An illuminating backgrounder on fascist organizing in Britain’s Polish immigrant community. There is the same dynamic here in the New York City, in Greenpoint’s Polish enclave. But can you be a fascist and an anti-Nazi at the same time? Maciej Zurowski says Yes.
‘Christ of Nations’ in London
Workers Have No Country
It was one of those typical London neighbourhood events, where crusties and punks rub shoulders with local working class families. On June 21, a free techno, punk and reggae open-air festival in Tottenham’s Markfield Park, dedicated to the ‘international language of music’, offered residents of the north London borough a chance to enjoy the heat wave together. But the fun ended abruptly when up to 40 football hooligan types crashed the party, pelting bottles, throwing rocks and shooting flares at unsuspecting visitors. A young man was stabbed – fortunately, his injuries were superficial.
The attackers, who had also assaulted an orthodox Jew nearby, ranged from teenagers to middle-aged men, and wore T-shirts bearing slogans such as “Great Poland”. Most of them were local residents – members of a loose homosocial grouping named Zjednoczeni Emigranci Londyn (United Emigrants London), which largely consists of football ultras of a rightwing persuasion. According to the stickers they have been putting up around the borough lately, ZEL is at the forefront of fighting communism: crossed out hammers and sickles, and a graphic of a muscle-bound skinhead kicking someone on the ground, accompanied by the slogan, “Good night, left side”. Indeed, it appears that even a bunch of punk rockers and local families enjoying a day in the park can be construed as communistic.
Swiftly reacting on social media, the Socialist Worker Party’s front organisation, Unite Against Fascism, referred to the thugs as simply ‘neo-Nazis’, while withholding any further details for the time being. (1) Far-right Polish migrants violently attacking fellow members of ‘our multicultural society’ – these ingredients just proved too spicy for the comrades. And so UAF embarked on a tightrope walk, demanding “Nazis out of Tottenham” on a Monday evening protest in front of Tottenham town hall, while at the same time national secretary Weyman Bennett distanced UAF from any “backlash over immigration”.(2) Unfortunately for UAF, however, the first slogan begs the question as to where the Polish “Nazis” are supposed to go if not back to Poland.
Spontaneous suggestions on the organisation’s Facebook page painfully laid bare the limits of ‘broad-based’ anti-fascism: “We need to be able to correctly determine who is here as a legitimate fellow European and who is here to cause trouble,” stated a UAF supporter, calling on “the authorities” to “send them packing”. Someone else demanded “immediate deportation”, telling the “Hitler-loving cunts” to “go back to Poland”. Yet another poster’s contribution is worth quoting at length: “The extraordinary audacity of these pond scum makes my gorge rise. We have enough derogatory ill-bred chavs in my town, we don’t need any more very common louts. However did these racists get in here?” UAF responded in the only way it knows how: by breathlessly deleting, removing and blocking the worst offenders.
As for the ‘neo-Nazi’ tag, it is not strictly true. More likely, United Emigrants London are a motley crew of football hooligans with loose ties to the National-Radical (aka NaRa) milieu around the National Movement coalition, which contains narodowcy (nationalist) groups such as the National Radical Camp (ONR) and the All-Polish Youth – the latter two harking back to pre-war organisations of the same name. Marching under the slogan “god – honour – fatherland”, NaRa is ideologically informed by hard-line Catholicism (3) and the legacy of National Democracy (aka ND or Endecja), a Polish bourgeois movement originating in the late 19th century. National Democracy’s most illustrious leader was Roman Dmowski. The founder of the Camp of Great Poland, Dmowski was a political anti-Semite and Germanophobe of the highest order. It is he who coined the slogan, “I am Polish, therefore I have Polish duties” – words that also adorn the website of Patriae Fidelis, a Polish organisation in the UK to which we shall return later. (4)
With its core support at university campuses, historically NaRa represented a radical continuation of the ethnic and religious nationalism formulated by Dmowski. From 1934 onwards, it adopted the tropes and methods of European fascist movements, such as the ‘Roman salute’ and a fetish for stylish uniforms, and organised street violence against Jews and left activists. During World War II the NaRa camp was part of the underground resistance against the Nazi occupation, as well as constituting part of the Polish government in exile.(5)
Things got messy for narodowcy under the Stalinist dictatorship, which had conceded the ethnically homogeneous Polish state demanded by nationalists.(6) In 1947, the founder of the violently anti-Semitic National-Radical Camp Falanga group, Bolesław Piasecki, set up the Pax Society in cooperation with the Soviet NKVD ‘law enforcement’ agency. His job: to promote a ‘progressive, secular Catholicism’ – ie, promote Stalinist rule in Poland and act as a mediator between the regime and the national church. While some narodowcy turned to supporting the Solidarność ‘union’ in the late 70s, others had grown rather fond of the United Polish Workers Party’s brand of national socialism – especially after its opportunistic anti-Jewish purges of 1968.(7) Like the Grunwald Patriotic Union, a grotesque ‘anti-Zionist’ propaganda group formed under the auspices of the 1980s regime of Wojciech Jaruzelski and prominently staffed with veteran ‘national Catholics’, some Pax Society old-timers supported the introduction of martial law in 1981. To these hoary patriots, Solidarność represented “unPolish”, “Masonic” and “Jewish” interests. (8)
Fascists Against Nazism
As we have seen, the NaRa camp’s historical record of fighting ‘communism’ is chequered at best. There is little doubt, however, that it stands for an organic Polish nationalism rooted in the country’s specific history: its anti-Semitism is accompanied by strong anti-German and anti-Russian resentment. The 1944 Warsaw uprising against Nazi rule serves as a patriotic reference point similar to ‘Britain’s finest hour’ – except that it conveys a distinctively Polish nationalist blend of tragedy and defiance. It is not so unusual to hear NaRas fervently decry Nazi crimes, even if they are referring to crimes against Catholic Poles exclusively. Some engage in holocaust denial – not to absolve Hitler, but to convey the message that non-Jewish Poles were the biggest victims.
Sometimes, Polish anti-fascists are at pains to suggest that neo-NaRas wilfully ‘misrepresent’ the true ‘anti-fascist tradition’ of Polish patriotism. But there is little reason to suppose that the white, crowned eagle adorning their standards is really a Nazi eagle in disguise. Banners displayed by United Emigrants London at a ceremony in Markfield Park earlier this year featured a crossed-out swastika next to a crossed-out hammer and sickle.(9) The purpose of the event: to celebrate the so-called ‘day of the cursed soldiers’. A public holiday in Poland since 2011, this commemorates the nationalist partisans who fought both Hitler’s and Stalin’s troops – as well as committing the odd anti-Jewish pogrom in the process. As a conservative Polish website reminds its readers, Stalinist propaganda “unjustly” referred to these men as “fascists” and “bandits”.(10)
A Nationalist International
Despite everything, a genuinely neo-Nazi underground has been present in Poland since the late 1980s. Initially organised in skinhead networks such as the Aryan Survival Front (AFP), it now primarily coalesces in the Polish chapters of Blood and Honour and Combat 18.(11) Given the well-documented atrocities of German occupation forces on Polish soil, however, Hitler-worship was never likely to gain much traction among Polish nationalists and has remained a relatively marginal subcultural phenomenon. In the course of the 90s, boneheads increasingly chose ‘NaRa’ over ‘NS’. As ‘Robson’, the former manager of Poland’s most prominent neo-Nazi rock band, Konkwista 88, remembers, “National Socialist and Hitlerite imagery was totally unacceptable for many Polish skins – so they supported Legion, a ‘national-Catholic’ band, instead.”(12)
What NaRas and Nazis have in common is that they find themselves increasingly at odds with the realities of a globalised world. Perhaps in response, an emphasis on ‘white nationalism’ has been in the ascendancy – an ideology that often requires tricky juggling between transnational ‘white brotherhood’ and loyalty to one’s respective country. National Rebirth of Poland (NOP), a Third Positionist/NaRa organisation illegally founded in 1981, may serve as an example of this trend. Despite its long-standing struggle against the scourges of both immigration and emigration, it has had to come to terms with the implications of European Union membership: after 2004, some of its economically fraught recruits decided to look for work abroad, although the NOP website stresses that its ‘Division England’ activists are only “temporarily residing” in the UK. When not commemorating “Polish fighter pilots who defended British airspace from German invaders during World War II” – a commonplace one would not put past UAF – they are, presumably, dedicating their energies to the international solidarity of the ‘white race’ at the expense of more strictly patriotic commitments.(13)
Some organisations purposely prey on the sense of alienation felt by Polish migrants. There is, for instance, the “Polish youth association”, Patriae Fidelis, which has chapters in at least five British cities and presents itself as a mild-mannered, independent support group for Polish expatriates in the UK.(14) Occasionally, Patriae Fidelis will organise street protests over discrimination against Polish migrants – a theme it liberally amalgamates with defending Poland’s “good name” abroad, as well as calling for a nebulous “fight for Poland”. Those who follow the call and show up at demonstrations are usually treated to irrelevant speeches about World War II fighter pilots – and, if they are lucky, Patriae Fidelis might just invite them to a public discussion with Robert Winnicki, the leader of the ‘All-Polish Youth’. Behind the paternalistic facade is, unsurprisingly, the aforementioned National Movement coalition, which contains all manner of unsavoury forces, ranging from ‘national conservative’ through to NaRa.(15) The political violence against the left, pro-choice activists and LGBT groups that emanates from some of these organisations in Poland is brutal – and occasionally murderous.
It is perhaps worth stressing that, despite the National Movement’s concerted propaganda effort for the Polish diaspora vote, the coalition scored a derisory 1.39% in this year’s EU elections – much less than the far-right parties of the core west European countries. As is so often the case with fascists, they mainly pose a problem at street level. But even an unpleasant gang such as United Emigrants London – which has graced Patriae Fidelis events with its presence and whose members have reportedly been used as security staff – does not necessarily consist of incorrigible fascist thugs. True, some members may be seasoned veterans continuing their chosen lifestyles in exile. But, according to local residents, the group has seen a considerable growth over the past three years, pulling in many teenage hangers-on.
There is nothing particularly new about disaffected émigrés and their descendants turning to chauvinism. The fascist Grey Wolves, for instance, have been recruiting among Turkish working class youths in Berlin for decades. As a member of the UK section of a Polish antifa group, Crew 161, told the Haringey Independent in reference to United Emigrants London, “when people like this first come here, they feel very alienated, often because they can’t speak English very well. Perhaps this is a way they can bond with each other and feel less alienated.”(16) What is more, a historically conditioned narrative of martyrdom has informed Polish nationalism since the early 19th century. It constructs the Polish nation as an eternally maltreated, yet messianic ‘Christ of nations’ that can do no wrong.(17)
Suffice to say, the Polish experience of the 20th century has only reinforced this concept. It is easy to see how this type of identity politics can offer the socially ill-adjusted an ideological refuge – especially when faced with mainstream British chauvinism of the UK Independence Party variety. Organisations like Patriae Fidelis zealously exploit this national complex, never shying away from feeding and amplifying the characteristically Polish sense of being treated unjustly, misrepresented, underappreciated. When Weyman Bennett invokes the local “Polish community”, which “goes all the way back to the 1940s, when they fled the Nazis”, in the Morning Star, groups like United Emigrants London can be included. Indeed, this stuff is an integral part of their ‘identity’.(18)
Unity Is Strength
The question for communists, then, is not kicking the “Nazis out of Tottenham”, but one of long-term integration of migrants into the local working class. At first, this might well involve small acts of outreach. For instance, although not really in need of such concessions myself, I was nonetheless charmed to receive a letter from the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition that outlined in Polish why I should give Tusc my vote in the May local elections: because I live in one of the most austerity-stricken boroughs of London, and because my interests do not essentially differ from those of native working class people. Naturally, this project also involves countering the myths, half-truths and carefully cultivated notion of victimhood disseminated by the nationalist intelligentsia of Patriae Fidelis from its comfortable Chiswick headquarters. It is divisive poison that runs directly counter to the real interests of Polish workers both at home and abroad.
UAF’s continued advocacy of multiculturalism – the cross-class politics of celebrating difference and looking to ‘community leaders’ to represent their flock along ethnic lines – will not do the trick. Readers may be surprised to learn that the UAF London demonstration for UN Anti-Racism Day 2014 was joined by Patriae Fidelis chair Jerzy Byczynski, who took to the platform to speak out against “totalitarianism”, “extremism” and discrimination against Poles.(19) And indeed what the would-be community leaders of Patriae Fidelis officially stated in response to the Tottenham attack heavily draws on multiculturalist arguments: “This generation of children … living in the UK suffers even more than their peers in Poland. This is because there is still no Polish youth sports teams, Polish theatre groups, Polish libraries. Poles in the UK are still very atomised, which mostly affects children … Poles in the UK must start to unite. Let’s create Polish cultural groups in every district in the same way that Jewish, Turkish and Kurdish minorities did in the UK … We already have proven patterns of how to take care of our minority: let’s use them.”
What we really need is working class theatre groups, working class cultural societies, working class papers, working class libraries and a working class political party that represents the interests of all workers internationally – regardless of ethnicity, nationality or passport. Not to mention working class boots kicking the pampered behinds of Patriae Fidelis.