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Marchers burn flares during the annual March of Independence organized by far right activists. Alik Keplicz via PA Images
Warsaw

Poland independence day march overshadowed by far-right demonstrations

Among the slogans that participants shouted were “USA, empire of evil” and “Poland, white and Catholic.”

POLAND’S PRESIDENT, PRIME minister and other top political figures led an Independence Day march today as part of a day of centenary celebrations, trailed by a huge crowd led by nationalist groups.

Some 200,000 people marched in Warsaw to mark the 100th anniversary of Poland’s rebirth as an independent state at the end of World War I, according to an initial police estimate.

President Andrzej Duda, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and the leader of the conservative ruling party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, walked in a crowd fronted by soldiers carrying a huge flag with the words For You Poland.

Walking a small distance behind them was another crowd of nationalists and their supporters, many of them burning firecrackers and flares, creating flashes of red light and smoke.

Most in that contingent carried national flags, but some held flags of the National Radical Camp, a far-right group and one of the main march organizers.

The camp’s flag has a falanga, a far-right symbol dating to the 1930s of a stylized hand with a sword.

There were also a few flags of Forza Nuova, an Italian group whose leader, Roberto Fiore, describes himself as fascist.

Among the slogans that participants shouted were “USA, empire of evil” and “Poland, white and Catholic.” Members of one nationalist group, All-Polish Youth, burned a European Union flag.

Poland Independence Day Members of the Italian Forza Nouva walk in the annual March of Independence organized by Polish far right activists. Czarek Sokolowski via PA Images Czarek Sokolowski via PA Images

Poland Independence Day Members of right-wing groups light up flares during a march by some thousands of people. Czarek Sokolowski Czarek Sokolowski

Over the past decade, nationalist organizations have held Independence Day marches on 11 Nov that have included racist slogans, flares and in some years, acts of aggression.

This year, in honour of the centennial, state officials sought to hold one big government-led march for Sunday’s ceremonies. At first, negotiations broke down over requests for the groups to leave banners at home, but an agreement on a joint march was reached on Friday.

Duda and the government faced criticism from liberal opposition politicians for their willingness to negotiate with nationalists, including some who have made anti-Semitic comments. After some individuals showed up with extremist emblems, the state officials — surrounded by security — appeared to be trying to keep some distance from the nationalists, marching ahead of them on the same route.

But at the start of the march Duda said, “Let this be our joint march, let it be a march for everyone, a march where everyone wants to be and feels good, marching for Poland.”

As the Polish president spoke, he was at times obscured by the heavy smoke from the flares.

Poland Independence Day Poland's President Andrzej Duda speaks at the start of a massive march marking 100 years since Poland regained independence. Czarek Sokolowski Czarek Sokolowski

Throughout the day, solemn ceremonies and Masses were held in cities and small towns to commemorate the nation’s regained statehood after 123 years of foreign rule.

The national flag fluttered from buildings, buses and cars, dignitaries and regular citizens placed flowers at memorials to the father of Polish independence, Marshal Jozef Pilsudski. The historic Sigismund Bell, reserved only for the most important national events, rang out over Krakow.

March participant Bartlomiej Mazur, 23, who travelled 320 kilometres to the capital, said he wanted to show that “Poland is a strong, proud nation. We have freedom and we have the right to manifest our feelings and our pride in our country”.

The ceremonies in Poland coincide with world leaders gathering in Paris on Sunday to mark a century since the armistice of what was then called the Great War.

Poland regained its independence at the end of World War I in 1918, reborn from the ashes of three defeated powers — Russia, Germany and Austria — that had partitioned and ruled the Central European nation for more than a century.

Throughout its occupation, the Roman Catholic church played a key role in keeping Poland’s language and identity alive.

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Associated Foreign Press
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