There are countries from which people try to escape, and there are countries to which these people try to escape. And then there are countries like Poland.
The current refugee crisis sweeping across Europe hints at just how much Poland has changed since the early 20th century, from an impoverished country to a relatively rich one. The question is whether Poles themselves are ready to see themselves that way.
Devastation and suffering
Polish national mythology is tied up with the country’s status as victim, and Polish history is often taught as a story of suffering and martyrdom. That makes sense, given the longstanding history of poverty in Eastern Europe, the absolute devastation of the Second World War and the endemic hardships of the communist era.
From 1939 to 1945, Poland lost 16% of its population, including about 2.9 million Jews and 2.6 million non-Jews. Warsaw was left in absolute ruin, with more than 80% of the downtown buildings reduced to rubble. While there were undeniable improvements during the communist era, by the 1980s Poles were struggling with long lines, rationing and hyperinflation.
For well over a century, therefore, Poland has been one of those countries that many people wanted to leave, whether to escape political oppression, war or poverty. About two million Polish speakers settled in the United States in the decades leading up to the First World War, and that doesn’t even count the Jews who left territories that would later become part of independent Poland. By 1930, almost half a million Poles lived in Chicago, and today 821,000 residents of that city identify as Polish-Americans. More recently, Poles have migrated in massive numbers to Great Britain and other EU countries, to the point where Polish is now the second-most commonly spoken language in England (after English, of course).
From the poorhouse to the penthouse
But times have changed, and Poland is rapidly transforming from a poor country that generates emigration into a relatively wealthy country that is starting to attract immigration (albeit still on a small scale). Since 1989 the country’s GDP per capita has doubled. And in the midst of the worldwide recession after 2008, Poland was the only European country whose economy continued to grow.
Comparing levels of prosperity in different countries is complicated and imprecise, but a good estimate is captured by the United Nation’s “Human Development Index” (HDI), which combines a range of statistics to create a rough measure of overall well-being. Using those figures, it is immediately clear that Poland is not a poor country. Quite the contrary, Poles are better off than 85% of the world’s population.
If the HDI were a skyscraper, the Poles would be living just below the penthouse suites.
This is not to say that there aren’t problems in Poland. With an average monthly income of €865, Poles lag far behind Germans (€2,995) and they are even a bit behind the Czechs (€970). Around 17% of Poles live in poverty, a figure that has remained stubbornly consistent even as the overall economy has boomed. And although the residents of Warsaw now enjoy a standard of living similar to their peers in Berlin, some parts of the country rank among the poorest regions in the entire European Union.
Émigrés and immigrants
Nonetheless, if we step back and look at Poland in a global context, it’s clear that the vast majority of people on Earth would have better lives in Poland than they currently do at home. So far that hasn’t translated into a massive wave of migration to Poland, but if current trends continue it is unavoidable that the Poles will have to contend with the same debates about immigration that their own emigration has sparked elsewhere in the past. In fact, on a smaller scale this is already happening.
About 188,000 foreigners are legally registered as immigrants in Poland, mostly from Ukraine, Belarus, Vietnam and China. The number of those in the country illegally is certainly higher, but estimates vary widely. Already in 2015, the Polish authorities have received 6,720 requests for asylum, the majority of whom are Ukrainians or Chechens.
In recent days this issue has jumped to the forefront of public debate. Faced with an unprecedented influx of refugees from the violence in the Middle East, many in the European Union support a broad distribution of these new arrivals across all member countries.
The response from Hungary was particularly vehement. The far-right government of Viktor Orbán has been trying to close its borders and has used ugly rhetoric to justify its actions. Slovakia, Romania and the Czech Republic have similarly refused to accept any migrants.
Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz of Poland has been more restrained and has agreed to welcome some refugees, but not quite as many as the original EU plan proposed. At first her government tried to distinguish between refugees and economic migrants, though in practice this distinction has been notoriously hard to sustain. She has also tried to avoid being seen as subordinate to EU demands, saying that Poland will volunteer to accept refugees but not take them under duress. Finally, on September 22 the Polish government broke with its East European neighbors by agreeing to the EU program, with a cap of 7,082 people.
Kopacz’s initial reluctance might be due in part to the fact that she is in the midst of an uphill election battle, with a vote scheduled for October 25. Her center-right party currently trails the far-right opposition, which promises to prevent any foreigners from settling in in Poland. Recent surveys show that more than a third of Poles would refuse to accept any refugees, with another third offering to welcome no more than 2,000. All this despite recent instructions from Pope Francis for every parish in Europe to prepare to house and feed refugees. Suddenly the famously Catholic Poles don’t seem so loyal to the Holy Father after all.
Nonetheless, the ambiguity of Prime Minister Kopacz’s position differs significantly from the outright refusal of the Hungarian, Czech and Slovak governments to accept refugees. It is therefore unfortunate to see once again a tendency in Western Europe and the US to label East Europeans collectively as bigoted and xenophobic and to bring up painful episodes of racist and antisemitic violence from the past.
There is no doubt that a nationalist resistance to diversity is an important factor, but there is no reason to believe that the hateful attitudes of the far right play a much bigger factor in Poland than in France, Austria, Switzerland or anywhere else on the continent. When it comes to xenophobia, Poles are certainly no better than their European neighbors, but neither are they significantly worse. I don’t really want to defend the Poles, but I would urge the West Europeans to be careful as they throw stones in their own glass houses.
What is different in Poland is the novelty of being in a position to give aid to others rather than receiving aid from others. Accepting their role as citizens of a successful first world country is a big adjustment for Poles, and the older position of noble suffering and martyrdom is much more comfortable and familiar.
Poles are understandably more inclined to stress the remaining gaps between their standard of living and that enjoyed by the Germans or the English, and less likely to recognize how far they have come over the past decade or so, or to see their own relative position vis-à-vis the rest of the world.
I am not really criticizing this lack of perspective; in fact, I’d be surprised if it were otherwise. The right in Poland wants to remember their national history of victimization, and the left wants to focus everyone’s attention on the profound social inequities that continue to plague their country.
But in the globalized context of the 21st century, Poland is now securely in the club of the privileged. The consequences of this unfamiliar condition can’t be avoided forever.