There are many ways to measure the transformations in Polish society over the past 25 years, but one of my favorite is a survey that has been carried out since 1993 in which Poles are asked about their “sympathy” (sympatia) or “aversion” (niechęć) towards various ethnic and national groups. Obviously a study like this can’t be read superficially because it relies on honest introspection and a deep self-awareness of one’s own prejudices. But it does measure what people want to believe about themselves, and how they want to present themselves to others—and that alone is significant. The first year of this survey was disheartening, because it (perhaps ironically) reinforced common West European and American stereotypes about the supposedly xenophobic Poles. A majority of Poles in 1993 expressed hostility towards Roma, Ukrainians, Russians, Germans, and Jews (in descending order). They weren’t particularly fond of Belarusians or Lithuanians either. Only the Czechs, Slovaks, and Hungarians (among Poland’s neighbors) could find much love along the Vistula. Nearly 2/3 of those surveyed liked the Americans, Italians, and French. The British were only liked by 47%, though very few actually disliked them. Jumping ahead to 2015, the change is nothing short of amazing. Today only the Roma evoke “aversion” among a majority of Poles, and that figure has declined considerably. We Americans have lost our popularity, and now a mere 44% like us. Today Poles are less than half as likely to dislike Germans as they were a quarter century ago, and while the attitudes towards the Russian were showing a similar trend, Putin seems to have reversed that over the past four years. Far fewer Poles are willing to openly express distaste for Ukrainians and Jews as well—in fact, often in recent years these two groups have had more fans than foes.
Even more interesting than the specific changes, I think, is the general decline in the number of people willing to express aversion towards anyone. Averaging all the negative ratings for all the various national groups gives us a sort of “antipathy index” that shows an uneven but undeniable decline.
I think that the main thing we learn from studying this data is that we should avoid making any generalizations about “collective hatreds” or “ingrained prejudices”—not just in Poland, but everywhere. The way different groups are imagined, and the ensuing sentiments towards them, can change with surprising rapidity. Many factors contribute towards causing such changes, but the main point is that they do change. And in Poland over the past 25 years, those changes have been for the better.
Source for the data: Małgorzata Omyła-Rudzka, „Stosunek do innych narodów,” Komunikat z badań CBOS 14 (styczeń 2014). The full report is available for download at http://www.cbos.pl/SPISKOM.POL/2015/K_014_15.PDF.