Polish Paramilitaries: Training to War in Times of Peace

State-funded paramilitary units and militias are spreading in Poland, marking the resurgence of a patriotic interest in national civil defense against a Russian invasion. Will it lead to the militarization of Polish society?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Author: Silar


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The presence of state-funded paramilitary units, independent militias, and survivalists are expanding in Poland. The goal of those who join these groups is to defend their country, chiefly from a much feared Russian invasion.

Up to 100,000 Poles have been preparing to face this worst-case-scenario by enrolling in national civil defense courses that include military-style drills like firing weapons. All this has been endorsed and sometimes financially supported by the Ministry of Defense, which is considering reintroducing mandatory “education to war” classes in high schools – a controversial step that would encourage the further militarization of the Polish society.

Territorial Defense Force

Earlier this year in June the Polish government announced the imminent creation of a new state-funded paramilitary unit to counter the threat of Russian hybrid warfare. 1

The recruitment of volunteers for the so-called Territorial Defense Force (Obrona Terytorium Kraju, OTK) began in September and is currently ongoing. The new 35,000 men-strong unit will have 17 brigades, with the first three expected to be operational by early 2017, and the rest by the end of 2019. 2

The volunteers enrolling in the ranks of the OTK will receive one month of military training a year, and when needed, will be deployed to Poland’s eastern borders. Each volunteer will get 116 € (500 PLN) a month from the Ministry of Defense. 3

The forthcoming Territorial Defense Force is not a novelty in Poland.  A paramilitary force bearing the same name was operative in the country between 1965 and 2008. Back then the OTK, separate from the traditional Polish Army, was divided into two units: the Internal Defense Army (WOW) and the Border Defense Force (WOP), and numbered up to 65,000 men in its heyday. 4

Political changes as well as military budget cuts in the early 1990s and onwards translated into a gradual reduction of the OTK, whose last mechanized infantry units were disbanded in July 2008.

The new OTK will operate in a country where a score of paramilitary units, as well as militias, have been training themselves to defend their homeland, often with firearms. The press uses “paramilitary” and “militia” as synonyms and so it is not always easy to differentiate between the terms.

A paramilitary force is a group of personnel with a military structure that functions either as a civil force or supports military forces. 5

A militia is an organization operating like an army, but whose members are not professional soldiers. 6

Both forces are therefore manned by volunteers and may or may not cooperate with a regular army, but paramilitary units are more likely to receive state financial support.

The popularity gained by these groups in Poland in recent years is hardly surprising. Even though 74% of Poles hold a favorable view of NATO – more than any other country in Europe – only 31% of them believe that the US would defend their country in the case of a Russian military attack. 7

Hence, a resurgence in these national civil defense interests, patriotism and fear that history may repeat itself, has inspired thousands of young Poles to join militias or paramilitary groups.

ZS Strzelec: the oldest “civil defense group”

Mapping all the paramilitary forces as well as the militias operating in Poland today is not an easy task. On the one hand, many of these groups are independent, small and not very structured. On the other hand, some of them are actually formed by “preppers,” also known as “survivalists”: civilians that believe some catastrophe is imminent and thus stockpile food, fuel and weapons. The weapons are normally legally purchased and owned, mostly commonly thanks to sport or hunting gun licenses. However some Polish survivalists can get self-defense firearm licenses by proving their life is in danger. 8

Preppers often pile up supplies and ammunition in self-built bunkers, ready to face any “worst case scenario”. As such, they are often prepared to exchange fire and keep themselves trained at shooting ranges. Including preppers in the estimate of Poles joining paramilitary groups today raises the numbers to between 80,000 and 100,000. 9

By contrast, the Polish Army is currently about 120,000 professional soldiers-strong. However, both regular and irregular troops are likely to collaborate more in the future.

Today some of the militias operating in Poland are recognized by the state and supervised by the Ministry of Defense. They are called “civil defense groups” and belong to a national federation including five paramilitary associations: ZS Strzelec, Organizacja Społeczno-Wychowawcza (OSW), Związek Strzelecki, Legia Akademicka, and ZS Strzelec Józefa Piłsudskiego. 10

ZS Strzelec, founded in 1910 as Związek Strzelecki (or the Association of Riflemen), is the oldest civil defense group recognized by the Polish state, and currently counts up to 2,000 members. The association began as young people’s sporting club, but has also prepared Polish boys to become soldiers.

In 1939, when WW2 broke out, ZS had about 500,000 members and had militarily trained 3 million young men, educating them in history and patriotism. After the conflict, the Communist authorities forbade the association, and only on the 13th of June 1990 did ZS officially restart its activities under its current name with full acceptance by the Polish state. 11

Krzysztof Wojewódzki, a leading figure within ZS Strzelec with the symbolic rank of brigadier stresses to the V4Revue: “I’m an architect by profession and a grandfather.” 12

It was during the 20 months of martial law, between ’81 and ’83, that Wojewódzki came to understand how important it was to fight for his country. He left Poland in ’89 with his family, but joined ZS Strzelec when he returned in ’97 after working and living in Morocco for eight years.

“The association is comparable to a scout movement, but with a more military character,” Wojewódzki says. He explains that they teach members how to fire weapons, “mostly training boys from 16 years old, onwards, but also train civilians that are younger or much older, like the 95-year-old lady, who was a member of ZS before WW2.” ZS Strzelec members often visit high schools around the country in attempts to persuade headmasters and teachers to organize classes focused on military history and education, but that is not all: “We want to teach boys how to face natural disasters, like fires, whirlwinds and floods,” says Wojewódzki.

Training with firearms with the MoD’s support

Damian Duda is the leader of Legia Akademicka, another official “civil defense group”. The 120 men-strong student troop was founded as a student battalion in 1917 and operates around Lublin. 13

Duda trains at the shooting range as often as he can and teaches “specialized national security” classes in high schools where boys and girls wear military uniforms. “We are students – not soldiers – but practice with normal weapons,” he stressed in a recent documentary about Polish independent paramilitary groups while showing cameras his AK-47s, semi-automatic rifles, guns and plenty of ammunition. 14

“We must be like the human body when bacteria invade: the antibodies are already there and don’t need to be formed,” Duda told filmmakers.

Andrzej Bryl, the founder of the European Security Academy (ESA), a training center near Wrocław for security and law enforcement, military professionals and civilians shares this vision: “Every country should be able to protect itself under any conditions and by whatever means available by organizing paramilitary groups,” he tells the V4Revue. 15

Over the last 18 months, Bryl has seen a steep increase in the public’s interest on the courses provided by the ESA, especially in those related to home defense. As he puts it: “people fear that their home country may be invaded and that they will have to protect themselves or their families.” Today most of the civilians training at the ESA’s facilities are ex-military personnel and security guards. However, Bryl claims that his center has recently trained many employees of banks, shopping malls and public offices on “active shooter awareness”.

Bartłomiej Misiewicz, Warsaw’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) spokesperson was quoted in DW NEWS having said: “The interest in national defense has become a trend, particularly among young Poles, and we want to make the most of it by providing financial support to some of the existing paramilitary groups.” 16

While the ESA did not participate the Polish MoD’s call for tender to train the 35,000 volunteers making up the forthcoming Territorial Defense Force, its business in training military personnel and civilians to better face warlike scenarios, has been thriving nonetheless.

While supervising Legia Akademicka’s trainings, Polish Army Colonel Witold Gniecki told VICE International that, “paramilitary groups can support local intelligence corps or help prepare temporary military camps. They can also protect, evacuate or provide first aid to civilians.” 17

Brigadier Wojewódzki believes the army, the police and groups like ZS Strzelec and Legia Akademicka should cooperate to create and train new militia brigades. “We need a paramilitary force comparable to the US National Guard, with trained civilians protecting key public places such as hospitals and schools,” he stresses to the V4Revue. He then adds: “The focus is not only defending our eastern border with a force of volunteers, but having civil troops constantly prepared to fight the enemy and save civilians in every Polish region and in every situation.”

Preparation at school

Poland has a long tradition of state-supported civil defense military training programs in schools. From 1927 to 1939 the organization, Preparation for War (Przysposobienie Wojskowe, or simply PW) provided tens of thousands of Polish men between the age of 15 and 30 with theoretical and practical military training. A branch of the organization called Preparation for War Women (Przysposobienie Wojskowe Kobiet, or PWK) was launched in 1929 and trained women between 19 and 45 years old. 18

Mandatory military training was introduced in Polish high schools in 1952 by the Communist authorities. 19

Those Preparation for War classes – later to be renamed Preparation for Defense (Przysposobienie obronne, or PO) – focused on civil defense and prepared boys for their two-year-long compulsory military service.

Up until 2012, each and every high school student in the country had to attend mandatory PO classes. These were often taught by former military men, and the subjects varied from school to school, but the goal was always to prepare children to face emergencies, including fires and natural disasters as well as and chemical attacks.

“We had those PO classes taught by an old soldier,” recounts one Polish women, Katarzyna, who went to high school in Elbląg in the early 2000s. 20

Adam, who attended PO classes near Warsaw in the same years, explains: “We had some theory about the Polish military system and were shown anti-gas masks, but we mostly focused on first aid techniques.” What he remembers most is that he learned, “how to rescue pigs from a pigsty in case of a fire emergency, from illustrations in our textbook.” 21

He says that “we were trained in first aid, did have some lessons related to weapons and were shown broken anti-gas masks.”

A few years later, Agata, who’d attended a high school in Słupsk, was also taught first aid and what to do in case of a fire by a “history teacher who was a former military man.” 22

On top of that, she adds: “We made anti-gas masks and learned how to shoot, because at my school we even had a shooting range.” Monika, who attended PO classes at a high school in Poznań during the same period didn’t learn how to shoot firearms. However, together with the usual first aid training and anti-gas mask-wearing she was shown “how to throw hand grenades.” 23

Krzysztof took his PO classes in the early 2000s at a high school in Warsaw and remembers that: “They taught us how to react after a nuclear or chemical attack, which including first aid training.” 24

He then adds: “the most interesting experience was the possibility of shooting a low-caliber sport rifle at the shooting range.” For at least one year students at Krzysztof’s school were required to take PO classes for one hour a week, and “were not allowed to skip them.”

Agata tried to excuse herself from the shooting requirements “by playing the pacifist card,” but didn’t manage to. While Preparation for Defense was a mandatory subject, very few students gave it much credit. “I don’t remember much from those classes,” admits Monika, and these sentiments seemed to be shared by all those interviewed, like Krzysztof. “The PO was never considered important by my classmates or I,” he says.

Mandatory military training?

In 2012 mandatory PO classes were replaced by a new subject called “Education for Safety” (Edukacja dla bezpieczeństwa, EDB). 25

However, today many Polish high schools offer optional “uniform classes,” which stress military training more strongly than the PO did; it’s estimated that up to 30,000 students attended them in 2015 alone. 26

Their popularity led Minister of Defense Antoni Macierewicz to consider reintroducing Preparation to War as a mandatory subject in Polish schools. “I hope that military training will soon return to Polish schools,” he recently stated, “because knowing how to defend our homeland, is no less important than mathematics, history or Polish language classes.” 27

Preliminary talks have begun and Minister Macierewicz hopes to have mandatory military classes reintroduced in Polish high schools by 2018. 28

Andrzej Bryl doesn’t think reintroducing PW a very good idea: “I took part in the PO classes back in the day and, to be honest, it was a waste of time. Instead, I’d start an information campaign about existing paramilitary groups in Poland and encourage students to join them,” he says.

While not opposed to future military education classes, Brigadier Wojewódzki  hopes they are, “more effective than PO.” He doesn’t believe that mandatory military service is necessary in Poland, and stresses that, “the future PW classes should be taught to every Polish boy and girl during their three years in high school,” explaining that, “this would be enough to train those who’ll join the future Polish National Guard.”

As for what the Polish teenagers should learn in these classes, Wojewódzki doesn’t hesitate: “Survival, topography, first aid, and of course military tactics, always including firearms training and lessons on how to fight in natural and urban environments, as well as how to evacuate buildings and battlefields,” he says.

Neither ZS Strzelec nor Legia Akademicka have problems purchasing the firearms they need for their drills. That’s because their members are able to provide a genuine reason – personal protection or security – to possess a gun or a rifle, as required by the EU law on firearm license. 29

Those applying for these licenses must be at least 18 years old and have spotless criminal records, pass psychological tests, and have their background checked. Despite this strict legislation on firearm ownership, over the last 20 years the number of licenses in Poland has steadily increased, with up to 5,000 licenses issued annually. 30

In 2014 there were 340,000 gun and rifle owners in the country, 31 up from only 131,000, 15 years earlier; 32 and it was reported that 510,000 firearms were registered in the country, while it was estimated that up to 500,000 more probably went unregistered. 33

It’s on this growing and partly undocumented arsenal kept and fired by state-funded and trained volunteers, along with eager DIY militiamen, that Poland seems to rest its near future. “If you want peace, prepare for war,” wrote the Latin author Vegetius in his treatise “Concerning Military Matters;” sixteen centuries later, those words seem to resonate with tens of thousands of Polish civilians. The government’s decision to increase the 2016 national defense budget for by 9.4%, bringing it to 8.29 billion € (35.9 billion zloty) a year also follows suit. 34

However, weapons may soon be even more accessible to Polish civilians than they were before. Poland’s national security bureau BBN (Biuro Bezpieczeństwa Narodowego) recently welcomed a bill which would extend the civic right to Polish civilians to own and bear arms and ammunition. 35

The bill was presented by the populist political movement Kukiz’15, which currently holds 36 seats in Warsaw’s parliament, but sprouted from a gun enthusiast group, ROMB (Ruch Obywatelski Miłośników Broni,), an organization whose name translates to the Civic Movement of Weapons Lovers. They claim the new bill will not pose a threat to public security nor usher in revolutionary changes or carelessness in the issuance of arms permits. 36

However, as reported by daily, Rzeczpospolita, the new bill may eventually lead to a tenfold increase in the gun permits issued in the country. 37 ROMB activists argue that there is no correlation between the number of legally held weapons and gun related crimes and ask for less restrictions for what they consider their right to bear arms.

Although a spokesperson for the Polish Ministry of the Interior and Administration was skeptical about the new pro-weapon bill, 38 others view it optimistically. Among them, Minister of Defense Antoni Macierewicz who recently stated that ‘weapons are a big, big responsibility, 39 “There will come a time when Poles have a much easier access to weapons,” Macierewicz assured, “it may take years, but not dozens of years,” he said. 40

Notes:

  1. Vince Chadwick, “Poland to recruit 35,000 for paramilitary force to combat Russia threat. Volunteers will receive military training of 30 days a year, politico,” Politico, March 6, 2016, http://politi.co/2edXhkC (accessed on October 17, 2016).
  2. “Poland plans paramilitary force of 35,000 to counter Russia,” BBC News, June 3, 2016, http://bbc.in/1r5qSQh (accessed on October 17, 2016).
  3. “Poland to Recruit 35,000 For Voluntary Militia Persons,” Warsaw Point, June 3, 2016, http://bit.ly/2dxqZ48 (accessed on October 17, 2016).
  4. “Territorial Defense Forces Obrony Terytorialnej, http://bit.ly/2ep0JGO (accessed on October 17, 2016).
  5. “Paramilitary forces are forces or groups distinct from the regular armed forces of any country, but resembling them in organization, equipment, training, or mission.” See Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Department of Defense, Joint Publication 1-02, 2001, p. 328. See also Richard Bowyer, Dictionary of Military Terms: Over 6,000 Words Clearly Defined, London, 2002, p. 178 – 179.
  6. “Militia is a military force which is raised to supplement the regular army in the defense of a state´s sovereign territory, and which does not normally serve overseas (historical).  a military-style police force (mainly responsible for maintaining public order). See Bowyer, Dictionary of Military Terms, p. 158.
  7. Katie Simmons, Bruce Stokes, Jacob Poushter, “1. NATO Public Opinion: Wary of Russia, Leery of Action on Ukraine,” Pew Research Center, June 10, 2015, http://pewrsr.ch/2eitiec (accessed on October 17, 2016).
  8. Anthony Casey, ‘Gun Laws in Poland,’ Krakow Post, February 14, 2013, http://bit.ly/2fwSSrd (acccessed on October 21, 2016).
  9. “The Polish paramilitaries preparing for war,” BBC News, August 11, 2016, http://bbc.in/2dktA2M (accessed on October 17, 2016).
  10. Paweł Baca, “100 Lecie Czynu Niepodległośiowego,” Ruch Strzelecki i tradycja Marszu szlakiem I kompanii Kadrowej Józefa Piłsudskiego, August 21, 2014, http://bit.ly/2ehlBjE (accessed on October 17, 2016). Info provided by Krzysztof Wojewódzki.
  11. Ibid.
  12. An interview of the author with Krzysztof Wojewódzki on 30th September 2016.
  13. “Legia Akademicka – Historia, http://bit.ly/2edVuMo (accessed on October 17, 2016).
  14. Tom Littlewood, “Polens Privatarmee,” VICE INTL, 2015, http://bit.ly/1Wjhftb (accessed on October 17, 2016).
  15. An interview of the author with Andrzej Bryl on 17th September 2016.
  16. Monika Sieradzka, “Surge in paramilitary activity in Poland,” DW NEWS, July 7, 2016, http://bit.ly/2dos4HX (accessed on October 17, 2016).
  17. Tom Littlewood, “Polens Privatarmee, VICE INTL, 2015, http://bit.ly/1Wjhftb (accessed on October 17, 2016).
  18. Piotr Rozwadowski, “Państwowy Urząd Wychowania Fizycznego i Przysposobienia Wojskowego 1927–1939” Warszawa Bellona 2000.
  19. Ryszard Stokłosa, “Tradycje Przysposobienia Obronnego, Edukacja dla Bezpieczeństwa http://bit.ly/2ep1gsi (accessed on October 17, 2016).
  20. An interview of the author with Katarzyna on 20th September 2016.
  21. An interview of the author with Adam on 21st September 2016.
  22. An interview of the author with Agata on 19th September 2016.
  23. An interview of the author with Monika on 18th September 2016.
  24. An interview of the author with Krzysztof on 21st September 2016.
  25. Rozporządzenie Ministra Edukacji Narodowej z dnia 27 sierpnia 2012 r. w sprawie podstawy programowej wychowania przedszkolnego oraz kształcenia ogólnego w poszczególnych typach szkół (Dz. U. z 2012 r. poz. 977), Ministerstwo Edukacji Narodowej, September 24, 2012, http://bit.ly/2eitVUP (accessed on October 17, 2016).
  26. Tom Littlewood, “Polens Privatarmee,” VICE INTL, 2015, http://bit.ly/1Wjhftb (accessed on October 17, 2016).
  27. Marcin Batóg, “Macierewicz w Kielcach: “Przysposobienie wojskowe tak samo ważne jak matematyka i język polski”,” Gazeta Wyborcza, September 6, 2016, http://bit.ly/2eiv0vZ (accessed on October 17, 2016).
  28. mw, “Przysposobienie wojskowe w polskich szkołach? Chciałby tego szef MON,” TVN24, September 7, 2016, http://bit.ly/2eqBQf2 (accessed on October 17, 2016). See laso Paula, “Przysposobienie wojskowe w szkołach – tego chce szef MON,” Wiadomości, September 8, 2016, http://bit.ly/2dkw8xM (accessed on October 17, 2016).
  29. COUNCIL DIRECTIVE of 18 June 1991 on control of the acquisition and possession of weapons (91/477/EEC) (OJ L 256, 13.9.1991, p. 51), 1991L0477 — EN — 28.07.2008 — 001.001 — 1, http://bit.ly/2eiu2zJ (accessed on October 17, 2016).
  30. (jb), “Gun ownership on the rise in Poland,” Radio Poland, August 7, 2014, http://bit.ly/2egKZXM (accessed on October 17, 2016).
  31. Ibid.
  32. United Nations. 1999 ‘Analysis of Country Responses.’ United Nations International Study on Firearm Regulation. Vienna: UN Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Division. 30 August.
  33. Kasprzak, Jerzy. 2013 ‘Scope of Illegal Possession of Weapons in Poland and Character Study of a Perpetrator of this Crime.’ Internal Security. Szczytno: Police Academy in Szczytno. 1 January, http://bit.ly/2dLhk7B (accessed on October 17, 2016).
  34. Remigiusz Wilk, ‘Poland to raise defence budget,’ IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, January 7, 2016, http://bit.ly/2evb9UW (accessed on October 21, 2016).
  35. ‘BBN za ułatwieniem dostępu do broni,’ Rzczezpospolita, November 30, 2016, http://bit.ly/2gll2Gn (accessed on December 2, 2016).
  36. ‘Kukiz’15 proposes bill extending civic right to carry weapon,’ The Warsaw Voice, December 1, 2016, http://bit.ly/2h5k3OF (accessed on December 2, 2016).
  37. ‘BBN za ułatwieniem dostępu do broni,’ Rzczezpospolita, November 30, 2016, http://bit.ly/2gll2Gn (accessed on December 2, 2016).
  38. Ibid.
  39. ‘Macierewicz: Przyjdzie czas, kiedy będzie można w dużo większym stopniu otworzyć dostęp do broni,’ RMF 24, November 27, 2016, http://bit.ly/2gvSIVe (accessed on December 2, 2016).
  40. Ibid.
Lorenzo Berardi

Lorenzo Berardi

is a freelance journalist based in Warsaw. He is a contributor for Lettera43, The Varsovian, Polonicult and former correspondent of Lettera43 from the UK.