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Poland’s far-right government, a close US ally, co-sponsored a fascist march after passing a law that makes Holocaust revisionism mandatory. Dovid Katz of Defending History warns Eastern European NATO/EU member states are becoming authoritarian nationalist regimes

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BEN NORTON: Extreme right-wing political forces are growing across the globe. And in Eastern Europe, nearly 30 years after the restoration of capitalism, some neo-fascist organizations are receiving support directly from the state. Poland, in particular, has one of the most far-right governments in Europe. Its ruling party, the Law and Justice Party, has consolidated absolute power, cracking down on the independent judicial system and purging critics. And despite this rapid erosion of democracy, Poland remains a proud member of both the European Union and NATO. Its hyper-conservative nationalist government is deeply anti-Russia and has a close relationship with the United States, from which it has requested military protection.

While President Donald Trump is considering building a new, permanent U.S. military base in Poland named after himself, the Eastern European nation is flirting with fascism. In November 2018, Poland held a National Independence Day march, commemorating its one hundredth anniversary. More than 200,000 people participated, and the event attracted fascists from throughout Europe. The march in the Polish capital, Warsaw, had originally been organized by far right nationalist groups, but the government eventually cosponsored the demonstration and Poland’s hard right, President, Ondrej Duda, marched in front of numerous explicitly fascist organizations.

The Real News Network spoke with historian Dovid Katz, a leading expert on the far right in Eastern Europe. He said this government collaboration with neofascists is a very dangerous sign.

DOVID KATZ: Now, there are fascists and far right issues in many countries, but when the government stops partnering with the far right, that bodes very badly for democracy. President Duda and his party have been taking Poland further and further from democracy, from an independent judiciary and from the idea of Poland as a home to people of different backgrounds, ethnicities and races, on the way to an ultranationalist Poland in the spirit of some kind of cockamamie Aryan purity of race. And this is so sad, because it was Poland that was the first major country invaded by Hitler, with no disrespect to the importance of Czechoslovakia before that.

It was on September 1, ’39 that World War II started with the brutal Nazi invasion of Poland and its dismemberment. So to see Poles marching on their hallowed one hundredth anniversary in the center, in that symbolically sacred center of their capital on that day, with the president addressing them and two hundred thousand people, many of whom are not neo-Nazis or far right, but were quite comfortable marching alongside the far right when people with better sense stayed away. And of course, we need to pay tribute to the wonderful mayor who tried to cancel the march and was overturned by the courts, but she is the real hero of the day, Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz, and she will be remembered as the hero of this day for not agreeing to march along with the neo-Nazis and those who carried Poland into such shame.

BEN NORTON: The November 11 Independence Day march in Warsaw brought not only top Polish politicians, but also the country’s military together with neofascist groups. The Guardian newspaper reported, “Lining up in parallel columns, Polish soldiers stood side by side with members of the National Radical Camp, the successor to the pre-war Polish fascist movement and representatives of Forza Nuova, an Italian neo fascist movement, as they were addressed by President Duda. Days before the event, Warsaw’s outgoing mayor from the more centrist Civic Platform Party had tried to ban the far right march, but President Duda responded by simply announcing that the government would host a march in the exact same place and at the exact same time that had originally been organized by the fascist groups.

DOVID KATZ: Moreover, a court overturned the Warsaw mayor’s ban just one day later, effectively combining the government march and the fascist march. The ruling party subsequently agreed with the far right organizers to march together, and while the government did put a cordon of military police in between the two groups, Dovid Katz said that this did not represent any real attempt at distancing itself from the fascists. Those of us who’ve been monitoring neo-Nazi marches in capital cities in this part of the world, in my case the three Baltic states, know very well that these are the kinds of games and ruses and tricks. There are court cases, there are claims that it’s not the government, the government is separated from the neo-Nazis by a cordon of marchers, but what government would want to be in the same event with the neo-Nazis, with or without a separation?

So these insignificant details, morally insignificant, ethically insignificant, whether there is a separation or not cannot hide, or in any way minimize or mitigate, the damage done by any government involvement. So it’s the center of the capital, on its hallowed independence day, on its hundredth anniversary, and it’s chosen to share that event with the neo-Nazis, the far right, the ultra-nationalists, those who believe in racial purity, those who hate people of color and Jews and Roma and gays, in other words, all the same people that the Nazis hated. And that’s in the country that the Nazis destroyed first after September 1, ’39. Very, very sad.

BEN NORTON: Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party began as a nominally center-right party with a strong Christian religious orientation. But since taking power in 2015, it has moved further and further right. The far right administration has set its sights on Poland’s courts. In July 2018, it purged more than one third of its supreme court justices overnight. And then, in October, President Duda secretly reappointed these judges with his own handpicked choices. Dovid Katz explained that in tandem with this attack on the judiciary, Poland’s far right government has also advanced a rabid ethnic and religious nationalism.

DOVID KATZ: The Law and Justice Party, like many conservative parties in this area, started out as a center-right party parallel to the British Tories, the British conservative party, the American Republican Party and so on. In recent years, that center far right has revealed itself as really being far right in spirit. And this far right nature comes out in several ways, two major ways. One, the diminution of democracy. And to actually sterilize the courts meant to remove the checks and balances that were built into the modern Polish Constitution. It’s to Poland’s very great credit that there is a vibrant opposition, that thanks to that opposition, this has been covered by the major newspapers and networks around the world, unlike the situation here in the Baltics, where we struggle to have these events covered by Western media.

But coming back to Poland, in addition to the decline of democracy, and in a way symmetrical to it, is the rise of this ultranationalist spirit of the purity of the genuine ethnic fold that is the only legitimate inhabitant of the country. I don’t know what word you want to use for it, whether it’s fascism or neo-Nazism, it’s a kind of an Aryanist belief in racial purity and hatred of the other that we know is a disaster for countries. And coming in tandem with the decline in checks and balances, it is doubly dangerous.

The Polish government’s far right nationalism has also relied on an intensification of anti-Semitism. Despite the fact that most Jews in Poland were killed or fled during the Nazi Holocaust, Polish nationalists today have used anti-Semitic bigotry to advance their agenda. In February, the Polish government passed legislation that would make it a crime for Polish citizens to talk about Poland’s complicity in the Nazi Holocaust. This law, advocated by the ruling Law and Justice Party, effectively made Holocaust revisionism legally mandatory, where those who discussed the real history could face three years in prison.

DOVID KATZ: Firstly, it’s important to understand, most of the Polish people are not anti-Semitic, they are not racist, they are good people, they always were good people. In the case of the Holocaust, the noble or righteous, the rescuers of Jewish neighbors from Poland, I think it’s something like a quarter of all the rescuers in Europe came from Poland. And Poland, of course, the Polish Kingdom and then the Lithuanian Polish Commonwealth, provided a haven for Jews and many other minorities for hundreds and hundreds of years. So the history is a complex one with many sides, but these moderate, far right forces are indeed tapping into the worst instincts, the worst instincts of the local forms of Catholicism that, sadly, had a deep traditional, theological anti-Semitic component built into them and that the Nazis were easily able to build upon.

And this word, Christian, is of course – it’s more than a dog whistle, it’s a euphemism for saying ethnic Poles, that we don’t want anyone else here. Well, you know, Poland is quite a homogeneous country. They have their relative ethnic purity and they’re going to have their ethnic purity, their ethnic purity isn’t being challenged. This is all a far right program to build up issues that don’t even exist. From the statistical point of view, there are almost no Jews left in Poland. There’s a few thousand here or there, there are many debates about how to count on the exact number. So these are minorities that don’t even exist. If you travel around Poland, you don’t see Jews, you don’t see people of color, you don’t see Asians, you see Polish people because it’s a very homogeneous country.

So to be making an issue that doesn’t exist, even if it were legitimate, which it’s not, is simply a ruse taking the country on the road to a far right, authoritarian state, the real victims of which are the Polish people who deserve much better. Poland is not in the situation of the three Baltic states, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, or indeed Ukraine, Western Ukraine. Poland was itself invaded by the Nazis and the Nazis’ first major victim in September 1939. So Poland has nothing to fake history over. That law last year was simply an anti-Semitic spirited law saying that one must not blame collaborators from Poland because only the Nazis committed – you know, it was a nonsensical law in which the anti-Semitism was blatantly expressed in the wording of the law.

In the Baltic states and in the Ukraine, the history laws, similarly threatening imprisonment and severe punishment for people who dare have a different opinion, are not at all worded in an anti-Semitic or racist way, they are worded in a deceptively beautiful, democratic way. They talk about equal evaluation of totalitarian regimes, which takes a little decoding because Westerners don’t understand immediately that that means that if I say there was only one genocide here, that by the Nazis and their collaborators, and that Soviet crimes, as awful and horrific as they were, were not genocide, I can go to prison for five years in Latvia, two years and Lithuania, three in Hungary, ten in Ukraine. So in a perverse way, these other laws that are written in a much more acceptable way are much more dangerous, precisely because they’re deceptive.

BEN NORTON: In response to widespread outrage and condemnation, Poland was forced to do a U-turn and watered down its Holocaust law, removing the threat of imprisonment. But this problem is by no means limited to just Poland. Dovid Katz, who is the editor of the web journal Defending History, which tracks Nazi holocaust revisionism in Eastern Europe, stressed that far right neo fascist political forces are metastasizing in other parts of the region as well, including in numerous NATO and European Union member states.

DOVID KATZ: I would add that I hope that there is some thought about the problem not only in Poland but in all of Eastern Europe, because the form is a little bit different in the Baltics. In the Baltics, you don’t have the overt anti-Semitism. To the contrary, you have the government investing in this and that Jewish plaque or conference or memorial, but you have the emphasis on, A, far right values of ethnic purity, and B, the desire to change, to fix the history of the Holocaust.

BEN NORTON: For The Real News Network, I’m Ben Norton.

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Ben Norton is a producer and reporter for The Real News. His work focuses primarily on U.S. foreign policy, the Middle East, media criticism, and movements for economic and social justice. Ben Norton was previously a staff writer at Salon and AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.