Over 160 public figures have supported an open letter to Poland’s culture minister calling on him to “stop financing fascism” after far-right groups were given over 3 million zloty (€660,000) in grants from a state “Patriotic Fund”.
Among those to receive the money are the organisers of the Independence March (Marsz Niepodległości), an annual event founded by three far-right groups, and the National Guard (Straż Narodowa), which aims to “stand in the front line of the counter-revolution fighting against extreme-left activists”.
Both organisations are closely linked to Robert Bąkiewicz. He was until recently the leader of National Radical Camp (ONR), a far-right group that seeks an “ethnically homogeneous” Poland and which the Supreme Court recently ruled could be called “fascist”.
Among those to put their name to the letter are Agnieszka Holland, the acclaimed film director; Anna Przedpełska-Trzeciakowska, a literary translator and participant in the Warsaw Uprising against German-Nazi occupation; and Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich.
“Are you ready to take responsibility for the fact that public money will be used for violence, intimidation, training in the use of weapons, setting fire to property, propaganda materials promoting hate speech and the extermination of ‘enemies of the fatherland’?” asks the letter, addressed to culture minister Piotr Gliński.
“Every public zloty given to organisations promoting criminal ideologies is a tragic act to the detriment of Polish citizens,” it continues. Spending money “in this way is in fact an embezzlement of culture and misappropriation of its positive, inclusive and diverse heritage”.
The signatories accuse the conservative government of “cynically” using “fascist groups” to achieve its “political aims”. This includes promoting a “national-Catholic vision of Poland, hostile to human rights and diversity, and which is increasingly [using] violent practice”.
“It is time to erect a dam against the browning [meaning fascistisation] of the public sphere,” the letter concludes. “We all have the right to live in a country that will not resemble the darkest pages of 20th-century history.”
The government’s Patriotic Fund was established in March this year. The prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, pledged that it would “serve to build patriotic attitudes” and “support those passionate about history”, such as young researchers and members of reconstruction groups.
Among its first round of grants, which were announced this month, is 1.3 million zloty (€288,000) for the association that organises the Independence March, and which is headed by Bąkiewicz. The money is for a project entitled “Independence March – modernity and tradition”.
A further 1.7 million zloty (€376,000) was awarded to the National Guard Association for the project “Safety and professionalism during the organisation and course of patriotic and religious events – a necessary condition for the preservation of cultural identity”, reports investigative news website OKO.press.
The National Guard was founded in October last year, when Bąkiewicz began calling on Catholics to form defence forces to protect churches from mass protests that had broken out in response to the introduction of a near-total ban on abortion. The leader of Poland’s ruling party, Jarosław Kaczyński, made a similar appeal.
“The sword of justice is hanging over [the protesters] and, if necessary, we will crush them to dust and destroy this revolution,” warned Bąkiewicz, whose followers clashed with demonstrators. “Left-wing groups say ‘this is war’ [a slogan of the abortion protests]. Yes, this is war, and we are joining it.”
The National Guard Association’s website says that it was formed “to restore a sense of security in Catholics” by “conducting counter-revolutionary activities…in defence of Latin civilisation” against the “flood of nihilism” promoted by “extreme left-wing activists” who have made “our streets no longer safe”.
A further grant of 100,000 zloty (€22,000) was given from the Patriotic Fund to All-Polish Youth (Młodzież Wszechpolska), a far-right successor to a group of the same name formed in the interwar period. It was awarded the money for a “Study of the history of All-Polish Youth in connection with the organisation’s centenary”.
All-Polish Youth was prominently involved in anti-Jewish campaigns in 1930s Poland, as was the original ONR. The modern incarnations of both groups are founders of the Independence March, which is attended by tens of thousands and has often witnessed rioting as well as xenophobic, homophobic and antisemitic slogans.
Following last year’s march, opposition parties called for the march to be banned after participants attacked the police, bombarding them with flares, bottles and paving stones. They also set fire to an apartment in a building where LGBT and women’s rights symbols were displayed.
However, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has defended the event, calling it a predominantly peaceful and patriotic march. PiS blamed – without presenting evidence – “provocateurs” for causing the violence. It also accused the opposition and women’s rights protesters of stoking tension.
In 2018 – on the centenary of Poland regaining its independence – the PiS government and PiS-supported president, Andrzej Duda, coordinated with the nationalists to march along the same route.
The Patriotic Fund is operated by the Institute for Legacy of Polish National Thought, which is directly subordinate to the culture ministry. It is headed by Jan Żaryn, a historian who until 2019 also served as a PiS senator.
Earlier this year, when prosecutors were considering whether ONR could be outlawed for violating Poland’s ban on promoting fascism, Żaryn’s institute issued an expert opinion arguing against the idea.
The current education minister, Przemysław Czarnek, in 2018 spoke from the stage at a march organised by the Lublin branch of ONR, which the following year was investigated by prosecutors for celebrating Belgian Nazi collaborator and wartime SS officer Léon Degrelle as “one of the greatest national revolutionaries”.