justice has a vision of the EU as a union of member states trading freely with one another but not interfering in domestic politics or national culture. That doesn’t mean that we are busy throwing everything away after 30 years of achievements. Be they economic, social or other, our achievements are the result of our resilient nation that fought together through centuries of oppression and struggle.
It is only natural that Polish citizens have differences in opinion on how the country should be run today. Is that not the privilege of a viable democracy?