Stereotypes | Poland

German stereotypes vs. Polish reality

Nationalists in government, fanatics on the streets: the German explanation for the situation in Poland is often quite simple. But it is not so clear cut

A side portrait of a middle-aged man with glasses, blue shirt and blue jacket. He is standing on a staircase. He looks past the camera.

The poet and author Jacek Dehnel

We came to Berlin from Poland in March 2020, shortly before the first lockdown. It was a year of sitting at home, shopping at Edeka around the corner and, at the most, going jogging in the Tiergarten. So we stayed longer.

This decision was not only about the pandemic. We had already taken very different approaches to packing for the one-year scholarship stay: I tried to take as much as possible with me, Piotr followed me wherever I went and said, ”Don’t exaggerate, what do you want with that? You only use that once in a blue moon.“ I insisted on taking cutlery and crockery for six people, he fished a second, supposedly superfluous juice bowl out of a box again.

“Before every election, the PiS looks for an enemy around which to build its campaign”

We had been thinking about leaving Poland for a few years. Not head over heels - but we had set ourselves a red line. If the government started talking about Putin-style anti-LGBT laws, we would pack our bags. Before every election, the PiS looks for an enemy around which to build its campaign - in the 2020 presidential election, it had picked a group which Piotr and I belong to as its enemy.

The longer the campaign lasted, the more visible its effects became: More and more aggressive statements were coming out of the mouths of politicians and bishops, and they were not without consequences: Here someone had been kicked, there someone had been insulted, there someone had been threatened with a knife. Someone painted “Fuck LGBT” on a house wall and arrows next to it pointing to the flat of a gay couple. The result, however, was that the incumbent president was rewarded for this hate campaign with a second term.

After that, things continued: the PiS government pushed through a stricter ban on abortion, and there were mass protests, including some in Berlin. We marched, wrote slogans on banners and chanted them in the cold air. But it was different from protesting in Warsaw, just a protest against the policies of a country you no longer live in.

However, when I try to explain the situation, my interlocutors get very impatient. After all, they already know what’s wrong in Poland, just as they know what’s wrong with Brexit and what went wrong in Trump’s America.

“Hate and ‘Christian values’ do excellent business in today’s Poland”

As a writer, it’s hard to stand up to them in a differentiated way. But let’s not fool ourselves. Writers, too, are ultimately like commodities: Some can be exported anywhere, others are in great demand in a particular country. No one is surprised that Polish snails are exported to France and not to Serbia, or that the plastic Mother of God produced in China sells better in Poland than in atheist Chechnya.

A Polish author was an import hit in Germany - it didn’t matter whether he wrote well or badly. The most important thing was that he provided a certain image of the wild countries in the East. In his books, taciturn men in imitation-leather jackets smoked cheap cigarettes atdirty petrol stations, while a horse-drawn vehicle rolled along, if it didn’t get stuck in the mud, from which a drunken farmer then tried to pull it out with a mixture of prayers and curses.

“German readers liked this Polish writer’s books because they confirmed their stereotypes”

The Altona doctors and Charlottenburg lawyers’ wives couldn’t get enough of it. It escaped them, however, that the writer had to travel to the wildest part of the Polish mountains for these impressions and then still travel further to find his enchanting images from the amusement park of Eastern Europe: either into the depths of time - his childhood - or into the depths of space - the Ukraine, Romania, Moldavia, then Russia and finally Kazakhstan. He pays homage to a grubby romanticism of the street. But there hasn’t been a Poland like that for a long time.

I mention this because stereotypes are useful, they order the world and help us orient ourselves, even if at the price of distortion and simplification. German readers liked this writer’s books not only because they were well written, but also because they confirmed their stereotypes.

And that is often the starting position of my interlocutors. Poland is in the East - not in a geographical sense, but in a spiritual sense. When it comes to homophobia or the state’s fight against women’s rights, they imagine masses of unwashed peasants and workers wielding pitchforks and torches like in Disney's “Beauty and the Beast”. The reality, however, is much more complicated.

The conservative, fundamentalist, religious-nationalist revolution is not being made by those who are blamed for it. It is people with degrees from prestigious foreign and domestic universities, and not only graduates of the two Catholic universities, who have become pillars of alternative science in Polish state education and forges for the conservative regime.

Similar to Margaret Atwood’s fictional state of “Gilead”, the changes are carried by representatives of the wealthy middle class. And since the flow of money from state-owned enterprises has been gushing heavily towards the government's party members in recent years, their position continues to grow, financially as well. Hate - of course, hate that is in harmony with “Christian values” and “our age-old tradition” - is an excellent way to do business in today's Poland.

“The conservative, religious-nationalist revolution is not being made by peasants, but by people with degrees from prestigious universities”

And this is no exception. This network of lobbyists, foundations and think tanks has a wide reach - from a Brazilian sect to US evangelicals and Trump supporters, as well as the Vatican and the Kremlin. From there, both money and propaganda material or means to intimidate activists are obtained. 

Anti-discrimination organisations and individuals are being flooded with lawsuits, social campaigns are being financed on an unprecedented scale and so-called “pogrom buses” are driving through the streets of Polish cities.

Some are emblazoned with pictures of foetuses and loudspeakers announce charges against “child murderers”, others show photoshopped pictures of naked men and inscriptions such as “These are the ones who want to raise your children” and broadcast at full volume that gays want to disrupt the family.

“The provincial versus metropolitan narrative no longer works”

Among the organisers of these activities are t a large group of political and economic elites as well as Catholic officials who profit from covering up and covering up abuse and wealth scandals. And there are a few right-wing media groups that are at loggerheads with each other and rely on different factions of the governing coalition and who receive advertising contracts from state-owned companies.

Of course, these are not the people who attack gays on buses, beat and harass women, protest for stricter abortion laws or support terrorism. That’s done by other people, from security services to ordinary citizens: football fans, members of paramilitary, nationalist organisations or just the guy on the bench who gets it into his head that he’d like to punch someone.

“Poland is a completely different country than it was thirty years ago”

So the kingdom of the carts is history for two reasons: Not only does today’s Poland not conform to the easy stereotypes of the past because it is a completely different country than it was thirty years ago, but also because stereotypical thinking has become as unproductive for understanding the country as it is for understanding Western countries.

The dividing lines are not clear cut - as in France, where well-known intellectuals often back the nationalists, or in the USA, where graduates of left-wing universities fight against human rights, or in Germany, where the ranks of the AfD also include a lesbian who is raising two children with her partner from Sri Lanka.

The old dichotomous narrative of xenophobic versus cosmopolitan, provincial versus metropolitan, conservative versus liberal, closed versus open no longer works. But, then again, it may never have worked in the first place.

Translated by Dorothea Traupe and Jess Smee