Independence Day: Poland’s Internal Partitions

Kraków’s Main Square was crowded as I entered from the northwest at about eight o’clock in the evening.  It is 11th November – Independence Day.  On this day in 1918, Józef Piłsudski proclaimed an independent Polish state after over a century of partition by the Prussian, Russian and Austrian empires.  In 1794, Kraków witnessed the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s last symbolic act of defiance, when Tadeusz Kościuszko stood before the people in the Main Square and assumed command of the Polish forces, swearing to regain the nation’s independence. The Kościuszko Uprising was put down by Russian and Prussian forces before the final partition of 1795.

At 430,000 square feet, the Main Square, or Rynek, is one of the largest medieval squares in Europe. In its centre lies a long covered market, the Cloth Hall or Sukiennice, which serves to divide the square into two halves. On one half, where I was standing, lays the tower of the old town hall and the spot where Kościuszko swore his oath. On the other lays St Mary’s Basilica, the 10th century church of St Adalbert, and the statue of the Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz.

The crowd was gathered in front of a large stage, on which stood performers dressed in traditional peasant costumes and the long World War I-era coats of Piłsudski’s legions. Together they sang the patriotic songs that would have sustained the legions as they negotiated the collapse of Poland’s partitioning powers.  The event had been organised by the city authorities and the crowd constituted mainly of families, with elegantly dressed grandparents fussing over young, very well wrapped up children.  The singing was melodic but lacking in vigour or insistence.  It felt shy.

As they sang, the sound of a football crowd was coming from the other side of the Cloth Hall.  A march by ultra-nationalist football hooligans was entering the square from the other side. They filed in from the south, wielding red flares and shouting nationalist slogans and football chants.  They gathered around the statue of Mickiewicz, adorning it with Polish flags, crypto-fascist symbols and nationalist banners.  The largest, wrapped around the base of the statue, read “Nationalism is Freedom”. Singing tunelessly and mirthlessly, they subjected the national anthem to cruel and unnecessary punishment. One young brute took to a megaphone and screamed a diatribe finishing with a demand for a “White, Catholic Europe”.  They paused respectfully for the hourly trumpet call from the towers of St Mary’s Basilica marking the defence of the city from Mongol invasion in 1241, as if it somehow proved their point.

Eventually, they filed out of the other end of their half of the square, letting off fireworks as they went. I crossed through the middle of the Cloth Hall back to the other side. The folk songs were still playing, and the families were still there, grandmothers relaxing at outdoor tables with cake on their plates and blankets on their legs.  They seemed indifferent to and unthreatened by the events on the other side of the square, just as the hooligans had been indifferent to them.

After the hooligans had left the square, I walked for ten minutes down Grodzka Street towards Wawel Castle, the historic seat of the Kings of Poland. Before the castle walls is a small plaza.  In front of the Church of St Giles stands a large wooden cross, with the word KATYN written in gold capitals, flanked by the dates 1940 and 1990, signifying the 50th anniversary of the murder of 20,000 Polish officers by the Soviet NKVD.

By the cross, a rally for supporters of Law & Justice, Poland’s new governing party, was being held. In attendance were the party chairman, Jarosław Kaczyński, the newly elected Prime Minister, Beata Szydło, and the new Defence Minister, Antoni Macierewicz. A tiny stage had been constructed next to the Katyń Cross, with proceedings presided over by a young man and woman whose inane bantering jarred with the huddled ranks of older Poles that surrounded me.  Law & Justice supporters are nicknamed ‘mohair berets’ because of the prevalence of the elderly Polish woman’s headwear of choice at their rallies.

Hungarian was blaring from the loudspeakers. Through a translator, the speaker was telling the crowd that Hungarians stood with them. This was literally true – a couple of busloads had travelled from Hungary to Kraków for the occasion.  They were supporters of Victor Orban, and carried Hungarian flags bearing the slogans and symbols of ‘Greater Hungary’.  I had seen these people before, pensioners marching around Budapest protesting the terms of the Treaty of Trianon.  One told me that Slovakians were ‘as modern and artificial as nylon, or televisions’.  The speaker told the crowd that both Orban and Kaczynski understood the need to protect Europe from migrants. The crowd broke into a chant: “Or-BAN! Or-BAN! Or-BAN!”; then “Ja-ro-SLAW! Ja-ro-SLAW! Ja-ro-SLAW!”

Most prominent amongst the flags and placards, rich with religious imagery, was a large banner towards the front of the crowd declaring ‘TO BYL ZAMACH’ (‘It was assassination’, or ‘It was an attack’).  This was a reference to the Smolensk catastrophe in April 2010, when the then President, Jarosław Kaczyński’s twin brother Lech, was killed along with his wife Maria and dozens of senior officials when their plane crashed on the way to a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the Katyń massacres.  Senior Law & Justice figures maintain that responsibility for the crash lies with Law & Justice’s main rival Civic Platform and their former leader Donald Tusk, now President of the European Council but then Poland’s Prime Minister.  They accuse Civic Platform of a cover-up.

Law & Justice supporters commemorate the crash on a monthly basis, with marches and demonstrations across the country on the 10th of each month demanding an explanation, so it was the second day in a row that Law & Justice supporters had demonstrated in front of the cross.  The day before, the accusation against Tusk had been made more explicitly. At the front of the crowd was a banner with a photo of Tusk apparently fist-bumping with Vladimir Putin.  On one side of the photo was written in black capitals: ZDRADA (‘Betrayal’).  On the other was written ZBRODNIA (‘Crime’). Beside the banner was a large black and white photo of Lech and Maria Kaczyński, and next to that, the Katyń Cross.

I walked away, upset by the appropriation of the victims of mass murder and the presence of the Hungarian revanchists.  It is saddening that Kraków should mark the restoration of Polish independence at the hands of three foreign powers with three different events, two of which directed anger at their compatriots.  Today, Poland’s partitions come from within.

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