Are Poles Xenophobic?

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Are Poles Xenophobic?

I confess, the title of this post classifies as “click bait,” because it isn’t a question that can be answered.  A few years ago I wrote an article with the deliberately provocative title, “Why Do Polish Catholics Hate the Jews,” and the gist of the argument was in the subtitle: “Making sense of a Bad Question.”  It is always a fool’s errand to ask “are the [label of identity] [judgmental adjective],” because even the best answer will only identify a hegemonic norm. More commonly the response will point to a majority opinion, and sometimes only the feelings or traits of a loud or powerful minority.  Obviously it can be helpful to describe a dominant ideology or a wide-spread belief, but if we aren’t extraordinarily careful with our phrasing, we will contribute to stereotypes. Formulations like the one in the title are for the historian what nuclear technology is for the physicist: usually benign in our hands, but open to so much misuse that we have an ethical obligation to proceed with the utmost caution. If I answered “yes” to the question in my title, I would be strengthening West European and American prejudices against Poles.  If I answered “no,” I would be echoing Polish nationalists who want to sell a self-portrait of virtuous victims.

So instead, let’s re-frame the question: how successful have the proponents of xenophobia been in spreading their ideology in Poland?  Now it is clear that we are talking about a worldview with identifiable adherents, an observable strategy of persuasion, and measurable results.  We are talking about a group of people defined by the ideology we are studying, not a diverse community in which that ideology is more or less prevalent.

It turns out that for now the answer to my reformulated question is “not as much as you probably expected.” Today CBOS, one of Poland’s leading survey firms, released a study carried out in October, in which they asked people whether they agreed with the statement, “I am afraid that with increased immigration, we will lose our culture.” Making this survey even more interesting, it was carried out in partnership with firms in Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.  In this group, Poland was an outlier: 73% of Czechs, 68% of Slovaks, 65% of Hungarians, but only 44% of Poles agreed, while 21% of Czechs, 28% of Slovaks, 31% of Hungarians, and 50% of Poles disagreed.  One might be attempted to say that this is because Poland is much larger, so immigration is much less likely to have a noticeable impact.  But Poland looks very good even compared to Germany, where 51% of respondents in October reported that they were “afraid” of immigration. That high figure is clearly in response to the most recent refugee crisis, but an earlier survey taken just as the emergency was starting to make headlines put the German figure at 39%.  Another measure of comparison is the massive World Values Survey, which asks people whether they would be upset if an immigrant moved in next door.  A mere 7% of Poles said that they would, compared to 19% of Ukrainians and 21% of Germans (for a valuable discussion of this data, see this excellent Atlantic article by Heather Horn).  I suspect that this figure would be higher in Poland now (that data was published in 2014), but even so, the Polish figure would have to go way up to match its neighbors.

I could also show statistics showing disturbing levels of intolerance in Poland; for issues like these, the specific question can change the result.  Vague questions about “foreigners” can resonate differently in different contexts, whereas specific queries about North Africans in France, Turks in Germany, African-Americans in the United States, or Jews in Poland might result in very different responses. But I feel confident saying that xenophobia is not more pervasive in Poland than elsewhere in Europe, and it might even be less pervasive.

In my opinion, the most important variable here is one that is very difficult to measure with a pollster’s precision: to what degree does the political culture in a particular country openly play to xenophobic or racist fears, or (instead) push such attitudes under the rug as an embarrassment that one doesn’t discuss in polite company.  There can be a great value in having difficult conversations about deeply routed stereotypes and concerns, but it is equally true that (as the saying goes) hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue.  Until the last few months, Polish leaders have been terrified about their country’s “image” abroad, and this has made them walk on rhetorical eggshells.  That delicacy has filtered throughout society, and nowadays one is much less likely to hear (for example) openly antisemitic attitudes than was common when I first started traveling to Poland almost 30 years ago.  Back then, even well-educated and seemingly “cultured” people would casually blurt out the most unseemly prejudices, both in private conversation and in public.  During the 1990s one increasingly heard the phrase “nie wypada” [loosely translated, “that’s not appropriate”].  For as much as I criticized the late President Lech Kaczyński, I credit him for teaching those in his ideological circle how to avoid sounding like racists. Many would scoff at this as merely papering over pernicious attitudes, but if a rhetorical constraint is maintained long enough it can begin to have a real impact. Would anyone seriously argue that America is better off now that Donald Trump has turned over the rock and revealed the ugliness that has been hiding under the rhetorical constraints of US public life?

So the question isn’t “are the Poles xenophobic”?  The question is rather, “to what degree are public figures, cultural elites, and trend-setters of all sorts in Poland working to maintain the rhetorical constraints that keep hatred taboo, and then striving to transform those inhibitions into a more genuine tolerance?” The second development, I think, can only follow if the first is well established.  Up until recently I was optimistic that all the trend lines were going in the right direction, but now I’m not so sure. The last time PiS won an election, what I call “the antipathy index” spiked upwards, but it almost immediately began to fall once again. I want to believe that this pattern will repeat itself.

About Author

Brian Porter-Szucs

Brian Porter-Szucs is a Thurnau Professor of History at the University of Michigan, where he specializes in the history of Poland, Catholicism, and modern economic thought.