Who stands “in a pedagogic way” against the right wing extremists in Poland?

In this blog post, EDiTE researchers Ewa Stoecker and Josefine Wagner reflect on the recent events which have brought Poland to the alarming attention of the international community.

[PL] W tym wpisie Ewa Stoecker i Josefine Wagner przygotowały komentarz do protestów organizowanych przez skrajne prawicowe ugrupowania, takie jak Młodzież Wszechpolska (MW)) i Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny (ONR) w Polsce 11 listopada 2017 roku. W dniu, w który upamiętniać ma odzyskanie niepodległości po 123 latach podzielenia kraju między Prusy, monarchię habsburską i Rosję. Dzień Niepodległości, ma szczególne miejsce w histor drogi do niepodległości Polski i kolektywnej pamięci. Odezwy do ‘białego człowieka’ i ‘katolickiej Europy’, które są zagrożone przez uchodźców i wyznawców islamu, poniosły się echem ulicami m.in. Warszawy i Wrocławia. Niestety w szkołach brakuje krytycznej analizy otwartej tolerancji elit politycznych wobec nazistowskiej symboliki i radykalnych prawicowych tez. Pytamy, kto stanie – w edukacyjnym kontekście – przeciw prawicowym ekstremistom w Polsce?

[DE] In diesem Blog Post nehmen Ewa Stoecker und Josefine Wagner Stellung zu den Protesten organisiert von rechtsradikalen Gruppierungen, wie der All-Polish Youth (Młodzież Wszechpolska) und dem National-Radical Camp (Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny) in Polen am 11. November 2017 – ein Tag an dem das Land traditionell seiner Unabhängigkeit nach 123 Jahren Aufteilung zwischen Preußen, der Habsburger Monarchie und Russlands gedenkt. Ein Gedenktag, der in staatlichen Einrichtungen, wie der Schule einen besonderen Platz einnimmt, in dem Kinder historische Etappen auf dem Weg zu Polens Unabhängigkeit nachspielen und gemeinsam erinnern. Die Rufe nach einem Weißen und katholischen Europa, das von Flüchtlingen und dem Islam bedroht wird, hallen durch die Straßen Warschaus und Wroclaws – doch in den Schulen findet keine kritische Auseinandersetzung mit der offenen Toleranz,  mit der die politische Elite Polens Nazi-Symbolen und rechtsradikalen Thesen begegnet. Wir fragen, wer stellt sich – in pädagogischer Auseinandersetzung  – den Rechtsradikalen in Polen in den Weg ?

Radically abused for political messages of discontent, November 11 has turned into a feast for Neo-Nazis in Poland. Traditionally, on this day Poland honors the memorial of independence after 123 years of partition during which the country did not exist as a nation but as annexes to Prussia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russia from 1795 to 1918. During Communist rule, Poland was not allowed to celebrate this day which is why its significance today, for a free and independent Poland, can be hardly underestimated. During field research at a Polish primary school in November of last year, children performed for the entire school the national anthem and enacted crucial historical moments in Poland’s strive for independence in semi-authentic costumes. The emotional staging of the struggle for freedom and unity against the European oppressors from West and East, that tragically would not be the last invasion of Poland, carries strong symbolic meaning, legitimized by the educational institution that it takes place in. This painful history is engrained in Polish memory and fostered from a young age. Sadly now, it provides for a lot of pathos to mobilize old fears against apparently new dangers. “Once again Poland is under threat”, the protesters chant, and now it is the threat of Islam and multiculturalism.

On the 11 November this year the Polish colleagues advised those of us who are not Polish, to avoid the trails of demonstrators that were announced for the later afternoon. Three years ago, at the Wroclaw’s Main Market Square an effigy resembling an orthodox Jew was set on fire by Piotr Rybak surrounded by a jeering crowd of spectators. During World War II, Poland lost nearly all its Jewish citizens, due to the Holocaust yet only 70 years after, in the wake of 21st century a Jewish puppet is burning on Wrocław’s Main Square. Chants “Poland for Poles” echo through the streets, banners are carried, depicting a weird mixture of religious and political symbolism. On the evening of 11 November, 60.000 people march through Warsaw, shouting for Poland and Europe to remain white and Catholic.

In Wrocław, hours after the official march, people seemed calm and nothing bore witness to the rowdy protestors that had marched towards the Main Square, some masked and with torches in hands. Rumors spread about protestors who had aggressively reacted to people talking in German to each other. Without a doubt, the Polish people have suffered tremendous crimes committed against them in the name of the German nation several times through history.

But aggressions towards German-speakers in Wrocław? Hooligans that do the “Hitler greeting” in the streets of Warsaw? This is a twisted abuse of historical facts that we cannot wrap our heads around.

After all, the invasion of Poland by Nazi-Germany marked the beginning of the Second World War on September 1, 1939. At that time Wrocław had still been the German city of Breslau with strong involvement in the war machinery and the final fortress to break, “Festung Breslau”, when the Soviet troops pushed in from the East. Nazi ideology degraded all Slavic nations to “sub-humans” in service of the “Aryan race”. A greeting, such as the raised right arm, that marks clear alliance with this ideology in a city which stood so heavily for the German war efforts and brutality cannot but offend – no matter whether committed by Poles or others, but especially in the light of the Polish suffering through the hands of Nazi-Germans, this behavior cannot be tolerated, rationalized or in any way understood.

But should we be surprised at all? How did it happen that groups directly related to the fascist tradition marched proudly through the center of Warsaw, raising racist and xenophobic slogans?

We want to recall that the current “March of Independence” has gained its mind-set and organization already in 2010. Back then, it gathered a dozen thousand participants for the first time. In 2011, participants of the March organized by the All-Polish Youth (Młodzież Wszechpolska) and National-Radical Camp (ONR) assembled on the Constitution Square where they attacked the police. The march turned into a battle during which fire was set on a TVN (private TV station) transmission car. Nationalists demolished the center of Warsaw with losses amounting up to over 1 million PLN. Approximately 200 people were arrested and 12 policemen were injured. Simultaneously, the Colorful-Independent, a gathering of anti-fascist groups joined by politicians, such as Robert Biedroń, aimed at blocking the procession of nationalists. Still, the liberal public opinion commented that the subsequent riots were the result of provocations resulting in a clash between two radical groups.

Wasn’t that a moment in which a clear political stance should have been taken in defense of democratic values, human rights and those who stand in opposition to outspoken Neo-Nazis?

Apparently not, as neither President Bronislaw Komorowski, nor the President of Warsaw Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz reacted. The rhetoric of “two radical groups” was pursued and events unfolded in grim escalation.

In 2013, Warsaw burned again. This time the Russian embassy was under attack from Polish nationalists who also tried to burn down two Warsaw squatters – “Przychodnia” and “Syrena”. The rainbow in the Savior’s Square, symbolic for the LGBT+ community, was also set on fire. In the wake of the “riot” which should be more appropriately called an attack on the town hall, thirty people were detained. While hooligans and nationalists threw fire crackers and ravens, the police was waiting for more than an hour before it intervened. Once again in general opinion, a “riot” had taken place between two radical, equivalent groups: nationalists and anti-fascists.

Mainstream media and politicians have continuously depreciated and marginalized antifascist movements, calling them equally threatening to the constitution as their nationalist counterparts.

Accounts, such as these completely ignore the fact that in this year’s anti-fascist marches 3,500 people demonstrated peacefully: “For our freedom and yours”.

Poland’s ruling party, Law and Justice, Prawo i Sprawiedliwość  (PiS), turned a blind eye on this year’s celebrations of Independence and the spread of hate speech, claiming that they were in a “friendly atmosphere”. When asked about the “racist slogans” on the banners, they replied: “Do not succumb to unequivocal associations”, outright neglecting the fact that there are Nazi symbols on Polish streets on Independence Day. To them, the march was a “joyful feast of Polish families”.

The ever-growing tolerance for and downplaying of marches of this nature by Poland’s political elite worries us. Opposition must therefore come from within society. Educational researcher Max von Manen says that as teachers “we stand in the world in a pedagogic way”.

We interpret this as taking a moral and ethical stand on issues of social justice and the protection of human rights, granted by law to all members of society. Schools create space for staging patriotism, why can’t they create space for criticizing xenophobia, homophobia and all kinds of phobias that fuel fear and hate, narrowing the view instead of broadening the horizon of young students?

However, Polish teachers are on the one hand kept busy by adjusting to the latest education reforms and on the other hand, remain completely unheard despite their wide protests against the current reforms. These reforms are not just any other change in the educational system. They tremendously impact the structure of schooling as well as the curriculum, professional development (including payment system) and schools’ supervision. The autonomy of schools and head teachers is radically limited, giving the ruling party nearly direct control over schools which limits space for education on civil rights almost entirely.

If anti-fascist protestors do not receive any recognition for their peaceful opposition to xenophobia and nationalism, if teachers are overburdened by bureaucracy due to “the good change” reform, as it is referred to by the Polish government, who gets to teach the Polish youth that a “joyful feast of families” should not be confused with a blood-thirsty march of fascists?

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Ewa Stoecker

A self-funded doctoral student at the European Doctorate in Teacher Education at the University of Lower Silesia. She holds an MA in Applied Psychology from the Jagiellonian University in Cracow. She is a certified anti-discrimination trainer, educator and researcher working mostly in non-governmental sector for last 15 years. She was Jagiellonian University’s expert in the Educational Leadership project which prepared new formula of professional development of school principles. Ewa’s PhD thesis focuses on anti-discrimination education in teachers’ pre-service training.

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